Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Chapter Forty Nine: "Theatre of Blood: A Basic Guide to the History of Horror on Film. Part V."

The legend goes that after monumentally bombing at the box office, “Heaven’s Gate” is the scapegoat that caused the studios to crack down on allowing directors free reign in Hollywood to experiment with ideas and blank checks. Following the huge losses for a film that cost $36 million to make, the majors reshuffled the deck, taking more control of the films. It’s been said that in the 70s the directors made films; after that, the studios did. Test audiences were employed and if their reactions weren’t sufficient, films were re-cut, re-written, re-shot. Films had become such multi-million dollar entertainment fodder, the theory goes that they started to become a little watered down during the 80s in order to appeal to bigger audiences and reduce possible losses. The look and feel of films from the 80s definitely changed from the darker, grimmer 70s motion pictures. Also, special effects had made a new jump forward, allowing creatures to look more real. The 80s audiences enjoyed shiny things, and the studios delivered.

Paramount was one of the first studios to pursue the thirst for blood created with independently made films like “Halloween.” In 1980, “Friday the 13th” debuted, captured the teen slasher-fan market, made Jason Voorhees a national pop star, and earned a lot of money.  The film helped launch the “have sex and die” mythos that became popular in “Halloween,” and has been a mainstay theme in the slasher films since. With the bleed of the 70s aesthetic into the early 80s (the film was shot in 1979, after all), it still has a grim b-movie look. Paramount launched a massive advertising campaign that helped push the film into superstar status. 80s horror was secure, and so was a franchise that continues to this day.

 Gore still reigned supreme, and although the studios had tightened their grip, many of the early 80s films still delivered shocking scenarios. This was the most apparent with popularity of “video nasties”, films that followed in Herschel Gordon Lewis’ footsteps of creating the most shocking gruesome scenes. Video nasties rose to prominence in the 80s with selling of millions of early VCRs. Now a new film market, home video allowed very cheaply made films to go straight to video, avoiding marketing and major budget distribution in theaters. It was cheap to make them, and cheap to put them out. Video nasties specialized in very little plot or suspense, and instead focused on nothing but gore and sex. Fans argued over which film showed the worst ways to die. Splatter was alive and well with such unrated classics as “Nightmares in a Damaged Brain” (1981), “Night of the Demon” (1980) and “Toxic Zombies” (1980). Many of the straight-to-vid nasties were 70s low-budget films that suddenly found new life and popularity among teens, and many of them were banned in the UK for fear of corrupting society. The home video market also allowed cult followings for films such as “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980) to exist. This same market allowed Troma to create its splatterish splatstick cult-favorites, including its biggest hit, “The Toxic Avenger” (1985). 

 Meanwhile, a game changer hit the big screens in 1980 from Kubrick, who decided to destroy everyone’s minds with “The Shining.” This film has been picked apart and studied far more than I will here in this space. Suffice to say, it was a crossover horror based on a Stephen King novel that was straight art as only Kubrick can conjure. It’s about evil and madness, and well, you should watch it.

Monsters remained in the foreground throughout the 80s. John Carpenter returned with “The Thing” (1982) bringing scary aliens to Earth. Werewolves returned with the comedy-horror “An American Werewolf in London” (1981) which boasted an amazing human-to-wolf transformation scene set to CCR. In fact, comedy began to infuse several of the most important horror films during the decade. Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” (1981) and “Evil Dead 2” (1982) are tributes to splatter and monster horror of the past, although they both run with a complete tongue-in-cheek manner that is masterful. Steven Spielberg returned to horror after breaking box office records with action and sci-fi films by producing “Poltergeist” (1982). The film was directed by Tobe Hooper, and presented a much different style than Hooper had created in previous films, creating a very scary movie that was still acceptable and loved by the masses.

 Hooper had directed television film adaptation of Stephen King’s book “Salem’s Lot” in 1976. King was a prolific horror writer, and with “Carrie” and “Salem’s Lot” he had become known in the film world. However, it was the 1980s that adaptations of King’s novels became very popular and numerous. There was Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” in 1980. Starting in 1982 with “Creepshow,” nearly every year of the 80s (and most years in the 1990s) featured a King adaptation, including (and limited only to those considered horror): “Cujo” (1983); “The Dead Zone” (1983); “Christine” (personal favorite) (1983); “Children of the Corn” (1984); “Firestarter” (1984); “Cat’s Eye” (1985); “Silver Bullet” (1985); “Maximum Overdrive” (1986); “Creepshow 2” (1987); and “Pet Cemetary” (1989). King’s influence on horror cinema is as great as his influence on horror literature.

The fallout from the outcry that horror and violence were corrupting everything held dear in the world led to censorship and eventually to a great watering down of the scares and gore. The 1980s definitely saw the advent of very family-friendly horror. “Ghostbusters” (1984), “Gremlins” (1984), “House” (1986), “Fright Night” (1985), “The Monster Squad” (1987), “The Lost Boys” (1987) and “Beetlejuice” (1989) were all major hits and did not offend. But, these films also allowed horror to flourish in cinemas. 

