Saturday, October 12, 2013

The History of Horror: 1970s and 1980s: The Auteur Movement and When Horror Gets Graphic

The late 1960s saw a rise in horror films that became stylized and realistic, taking on the auteur movement of such filmmakers as Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffault. Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski had made a name for himself as a director in his native country with such psychological suspense thrillers as Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965), starring French actress Catherine Deneuve, revealing a style suitable for horror films. In 1967, Polanski directed Fearless Vampire Killers, a humorous take on the old legend. When producer Robert Evans bought the rights to the Ira Levin novel Rosemary's Baby, he turned to Polanski to helm the big budget production. Rosemary's Baby isn't a horror film in the traditional sense with monsters and other horror creatures stalking the cinematic landscape, but, like Lewton's previous work, used the psychological fears of the recent Thalydimide scares of the 1960s to create a story of demon birth. The fear of authority, in this case medical authority, was prime material for younger audiences who were rejecting and rebelling against the values and conventional wisdom of older generations. Other films, such as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, represented the changes occurring in American society during this period. Starring Duane Jones, one of the first African American actors to lead in a horror movie, Night of the Living Dead turned over old ideas of what constituted a
good horror picture by using cinema verité filmmaking and making its Black lead the hero. Romero has often stated in interviews that his film was a social commentary on the changing of the old guard (the humans in the film) being devoured by a new revolutionary spirit (the ghouls). His 1970's sequel, Dawn of the Dead, likewise commented on the growing mall culture in America and the incessant materialism and consumerism that replaced spirituality and communality.

The horror films of the 1970s, like many of Hitchcock's films, found terror in reality. In Willard (1971) and its sequel Ben (1972), rats terrorized the victims of their owner Willard, a wimpy and abused young man who uses them to get revenge. Films such as Steven Spielberg's TV-produced Duel (1972) provide its terror thrills from a demonic eighteen-wheeler which chases star Dennis Weaver through the Arizona desert. In 1973, veteran television director William Friedkin directed what would become to that date one of the scariest films to make it to the theaters, The Exorcist. Based on a novel by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist brought a new level of horror storytelling by taking the story of demon possession with the same level of seriousness as drug dealing in Friedkin's previous film The French Connection (1971). The Exorcist also brought a level of gore and sexual content into the horror movie not seen before, with young demon-possessed Regan assaulting herself with a crucifix. Such depictions took the genre to another level, shocking and horrifying audiences.

Twenty-five years after the second World War and the holocaust and the ongoing conflicts in Vietnam and in the United States had primed audiences for more graphic depictions of horror on the silver screen. The presence of gore and graphic violence upped the ante for later films such as Brian de Palma's psychological thriller Sisters (1973), The Omen (1976) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1976). Based on the story of Ed Gein, a serial killer from the Pacific Northwest (Hitchcock also used Gein as the basis for Norman Bates in the 1960 film Psycho) who often wore the skins of his victims, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre featured a family of serial murderers to strike horror in the hearts of film goers. The later successful Halloween (1978) capitalized on the growing fear of crime in America to create horror, though the monster in this film, Michael Myers, was a more supernatural version of the super predator, creating a new genre of horror called slasher films. During the eighties, films such as Friday the 13th (1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) followed in this vein. These films often scored the growing societal problems of teen sexuality and pregnancies with the super predators of Jason Voorhies and Freddy Kreuger often attacking their victims in postcoital bliss. Other films during the 1970s that featured a high quotient of blood and gore were Black Christmas (1974), directed by Bob Clark (Porky and A Christmas Story), and Suspiria (1977) by Italian horror director Dario Argento.

The rise of Blaxploitation during the early seventies also saw horror films targeted toward Black audiences with grindhouse fare like Blacula (1972), which told the story of a cursed African prince who comes to L.A. in search of blood and his reincarnated lost love. A sequel Scream Blacula Scream was released a year later. The Thing With Two Heads (1972), starring veteran screen star Ray Milland and football champion Rosey Grier, was a campy horror take of race relations. Most of the Blaxploitation horror films were simply Black versions of well-known horror films, such as Blackenstein (1973) and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1976). One film, though, released in 1973, Bill
Gunn's Ganja and Hess, took a detour away from the schlock of most Blacksploitation and told the story of a doctor who becomes infected with a disease in Africa that turns him into a vampire.

