In Bloody-Disgusting’s second entry in our “100 Years in Horror” series, we take a look back at the horror films that grew out of some of the most pivotal eras in American history. From the Great Depression in the 1930s to the Cold War era of the `50s, from the Vietnam era of the late `60s and ’70 and on to our current “Global War on Terror”, the gloomiest periods in our collective history have a way of spawning some of the most distinctive trends in American horror. Read on for a fun and enlightening history lesson from B-D contributor Chris Eggertsen.
For such an oft-maligned genre, the horror film has been the subject of scholarly treatises an astonishing number of times – just do a quick search on Google and you can find hundreds of examples of academics tackling the genre with a surprising amount of in-depth analysis. In some cases these ivory tower speculations are almost laughable in their critical considerations of, say, bargain-basement exploitation films made primarily to titillate and slake the bloodlust of a target audience of sixteen-year-old boys, but many times they really do have something relevant to say about the films’ connection to a cultural moment in history – either in the way they influenced the culture or, more likely, grew out of it.
This article, the second in Bloody-Disgusting’s “100 Years in Horror” series (celebrating the 100th anniversary of Edison Studios’ short 1910 version of Frankenstein), takes into consideration some of these theories, particularly those focusing on the horror films that followed in the wake of pivotal, culture-transforming junctures in American history. From the economic collapse of the Great Depression to the current “global war on terror”, here then is a brief consideration of four (4) distinct eras in the history of the horror film that – either explicitly or subconsciously – had quite a lot to say about the state of the American Dream.
On October 29, 1929 (“Black Tuesday”), the U.S. stock market crashed and led to a severe economic depression around the world. By 1933 the unemployment rate in the U.S. had skyrocketed to 25%, and to make matters worse a serious drought began plaguing the Great Plains the following year, leading to the “Dustbowl” phenomenon that would devastate the agricultural communities in the middle of the country and continue on a mass scale for the next six years. Hundreds of thousands of Americans found themselves homeless with countless others barely managing to scrape by, leaving the American Dreams of a large chunk of the population in tatters.
The harsh realities of life during this time also made escapist entertainment a more attractive proposition than ever before, and with tickets priced at around a nickel a piece, the movies proved a cheap way for the struggling populace to forget about their troubles for a few hours. In 1930, 80 million people – or 65% of the U.S. population – were attending their local cinema on a weekly basis, taking in the latest action-packed gangster movie, slapstick comedy, or, yes, spine-tingling horror film in order to take their minds off their troubles.
As life was a day-to-day struggle for so many, horror films during this period reflected the need of the population for entertainment that bore little resemblance to their own dire real-world circumstances. Popular films such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and King Kong (1933) were highly fantastical creations, often taking place in exotic lands and featuring supernatural creatures culled from classic 19th century literature and folklore. As a counterpoint, see MGM’s hugely controversial horror film Freaks (1932) directed by Tod Browning. The film, which featured real-life circus sideshow performers, proved too “real” for the fantasy-craving American public and suffered from dismal box-office returns.
Universal Pictures was undoubtedly the studio that most successfully tapped the audience’s desire for escapist horror during the period, starting with the huge success of Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931 and continuing on with a long string of box-office horror hits including James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Invisible Man (1933), Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932), and Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934). More than any other studio operating at the time, Universal managed to perfect the combination of exotic international locales, otherworldly villains and dreamlike atmospherics to attract movie-going audiences in droves.
That is not to say there weren’t successful horror films produced by other studios in the 1930s. Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Island of Lost Souls (1933), United Artists’ White Zombie (1932), and RKO’s King Kong (1933), among others, all became box-office hits by catering to the public’s taste for outlandish, supernaturally-tinged horror fare to transport them away from their daily concerns. Only in the latter half of the decade did the popularity of the horror film begin to wane, particularly due to the rumblings of war in Europe and a falling demand for macabre fare on that continent. With a few notable exceptions, the studios began focusing on lighter-themed films to appease audiences across the pond, leaving smaller production houses to pick up the slack by churning out a series of low-budget horror pictures into the 1940s.