Franchises had flourished in the past (I can’t even begin to count the amount of Godzilla or Frankenstein films there have been), and they continued to do so in the 80s. Wes Craven created one of the biggest ones with “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), a decidedly creepy film that led to a series that devolved further and further into one-liners delivered by the teen-killer Freddy Krueger. The original film is well done in its portrayal of nightmares, and demonstrates again that Craven had studied tricks from horror of the past.

 The franchises continued into the 1990s. Both “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” “Child’s Play” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” continued cranking out the most popular sequels, although each seeming further and further from the quality of their original incarnations. I’ll throw in my one-cent opinion here: while the 1970s made such an impression on me as one of the greatest decades in film experimentation, the 1990s stand to me as one of the most watered down decades in cinema, especially in the horror genre. The filmmakers seemed to want to distance themselves from the family-friendly horror and horror-comedy that dominated the second half of the 80s, and at the same time eschewed the over-the-top gore styles that many other directors pursued. The beginning of the 90s came off to me as slightly directionless and somewhat dumbed-down. It almost seemed that the cinema of the 90s was having a difficult time finding its identity and style, which makes some sense being in the middle of the decade that in the 2000s is often called “the decade of no style.” However, after reading and watching and visiting films from the 90s, I think I see the 90s in a slightly different light. 

The market for video nasties did not slow down in the 90s, but in fact increased. With the introduction of DVDs to the market, re-releases of back catalogs of horror competed with straight-to-video b-movie splatter films. Fans of the low-budget horror collected both, allowing the history of horror to continue, as well the future of horror to remain a market in this sense. 

While there are some respected big screen films that appeared in the early 90s, the decade seemed divided between three major types of films. At first, the studios could not let go of the 80s franchises. As CGI began to emerge, many fans flocked to the sudden leap in science-fiction and fantasy films that were being released during the decade. These new effects were used to produce 90s versions of the original monsters, as well. Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) and Kenneth Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (1994) attempted to present more literal translations of the original novels these monsters had spring from. “Interview with the Vampire” (1994) brought a new vampire storyline to the theaters based on popular novels by Anne Rice.

 The second theme that began to permeate the 90s was that of self-reflexive filmmaking. It became the decade of meta-horror or postmodern horror. Films such as “In the Mouth of Madness” (1995), “The Dark Half” (1993) and “Candyman” (1992) presented films that examined the building blocks of a horror film. Peter Jackson’s “Braindead” (1992) functioned almost the same as Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” series, creating a humorous splatter fest that was made in homage to horror films of the past. Wes Craven experimented the most with this meta approach. “New Nightmare” (1994) was the seventh film in the “Nightmare on Elm Street series, but presented the film as a self-aware adventure, viewing killer Freddy Krueger as nothing more than an actual movie character who eventually invades the real world during the making of a “Nightmare” sequel. And finally, Craven struck it big with the creation of a new franchise in 1996 with “Scream,” a film that served to combine comedy and irony with the slasher genre, poking fun at its conventions, while having fun with them, too. “Scream” is credited with helping to rebound the genre, despite it satirizing it.

While horror films suffered from a lack of direction, the third theme that seemed to successively resound in theaters was the return of the thriller film, which almost seemed to replace the horror for scares. Psychological thrillers about serial killers flourished in the 1990s with such films as “Se7en” (1995), “Natural Born Killers” (1994), “Kalifornia” (1993) and “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990). Perhaps the most successful of these was “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), which opened the decade with a calm, intelligent and frightening cannibal, the character of Hannibal Lector, who has persisted in films since. 

Foreign-made horror films during the 1990s, however, were not directionless, nor lacking in quality. Guillermo del Toro created a fantastically artful reinvention of the vampire legend with his “Cronos” (1993). The end of the decade also saw the rise of Asian horror with Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” (1998) and Takashi Miike’s “Audition” (1999). 

The 1990s ended with one two surprise hits in the US. In 1999, M. Night Shyamalan made his mark with the ghost-mystery movie “The Sixth Sense,” which contained one of the most hushed surprise endings I can remember in history. However, it was the cheaply made “The Blair Witch Project” in the same year that became a surprise runaway smash and influenced the future of horror films. The film was shot by amateurs on digital camcorders, marketed through the use of the newly available Internet as an authentic collection of found footage, and completely hit its mark. Made on a budget under $750,000, the film grossed $248 million dollars before all was said and done. Although the found footage style had been used in the past (“Cannibal Holocaust” in 1980), it had never been done this successfully, and the style had been adopted by many filmmakers in the 21st century. 

The close of the 1990s also saw the beginning of a trend that continues persevere into the 2010s: the horror film remake/reboot. Films have been remade since their inception in the 1890s. Cecil B. Demille remade several of his own films once sound came into play. Remakes of “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” have continued for 100 years. However, the remake/reboot trend seems to have hit upon an all-time high in the 2000s, and it seems to have begun with Gus Van Sant’s remake of “Psycho” (1999) and Jan De Bont’s remake of “The Haunting” (1998). 

