It’s 1896 and Le Manoir du Diable aka The Manor of the Devil has just been released. Three minutes of what was intended to be a comedy, yet it is now claimed to be the very first horror movie. Not only the first horror movie, but also the first movie to feature a vampire; one of horror’s most famous creatures. George Méliès most likely did not know it, but he had set a pathway for the slaughter that was about to ensue. Although nearly 90 years later, and it seemed that horror films started to diminish in their ranks and become films that were no longer memorable nor scary. But why is it that the best and most critically acclaimed horrors films are those before the 1980s?
When horror films were first introduced, they were something that no one could imagine, and they were also absolutely terrifying. Now, it seems, that horror films are just not up to the standards they used to be. Being a horror fan, it’s always interesting to look at the best horror films created, but if you look at these lists of films, none of them are recent. There have been plenty of horror films made since the 80s but there does not seem to be any that quite hit the spot to make it into the best horror films ever made. In order to understand the reasons behind this, we need to look at some of the best horror films ever made. So, that is where we shall start.
The conventional horror creatures are often not that scary as they used to be, for example Vampires. Now they are often perceived as handsome, romantic and wouldn’t hurt a fly thanks to horror genre slashing films like Twilight. But when vampires were first introduced they were deformed, heartless and had a lust for human blood. Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau was first released in 1922, and it was an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s bloodthirsty creation Dracula. The Prince of Wallachia, also known as Vlad the Impaler or Dracula inspired the original concept for Bram Stoker’s novel. Even though Nosferatu is both a silent movie and in black and white, it is still undeniably scary and portrays Nosferatu (Dracula) as a force not to be reckoned with.
Some people would disagree and say that this film is no longer scary, yet the techniques used create certain affects that are chilling to the bone. Shadows can often be scarier than seeing the monster itself as it allows your mind to create its own image of what it could be. When Count Orlok goes to open the door, we see only his shadow with his noticeably abnormal hands that are the stuff of nightmares; you almost don’t want to know what kind of creature could have a shadow like that. Also what stands out in this film is the way Count Orlok moves. It’s all well and good having your evil creature looking deformed, but the way someone moves can add a whole new dimension. Orlok walks very stiffly with his claw like hands still and slightly protruding away from his body. To watch him it sends chills down your spine, as this is not the movement you would see from anyone or anything that is normal. Basically, if you saw him moving awkwardly through a doorway, you wouldn’t stick around.
Mary Shelley was the original creator of Frankenstein, with her novel Frankenstein or The Modern Promethesus. In 1931 James Whale made the film Frankstein, which was based on Mary Shelley’s novel. Another classic in the history of horror, with some well-known conventions. The thirties were classed as the Gothic horror period, which is the combination of horror and romance. We see this develop further with the film The Bride of Frankenstein, but Frankenstein still has the right elements. Mad scientists were often a main part of horror films during this period, due to the influence of German expressionist films from the 1920s. But that’s a whole other genre, so we won’t go into that. Frankenstein is another film with a type of monster featured, although the only question is whether the mad scientist is the real monster or in fact The Monster is. Personally, the way Henry Frankenstein conducts himself, suggests that he is the actual monster; with his sickening ideas and his insanity than ensues when his monster becomes reality.
Monsters are clearly one of the horror conventions that get everyone’s pulse racing, but what about the films that aren’t about monsters? Les Diaboliques was created by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1955, so we’ve skipped ahead 20 years. The third black and white film I’ve included, and possibly a reason to note down as why horror films don’t get the same recognition as they used to. There is something spectacular about black and white films, and the affects it can give. In Les Diaboliques there is a scene where Christina Delassalle is awoken by someone inside the boarding school she owns. During this scene, the black and white makes the atmosphere even tenser than it already is. Walking down corridors with pitch black spots each side, it intensifies the contrast of light and dark. The hallway is barely visible due to the black and white, but with colour the film wouldn’t have had that contrast.
There are always going to be a few exceptions in my explanation of why the majority of horror films are set before the 1980s. One of my personal exceptions to this would be the 2007 film The Mist by Frank Darabont. Although recent, it has two interesting points that could be the reason to its success. First of all the film was released in both colour and in black and white. I have seen both versions, and the black and white version is with out a doubt far better than the colour one. Black and white seems to do something to horror films that colour cannot. It takes away any possible tackiness that can be associated with certain colours. It also gives it that feel of being a classic film; it doesn’t feel modern. Another reason that this film could be an exception is it’s based on a novel. Both Nosferatu and Frankenstein are classic horror films, which are based on novels, and so is The Mist. It is based on the novel by Stephen King who is a brilliant horror novel writer as were Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. These two factors could be indicators to why modern films are not getting the same recognition.
We can’t just focus on black and white movies, as although they create a certain macabre atmosphere, not all the best horror movies are black and white. One of the main critiques I find modern horror films get is that they are too over the top. They take a well thought out plot and add too much depth to it, and take it so far that it crosses to boundary to silly. Simplistic horror is something that should never be overlooked. Carrie by Brian De Palma was released in 1976 and is another renowned horror film. What is intriguing about this film is how simple the storyline is, but just how effective that can be. There are no real twists to this film, and the only real horrific part is when she kills everyone. But the killing isn’t particularly gory or graphic, it is simple but it works. Not only does the simplicity do the film justice, but also the performance given by Carrie. Once infuriated she has wild eyes and also the fact she is covered in pigs blood, makes her look even more menacing.