Montage of Horror Movie Trailers From the Period:
Following the real-life horrors of World War II, which left 40 million dead and the surviving populace stunned by the terrible breadth of the Nazi atrocities, the horror film entered a near-hiatus in the following several years. Indeed, the biggest horror hit of this early post-war period wasn’t a true horror film at all but rather a slapstick comedy starring comedy duo Abbott & Costello, entitled Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which also served as the unofficial swan song of Universal’s “Big Three” Golden Age monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Wolf Man. Its enormous success was truly indicative of the American public’s appetite for lighter-hearted fare.
It was only in the mid-1950s when horror would truly take hold again, although the nature of the films – and their featured antagonists – would change considerably from the supernatural-tinged “creatures of the night” so popular in the preceding two decades. With simmering tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union eating away at the edges of the American consciousness, the horror films of the 1950s and early `60s focused primarily on the paranoia resulting from feeling under constant threat of nuclear attack. Americans had also been unsettled by several rumored UFO sightings beginning in the late 1940s, including the alleged crash of an alien spacecraft in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Fears of the rapidly advancing state of military technology and its attendant dangers, combined with the newly realized anxiety of possible attack from outer space invaders, proved a potent brew that would lead to the trend of horror/sci-fi films so prevalent in the intervening decade.
While the production values of the horror films produced during the early Cold War period often suffered due to the genre’s loss of credibility during the mostly jokey and mindless output of the late `40s, they still proved successful thanks to a teenage audience less concerned with quality than a heaping helping of mindless action and mutant beasts. One of the most prevalent sub-genres during this time was the giant monster movie, in which enormous creatures – whether they started as smaller, real-life insects/animals before growing to gigantic proportions or were accidentally awakened by atomic testing – would go on to wreak havoc on the general populace before being heroically destroyed by the film’s protagonists. Some of the most notable hits in this category were Eugene Lourie’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954), Ishiro Honda/Terry Morse’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956, the Americanized version of the original Japanese film), and Robert Gordon’s It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). It is no mistake that all of these films utilized the idea that nuclear weaponry had in some way brought these monstrosities into being; the behemoths standing in for the public’s very real fear of Atomic Age annihilation.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous horror/sci-fi sub-genre in the 1950s was the alien invasion film, stirred up by an increase in UFO sightings across the country and the infamous Roswell Incident, in which an object many believed to be an alien spacecraft (despite the government’s claims it was a high-altitude surveillance balloon) crashed in New Mexico in 1947. The intense media speculation and conspiracy theories that followed resulted in a slew of successful “they came from outer space” movies, including Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951), Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953), William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars (1953), Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds (1953, adapted from the H.G. Wells novel), Fred F. Sears’ Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, based on the Jack Finney novel).
The popularity of these films was in part due to the public’s very real fears of a hostile takeover of the country by “alien” forces (namely Communism), either through physical force or more insidious attempts at mind control, and very often the filmmakers used their fantastic concepts in service of political allegory. The Day the Earth Stood Still served as a warning against armed conflict springing from Cold War paranoia; It Came From Outer Space, which featured the rare benign alien visitors, had an underlying anti-McCarthy message; Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been interpreted as both a warning against the conformist ideals of McCarthyism and alternately against the threat of Communist brainwashing (though some of those involved in the film’s production have since denied that the film was produced with any allegorical intentions). Indeed, the power of these films lay in the subtext existing beneath the flashy images of alien destruction.
Compilation of 1950s B-Movie Trailers:
Beginning in the mid-1960s American society went through a massive cultural upheaval that was the result of – and sometimes resulted in – a string of violent incidents, not to mention a protracted and devastating war in Vietnam. The instability during this time spawned a new countercultural movement of youth (“hippies”) who began questioning the ideals of the previous generations and engaging not only in massive public protests against the war but in “antisocial” behaviors including heavy drug experimentation and sexual promiscuity. Much of this upheaval was due to the overwhelming presence of television in American life, where gruesome Vietnam War footage was a nightly staple on the evening news. As opposed to past wars that occurred before the ubiquity of television, the public began to see in horrible detail the grisly consequences of armed conflict taking place halfway around the world.
A new generation of horror filmmakers also sprung up during this period – young men ingrained in the counterculture who went on to test the boundaries of sex and violence (not to mention sexual violence) in American film. A new willingness, even a demand, for more realistic interpretations of the human experience in cinema led to a revolution in all genres, and in horror that meant a more unflinching view of human brutality and moral depravity than had ever been shown before. The evolution of the horror film in the late 1960s and early 1970s was in direct correlation with the evolution in the psychology of American youth – the desire to eradicate the dominant ideology that had led to the deadly quagmire of the Vietnam War. In other words: the staid, censored horror films of their parents’ generation gave way to more explicit, provocative, and boundary-pushing works of cinematic terror.
