One crisp, fall Friday night back in high school, with all the house lights out, my friends and I sat down to watch The Exorcist.
I had never seen the movie before and the demonic Latin voices lingered in my head as I left my friends house late that night. I climbed into my car and started it. Then, inexplicably, a shiver went up the back of my neck and before knew it I had the cab light on and was checking the back seat for for a possessed little girl? The devil? A homicidal maniac who had been waiting patiently for me all night in the backseat of my car?
I felt like a total idiot, but there it was The Exorcist had spooked me into being afraid of the dark, and as I drove home shaking my head over it, I could not help but smile; nothing like a good scare from a movie, you know?
Horror has a long celebrated history
Audiences have been packing the movie theaters for well over eighty years, happily paying their way to a good fright. Silent filmmaker Georges Melies first played around with some of horrors supernatural staples in the 1890s but it was not until the 1920s that horror began to make its feature length debut; the most notable of which being F. W. Murnaus 1922 unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stokers Dracula, Nosferatu, which will be playing October 29-31 with live musical accompaniment at the AFI Silver theater in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland; go to www.afi.com for more info. The roaring twenties also saw Lon Chaney, Sr. rise to prominence from staring in classic films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
In the 1930s and 40s, horror films really took off in Hollywood with the advent of Universal Pictures oft celebrated Monster Films: Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), and Frankenstein (1935) among many other notables.
Inspired by German filmmakers, these films and others helped Hollywood strike a gothic chord with audiences as certain actors like Boris Karlof and Bela Lugosi became synonymous with the genre.
The Cold War seamlessly threaded science fiction into the horror genre in 1950s as filmmakers explored the idea of outside threats and invasions. Using cutting edge technologies, many filmmakers pushed the envelope in audience participation with techniques such as 3-D (a style poised to make a huge comeback with the advent of computer technologies) and Percepto, a literal shock theater experience courtesy of William Castle.
This time period also saw the birth of British production company Hammer Films, which with the help of actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee helped usher the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein back into the public eye.
In the 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock helped bring things back down to earth a little by introducing psychological naturalism into the realm of horror as audiences learned to be afraid of showers and birds. Two important genre-changing trends also emerged during this time: Herschell Gordon Lewis helped introduce blood and gore with films like Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and George A Romero introduced to the world the seminal concept of zombies with his film Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Beginning in the 1970s, horror films continued the trend of social commentary started in the fifties with anti-establishment films like Wes Cravens Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hoopers Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Romeros ongoing zombie film series. While certainly horror, these films and others skewed more to the gore and shock side, while others, such as The Exorcist (1973) and Audrey Rose (1977), continued the supernatural flavor of horrors past.
But it was John Carpenters 1978 masterpiece Halloween that really changed things. Michael Myers became the modern day monster whose lumbering footsteps helped pave the way for the 1980s birth of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees.
With these three and their numerous sequels, blood and guts reigned supreme at the box office. Hollywood was quick to capitalize on these new monsters and created dozens of knock-offs that helped spawn the slasher and splatstick sub-genres that established Gore as the new staple of horror.
But as the body count grew, so too did moviegoers boredom. Film franchises that were once scary became hilariously campy as studios found new and preposterous ways to keep bringing their homicidal maniacs back; servicing the perceived dollar instead of audiences hunger for a good scare. Gore flourished at the straight-to-video level in the mid to late 1980s, but dwindled at the box office for the most part while true horror lied in wait for the likes of Scream (1996) Blair Witch Project (1999), and to an extent, The Sixth Sense (1999).
Today, fans have a varied library of films
Not surprising, ever since my Exorcist viewing I get a craving every year around Halloween for a good scare. In seeking out that thrill, it is difficult to turn away from movies of the past few decades.
Though each franchise certainly experienced their lows, some entries in the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th properties still hold up pretty well today in terms of visual effects, gore, and classic primetime lines.
To be Hoopers Poltergeist (1982) has always been a favorite of mine because of its slow frightful build, as has Romeros shopping mall statement Dawn of the Dead (1978), whose 2004 remake is equally enjoyable. Candyman (1992) has a certain psychotic creep to it, something that can also be found in Event Horizon (1997), but the king of demented still goes to Jack Nicholson in The Shinning (1980).
And for a good splatstic laugh, who can resist Sam Ramis character Ash from the Evil Dead series?
Still, as great as it is to re-watch many of these classics, I love finding new horror movies to add to my library. Unfortunately, many of todays entries into the horror genre rely way too much on gore, which is great, but these days Im more inclined to laugh than jump at a brain eating zombie.
Following in the footsteps of box office smashes Sixth Sense and Blair Witch Project a lot of horror movie writers and producers are now seeking to marry the obligatory gore with gimmick twists and surprise endings, trying to wheedle actual anticipation of fright back into the horror equation; something I applaud even if it fails more often than succeeds.
One such recent attempt that did remarkably well at the box office is last years Saw from Lions Gate Films. The story of Jigsaw, a sadistic murderer who likes to see people find their will to live, the movie opens in a filthy industrial bathroom. Startling from the get go, we see Adam, played by co-writer Leigh Whannell, waking up in a tub of water in a darkened room.
Back story gets filled in through flashbacks and heavy exposition as Adam and his cell mate Dr. Lawrence Gordon, played by Cary Elwes, try and cope with the situation they have been thrust into: Gordon must kill Adam in order to save the lives of his wife and daughter.
While the premise of a sadistic killer creating deadly puzzles for his prisoners is creepy, as is the idea of waking up in the midst of some game for your life, Saw cuts itself away from being truly great more and more as the movie goes on. The flashbacks get tedious and outright blatant at times. And while neat in concept, director James Wans idea of not allowing practice takes leads to some pretty abysmal acting from even the likes of Danny Glover, who plays the obligatory killer obsessed cop.
With some bona fide freaky moments early on, Saw is well worth at least one viewing, even though it eventually succumbs to what I call explanation-itis, the curse of most new horror movies, whereby a great concept is slowly undermined by the sheer weight of its implausibility. Fortunately, I have heard that this minor story technicality has been somewhat addressed in the sequel, which is set for releas
e on October 28th.
Regardless, horror movies have survived their mid-90s slump and are alive and well today. With veteran giants like Hooper, Romero, and Craven still working their craft alongside eager newcomers, who were undoubtedly reared on decades worth of slasher films, there should not be any shortage of new films to test out any time soon.
And, as long as I have my staple of scary films to keep me company on these late fall nights, Ill be just fine as long as I check the backseat first.
Movie buff Kevin Schramm is a legal assistant in Old Town.