The Birth of Horror…

In recent years horror has become the subject of taboo; a genre that has increasingly tested the limits of acceptability and enjoyment. As films become ever more violent and grotesque, it is arguable that something fundamental has been lost in a much loved and artistic form of cinema. The pioneers of this lucrative art form are regularly cited in top film lists, creating box office hits that have shaped the history of cinema. So, what has changed to make this a genre that is no longer taken seriously?

The first horror films focused predominately on the ideas and characters established in the Gothic literature of the nineteenth century. Initially depicted in shorts, such as Georges Méliès’ 1896  Le Manoir du Diable, that sought to amuse through pantomime, feature length horror films weren’t produced until the 1920s. A field dominated by German expressionism, films such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari went on to influence directors such as Orson Welles and Tim Burton, whilst F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu marked the first vampire-themed feature.

Hollywood didn’t make an impact until the second half of the 1920s when the first horror star Lon Chaney gained precedence. Known as the man of 1000 faces, he famously did his own makeup- creating grotesque and deeply disturbing characters. Films such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), with its classic shocking reveal, were as much a case of evil spectacle as a claustrophobic horror picture.

The 1930s brought the arrival of sound with Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) being the first horror to be a box office hit. Actors such as the Hungarian Béla Lugosi and British Boris Karloff  became overnight stars after years of minimal success in Hollywood. Frankenstein (1931),  which starred Karloff as the monster, illustrated a being that was initially childlike and gentle, only later being guided into violence.

Creating empathy for a horrible creation allowed horror to become a fantastically interesting genre. Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde showcased a dazzling single-shot transformation sequence. Heightened by a subjective camera that enabled the viewer to experience the change through Jekyll’s eyes, it was achieved through rotating a filter on the camera which revealed layers of different coloured makeup. It was this sequence that helped its star Frederic March receive the best actor Oscar in 1932.

It was Warner Brothers who broke away from the Gothic tradition, bringing horror into a contemporary setting. James Whales’ Old Dark House (1932) illustrated the first use of an isolated residence visited by strangers seeking shelter, opening up a Pandora’s box of nightmarish events. At the same time, Browning’s 1932 tale of sexual manipulation and revenge, Freaks, blurred the line between reality and fiction. Starring actual carnival performers, many of whom had physical deformities, it bombed at the box office due to its shocking and controversial content (which resulted in a 30 year ban in the UK). Since then, however, it has made a huge comeback and become something of a cult phenomenon.

The 1940s brought producers such as RKO’s Val Lewton into the limelight. Although restricted by a low budget, his 1942 film Cat People terrified audiences by proving that less can be more. For the first time in horror history, monsters didn’t have to be seen, just suggested. This slow build up to a sudden non-threatening jolt became known as a ‘Lewton Bus’ and is an integral feature of modern horror.

However, by the end of the 1940s, horror had become virtually extinct, and was to remain so until the mid-1950s and the birth of Hammer Films in the UK. This period also saw the rise of British horror star Christopher Lee, who at 6ft 5in retains a very demanding presence. Evidently, horror had taken a new direction, but proved that it was anything but dead.

In subsequent years it was to see the arrival of visionary greats such as George Romero, Alfred Hitchcock’s exciting turn to horror, and the birth of slasher cinema. It is undoubted that in their own right they are brilliant films, but are arguably indebted to techniques pioneered decades earlier. In a somewhat unfortunate turn of events, most people now associate horror with either the current cult phenomenon of budget B-list films, or with later greats such as The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978). However, it was films in the first half of the twentieth century that set the standard. Unappreciated and, to many, unknown, it’s the perfect place to start if you are looking for something fun to do on Halloween.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Oct 25th 2011.

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