Another film (it is black and white, but let’s not focus on that) that is quite simplistic with its main horror scene is Psycho. The film is by Alfred Hitchcock and was released in 1955, just a tad earlier than Carrie. Obviously I’m trying hard not to give away too many plot spoilers, but even though this film has a large twist at the end, the film is straight to the point and simple in its own rights. Known for that scream curdling shower scene, it’s that scene that lives in our memories, yet it’s fairly basic. Our protagonist is stabbed to death in the shower. It happens quickly, with no graphic images of the stabbings, just Janet Leigh bursting her airways and some blood running into the plug. Both these films are great horror films yet they do not use graphic gore scenes and their plots are fairly simplistic compared to modern horrors. Speaking to Charles Gant, film editor, he gave me his view on Psycho: “Psycho and Don’t Look Now are classics from highly respected directors Alfred Hitchcock and Nic Roeg – and it’s worth noting that a Hitchcock film recently knocked Citizen Kane off Sight & Sound’s 10-yearly poll of the greatest films ever made. Hitchcock is arguably the greatest storyteller of all time.”
To understand fully why the majority of the best horror films ever made are before the 80s we must explore every avenue as to why this could be. Music is one of the key aspects used in horror films, that I would say makes it even scarier. Halloween was released in 1978 by John Carpenter and is the perfect example for the use of music. I would honestly say that Halloween has one of the most iconic soundtracks, and is recognised by most. During the films, the soundtrack is played when Michael Myers is slashing someone open in the back of a car or stabbing them whilst wearing a ghost costume, and it’s horrendously frightening. Every time I hear that music play, a shiver runs over my whole body. Without the music playing, the scene would not have the same spine tingling affect that it does. Plus, it’s probably the most distinguishable aspect of the whole film.
Another film that uses music to their advantage is The Omen by Richard Donner, released in 1976. In the infamous Nanny scene where she hangs herself and exclaims “It’s all for you, Damien!” we can hear not only the sound of a creepy children’s playground ride music playing, but we can also hear the apparent sound of the rope swinging. The two combined together create a very disturbing sound, in which you wouldn’t want to hear in your entire lifetime. Another scene in The Omen, which uses music, is the ‘little devil’ scene where he knocks his adoptive mother off a stool, where she plummets off a second floor balcony to the ground and has a miscarriage. The music that is featured in this scene is highly dramatic and makes the scene extremely tense. As the boy approaches the mother, the music grows and grows in suspense, and it makes the eventuality even more devastating for the audience.
Even after delving into the depths of these films and the techniques they have used in order to be some of the greatest horror films, it still doesn’t quite explain why modern films aren’t receiving the same type of praise that these films did and still do. It has become fairly uncommon for modern day horror films to use black and white, as it seems that that medium was only used because colour was not available at the time of production. There are only so many simple ideas that can be thought of until those ideas need a twist in them, or something more exciting, so maybe the simple approach cannot be used anymore? As for classic horror monsters and creatures; are the days of them worn out? Are we on the look out for new creatures and new blood sucking enemies to fill our screens? It is difficult to suggest that these techniques are what are lacking from modern horrors, because it is not always the case.
The definition of classic is: Judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind. Therefore the classics of modern horror could be sitting right under our noses, but we do not know yet as we need to give time to those movies to become classics. The reason my aforementioned horror films are the best and most critically acclaimed is most likely because they’ve had the time to brandish and be judged against others. Charles Gant believes that these modern horror films might one day be likened to the classics we are so familiar with. Gant said: “The problem with the word “classic” is the clue is in the title. It’s rare for a current or even recent film to achieve classic status. Classic status tends to accrue over time. That’s arguably even truer in the case of genre films. Genre films offer variations on a set of rules that are already in place. In the case of horror, whether supernatural, slasher or suspense, it’s hard to find new angles that suggest true distinction. The Blair Witch Project established the found-footage genre, which revived again with Paranormal Activity. Who is to say that future audiences won’t acclaim these films as hallowed classics?”
The last reason for this possible lack in high-ranking horror films could be due to a change in the audience. It might possibly be nothing to do with the film itself, but maybe it could be due to audience consumption. A fair few of the biggest films are because of the actors and actresses they have in them and also who the director is. Horror has never been a genre that entices many big names in the showbiz world (I’m sure they have their reasons) so it could be a matter of fact that people don’t see the horrors because they don’t know the people who have been cast in them. When some of the classics were made, they were made with very small budgets and with actors and actresses who were nobodies. Charles Gant agrees with this perspective: “Horror traditionally isn’t a great magnet for A-list actors, and budgets are constrained. Even Hitchcock had to make Psycho on the cheap. Until more of our very best directors offer their angles on the genre, pulling in the best of acting talent, horror films to rank alongside classics of the past may be few and far between.”
Therefore it looks like we might have to wait a couple more decades, or maybe even centuries to find out if the modern day horror films are going to eventually become classics. All we can do for now is appreciate the classics we do have, and wait patiently to find out if the likes of, God forbid, Paranormal Activity will become the best and most critically acclaimed horror films.