Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tales Of The Hook Pt. 2

Horror movies popularity is always cyclical by nature. Roughly speaking every ten or twenty years or so, when things get bad there’s a boom, followed by a bust when we a a society enter a sunnier more Paxish Romana stage. This is the point where I note that our latest “boom” has been not abated for the past ten years. (We’re not talking quality here just quantity. Regardless of what you think of modern horror there has hardly been a weekend for the past ten years or so when a horror movie hasn’t been playing in the theater). This is not accidental. I will hardly be making headline news if I note that the last ten years have been filled with some rather heavy shit. But we’ll come back to this. Though this text is meant to deal with the past thirty years of horror I think it’ll be worthwhile to trace the pattern back to the beginning that King sets and work our way back here.

King notes that horror films flourish in times of economic and political strain but not when out and out horror is present. So the thirties with its economic nightmare of the Great Depression produces one of the finest decades horror ever had, while the forties during which we were much more concerned about a country full of bloodthirsty nazi’s produced very few.

This is a useful thesis up to a point, and that point is that King plays very fast and loose with the idea of just what real horror is. Sure The Great Depression never produced anything as starkly faith in humanity eradicating as Dachua. But I will argue that for most people, watching folks who looked just like them starve to death on the side of the road was pretty fucking bad.

Therefore I’m going to differ from King here, and argue that it is not the degree of horror that lays the critical mulch for the horror film, but the tangibility of it. In the forties what ailed the world was a very concrete, tangible threat. There’s Hitler, there’s Tojo, there’s tens of millions of soldiers whipped into an imperialist mania the likes of which the world has never seen, now lets get cracking.

That is by no means a minor threat, but that is a threat that the human mind can wrap around.

Compare that to the thirties. Where the country went from its greatest moment of prosperity to the depths of poverty literally overnight. And why? Because some stockbrokers got overzealous and mislaid a few zeroes? Just as simple as that. No real reason. You’re living in a third world country now so have fun.  Why that’s enough to drive you crazy if you don’t have something to point your finger at. The image of the fat cat banker will only get you so far. There has to be something out there that caused this. Even if its only Boris Karloff with bolts in his neck.

I submit that it is the great strength of the horror genre that it makes the intangible tangible. That it takes the chaotic horror of the day to day and it forces it into a shape and source that we can understand. When the world kindly provides those fears and horrors a shape, our reliance on the horror genre weakens. When our anxieties are free floating, without a target that is when horror truly roams free (and I would argue that it is why our own peculiarly dislocative wars have made such potent fodder for horror films). Let’s take a quick look and see how this holds up.

We have already touched briefly upon the thirties, arguably the strongest decade for horror period. The classic Universal era, and also the era of the Freaks, The Raven, The Black Cat, The Old Dark House, and the appealing strange The Man They Could Not Hang.

The forties as we have already established provided a much more tangible threat to our society and far fewer horror films. An important exception to the rule being The Val Lewton films produced by RKO. Which are among the finest the genre has to offer. Particularly though not exclusively, the ones directed by Jacques Tournier. These films particularly I Walked With A Zombie, Cat People, The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim (and The Body Snatcher… and you know what? They’re all great. If you haven’t seen them you can’t call yourself a horror fan. I’m sorry but its true.) Combine the stylistic sophistication of the incipient film noir movement with a psychological depth unheard of in the Universal era (Particularly The Seventh Victim which tends to get left out of the conversation on Lewton films for some reason. There’s a film that is still ahead of its time. Something like The Last Exorcism doesn’t even touch it.)

The fifties once again provided us with a very tangible enemy in Soviet Russia, leading to an anemic horror field. It is worth noting that the sci-fi boom so popular at the time exacerbated the situation, and as King notes much of what would be classified as horror at any other time, such as the work of Richard Matheson, The Fly and The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, was lumped under the Sci Fi heading. But at the end of that decade we begin to see stirrings. Particularly from the likes of AIP, who began to intersperse their Beach Party and Flying Saucer cheapies with occasional creature features about monsters coming from somewhere or other and doing antisocial things. Normally presaged with the title I Was A Teenage Something Or Other. (One cannot forget William Castle who was also an early adopter. The Andre De Toth remake of House Of Wax another exception. It seems that sensation was the true key to getting a horror film made in the eighties.)

It is unlikely that even the faintest of hearts will find the AIP films frightening today, most of them are more along the lines of The Ghost In The Invisible Bikini than anything that might even incidentally scare someone. Only hardened trash cinema fans normally revisit them. But in our look at the evolution of horror they are not to be overlooked. Particularly in their focus on Youth culture. In this era these films focused on the youth for the simple reason that that was who the films where being marketed to. The vast majority of the AIP films were simple drive in fodder. Despite the fact that the fifties brought with them the first mentions of Youth Culture as a concept, as well as the specter of the juvenile delinquent,  the generation gap had yet to really crack apart.  It is important to note that most of these films end with the elder generation, usually a balding paternalistic man with a paunch and a bad mustache, side by side with the heretofore misunderstood kids attempting to repel whatever menacing antisocial thing has come to attack them. After all we’re all in this together.

To put it mildly this is not the message that horror films of the next two decades would send.

The sixties is really where we hit pay dirt. It was a time of social and cinematic upheaval. With a bomb at the beginning and the end of the decade. Arguably the two most important films in the genre’s history. I am speaking of course of Psycho and Night Of The Living Dead. Which together managed to change the face of horror forever.