During the 1970s, horror novelist Stephen King became the literal king of new horror films when the Brian de Palma-directed 1976 film Carrie, based on King's first novel, became a smash hit. Starring the young Sissy Spacek and John Travolta, Carrie used telekinesis as an analogy for a young woman's growing sexual maturation. The film's ending, when Carrie's prom is ruined after she is splattered with pig's blood, is one of the most frightening sequences to ever be filmed and also one of the most familiar to film audiences. In 1979, King's The Shining found film treatment under the helm of director Stanley Kubrick and starred Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. While King himself wasn't fond of this eerie and spooky version of his bestselling novel, audiences were easily spooked by Nicholson's performance of a writer who is driven to insanity while caretaker of a closed resort hotel in the mountain range with his small family. Other film adaptations of King's films during the 1980s include Cujo (1983), Christine (1983), Firestarter (1985), Silver Bullet (1986), and Maximum Overdrive (1986), shot often with mixed results.

During the early eighties, film audiences saw a return to the werewolf mythology, only this time with updated special effects to create a more believable transformation from man to beast. Such films as the John Landis-helmed An American Werewolf In London (1981) and Joe Dante's The Howling (1981) elevated the genre using special effects as a key ingredient to storytelling. The work of famed special effects artist Rick Baker helped bring a new appreciation to makeup and effects used in horror films and have since become a standard bearer. Other werewolf films during this period include Wolfen (1981), In the Company of Wolves (1984) and the aforementioned Silver Bullet.

The 1980s also saw an output of humorous horror films that recalled earlier movies such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Movies such as Gremlins (1984) and The Ghostbusters (1984) were extremely popular with audiences who preferred to laugh along to the frightening hijinks. Other films of this ilk include The Witches of Eastwick (1987), starring Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Jack Nicholson; and The Lost Boys (1987), starring Coreys Heim and Feldman, Jason Patric, Keifer Sutherland, and Dianne Wiest. The Lost Boys was heavy on atmosphere and humor, creating an interesting mix for this tale of teenage vampires who take over a seaside California community. Other films, such as the independent and underrated Lady in White (1988) returned to an earlier era of gentle horror films that played less on gore and violence and more on atmospheric chills.

Still, the 1980s became an output for a lot of horror films that used graphic violence for its source of fright. Along with King-based and slasher movies, Canadian director David Cronenberg, who began his career in horror films during the 1970s with films like Shivers (1975) and The Brood (1979), released the 1981 film Scanners, a movie that took graphic film violence to new levels when psychics with awesome telepathic abilities caused heads to literally explode on screen. Other films directed by Cronenberg during this period include Videodrome (1983), the popular remake of The Fly (1986) starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, and Dead Ringers (1988) with British actor Jeremy Irons playing dual roles as a pair of spooky twins. Wes Craven became a well-known name in horror circles starting with his 1972 film Last House on the Left, one of the first films to include graphic violence in this genre, and the infamous The Hills Have Eyes (1977), a horror flick about desert-dwelling killer mutants who terrorize a vacationing family. During the eighties, Craven's films, such as the Freddy Kreuger Nightmare series, defined much of horror films during this period. Graphic violence and gore became the norm during the 1980s as horror fans demanded more and more horrific depictions of violence to up the terror factor. Other horror producers and writers, such as Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead (1981) fame
Bruce Campbell, Evil Dead
and Army of Darkness (1992) and British horror novelist Clive Barker who wrote Hellraiser (1987) and Candyman (1992) brought an interesting mix of horror and humor to their films. Director Sam Raimi, due to his stylish camera work, enlivened many of these films, such as the scene in Evil Dead II, in which he shoots a shooting eyeball plopping into a young actress's mouth. These stylized and humorous takes on the genre would set up the 1990s, which became the decade of irony for horror fans.

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