Our Hollywood History column returns here at Last Movie Outpost, as we take a look back at the history of some of the most important moments in cinema. We have covered the history of stunts, of special effects, of the studio system, and explored Hollywood’s ties to the mob. We have also examined some of the spooky goings-on associated with Tinseltown.

Keeping with that spooky theme, as we reach the climax of our epic 31 Days Of Horror countdown, we take you on a journey into the history of the horror movie. Don’t turn off the lights…

What Is Scary?

What do we define as a horror movie? That will give us a clue as to where to start. According to a handy encyclopedia, a horror movie is defined as:

“…one that seeks to elicit fear or disgust in its audience for entertainment purposes. Horror films additionally aim to evoke viewers’ nightmares, revulsions and terror of the unknown or the macabre. Initially inspired by literature from authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley, horror has existed as a film genre for more than a century. Horror may also overlap with the fantasy, supernatural fiction, and thriller genres.”

Any scholar of cinema knows that one name keeps coming up, again and again, whenever you are looking into the history of film. Georges Méliès.

Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès was a French illusionist, actor, and film director. He holds a central place in Hollywood History as he was technically behind many of the very first steps in most of the essential crafts that combine to make movies today. You are possibly most familiar with his work in A Trip To The Moon, which we discuss in our piece of the Hollywood History of Special Effects.

At the very beginning of cinema, as the very first filmmakers were emerging into public consciousness in the 1890s, Méliès created what is widely held to be the first-ever horror movie.

His 1898 creation was only rediscovered in 1977. It featured cauldrons, animated skeletons, ghosts, transforming bats, and even the Devil. It is known as The Haunted Castle.

Japan also got in on the act in the genre of Horror movies. In 1898, a Japanese film company called Konishi Honten released two horror films both written by Ejiro Hatta. These were Shinin No Sosei (Resurrection of a Corpse) about a dead man who comes back to life after having fallen from a coffin that two men were carrying, and Bake Jizo (Jizo the Spook).

Books As The Catalyst

These early efforts were meant mainly to amaze, rather than scare. However, as the rate of production picked up filmmakers found themselves looking everywhere for inspiration. It was not long before the epic gothic horror of both past literature and European folklore started to be mined for the subject matter.

Between 1900 and 1920 supernatural-themed films began to be released such as Edison Studios Frankenstein. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Werewolf were also released around the same time. The latter two are now thought to be lost. However, Frankenstein was rediscovered and restored. Here is a version pieced together by The Video Cellar to tell the story and present the footage.

The 1910 effort was adapted to the screen for the first time by director J. Searle Dawley. The 1886 Gothic novella the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde adaption followed as a Thanhouser Film Corporation one-reel called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This was directed by Lucius Henderson. This connection between folklore, literature, and movies ushered in one of cinema’s greatest periods…

The Golden Age of Horror

Considered to run for two decades, the 1920s and the 1930s, it is held up as the finest era of the genre. It had the advantage of spanning two key periods in Hollywood history – the silent classics and the talkies. This dividing line occurs almost right down the middle of the period.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) are silent movies that still pack a punch today, being unsettling and genre-defining. Nosferatu even reigned as the second-highest scoring horror of all time on Rotten Tomatoes for many years. This changed when reviewers started getting younger and stupider, so they rated things like Get Out and The Babadook higher. This adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula possibly cemented most of the vampire lore we take for granted today.

Nosferatu garnered a remake, 1979’s Werner Herzog classic, starring Klaus Kinski. It also had a horror movie crafted around it’s own backstory in the form of Shadow Of The Vampire. The Herzog version is in full, here:

The silent era eventually ended and the technical leaps came thick and fast. First talkies, and then color. Horror was at the forefront of this technological revolution with a second iteration of Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and the first color adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).

Interestingly, this is also the first time this genre really started to refer to itself as “horror” movies. It is at this time that the first horror stars were born as actors like Bella Lugosi began to specialize in the genre.