Let us give credit to Hitchcock for having his ear so close to the ground. He knew enough not only to guess the tenor of upcoming decade, but what would disturb in it. It is bad enough that poor Norman Bates hacks up the unsuspecting folk who drop by his motel. What is worse is that he does it while wearing a dress, brazierre and panties. In a few short years having hair that was too long could earn you a royal asskicking if you happened to be in the wrong place. Yet in Psycho Norman not merely pushing the gender lines but snapping them. Norman Bates is in his simplest term, a walking talking murdering societal taboo. And the horror of the sixties, and by extension into the seventies was all about the breaking of taboos.

There are a few noteworthy works in between Psycho and Night Of The Living Dead. The Corman/AIP cycle was in full swing. Which produced Dementia 13, a Psycho ripoff that made a handy showcase for Francis Ford Coppala’s inherent knack for atmosphere. Another notable film was Peter Bogdanivich’s debut, Targets which took the Charles Whitman shootings as its source of horror (released two months before Dead). Another important one is the Vincent Price staring the Witchfinder General, a British production but notable for being one of the few horror films of the era to take its iconography from The Vietnam War. But on the whole most of the horror films of the time were a bit lazy. Several of them were simple throwbacks to the early Universal thrillers of the thirties and forties or attempts to ape the artistic and commercial success of the Hammer films of the 50's and early 60's, with predictably diminishing results, normally featuring a past his prime star walking around in a familiar cheap castle set. Take a look at the wildly incoherent, Karloff starring The Terror sometimes if you ever need a good laugh.  Though The Corman Poe films where a rare successful attempt as resurrecting the gothic style.

If Hitchcock sensed the tremors running through society then George Romero road them like a wave. And if the majority of sixties horror either sought to ape the gothic style, or presented the viewer with harmless monsters; Night Of The Living Dead took both of those traditions and ate them raw.

If the horror films of the fifties sent the message that beneath the superficial generational differences everyone was on the same team. The Night Of The Living Dead sent the message that everybody is not on the same team. There is a big horde of chaos that is besieging America and it’s going to break in any moment and eat you. The puny defenses you’ve put up won’t keep them out, because everyone inside can’t stop fighting. The black’s are getting uppity, who knows what is going on with the women folk anymore, your youth will end up barbequed. And your children? They will fucking eat you once you turn your back. The microcosm of America that the film presents is almost unbearably bleak. What goes on outside of the house is almost a relief when compared to what goes on inside of it.

Equal to the ferocity of the film’s message was its style. While most American Horror was aping Hammer, by trying to make everything look as opulent as possible, Night Of The Living Dead was made in stark newsreel black in white. Beyond the bleakness of the message, beyond the starkness of its violence there was the fact that when you left the theater the world you walked into didn’t look all that different from the place you had just seen on screen. The message of Night Of The Living Dead wasn’t as simple as, “We’ve met the enemy and he is us.” It was, “You’ve seen the nightmare and you are living in it.

When we come to the seventies we are presented with almost an embarrassment of riches. No wonder, in cinematic terms the seventies were all about reaping the discontent sowed in the sixties thanks to the loosened standards of modern filmmaking. But there was plenty of nightmare fuel besides. Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War which reduced ten years of bloodshed and horror (most of it broadcast directly into American living rooms) to a “Whoopsie Daisy”, Gas lines, recession. The stunning thing is just what a variety of horrors this produced. That something as baroque as The Abominable Doctor Phibes could be playing next door to the latest David Cronenberg film, the counter culture nightmare of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deathdream is nothing short of astonishing. There won’t be much of the seventies in this book since I will be trying to stick as close to the 1981 cut off date as possible. But I will just mention my own personal favorite from this era The Messiah Of Evil. It’s a true forgotten gem. A horror fan’s horror film, and man if you haven’t seen it you are in for a true treat (In the terms of Stephen King’s Horror fan as prospector metaphor, The Messiah Of Evil is the gold nugget that makes me kick up my heels and dance until the corn whiskey makes me pass out).

We’ve reached the point where the text proper is just about to begin so I’ll just touch on the next few decades briefly. The eighties had the specter of nuclear war, AIDS, and the urban panic, which led to the horror boom of the eighties. The nineties where a notoriously bad decade for horror and that makes sense when you consider that the biggest psychic threats that generation had to deal with amounted to the death of Kurt Cobain, the dotcom bust, a bad traveling salesman joke playing out in the oval office and the release of Reality Bites.

One hardly needs to list the array of things that have gone wrong this decade, though they haven’t always manifested themselves in the way you might think… But that’s for later. I will only point out that the time period this experiment seeks to cover amounts to two decades with an extremely high demand for horror with a divot in the middle where there is virtually none. I wouldn’t have it any other way, as this allows us to look at horror as both an unconscience reaction, and something produced for its own sake.

Now, lets take a closer look at some of those fears we are feeding… 


  1. Re: The thirties: You've definitely put a few films on my to-watch list... Have you seen the German film Vampyr? One of my favorites. Not especially scary, but full of shots that will never leave your head.

    What about the Hays Code? Surely that drew the fangs from a lot of horror stories in the late thirties and early forties... Heck, Freaks was pre-Code and lost a few scenes due to squeamish audiences. Same with The Most Dangerous Game, the edited version of which still contains a few severed heads...

  2. I love Vampyr. One of the few films that genuinely deserves to be called dream like.

    You make an excellent point about The Hays code. I'd argue though that you can see a marked decline in some of the precode films. The monsters would have met Abbott and Costello eventually, one way or the other.

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