Since its early inception, horror has been one of the most underestimated genres in the history of cinema. Although B movies are plentiful, horror cinema has produced extraordinary masterpieces throughout history; sometimes in its pure form, others hidden within other genres.
Horror has always been subject to pressures from followers or detractors, facing either fascinating appeal or all out disdain.
Detractors will consider horror cinema as senseless psychological torture, a series of gory misadventures or as plainly silly. For horror fans, the success of any movie will depend on being scared stiff every two minutes!
The growing passion for cinema beyond genres has historically provided a more reasonable comparison. Horror is just a genre, and as such, there are good and bad horror movies. Obviously, the quality of a product cannot be determined only by its genre; things are more complex. Perhaps it is true that horror films hide behind either disturbing or boring fatalities, but that can also be said of other genres. However, in the case of horror films the line between what is and what is not credulous is not well defined, so films can easily lose credibility.
This is because in cinema the conception of something “credible” is not even remotely close to reality. Horror movies, as well as westerns, epic or science fiction movies, reject the notion of reality; but building something credible beyond reality requires talent and a good budget. This has not always been accessible, which has resulted in too many low-budget films with difficult-to-believe plots being produced throughout the history of cinema.
There are, however, exceptional films which have become classics despite a lack of funding. Nonetheless, some of them were considered to be “bizarre movies” or they fell under the mantle of “cult films”.
This fine distinction of credibility within horror films usually combines with an excess of paranormal ingredients; the result being that, on many occasions, the watcher encounters zombies, mommies, ghosts, vampires and aliens. They can be overbearing yet suffering beings, whose phantasmagorical behaviour appears to come from a foreseeable afterlife.
In other cases, even more humane characters perpetuate a brutal tyranny. This may be the result of some past misfortune, from resolute influences of evil spells, undisclosed atrocities or irresponsible experiments.
Horror cinema is full of monstrous characters, abnormality, and mysterious battles between double personality beings and madness. In such a context, the accessibility of the script is obscured by this madness and facing the unknown becomes an dark romantic response which may lead to death or oblivion.
Attempting to define a genre, however, is the beginning of its destruction. Genres, as cinema itself, are permanently changing. They cut across culture. The stronger the attempt to pinpoint its style, the more contradictions will emerge.
The Founding Creatures
German expressionism can be considered an early example of the horror category. Films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Hands of Orlac and The Student of Prague have set the tone, taken up by Universal Pictures’ early examples in North American cinema. Three decades later, the English producer Hammer continued in the same vein.
Despite the fact that Edgar Allan Poe’s work can be considered an early source of inspiration for horror films, Universal Studios went down another road and selected two scarcely known writers, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, authors of the novels Dracula and Frankenstein, respectively. Nobody could have imagined at the time of shooting, the importance these films would have.
Both the characters of these novels are dead and yet still alive. The former feeds on human beings; and blood is his life force but also symbolizes his tragedy. The later was brought back from death without the essential attributes necessary to thrive in society. He has too much love and too much hatred to offer, thus, if his romantic desires are not fulfilled his frustration will result in carnage.
Their lives are miserable, but they are portrayed as terrifying to our eyes. The common human being fails to perceive the secret suffering buried in their sinister bodies.
These two stories were central to the development of horror movies, and were probably the root of many of the sub-genres of the 1960’s.
Origins and Evolution of Horror in Cinema
Lon Chaney was a prominent pioneer of horror in silent films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and, especially, The Phantom of the Opera. His ability to change his facial expression using his own makeup techniques earned him the nickname “the man of a thousand faces”.
Since the German F.W. Murnau tried unsuccessfully to obtain the rights to adapt Dracula in 1922, he decided to rename his vampire “Nosferatu” instead.