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This is also the time that the establishment began to get concerned at the nature of the subject matter. Heavy censoring and public outcry became common with each release. The 1932 movie Freaks was considered so shocking that the cuts were heavy. The original version is lost, and Director Todd Browning saw his career negatively impacted despite his earlier success with Lugosi’s Dracula.

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Fear The Bomb

Tucked away in Great Britain a single company turned these tales into a period of near-global dominance. The Hammer horror company was founded in 1934 and during the 1950s it used a highly lucrative distribution deal with Warner’s to drive stories such as FrankensteinDracula, and The Mummy back into the public consciousness. However it could not last forever, as events, and history was soon to overtake the horror movie genre.

With the war over, but the memory of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima still at the front of minds, and fears of the Cold War turning into nuclear war, the supernatural gave way to the technological.

The Incredible Shrinking Man and imports like Godzilla spoke to this fear of radioactive mutation. Giant ants and spiders would follow.

The fear of invasion pushed another turn in the genre through, movies such as The War of the Worlds and The Day The Earth Stood Still. These movies became technically intensive, complex, and incredibly expensive. They would go on to be reborn later as disaster movies. However, they could justify the price tag, being big-budget, blockbuster spectacles. Horror could not, it was still something of a niche product with a limited audience due to age-appropriate certificates and lack of wide appeal.

Universal Pictures realized this. They had released the last of their major horror films in the 1950s. They added comedy to the genre in order to continue to make some money at a time when it was declining, hence the horror-comedy parodies starring the comedy duo Abbott and Costello such as Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. The movies spawned a franchise where the due would meat an array of classic characters from the Universal stable such as Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Keystone Kops.

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Yet the trajectory was still downwards. Universal bucked the trend one final time in February 1954 with Creature from the Black Lagoon which made use of 3D as a gimmick. It led to two sequels: Revenge of the Creature (1955), and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). The Creature, also known as the Gill-man, is now counted among the classic Universal Monsters.

Despite Universal’s success others were struggling. As the price went up, and audiences did not grow, horror movies began to wither and die. Movie studios tried to inject new life into horror movies with every trick in the book. Others tried the 3D approach, electric buzzers were installed into theatre seats. They even paid stooges to sit in the audience and scream or even pretend to faint. None of this worked. Horror movies seemed in permanent decline.

There was only one way out. Low budgets. Not just low… rock bottom!

Enter The Wizards Of Gore

From the late 60s onwards a new force began to rise within the ranks of horror movie makers. These talented, guerilla filmmakers could produce movies, with their own self-contained company of artists, for well under $1 million.

These got pushed by volume and the hurdle rate for success was much lower. These new wave B-movies, the drive-in fodder of yesteryear reborn, built some momentum back under the concept of horror movies.

Roger Corman expertly stepped into this space, his legendary budget controls allied to his insistence on high output meant he could be master of this area of filmmaking, as he proved with his Edgar Allan Poe series running from The House Of Usher to The Tomb Of Legeia.

When a young filmmaker by the name of George A. Romero took just over $100k in 1968 and made Night of the Living Dead which went on to gross $30 million, studios took notice again.

These high-volume, low-budget horror movies continued to pour out of these independent production companies. Among these was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974, which arguably went on to create yet another genre all of its own. More on that later.

The gore was ramped up and up, with each movie trying to outdo the last. By the time the Italians got involved through their exploitation and splatter-soaked excesses like Zombie Flesh Eaters, something had to give. The well-publicized Video Nasty moral panic of 1970s Britain did begin to spread across the Atlantic, where the moral majority started to make noises. Hollywood couldn’t rely on realistic-looking brains being thrown all over the place any longer. So Hollywood went in a slightly different direction. The supernatural was about to come back in a big way.

Return Of The Occult

Having been somewhat out of fashion for a number of years, suddenly the supernatural was to come back into cinema vogue and this time the subject matter wasn’t a mere vampire, it was the work of the devil himself!