Possibly the first horror film to represent this “new wave” was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), a gory (for the time) zombie film shot in gritty, B&W handheld style that approximated the look and feel of real-life documentary footage. While Romero has denied any specific political agenda going into the film (including any racial subtext with the casting of lead African-American actor Duane Jones), its uncompromising style and bleak conclusion reflected the specific mood of the counterculture by that time – namely, that the ideals of peace and “free love” the hippie movement had been predicated on were losing out to the destructive ideologies of the powers that be in American society. This was seen in the collection of characters trapped together in the farmhouse and their inability to work together to save themselves from the zombie hordes; the zombie hordes standing in for the dominant cultural and political forces steering the course of American society.
Following in the wake of Night of the Living Dead were several more taboo-busting works by a coterie of young, like-minded horror filmmakers – these included Wes Craven with The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977); Tobe Hooper with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974); and David Cronenberg with Shivers (1975). Craven in particular has admitted to making The Last House on the Left with overt political intentions, with the gritty docu feel meant to reflect the horrific real-life footage coming back from the war in Vietnam. He also noted that the film’s extreme gore was meant to show the true, awful consequences of violence rather than glossing over or glorifying it. Aside from their graphic, uncompromising nature, what these films all shared in common was an eschewing of mainstream Hollywood conventions. Audiences weren’t left with neat and tidy conclusions but rather grim, hopeless denouements, with the line between the heroes and the villains often becoming obscured by the final reel. Shivers, for example, which served as an extended metaphor for the spread of the sexual revolution in the late `60s and `70s, was meant to be ambiguous on the merits of that revolution in that Cronenberg did not see either the Puritanical “old order” (the “heroes”) or the sexually liberated “new order” (the “villains”) as being necessarily good.
Another commonality between the horror films of this period – a trend that really started with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960 – was the idea that you needn’t look to outer space or exotic, uncharted lands to find the monsters; rather, they were right outside your front door, or even within the confines of your own home. The unraveling of the nuclear family was a rampant fact of American life during this time, with the younger generations rebelling against the ingrained moral philosophies of their parents. As a result, the disintegration of the idealized family unit could be seen as subtext in many of the horror movies released in the late `60s and `70s. In Night of the Living Dead, a zombified Karen murders her parents, most notably in a scene where she stabs her mother to death with a garden trowel. Texas Chainsaw Massacre showed us a horrific family of cannibals who had literally transformed into monsters, in an extreme reflection of the decayed state of the American Family. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), while not as grisly as many of its contemporaries, gave us an opening scene in which a teenage girl is brutally murdered by her six-year-old brother. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) played off the uncomfortable idea that not only could your seemingly innocuous elderly neighbors be harboring ghastly intentions but that your own unborn child had the potential of coming out a monstrosity. Last House on the Left gave us a more literal interpretation of the conflict between young and old, with Mari openly challenging her parents’ starchy moral code in an early scene and the film concluding with these very parents becoming just as monstrous as the low-life criminals who murdered their daughter. All of these films were indicative of the fact that the very fabric of society was being torn apart, exposing the deep-rooted idea of American moral authority as a terrible lie. The truth was, any human being – your neighbor, your friend, your family member, even those elected to guard us against the horrors of the outside world – had the capacity to transform into a monster.
‘The American Nightmare’ Documentary Part 1:
I don’t really need to remind anyone that on September 11th, 2001, the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil, occurred when operatives of terrorist group Al Qaeda flew planes into both towers of the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon, and another thought to be targeting either the White House or the Capitol building which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. President Bush immediately called for a “War on Terror”, and less than a month later a military operation to root out Al Qaeda operatives was launched in Afghanistan. This was followed a year and a half later by an extremely controversial military operation undertaken in Iraq to unseat Saddam Hussein. In April 2004, a story in The New Yorker was published regarding abuse of prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib Prison, followed by the release of photos documenting what had taken place. This was coupled with allegations of torture at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, where detainees suspected of terrorism-related activities were taken to be held (without charge) and denied protections normally ascribed to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. As a result of all of this, the country was effectively mired in an ideological civil war that, even under the leadership of Democratic President Obama, continues to this day.
