The History of Horror Cinema

psycho

It’s Halloween, and cinema gets to celebrate the festivity as much as any other art form. It’s around 100 years old after all, so there’s plenty of horror to look back on (so much so that the BFI are about to kick off a four-month Gothic season). It’s one of the earliest and most influential  genres, with undisputed classics Frankenstein and Dracula coming to screens in the same year as early as 1931.

Since then, we’ve been treated to some of the best films the medium can offer, and tricked into some right shockers – no, not in a good way – too. We’ve had thrillers and chillers, slashers and video nasties, ghouls and ghosts and goblins, found footage and 3D, houses on haunted hills, castles and cabins in the woods. Some of the most recognised and influential directors – Kubrick, Scorsese, Hitchcock and more – have engaged in horror fiction. And lord knows, the genre’s given birth to some talented directors too. We’re looking at you Sam Raimi, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, John Landis and many, many more!

And so today, for one day only, we present our exploration of horror through the ages. Film writers Jack Sadler, James Gallagher, Raks Patel and myself have decided to pitch in and gush passionately about two of our favourite horror films. We have different countries, sub-genres of horror, eras and directors all on show. We’ll take them chronologically, but since half of them are over 30 years old, please expect some spoilers throughout.

Psycho (1960) – Michael Prescott

We’ve agreed by now that Alfred Hitchcock is a genius, but his gift for creating remarkable horror films should be recognised. The Birds is an excellent example of his ability to rack up tension and truly terrify an audience. Psycho, however, is on another level altogether.

It inverts audience expectations by killing off the main character at the end of the first act and basically introduced the idea that no-one is safe (see Scream below for more of the same). It’s got a chilling score, a wonderful performance from Anthony Perkins and a legendary character that we now know as Norman Bates.

The Wicker Man (1973) – James Gallagher

For me, horror is at its scariest when it shines a light into the worst annals of humanity with an unsettling commentary on its era.

At its heart, The Wicker Man is quite a conservative film in that it pits a traditionalist Christian against the dangerous influences of cultism and overt sexuality.

However, the film has a much deeper layer that explores loneliness, isolation and temptation, and it is from these ideas that it derives much of its terror.

It is so perfectly paced, so wonderfully executed and so rich in dark, religious imagery that it manages to creep under your skin before you even know what’s happening.

The Omen (1976) – Raks Patel

The Omen explores what would happen if the Devil’s son, the Antichrist, came to earth. Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick) are a golden couple, happily married, with the world at their feet. But their first child is stillborn and Robert, without Katherine’s knowledge, agrees to adopt another baby boy, Damien, and bring him up as their own.

When Damien (Harvey Stephens) turns 5 strange things, including mysterious and terrible deaths, start to occur around him and Robert embarks on a journey to uncover his son’s parentage. It is The Omen that gave 666 a special significance in the public consciousness. The final scene where we discover Damien is still alive and he turns around, looks into the camera and smiles, still makes my blood run cold.

Halloween (1978) – Jack Sadler

Classic. There isn’t much else I can say about Halloween that hasn’t already been said. Kickstarting (and still the best of) the slasher genre, Halloween’s undeniable influence can still be seen in films to this day.

“Pure evil” Michael Myers is an icon: his dead, blank expression chills, his lack of reason, conscience or speech is truly unsettling. He will keep going and he cannot be stopped: “You can’t kill the boogeyman.”

John Carpenter’s disturbingly perfect long shots create a sense of terror and dread throughout every scene – there’s always something lurking in the background. And it’s terrifying.

Possession (1981) – James Gallagher

Possession, in the meantime, is a masterclass in European surrealism. It is a disturbing melodrama that explores mental, marital, political and societal breakdown in West Berlin, told in the form of a nightmarish horror film about identity, insanity and sexuality.

The political backdrop of the film – set as it is under the shadow of the Berlin Wall – provides an additional layer of terror and confusion that, in combination with a phenomenal performance from Isabelle Adjani and the film’s intense and horrifying imagery, will stick in your mind long after the credits have rolled.

Scream (1996) – Michael Prescott

Wes Craven’s horror satire, which also revitalised the genre, is simultaneously funny, scary and witty. The trick to making a great parody – as captured perfectly by films such as Shaun of the Dead since – is to warmly embrace your chosen target whilst also creating a standalone film for fans.

Therefore, whilst the ‘rules of horror’ are deconstructed (recently looked at in The Cabin in the Woods too), the characters are equally important: Courtney Cox as annoying, career-driven Gale Weathers, David Arquette as the loveable but hopeless Deputy Dewey, and Neve Campbell as our brilliant female protagonist Sidney Prescott. There’s also Drew Barrymore of course, but she doesn’t hang around for long.

Expertly written by Kevin Williamson and lovingly-crafted by horror guru Wes Craven (The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street), the standalone film quickly became a franchise with the additions of Scream 2, Scream 3 and Scream 4 in 1997, 2000 and 2011 respectively. With the likes of Liev Schreiber and Patrick Dempsey added to the cast, as well as fan favourite Randy (Jamie Kennedy) being pushed tot he fore, what’s not to love about this new-age horror hybrid?

Inside (2007) – Jack Sadler

As part of the French Horror New Wave of the noughties, Inside (À l’intérieur) is one of only a handful of films that have genuinely disturbed me (another is Martyrs, also part of this New Wave).

Soon after the death of her husband, heavily pregnant Sarah is tormented in her home by a strange woman who wants her unborn baby, and will stop at nothing to get it – including cold-bloodedly butchering those who try to help the mother.

Like Myers, the woman is cruel, relentless and seemingly motiveless (at first), making her an unbelievably distressing antagonist. Bloody, brutal, brilliant: Inside will plague your thoughts for a long time.

Let Me In (2010) – Raks Patel

Let Me In is a US/UK horror film, written and directed by Matt Reeves, an adaptation of Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel of the same name. The story focuses on Owen, a 12 year old boy, lonely, isolated and bullied at school, and his growing friendship with Abby, who has just moved in as his neighbour.

Abby has a dark secret: she is a vampire and needs regular supplies of fresh blood to live. Let Me In has a powerful storyline, strong standout performances from Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen and Chloë Grace Moretz as Abby, it is chilling and terrifying, and it has stunning special effects.

But what I love about the film is that it is ultimately about two young people (one of whom is a vampire) finding each other, learning about each other and falling in love, in a world which can often be friendless for so many people.

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