It’s Alive! The Transforming Genre of Horror

Horror is a perfect genre to begin a genre study course, first because it is simple to track its progression over time and secondly because it is a reliable cultural thermometer. Based on the nearly hundred or so horror films I’ve seen and approximately the half-dozen I’ve carefully selected and re-viewed or visited for the first time I feel I have a strong sampling to discuss the genre. My early films will be The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, my classical films will be Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931) and my revisionist films will be Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby, with frequent movement around the last four decades of horror (and maybe science fiction, I make no promises).

Horror has been a quickly evolved and developed film genre. From its story-telling devices and film-making techniques has arrived a style and theme of movie that still entertains and frightens.

In its early days the genre was permanently forged into movie history with the German art movement, Expressionism. One film in particular helped in the “crystallization of the horror film as a genre” (Langford 2005, pg. 161) that film is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Cabinet used heavily painted sets, extreme makeup and over-the-top acting to exaggerate and dramatize the supernatural and paranormal. This destruction and recreation of reality into the bizarre became the standard of horror films.

But as Langford writes (and I paraphrase) the world didn’t need Cabinet to teach it how to use low-key lighting, angles and shadows, the value and lasting influence of these early films like Nosferatu and Cabinet is in the story-line content they presented—the centralization of a message and theme of the creepy and paranormal. These early movies started speaking in a language the world hadn’t heard before, but proved very eager to learn.

This early influence can be clearly seen just over ten years later in the two enormously successful films Frankenstein and Dracula. Frankenstein garnered from the early films a firm belief in the presentation of the impossible in a melodramatic style. Colin Clive screaming “It’s alive!” again and again would be humorous if audiences hadn’t previously understood that such performance are expected.

Frankenstein also showcases a similar monster to Cabinet in that of a person in heavy make-up grown with technology to include prosthetics. The same could be said of Dracula whose monster is engrossed in the same make-up driven effects. Early horror films made no attempt to hide that they were just movies. The effects and costumes were the point, similar to George Méliès science fiction films and his trick shots and editing trademarks of the 1910’s.

The next step in the evolution of the horror genre was to take both this implausibility and the exaggerated worlds and to force them into the confines of the everyday person, essentially to make the outlandish believable. It took considerable time to turn into the modern-day horror film. But everything I read from Langford to Ebert refers to the same turning-point in film history. Psycho.

Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece Psycho extinguished the separation of the audience and their fears. Psycho was not only plausible, but it felt authentic and while it kept some devices (like the human, or humanoid, monster) it discarded others like the melodramatic acting and flashy set pieces to replace them with honest behavior from actors and convincing settings and environments. Psycho is generally regarded as the most influential horror film in history (Schneider 2008).

Roman Polanski’s 1968 nightmarish horror, Rosemary’s Baby, followed quickly into the safe-zone rubble created by Psycho, playing still on the everyday mixed with the supernatural and the evil. It was especially enlightening to watch this progression so closely together. Watching all these horror films over three weeks reveals each proceeding one as a cinematic child of the past. Indeed the language of the alarming that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari spoke was being echoed in the films I watched.

The other amazing feature of horror films is their incredible accuracy as gauges of a culture. It is hard not to notice the gradual increase in the sexuality of the genre. Cesare’s love in Dr. Caligari becomes Dracula’s fascination in Dracula which turns into Norman Bates abasement of life and especially women in Psycho which turns into blatant sexuality and nudity in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

Compared to the decades in which these films were released it shows an ever-growing willingness to expose and display the obscene for the sake of shock. Alfred Hitchcock’s famous shower-stabbing scene is void of nudity because he considered it inappropriate for audiences to see Janet Leigh’s body. Just eight years later we see full nudity in a rape scene involving Satan in Rosemary’s Baby. There is no doubt a connection between this and the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

Film is both a cause and an effect of societal changes. (Thompson, Bordwell 2003) It reflects and it creates ideas and thoughts. That’s part of its wonderful power, but also when dealing with a genre like horror part of its inherent threat.

Obvious is the excessive gore and sexuality in the genre from the last decade. It seems that thanks to gore-horror movies the perversion will never end. Many of the most successful horror films of today’s Hollywood have little if anything to do with ingenuity, design, suspense and art. The current shift in focus is directed at nudity, violence and shock.

I will quickly plot a few movies on a timeline to back this up. Beginning in 1973 with The Exorcist containing intense violence, gore, language and anti-religious messages; The Shining (1980) again language, violence and nudity are frequent; Saw-Saw VII-3D (2004-2010) all featuring increasingly disturbing content including nudity, sexuality, torture, violence and gore. Cabin Fever (2002), The Devil’s Rejects and The Descent (both 2005), Teeth (2007), Bitten (2008) or Sorority Row (2009) (dates courtesy are all progressively targeted at the teenage boy’s mind. A film like Saw would have been completely abhorrent to society in the 1930’s, and I’d bet that even the directors of our great horror classics would be appalled at the “monstrous” styles and content now common-place in their genre. Perhaps an improvement in the content of horror films will be an indicator that Hollywood is beginning to see its part in the repercussions in degrading American lifestyles.

Horror is an amazing genre and a historically important movement. I am amazed by what I learned and saw in the constant changing and elaboration of themes and characters and devices used by the film-makers. And I found that I actually enjoy many of the more artistic behind-the-scenes aspects of horror. Like wondering how they make the monster or costume or make-up look the way they did? Or where did they get the idea for this or that spray of blood or eerie glow?

Horror is a genre of these things—of effects, acting and lighting. It is a world of costumes and myths and entertainment that has moved from significant and patient thrillers to mindless, stomach-lurching gore festivals without missing anything in between. But we must always be careful when watching horror films not to confuse our entertainment with the dark content they often depict.

If this one genre can be used as a thermometer of our society’s ethics and values then we must regulate our participation. Our film-going experience must always remember to not hack and slash its way into our spirits. Sometimes the films we watch get so scary we have to remind ourselves, “It’s just a movie.” So let’s not forget that and in doing so allow what is “just a movie” to permeate our world and minds.

  1. Well said. I like how you provide not only analysis but reflection and warning in your conclusion. We need this kind of review in our movie reviewers.

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