Friday, October 19, 2012

Chapter Forty Seven: "Theatre of Blood: A Basic Guide to the History of Horror in Film. Part III."

The power and terror from science gone awry had already become a theme in early horror, finding its destructive use locked in the hands of mad scientists, often creating a variety of monsters in its wake, including invisible men and transformed monsters. After the use of atomic weapons in 1945, the theme of science crept back into world of horror as the world recovered from such a powerful and devastating example of its force. Several changes happened to the horror genre, which for the most part had been living in the shadow of the 1930s. In the wake of the horrors of World War II, the fears that hovered during the Cold War, and the first recorded sighting of a flying saucer in 1947, science fiction began to permeate the horror genre in classics like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956). Radiation poisoned the skies and waters, mutating, shrinking and enlarging humans and a variety of creatures. The best example came from Japan in the form of “Gojira”/“Godzilla” (1954), a film that spoke directly to the atomic bombings being its title character was a destructive, nearly unstoppable monster created from the fallout of an atomic bomb test that attacked Japan. Godzilla itself represented the US, being a terrifying threat in the earliest films, and taking the role of an ally in later sequels (;; Richards 27-39).

Still from Gojira (Godzilla) (1954)

 Blue screen techniques were being used more often, allowing special effects with stop-motion models to create some of the screens greatest threats, including the giant ants of “Them!” (1954) and Ray Harryhausen’s mutated octopus in “It Came From Beneath the Sea” (1955). Television had also gained enough popularity to begin to reduce the numbers of film-goers, regulating almost all horror films to a B-movie grade as studios fought to compete. As old Universal films showed on late night TV broadcasts, stealing box office receipts, the major studio system collapsed due to a ruling that declared all five major studios violated anti-trust laws. This allowed the rise and co-existence of independent studios. 

Special effects master Ray Harryhausen's octopus from It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). To save money, Harryhausen built the creature with six rather then eight legs, making sure the shots in the film never show the entire octopus.
With most of the major studios luring crowds with lavish musicals and sprawling epics, horror seemed to have fallen to being only shown at drive-ins. While it seemed the genre and industry had suffered, the genre itself rebounded with a major revival of its tactics and aim. Teenagers were the new demographic, and shock and gimmicks became commonplace in order to grab attention. Films were now shot in Cinemascope with stereophonic sound, and sometimes in 3-D. Theater seats were equipped with buzzers to jolt viewers during William Castle’s “The Tingler” (1959). It was in this era that such low-budget DIY icons as the cross-dressing cult director Ed Wood, Jr., who would produce such films as “Bride of the Atom” (with Lugosi in 1955) and “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959). The 1950s also saw the rise of sex in horror. Britain’s Hammer Films saw the exploitative value in this and became the dominating studio during this decade with “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) and “Horror of Dracula” (1958). In fact, Hammer’s success revitalized the horror film industry, influencing markets in the US and Japan and shaping the tone of the modern horror film. Hammer’s approach seemed to simply take the generic format for gothic sensibilities and retool the genre for wider international markets. Thus, the re-use of Universal’s original monsters in new stories and settings, as well as allowing for “shifts in gender definition and changing notions of professionalism” (Hutchings, HTFR 120-122). 


It was during this time that space got popular and got scary. While Hammer dominated the market, the drive-ins across the US were filled with teenagers watching body snatchers and other beings from other worlds attack and scare. As the fears of some other unseen enemy destroying all we know were shaped by the Cold War, those fears were transferred to the rise of UFO sightings that had begun with Idaho pilot Kenneth Arnold’s report of crescent-shaped objects flying near Mount Rainier, Washington. Hollywood put the two together, and sci-fi horror boomed. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) led the assault as the first real cosmic blockbuster. “Red Planet Mars” (1952) marked a near perfect combination of these sci-fi and the fears of Communism. The 1953 adaptation of HG Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” saw the aliens attack. It was “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” mid-way through the decade, however, that became one of the greatest influences on the sci-fi/horror genre. 

