Fear of things that go bump in the night is the basis of all horror movies. John Carpenter, the director of the Halloween series, explained the ‘very specific secret’ of a good horror film. ‘It should be scary’. Publishers were the first to twig that people would pay to be scared witless. It led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the macabre tales of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Georges Méliès, a French film pioneer, made the first horror movie around 1896, The Haunted Castle, about a devil that haunts visitors in a medieval castle. It lasted only 3 minutes – but long enough to thrill its audience. So he followed it with similar shorts, using crude but novel special effects. In the US, George Albert Smith made The X-Ray Fiend (1897), a horror-comedy that came out just two years after x-rays were invented. Audiences were wowed by a scene of two skeletons courting.
Classic stories were the stuff of early horror movies – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1908) and Frankenstein (1910) all proved that horror was box office gold. But it was a German Expressionist film, Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) that had the lasting impact – not for its narrative but its style and set. Weird distortions, brutal angles, crazy claustrophobic streets. Its heavy chiaroscuro and plot twist influenced both horror and film noir. FW Murnau’s great vampire movie Nosferatu (1922), based on Dracula, took Caligari’s cinematography yet further, with dramatic shadows of the skulking Count Orlok. Distorted reality, signifying an anguished soul, became a theme of the genre.
Special effects improved and by King Kong (1933) it was possible to put a big ape on top of the Empire State Building and make it look (almost) credible. Its female star was Fay Wray. She was asked: ‘How would you like to star opposite the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood?’ By the time she learnt the chap was actually a two-foot high latex monkey she’d signed the contract and it was too late. The movie was a huge hit so inevitably Son of Kong followed – in the same year! The sequel is the trademark of the horror business, with endless ‘sons of’ Frankenstein and Dracula; and more recently such franchises as Friday the 13th, The Omen and The Exorcist. In 1958 The Blob appeared, a dire movie with ‘terrible’ acting and ‘phony’ effects (NY Times), but it spawned Son of Blob (1972). This was strange as the original Blob looked like a blancmange (and was as scary) and seemed to have no reproductive organs. Many of the international posters in this deck are graphic jewels, mostly better than the film; but not all the genre was rubbish. Clouzot’s Les diaboliques (1955) and Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) are masterpieces of menace. Most horror films are about good v evil, alienation or threats to ordered lives by man’s hubris (Godzilla was a monster resurrected by nuclear testing). Some are metaphors. Howard Hawks’ nasty blood-craving Thing (1951) fed 50’s Red Scare paranoia. The last line warns – ‘Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!’ The Commies are coming… In the 50s, the American drive-in cinema created its own momentum; teenagers needed an on-screen climax every ten minutes to break away from canoodling. Cute nudity was old hat so extreme gore was added – a film like Blood Feast (1963, USA) was made entirely for the drive-in trade. Desperate producers came up with other ideas to shock. Sometimes literally. The Tingler (1959) had a tagline ‘When the screen screams you’ll scream too!’ This was true: a device called ‘Percepto!’ passed an electric current through your cinema seat when the action reached a peak. The same producer/director, William Castle, also dreamt up a wheeze for his 1958 film Macabre – you were insured for $1000 if you died of fright during ‘this terrifying picture’. The film, all 73 interminable minutes, wouldn’t scare Piglet. The ‘B’ movie It (1958) went further – ‘$50,000 guaranteed’ if you could prove the monster ‘is not on Mars now’. The money was safe.
The ‘vomit bag’ was another gimmick, issued because of ‘the intense nature’ of the film When the Screaming Stops (1974). The small print advised, unnecessarily – ‘Do not re-use’. Depressingly, this trash made money; which confirms that nobody goes broke underestimating the taste of the public.