Monday, October 1, 2012

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

I guess I'd like to begin with an editor's note, which is always an exciting way to begin an essay. The word essay itself leans toward drooling excitement anyways. Or maybe this is an Introduction, capital I, which sounds more respectful and formal. I proposed this essay for the ProQuest Discovery Guide series as a follow-up to my article "Moving Pictures: A History of Early Cinema" published there in 2011. The Discovery Guide series presents a basic 101 guide to specific topics. After finding myself knee-deep in research on the history of horror in cinema, I found out the series was to be canceled in August 2012. I decided to continue down the path and finish the article and present it here in several parts as a series unto itself. These articles are fenced by length parameters, and are not necessarily intended to examine the topics with intense detail, but rather give an overview of the subject matter. Once I learned I would be presenting this here on American Gloam, those parameters were negated. However, while indulging slightly more in depth I would not have been able to dig towards before, I still kept the essay moderately shortened. I would love to write a book about horror, or very specific aspects of horror films, but time and money don't allow me that option. Therefore, this essay presents a very broad-stroke view of the history of horror in film, and not a complete  itemized dissection of every aspect of the genre. Many other blogs, websites, articles and books go into further detail on this subject, and I'll list them throughout this series for anyone interested in reading more far-reaching research. With that said, the moon was full this weekend and in 30 days, the best holiday all year happens...   

I.                    Origins of Horror.

The Unknown has driven the arts since the beginning. In fact, the fascination with and the fear of the Unknown permeates almost all cultures. This can be constituted through the fear of death by uncontrollable forces or the sense of awe that can be coupled with unknown power beyond the grasp of the earthly, or in most cases, human world. Mythologies and religions are both shaped by the Unknown, whether in praise or fear of its existence. The idea of supernatural forces visiting the world of humans, often in dangerous and violent ways, and the struggle of humans against these forces that are larger than themselves, has driven oral legends, influencing the beginnings of literature, which in turn, influenced the beginnings of film. The idea of the fantastic Unknown is “in a world which is indeed our world, a world without devils, sylphides or vampires, [in which] there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world” (Horror Reader, Todorov 14). Often, these supernatural forms appear in the physical sense as monsters, and humans struggle to survive their appearance on this plane of existence. 

Monsters invade humanity in the Babylonian “Epic of Gilgamesh” (c. 2000 BC) and Homer’s “Odyssey” (c. 800 BC) and appear in most religious tomes, including Christianity’s The Bible, which threatened Man’s sinful nature through the works of evil spirits, characterized by The Devil. Dante explored this fear further in his “The Divine Comedy” (1310), depicting the terrors found within the several levels of Hell.  The Middle Ages and Renaissance periods saw horrific depictions of The Last Judgment, as well as the appearance of werewolves. From this time period also emerged the legend of Faust, an actual necromancer whose exploits would later feed stories of his soul being sold to the Devil, a template that would influence horror for the rest of time, beginning with Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus” (1590). 

Horror as a recognizable literary genre is often credited to have been birthed in the Age of Enlightenment as a reaction to the science and reason that flourished as a means to banish superstitions. Artists and writers explored the dark areas of imagination during this time period. Horace Walpole’s relation of one of his nightmares in “The Castle of Otranto” (1764) is considered to be the first British horror novel, spawning Gothic fiction. Ghosts and demons began to sell more books, leading Mary Shelley to pen her own ghost story in 1818: “Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus.” Horror as a genre was popular culture, and film drew from that popular culture in order to sell, as well.

The development of the motion picture can become a controversial argument that swerves both into copyright issues and various claims by various inventers. The popular accepted history is Edison invented the technology and Louis and Auguste Lumière introduced audiences to the big screen in 1895 by showing a number of shorts in Paris. As much as the details of the debut of film are debated, the debut of the horror film can also be argued. While some literature advances that the genre of the horror film did not take shape until 1915 with Paul Wegener’s “The Golem,” the techniques, imagery, and ideas of creating scary circumstances on film began much earlier. As film began to creep into the popular consciousness of paying audiences, Georges Méliès, a magician-turned-filmmaker, immediately began experimenting with special effects and devilish imagery. By stopping and restarting the camera, Méliès was able to create the effect of skeletons and demons appearing and disappearing from the screen, captivating audiences with his film, “Le manoir du diable (The Haunted Castle)” which debuted in 1896. 

 It is here that the semantics and definitions of what is defined as “horror” as a proper genre become debated. Often, Méliès’ films are noted for being inspirational for both the horror and science fiction genres, and in academic histories, are described as “fantastic films.” The idea of what constitutes a true horror film can become divided into the sub-genres and the narrative paths used. This divide also stretches back into the analysis of what constitutes the differences between “fantasy” and “horror” in literature. The two genres overlap, especially in the case of a definition of horror; a fantastical element is usually introduced that causes pause to the reader, viewing audience, and protagonist of the story (Horror Reader, Todorov, 19). This introduction of an uncanny event into the normality of reality can create the scenario used by many genres in film, whether it is fantasy, adventure, or horror, depending on the plot or type of uncanny or unrealistic action that is introduced. 
Like all motion picture genres, horror began with the introduction into our world of the “normal” with the appearance of skeletons and demons in the early works of Méliès, and from there developed (and continues to develop) into various incarnations. While a motion picture that introduces an element of crime or violence into the narrative of the familiar can be considered fear inducing, horror often takes its cues from the supernatural; bringing an uncanny and uncontrollable evil into the physical world. A simplified definition of the horror film genre might be summed up with a basic formula: “normality is threatened by the Monster.” The identification of the Monster can change drastically, representing anything from demons to skeletons to basic fears in society (In Focus, Wood, 31). And as time progresses, the uncanny elements of horror films, or the Monsters, have transformed considerably. The Monster has existed in such varied forms as actual supernatural beings or lumbering beasts, terror that has come from the subconscious from within humans, out-of-control science, and extraterrestrial threats. Regardless of the actual threat in the film, the presence of curiosity to engage the audience in either proving, or disproving, the Monster, leading to an interaction with the fear of the unknown, drives the horror film (In Focus, Carroll 35).  