 By the late 50s, thousands of theaters had closed their doors, drive-ins boomed and the majority of Hollywood films were independent pictures. Filmmakers cut costs by using only public domain and/or unknown authors instead of adaptations. As the studio industry shook from the devastating effects of television, leaving such former powerhouses as RKO behind, new studios such as American International Pictures (AIP) formed, and newer monsters in the forms of “The Fly” (1958), “The Deadly Mantis” (1957), “The Alligator People” (1959) and the giant grasshoppers of “Beginning of the End” (1957) asserted control.  

Following this revitalization was the launch of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” in 1958, the first horror film-themed magazine (Jones 28-35; Vieira 133-149; Hutchings Horror Film Reader 121-122;

Then everything changed.

Alfred Hitchcock had arrived in LA in 1939. I have to show some restraint and pull back so as not to dedicate this entire essay to his filmmaking, much like several other of my favorite directors contained in this monument. Hitchcock had spent twenty years perfecting the use of suspense in a slew of films never considered horror films, but rather thrillers. With the dawn of the 1960s, Hitchcock designed one of the most important horror films ever made, “Psycho.” 

 “Psycho’s” release in 1960 almost immediately upped the playing field in horror genre. Yes, b-movies and drive-ins still flourished. However, the teens weaned on the drive-horror of the 50s had grown up. While sex had always existed in the horror genre, the ideas of sexuality were to be explored further and taboos were to be broken. “Psycho” immediately pursued an intelligent and downright chilling take, and some sources consider it the beginning of modern horror. Janet Leigh’s naked body in the iconic shower scene, Bernard Hermann’s genius score, and teen idol Anthony Perkins casting as the monster, and at that, a transvestite, all led by Hitchcock’s masterful direction added to what is considered to be the most influential horror film of all time. There was sex, but the film wasn’t considered sexploitation. The movie was daring and groundbreaking in every way.

 Hammer immediately followed suit, releasing a slew of pictures that were thriller-horrors, including “Maniac” (1963), “Paranoiac” (1963), “Nightmare” (1964) and “Hysteria” (1964). William Castle returned with his own thriller in “Macabre” (1961), which in perfect Castle gimmick, boasted “$1000  in case of DEATH BY FRIGHT.” Hitchcock followed himself with another masterpiece, “The Birds” (1963). Horror was again being made for more adult audiences.

The 1960s saw the rise of several horror icons. Vincent Price was an established actor who had played villainous, comedic and noir roles since 1938. His first horror film was the Boris Karloff film “Tower of London” in 1939, which he followed up with “The Invisible Man Returns” in 1940. By the 1950s, he had turned mostly to horror films, including “House of Wax” (1953), “The Fly” and Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill” (1959) and “The Tingler” (1959), all of which had made him a star in the genre. From then on, Price’s voice and appearance have made him as recognizable as Karloff or Lugosi in connection with horror. 

Director Roger Corman, who had made a living and reputation for being able to direct popular low-budget films within days during the 1950s, gained some of his greatest acclaim in the 1960s with a series of motion picture adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories. Corman directed eight Poe films for AIP, seven of which starred Price, catapulting both into greater American fame. The series of films includes: “House of Usher” (1960), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961), “The Premature Burial” (1962), “Tales of Terror” (1962), “The Raven” (1963), “The Haunted Palace” (1963), “The Masque of the Red Death” (1964) and “The Tomb of Ligeia” (1964). 