As the new millennium began, this trend went into overdrive as the genre horror scrambled to stay relevant. Remakes of horror from the 1970s and 1980s abound, with very little being sacred. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (2003), “Dawn of the Dead” (2004), “The Amityville Horror” (2005), “The Hills Have Eyes” (2006), “Halloween” (2007), “Friday the 13th” (2009), “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (2010), “Children of the Corn” (2009) and on and on. A remake of “The Evil Dead” is scheduled for 2013. There have also been prequels and sequels to these remakes, as well as sequels and prequels made to films of the past, including “The Thing” (2011).

 The 2000s have also seen the return in both vampire and zombie films. Perhaps the most celebrated was 2002’s “28 Days Later,” a low-budget indie by Danny Boyle that became a surprise box-office hit. George A. Romero has returned to the genre he basically created the template for with three films: “Land of the Dead” (2005), “Diary of the Dead” (2007) and “Survival of the Dead.” The comedy “Shaun of the Dead” also became very popular in 2004. As the direct-to-video market continues to boom (although now in the form of downloadable films), independently-made low-budget b-movie zombie films are very numerous. Vampires have returned to the screen in various forms, although the franchise that won the most devoted fans (and critics) during the 2000s are the “Twilight” films, which combine teen romance with the vampires and werewolves.

Extremism became injected into horror as filmmakers searched for newer ways to shock. The splatter genre has already existed for decades. However, with better sound and CGI effects, splatter became mainstream. Often called “torture porn,” several films focused the plots entirely on the torture of its victims. While the characters were definitely tortured in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Last House on the Left” in the 1970s, it was not the full extent of the film. Movies such as “Saw,” “Hostel,” “Wolf Creek” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” all being released in the years 2004-05, concentrated explicitly on depicting graphic torture scenes with as much realism technology would allow.  The other difference separating these films from the earlier versions of splatter was the wide distribution, budgets and millions of dollars they made at the box office. Torture porn continues to exist in the 2010s, reaching for new heights of graphic scenes with “The Human Centipede” series, of which the second film was banned in the UK in 2011. Torture porn has also edged its way into the remake trend through such violent movies as “The Last House on the Left” (2009) and “I Spit on Your Grave” (2010). 

Besides being caught within remake-mania, homage to the styles of films from the 1970s allowed modern directors to tribute the films they grew up watching, as well as tread into near splatter/torture porn zones that would appeal to modern audiences. Quentin Tarantino's films have a definite respect and referential tone toward certain genre types, mostly from the decade of the 1970s. This has crossed into horror fandom with his films "From Dusk Til Dawn" (1996) and his half of the "Grindhouse" double-feature, "Death Proof" (2007), both of which honor the sexploitation and extreme violence styles found in drive-in films from that decade. Roberto Rodriguez half of "Grindhouse," "Planet Terror," approaches the same subject matter, conjuring zombies. Musician/director Rob Zombie took a similar approach with his films "House of 1000 Corpses" (2003) and its sequel "The Devil's Rejects" (2005). Homages to the extremes that could be found in both mainstream and b-movie grade horror of the 70s have become more common. And Ti West's "House of the Devil" (2009) definitely tributed the pace and feel of a late 70s/early 80s haunted house/Satan cult film.

My favorite horror film of the 2000s OR the 2010s remains the Swedish film "Let the Right One In" (2008). A vampire tale based on the 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, LTROI follows the meeting and bonds formed between a depressed adolescent boy and the child-vampire that moves in next door. The film is completely narrative-driven and some consider it more of a scary drama. In my opinion, it definitely has some of the more chilling scenes put to film as of late. 

There are so many directions and films and genres and ideas I'd love to have branched into with this essay, but as I stated in the beginning, it was originally written to provide an extremely basic background to horror film. I hope its served that purpose. I feel the lack of coverage of foreign films is crime, and there were piles of movies that had to be skipped just from lack of time. I was never that huge of a horror film fan growing up in Louisville, although I saw my fair share of them. It wasn't until sometime in the late 90s that I began to curate my own personal Fright Fests in order to re-educate myself on a genre that has been around since the dawn of film, and will remain one of the most popular, important and fun genres as film marches forward. 

The End.

This history would not be possible without help from the following sources, which I recommend to any horror fans:

Carroll, Noel. "Why Horror?" In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002).
Hutchings, Peter. "The Problem with British Horror." In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002).
Jones, Alan. The Rough Guide to Horror Movies. (Rough Guides 2005)
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films of the 1970s. (McFarland and Company, Inc. 2002)
Richards, Andy. Asian Horror. (Kamera Books. 2010).
Todorov, Tzvetan. "Definition of the Fantastic." In Ken Gelder (ed.) The Horror Reader. (Routledge 2000).
Viera, Mark A. Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic. (Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2003)
Wood, Robin. "The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s." In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002).

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