Still from Alice Guy's "Esmeralda." 1905.
Film exploded as a popular form of entertainment very quickly, and within 10 years, the medium itself immediately began experimenting and changing. Studios formed and took note that audiences craved movies that had more fully realized storylines. Horror followed suit, again mining from classic literature, bringing stories that were already in the public eye to the big screen. In 1906, Alice Guy directed “Esmeralda,” an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” (1831). Guy’s film is noted for creating a more sophisticated template for the horror film and brought to motion pictures possibly the first Monster to become a recognizable star: Quasimodo. The plot of Hugo’s book would inspire many other filmmakers in the first decade of the 1900s, and would lead to another first for the genre: the first full-length horror film, the French triptych “Notre-Dame de Paris” (1911). 

Meanwhile, Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomon began producing some creepy material, as well, including "The Red Spectre" (1907) and "The Haunted House" (1908).

 The Monsters began making their onscreen debuts at a drastic rate during the 1900s and 1910s, and many of them would go on to be recast as the biggest movie characters ever created. This period saw the first versions of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1908), “Frankenstein” (1910), “The Vengeance of Egypt” (the Mummy) (1912), and “The Werewolf” (1913). The stories of Edgar Allan Poe provided material for several filmmakers, and eventually resulted in what is regarded as the first horror film hit (and some say the first horror masterpiece), D. W. Griffith’s “The Avenging Conscience” (1914), based on the short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

It was at this time that German Expressionism seized upon the creepy images that could be offered in the genre of horror and created some of the most widely regarded horror films ever made, leading to Paul Wegener’s monstrous “The Golem” (1915), Robert Wiene’s nightmarish “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919) and F. W. Murnau’s creation of the motion picture vampire template with “Nosferatu” (1921) (a film illegally based on Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” and one that had led Stoker’s widow Florence into legal battle to suppress it). 

Still from "Nosferatu." 1921.

 The imagery rendered in these films earned horror not only more fans, but artistic respect, and separated the styles between European and American horror, wherein the former concerned itself with dark artistry and themes, and the latter dwelled on thrills and the advent of star power among its actors.

The first horror film movie star was undoubtedly Lon Chaney. Chaney had already earned himself a career as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” based on his skills with makeup to transform into numerous characters onscreen since his debut in 1912. It was at Universal Pictures that Chaney was noticed by the young manager of production, Irving Thalberg, who introduced the actor to upcoming director Tod Browning. In 1923, the trio united to create the most successful horror film to date, a big budget version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” This film cemented Universal as the center-point of feature-length monster films, and made the Monster a Hollywood and cultural icon. 

Chaney’s success at scares continued with “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925). The twenties saw the horror film continue, although fright in film began to give way to a series of American spoof-shockers, such as Paul Leni’s “The Cat and the Canary” (1927). Chaney and Browning collaborated on the first Hollywood vampire film, “London After Midnight” in 1927. Despite its success, times were about to change in America and Hollywood.

In 1928, talkies debuted with the film “The Jazz Singer,” sending all of Hollywood into a scramble to begin uniting sound with its pictures. The first all-talking horror film was Roy Del Ruth’s “The Terror” (1928), although it fell to poor reviews due to its stagy and stiff acting. 

As the Great Depression fell across the United States, Universal decided to lure audiences back to the theaters with an ambitious horror film with full sound.  It was assumed it would reunite Chaney and Browning, however, Chaney’s failing health and eventual death in 1930 due to cancer nearly stopped the project. Through much infighting at Universal, and difficult, diplomatic negotiations with Florence Stoker, Browning was given the green light to direct “Dracula.” Its star was the actor who had played the title role in the theatrical version, Bela Lugosi, who was decided on partially due to his experience, and partially due to how cheaply he would work.

While other films before it had provided templates and definite influence (Universal suppressed “Nosferatu” by buying the print and giving it to Browning to study), “Dracula” itself provided a template for the big budget Hollywood blockbuster monster movies of the 1930s and beyond. Universal was amazed at the 50,000 tickets sold in two days in February 1931, and the path seemed immediately clear: audiences wanted fog, scary castles, monsters, and gothic imagery and melodrama. The hit premiere of James Whale’s “Frankenstein,” starring former bit part player Boris Karloff, in December of the same year, was the nail in the coffin, so to speak. Horror was here to stay. 

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).
Jones, Alan. The Rough Guide to Horror Movies. (Rough Guides 2005)
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films of the 1970s. (McFarland and Company, Inc. 2002)
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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