The rise of another icon came in the form of a new sub-genre of horror: splatter. Splatter horror focuses on gore. Instead of a psychological or supernatural fear, the art of mutilation and the destruction of the physical body became the main draw in these films and for the filmmakers. Although definite gore had appeared in films all the way back to DW Griffith, it was Herschel Gordon Lewis who popularized and is often considered the father of splatter. Lewis, a former pornographer/sexploitation director, aimed his sites at the popularity of horror and created “Blood Feast” in 1963. Almost the opposite of “Psycho’s” mind games, “Blood Feast” was is less concerned with plot and more with the blood-spilling. Its popularity led to Lewis’ “2000 Maniacs” (1964), “Color Me Blood Red” (1965) and perhaps his most revered film, “The Wizard of Gore” (1970). Lewis’ forays into splatter definitely influenced a generation of filmmakers that would arrive in the 1970s, including John Carpenter and Wes Craven, and continues to inspire with the “torture porn” horror films being made today.

Hammer Horror continued its success with a constant barrage of sequels to its monster films inspired by the original Universal horror icons, especially Frankenstein, who returned four times during the 60s in “The Revenge of Frankenstein” (1964); “The Evil of Frankenstein” (1964); “Frankenstein Created Woman” (1967); and “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed” (1969). With the market now more accepting of sex in the cinema, Hammer films often included more elements of erotica within their horror films, often earning an “X” rating, which was marketed well toward the audiences of horror. Hammer had also created new icons in horror actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. In fact, horror films were expanding internationally, as well, with many films coming from Japan, France, Germany, Italy and Mexico.

 As the 60s marched on, social norms were questioned. Taboos concerning drugs and sex were put on the block and scrutinized by the decade’s youth. Race relations were rethought as the era of civil rights permeated society. The threat of the Cold War faded as Vietnam shadowed the nation’s thoughts. Violence erupted amid protests for equality and peace in the US. Once again, as in the 50s, the prevailing monsters seemed quaint compared to reality. Splatter, “Psycho,” and erotic horror replaced large lumbering, radioactive monsters and mad scientists. As the decade closed out, two directors reacted, releasing three of the most important films of all time in 1968.

George Romero began his career in the early 1960s shooting commercials and shorts, including a segment of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He and some friends formed Image Ten Productions in the later 60s, and commenced to creating a horror film that created its own genre. In 1968, “Night of the Living Dead” was released, and the time of the zombies was born. Yes, zombies had existed as early as the 30s with “White Zombie” or “I Walked with a Zombie” in the 40s, but this was a modern incarnation that proved truly frightening to filmgoers. As Roger Ebert wrote in 1969, “I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They’d seen horror movies before, but this was something else.” Romero’s film was in black and white, a rarity at the time, and featured scenes that seemed darker, creepier and more anxious than filmgoers were used to. Wrenching camera movements and stark angles create a nervous pace to the film. And on top of the scares, the movie was a straight social commentary on the mindlessness of society. The film cemented zombies as flesh-eaters, a characteristic that has remained as strong with the idea of zombies as Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula has remained with vampires. 

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) created the template for the modern zombie that is still used today

That same year, Roman Polanski, who had entered the horror field with his suspense-thriller-horror “Repulsion” (1965) and homage to Hammer horror “Dance of the Vampires” (1967), created what many consider to be the other foundational block to American modern horror. The rights to 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” were originally purchased by William Castle, who hesitantly agreed to work with Polanski on the project. Castle, who had almost given up on horror as his career, was extremely excited about adapting Ira Levin’s novel, which had hit the bestseller list, for the screen; he wasn’t excited about Polanski’s slow filming style and his thorough attention to detail. The film is wracked with a sense of paranoia, fed by Mia Farrow’s acting style in the titular role.  The fears that build are based on the national fears of Satanism and the liberal attitudes of the younger generation that had risen during the 60s. Polanski’s moody elements created a perfect closer to the decade of the 60s, a decade that had begun with Hitchcock’s moody elements Calling “Rosemary’s Baby” a servant of the beginning of the horror that would dominate in the 1970s belittles the film of its importance; however, the psychological attack that would come from the next decade are very directly a result of Romero’s coarse crossing of satire and gore, Hitchcock’s twisting of intelligent suspense and darkness, and Polanski’s foray into religious and social paranoia. 

To be continued...

 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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