A Brief Look At Horror in Film

Halloween… Day Of The Dead… The Indonesian Ceremony Of Cleaning Corpses… Elvis Week in Memphis… all these morbid festivities certainly raises the question: what on earth is our ongoing fascination with death and the deceased?

Take a look back at the history of film for example. When it comes to a bit of horror, supernatural thrills, the dead or the undead, one does not need to look any further than the local cinema or picture house in their borough.

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If we were to take a look over the history of modern cinema, the abundance of film’s dealing with those that have kicked the proverbial bucket would be enough to make Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi roll awkwardly in their graves.

Yet, in spite of Hollywood’s recent fascination with cheap teenage supernatural campfire stories, and overtly violent ‘gore porn’ franchises, the classic spooky movies still remain a cut (or slash) above the rest.

On the big screen, the origins of horror can be accredited to Frenchman George Méliés, a former magician who was instrumental in developing film, a new medium at the time, into a narrative art form. His short films The Manor Of The Devil (1896) and The Haunted Castle (1897) the first known to scare the pants off an audience.

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In Europe, the roaring 20’s ushered in an exciting wave of silent spine-tinglers like The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) in Germany, and The Phantom Carriage (1921) and Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922) in Scandinavia.

With the combined acting strength of a thousand thespians, the aforementioned Karloff, Chaney and Lugosi helped to put Hollywood on the horror map in the late 20’s and 30’s with such classics now synonymous with the genre like Phantom Of The Opera (1925), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932).

In the 40’s the bigwigs at RKO Studios hired Val Lewton, a Ukrainian immigrant of Jewish descent for their head of horror unit. On a humble salary of US250 per week, Lewton would churn out some of the greatest low budget screamers of all time; from Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945), all on meagre budgets and running no longer than 75 minutes in duration.

With the 60’s the ghost tales came in thick and ominous… wicked kids (The Innocents), tortured spirits (Carnival Of Souls), murderous peasants (Onibaba), and roaming corpses (Night Of The Living Dead), all proving that the world of frights would not roll over and stay dead.

As the industry crept into the 80’s, horror had proven herself a fruitful beast. Directors like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Dario Argento were weaving sinister scripts from our fixation on fear. Who could forget such frightful gems as The Shining (1980), Evil Dead (1981), The Thing (1982) and Re-Animator (1985)?

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The last 25 years has seen no indication of a shift in our interest for mortality in the cinema.

The countless times we have sat anxiously in the audience waiting for the curtains to open, only for it to be curtains for some unfortunate soul on screen is testament to the longevity of a genre as old as our fear for the boogie man.

Perhaps through the spirit of film, death won’t be so final… or will it?

(Article written for Le Bonbon, UK 11/5/2016)

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