Houses, children, whatever it was, it could be possessed. The Exorcist (1973) is still regarded by many as the best horror movie of all time and consistently tops polls of the most terrifying movies ever made. Just three years later The Omen (1976) drove home this new form of horror cinema. Whereas the works of Shelley and Stoker drove the Golden Age Of Horror, one man seemed synonymous with horror in this period – Stephen King. his tales Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980) paved the way for others, such as the Hooper / Spielberg team-up of Poltergeist (1982).

Horror was now attracting big names again and making money. Profits were boosted by the proliferation of the VCR allowing generations of scared kids to watch movies they would never have been able to watch in a movie theater.

The foundations were now in place for yet another reinvention…

The Slashers

This sub-genre was first envisaged in the wake of Psycho (1960), arguably Hitchcock’s best-known film.

This was based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho, which was inspired by the case of Ed Gein. A low-budget effort by Hitchcock, it was made for $800,000, shot on black-and-white and on a spare set using crew members from Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

It broke records. The combination of the brutal murder, the innocent lives being extinguished, and the screaming damsel as the victim, laid the foundations for this sub-genre. But it didn’t happen quickly. It seemed to hibernate somewhat until 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre when that movie threw fuel onto the smoldering fire and the Slasher film really exploded onto the scene.

Critical success may have been decidedly mixed on these movies, but studios didn’t care. Low budgets, high churn, and decent profits on home rental meant horror for the masses was back in a big way. Every ten movies seemed to yield a classic such as HalloweenFriday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. These movies were talked about in hushed and reverential terms in schoolyards all over the Western world.

Some of these were so successful that they launched their own franchises, inspired comedy versions, and even a franchise based around their main characteristics in the form of Scream.

Plenty of imitators and rip-offs followed too. Perhaps too many, as eventually, this period would also end, and horror movies would find themselves back in something of a cul-de-sac once more.

Lean Times

Horror movies faced a double whammy. First of all, the over-proliferation of slasher movies meant they were all played out. Secondly, the arrival of computer-generated special effects brought with it a decline in artistry, particularly in the incredibly creative arena of make-up. This had given us Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and Tom Savini who had all made everything from exploding heads to lycanthropic transformation so glorious on screen.

But studios didn’t wasn’t that any longer. They wanted CGI, from blood to monsters, and so a decline began. From Anaconda to Van Helsing, truly terrible computer effects took over from artists and gore as movies were also toned down to attract the widest possible audience, with an action-adventure sheen added and a family-friendly rating sought.

At the same time, a new age of sensitivity was being ushered in, meaning that the entire focus of some classic horror go-to beasties had changed. For example, vampires had devolved from nocturnal predators into overly dramatic flouncers with frilly cuffs, bemoaning the terrible burden of immortality.

Unbelievably, it would be Geroge A. Romero to the rescue once again in something of a roundabout way. In the late 1960s, he reinvented zombies, from a creepy voodoo ritual to a relentless, savage carnivorous corpse. Their time would come again.

The Dead Rise

The video game revolution was underway and an adaptation of Resident Evil (2002) was among the first of the new wave of movies featuring hungry cadavers. 28 Days Later and a remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) would follow before Romero himself returned with  Land of the Dead (2005). Zombieland (2009) and 28 Weeks Later were still to come.

Big budget and a big star also turned out for I Am Legend which changed the monsters from Matheson’s original from vampires into a strange zombie/vampire type hybrid.

As well as giving the horror genre a bit of a kick, while having some standout box-office smashes to remind studios that there was still gold in those scary hills, some of these began to blend CGI and practical effects better than what had gone before. This allowed two disciplines to complement each other rather than be exclusive.

Horror has managed to return and reinvent itself throughout the history of cinema. As superheroes dominate at the box office, horror has ticked along quite nicely in the background, as it frequently has throughout history.

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From widely derided torture porn like Hostel and Saw, to highly praised works like Cabin in the Woods, The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night it shows no signs of dying off for good. Even when it’s down, it is never out, a bit like one of those killers who just keeps coming back, sequel after sequel.

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