While the eras of Reagan in the 1980s and Clinton in the ’90s had their own share of troubles, they also represented something of a rebound following the overwhelming strife of the Vietnam War era of the late `60s and `70s. By the end of the 1980s, horror films had effectively become a parody of themselves, driven by an endless cycle of derivative slasher films featuring sexually promiscuous teenage victims (The Final Girl, of course, being excluded from that designation), and by the early `90s the business of horror entered something of a dead period. After a brief run of serial-killer movies (The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, et al) in the first half of the decade and self-aware mockery (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc.) in the second, following the devastating blow of the 9/11 attacks horror would return to the grisly, gore-intensive, ultra-realistic horror movies of the Vietnam era. Except this time, instead of being shown in limited runs at second-string movie theaters and being stored away in the dingy “Adults Only” section of the local video store, these films would break into the mainstream and achieve blockbuster, headline-grabbing status.
While the trend towards more gore-intensive horror arguably began with the release of Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever in 2003, it wouldn’t reach full bloom until the opening of James Wan’s Saw the following year. Produced for $1.2 million, the movie went on to gross $103 million worldwide, not only spawning a franchise now widely regarded as the most successful in the history of horror but a slew of aesthetically similar films that would take the sensibility of the shoestring exploitation films of the late `60s/’70s and merge them with expensive marketing campaigns and aggressive distribution strategies aimed at a mainstream audience. In addition to Saw‘s five (and counting) sequels, similar films produced in the wake of its massive success were Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) and Hostel: Part II (2007); Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005); John Stockwell’s Turistas (2006); Roland Joffe’s Captivity (2007); Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes (2006); and Australian director Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005).
While the sub-genre (coined “torture porn” by New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein in 2006) took barbs from a number of high-profile detractors, it also was the subject of many discourses tying it to the current cultural climate, particularly the allegations of torture aimed at the Bush administration. Roth himself has defended his Hostel films as serious commentaries on the corporations that profit off of the deaths of Americans (i.e. the notorious Halliburton), with the secret society in the film that sells the torture of helpless victims to the highest bidder standing in. He also pointed to the ignorant attitudes of the American backpackers featured in the first film as being allegorical to the obliviousness of many American citizens to the world around them. What has also been noted by some is the blurring of the distinction between the heroes and the villains in many of these movies. Perhaps the most obvious example of this comes in The Devil’s Rejects, in which William Forsythe’s Sheriff Wydell turns the tables on the Rejects late in the film and subjects them to the same sort of torture the killers themselves had inflicted on their own victims earlier on. This has been read as an allegory (intended or not) to the way in which the U.S. government itself (“the good guys”) engaged in the merciless torture of suspected terrorists (“the bad guys”) in order to extract information. Much in the way many American citizens turned against Bush and his administration following the evidence of detainee torture, many in the audience turn against Wydell when he engages in his own brutal tactics.
In another way, however, like horror films produced by past generations this new wave of “torture porn” (a term I use only as a convenient reference point) also very effectively exploited post-9/11 American fears of “the Other” – i.e., those who would seek to destroy our American way of life. Hostel and its sequel, as well as other films including Turistas, Zev Berman’s Borderland (2007), and Tom Six’s very recent The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2010), feature American characters vacationing in foreign environments who are menaced by a barbaric enemy operating outside of any recognized moral framework (the same way many Americans view the looming terrorist threat). Exploiting these fears can also partially explain the appeal of the hugely successful Saw franchise, in which the film’s main villain perpetrates his violent crimes as a means to spread the message of his own deeply flawed moral paradigm.
While the appeal of the “torture porn” sub-genre began to wane following an enormous amount of criticism from the public (not to mention falling box-office grosses), it seems to have surged again with a renewed interest in horror that seeks to push the boundaries of on-screen violence. Examples include the aforementioned The Human Centipede (with a sequel already in the works); the “New French Extremity” (including films such as Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (2003), Maury & Bustillo’s Inside (2007), and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs); The Collector (2009), directed by current Saw scribes Melton & Dunstan; a remake of The Last House on the Left (2009) directed by Dennis Iliadis; and an upcoming remake of the notorious 1978 film I Spit on Your Grave, directed by Steven R. Monroe.
Eli Roth on Fox News: