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Seminal horror films, 1919 - 1999

Is there a more maligned genre than the horror film? asks Noel O'Shea in this article.

Related: horror films - Noel O'Shea

by Noel O'Shea

Maligned Genre [...]

Is there a more maligned genre than the horror film? Any celluloid grouping more spat upon than the poor self-assuming chiller? I think not. Oh yes, they'll champion the artistry of the western, and heap praise on just about every film noir that ever darkened the heart of man, but mention your affection for the horror film and watch those ingratiating smiles develop into something more insipid, more condescending. "Horror? Pah! Where's the artistry in bloodletting? Show me the quality drama in teenagers getting decapitated left right and centre. Go on: show me"... You might as well tell 'em you love The Sound of Music... It gets worse: there's the argument that horror films are socially and morally irresponsible, even influencing some people to emulate the murderous techniques of the characters depicted on screen. This criticism is wrong; if anything, horror films have the opposite effect on intelligent minds (sick minds will commit atrocities without the aid of horror films - their decisions based on what is churning around in their already sick minds, rather than what they witness on the silver screen). Horror films provide a release for all the pent up emotion caused by modern living (and we're all prone to that). Watching horror films allows us to meet our private fears head on, share them with others in the audience, and purge the dread by confronting it. It might seem like a cliché, but there's no denying the truth of it. --Noel O'Shea


Here's the deal, o tunnel-visioned one. For every Odessa Steppes sequence from Battleship Potemkin, I'll give you a shower-scene from Psycho; for every slow-mo, sharply edited, bullet ballet from The Wild Bunch, I'll give you the brilliantly edited manic montage of Don't Look Now; for every "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" from Casablanca, I'll give you "I came here to chew bubble-gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubble-gum" from They Live. De Niro - De Palma. Fellini - Savini. Schindler's List - The Exorcist. Let's call the whole thing off... --Noel O'Shea


Every true film fanatic loves horror films - that's a given. They are passionate about their favourites, and you'll see a peculiar light in their eyes, a dawning sense of exultation maybe, when the conversation turns a mite - what is the phrase? - frightful. The true connoisseur, of course, will lament the passing of an era that was born with Boris Karloff, and then given a timely funeral in the early Seventies, with Romero and Cronenberg as chief pallbearers. For "true connoisseur", read "old fogey", if you are a member of the Scream team; those young whippersnappers being force-fed postmodernism - extracting the very life from our favourite genre! - until your basic horror film will still tingle your spine (if you're lucky!), but will not - repeat "will not" - make it quite as far as grabbing you by the throat and shaking you until, well, until you stop having nightmares a week later (which was exactly my experience with both The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Dead Ringers). Don't get me wrong: I like "fun" horror films as much as anybody else (Halloween is a particular favourite of mine), but when the fun element suffocates the film to the point where the scares becoming scarce (Scream? I thought I'd never start...), then we are fast approaching the can of worms scenario (and I don't mean Renfield's breakfast). If you are none too clear on the point I'm trying to make here, let me offer you this conversation from fantasy-land: Imagine a pub. Let's call it "The Decapitated Cow" (just down the road from "The Slaughtered Lamb"). Out of the Yorkshire mist comes a tall, dark, cape-clad figure, followed by a huge lumbering creature with bolts in his head; bringing up the rear is a particularly hairy-handed gent who ran amok in Kent. They enter the darkly lit premises. Drinks are ordered. Conversation is embellished by well-lubricated wit. Let us eavesdrop... --Noel O'Shea

Early Silent Movies

You'll be forgiven for thinking that the horror film was born with Colin Clive's manic cries of "It's alive!", as his Creature first twitched into being in James Whale's classic Frankenstein in 1931, but the genre is almost as old as cinema itself (Georges Mèliès is credited with directing the first excursion into horror on the screen, way back in 1896, with Le Manoir du Diable also being heralded as the first vampire flick). There's been a lot of blood under the bridge since that two-minute warning (the running time of Mèliès' film!), but the idea is still the same: audiences crave terror (that's cliché #2 folks). In the early 1900s it was German filmmakers who satisfied this curious need for scares, with director Paul Wegener enjoying great success with his version of the old Jewish folk tale Der Golem in 1913 (which he remade - to even greater success - in 1920). This parable about a huge figure made from clay, who is given life by an antiquarian and then rebels against its imposed servitude, was a clear forerunner of the many monster movies that proliferated in Hollywood during the Thirties. But one film paved the way for the 'serious' horror film - and art cinema in general - Robert Wiene's expressionistic masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, still held up as an example of the powerful artistry of cinema even to this day. --Noel O'Shea

German Expressionism [...]

Screenwriters Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz saw a Germany being destroyed by Prussian authoritarianism, the general populace being moulded into a collection of mindless conformists, and sought to sound a warning through the medium of film (Caligari, in the figure of the mad doctor compelling the unsophisticated Cesare to do his bidding, predicted the rise of Hitler). But this theme was lost on most, who instead marvelled at the brilliantly-conceived sets, all odd angles and painted shadows, created by artists Walter Reiman, Walter Rohrig, and Hermann Warm, who spearheaded the rise of German Expressionism in the years after World War One. Conrad Veidt, who would later perform brilliantly in such film classics as The Thief of Bagdad and Casablanca, mesmerised audiences with his portrayal of Cesare, the somnambulist who is hypnotised by Caligari (a superb Werner Krauss) into committing murder, until he rebels against his master when he falls for one of his intended victims. The scene where he carries Lil Dagover through some wildly surrealistic sets has been copied ever since (most notably in Frankenstein). Even if the film is framed by scenes that suggest the story comes from the infected imagination of an asylum patient, thus downplaying the anti-authoritarian stance of the film (with Caligari representing the Prussian rulers), the final close-up of Caligari's demonic smile is enough to prove that the film's purpose is by way of a wake-up call for the masses. This anti-authoritarian stance was to crop up in Hollywood films during the Depression era, most notably in King Kong (1933). --Noel O'Shea

Nosferatu, German Expressionism

The other great silent horror masterpiece is undoubtedly F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), still the most sublime vampire film ever made. The appearance of Max Schreck as the vampire Graf Orlok - with his hideous pointy teeth and shrivelled skin - was enough to have audiences fleeing cinemas in horror, but if they fled too early then they missed a superbly crafted horror film. Murnau, regarded as one of the leading poets of The Silent Era, had a unique sense of composition, and every frame is a testament to the director's skill (the sequence set aboard the ship still has great power). Even though the director rarely moves his camera, Nosferatu avoids the staginess of Tod Browning's Dracula by having characters move within the frame (did Kurosawa see this film?) and a quirky choice of camera angles. Highly influential, Nosferatu paved the way for the highly stylised productions that flourished in Hollywood during the Thirties. --Noel O'Shea

Tod Browing and James Whale

Directors like James Whale and Tod Browning popularised the genre beyond anyone's expectations; the floodgates were well and truly thrown open, and no would-be King Canutes in The Hays Office were going to stop the veritable deluge of horror that ensued. --Noel O'Shea

Twenties and Thirties

Lon Chaney was king of the horror film during the Twenties, with his various incarnations of classic literary characters such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame striking a chord with the general public, but it was with the coming of sound that the success of the horror genre was galvanised. The runaway box-office success of Universal's Dracula convinced the studio that they were on to a good thing; Frankenstein quickly followed, which was even more popular (and in the hands of genius director James Whale, much better), and other studios began to see the light by embracing the dark. Paramount released Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1932, with Frederic March quite superb in the dual role (he copped an Oscar, the only acting award given for a performance in a horror film, if we don't agree that The Silence of the Lambs should be called a horror film; we all know Hannibal is a comic creation in the style of The Shining's Jack Torrance, now don't we?), and it remains the definitive screen version of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel. Director Rouben Mamoulian begins his film by utilising a subjective camera, showing Dr Jekyll playing away at the organ, and the psychological world of the good doctor is firmly established in this introduction. Mamoulian's use of sound was inspired too, with the sound of a heartbeat introduced during the famous transformation scene (aficionados still have their differing theories as to how this effect was achieved). Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde places the root cause of March's dabbling in areas unknown on his repressed sexuality - he becomes a raging beast because of his suppressed desires - and this must have been strong stuff indeed in the early Thirties! There have been many screen versions of the story since, but Mamoulian's remains far and away the best of them. --Noel O'Shea


Over at MGM director Tod Browning made his long-cherished project about freaks working in a circus, which gave rise to many cries of outrage when it was released. Thankfully, Freaks is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, and not the exploitative piece of sensationalist trash it was accused of. Showing a great affection for its characters, Browning's film has very few scenes that can be described as all-out horror, and there are many sequences depicting the circus entertainers socialising together (it is clear that the level of camaraderie amongst them is very high) and the director clearly admires them (best exemplified by the scene where one of the characters, who has no arms or legs, manages to light a cigar). These low-key scenes are the best in the film, and the actual revenge story built around them is slightly disappointing. Olga Baclanova, the 'normal' trapeze artist, who marries midget Harry Earles for his money, has no idea just how strong the bond is between the circus folk, and her fate at their hands is truly horrific. The scene where the freaks drag themselves through the mud and rain with knives at the ready, to get at Baclanova, is one that is not easily forgotten. What critics often forget when discussing Freaks is the ironic humour involved, particularly surrounding the sex lives of the freaks (maybe this aspect of Browning's classic is what caused it to be banned in the UK for decades). Years ahead of its time, the film is one of the best films from that great decade of the Thirties, and it is certainly Browning's best work (Dracula looks _very_ stale beside it). --Noel O'Shea

Universal Studios, Thirties

Universal became the home of horror in the Thirties; no other studio had as much success with the genre (even if some of the films made at Paramount and MGM were actually better than the ones made at Universal). The double whammy at the box-office of Dracula and Frankenstein led to Karloff taking on the role of The Mummy in cinematographer Karl Freund's directorial debut (it was he who lensed Dracula the year before, his expressionistic lighting giving that film its one note of resonance), and, later on, the creation of The Wolf Man in the Forties, with Lon Chaney Jr finding his father's footsteps rather too difficult to follow. Frankenstein itself, a marvellously atmospheric and chilling version of the classic story, spawned a couple of excellent sequels; Bride of Frankenstein, in particular, is unquestionably the masterpiece of the series (mainly because James Whale was at the helm once again), with Son of Frankenstein chiefly being remembered for Karloff's last performance as the Monster and Bela Lugosi's touching portrayal of Ygor, the lonely shepherd, who becomes the Monster's only friend. Both The Mummy and The Wolf Man, despite some great performances (Karloff in the former, Maria Ouspenskaya in the latter), are pretty turgid affairs, with the odd moment of horror to lift the proceedings (Karloff's reanimation in The Mummy is well-handled and worth the price of admission on its own). --Noel O'Shea

The Old Dark House (1932), again directed by James Whale, is the only Universal film from the period that has any of the qualities that lent Bride of Frankenstein its brilliance. Emphasising the black humour of RC Sheriff's original novel Benighted, the film provided Whale with his first opportunity to illustrate his unique talent for mixing comedy and horror to produce something wholly original. The cast is one of the best assembled for any horror film: Raymond Massey, Boris Karloff, Gloria Stuart (last seen gazing tearfully at computer readouts in James Cameron's Titanic), Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton and Melvyn Douglas, all add the weight of their considerable thespian skills to the production. As he did in Bride of Frankenstein, Thesiger walks away with the acting honours, mouthing his lines with obvious relish ("have a po-tat-o," he says at one point, underlining every delicious syllable, the innocence of the line taking on suitably macabre qualities when given the Thesiger treatment). The Old Dark House was a haunted house story like no other, and is in marked contrast to the established classics in the field, like Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) and Stuart Rosenberg's The Amityville Horror (1980). --Noel O'Shea

Artistic Possibilities

If there was a pattern emerging in Hollywood's treatment of the horror film, it was surely its success in churning out highly polished productions, which usually favoured a few well-placed shock moments for their success - 'action' horror, if you will. The Hollywood Machine took horror to its bosom: they were fairly cheap to produce, utilised few sets, had no real stars to boast of, and could be 'sequelised' ad infinitum. And with directors like Browning, Whale and Michael Curtiz (who did a splendid job on The Mystery of the Wax Museum in 1933), these films had real quality despite their 'assembly line' origins. As we have seen with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, European horror films strived for something more, well, arty than their American counterparts. Carl Dreyer's Vampyr is a good example of the more esoteric films being made outside of Hollywood. Dreyer directs this vampiric tale as if it were a silent film, and the mood is slow and stately. There are two scenes that have been imitated as recently as the 1980s: the hero visualises his own burial at one point (which must have surely been in Georges Sluizer's mind when he made his chilling modern horror film The Vanishing), and there is another scene involving a death in a flour mill (remember Witness?). It wasn't until producer Val Lewton began making low-budget horror films, beginning with Cat People in 1942, that Hollywood capitalised on the artistic possibilities of the genre and transformed the horror film completely. --Noel O'Shea

Black Cat

Before we leave the 1930s, I have to mention the one film that seemed to belie all rules of good Hollywood horror fare. Edward G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934) is a preposterous mess, but a damn entertaining film that has acquired a well-deserved cult. Bela and Boris are teamed once again, this time placed in a story that takes in everything from witchcraft (Karloff's character was based on British Satanist Aleister Crowley) to a character being skinned alive (and who will ever forget Lugosi's immortal line "Supernatural - perhaps; baloney - perhaps not"!). There might be a hidden message about the horrors of warfare - Karloff's castle stands on a battlefield where thousands of Hungarian soldiers lost their lives - but it's exceedingly difficult to tease this out when you have Lugosi throwing knives at black cats and Karloff spouting cod-Latin during an unintentionally hilarious Black Mass. The Black Cat needs to be rediscovered! --Noel O'Shea

The Forties & Fifties

The Power of Suggestion

In the Forties, Val Lewton patented his low-budget suggestive horror film; his golden rule was horrors left to the imagination are more horrifying than those depicted on the screen - let the viewer create his own terror internally. Working closely with directors Robert Wise (who had edited many of Orson Welles' pictures, including Citizen Kane), Mark Robson (who also started out as an editor), and especially Jacques Tourneur, Lewton reinvented the genre by toning it down. There is a scene in I Walked With A Zombie (1943) which encapsulates the 'Lewton touch' (not as famous as the 'Lubitsch touch', but it should be!): White-robed Frances Dee and Christine Gordon go for a midnight walk, while the wind catches their hair, voodoo drums play in the background, Tourneur uses tracking shots and slow dissolves to add to the eerie atmosphere, Roy Hunt's chiaroscuro cinematography piles on the poetry, and the two women come upon zombie giant Darby Jones. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else (except, maybe, in another Lewton production...). Wise directed The Curse of the Cat People, a seriously underrated film which has really very little to do with the original Cat People, but more to do with creating an intense mood of disquiet (it is also another of the select band of horror films that focus on children, like Village of the Damned and The Exorcist). The Seventh Victim (1943), which many consider to be Lewton's best production, was imaginatively directed by Mark Robson, and its central story concerning the discovery of a group of devil-worshippers looks forward to Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968). The one outright ghost story from the period, The Uninvited from 1944, and starring Ray Milland under Lewis Allen's direction, is a worthy but unremarkable affair. --Noel O'Shea


Outside of Hollywood, there was one superb British addition to the genre. Dead of Night (1945), one of the first 'omnibus' films, where five separate stories are all linked by another story providing the framework for the others, is still a superbly chilling film. The best remembered segment, featuring Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist who is gradually taken over by the personality of his dummy, and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, is certainly the most effective of the bunch and provided inspiration for countless other mad ventriloquist stories filmed since (check out Anthony Hopkins' hammy turn in Richard Attenborough's Magic). But we would have to wait for the sound of the Hammer before the next great British horror film came our way. In France, Henri-Georges Clouzot directed Le Corbeau (1943), a subtle tale of urban horror (maybe horror is too strong a word here) that sees a small town almost destroyed by a series of anonymous poison letters. Clouzot's cynicism is well in evidence, and the film might be called a dress rehearsal for his masterpiece Diabolique (1954), which is rightly regarded as one of the scariest films ever made (you'd do well to avoid the Hollywood remake, with Sharon Stone in the Signoret role, as you would a rabid granny). --Noel O'Shea


The Fifties became the decade when aliens took over the local cinema, if not the world; these celluloid beasties came at us in all directions, and were not at all interested in extending the tentacle of friendship. Naturally, science fiction had - and always will have, I guess - a close relationship with horror, and in the decade when everybody was seeing reds under the bed, the sf/horror hybrid was born. Ask any critic to pick the best example of these curious new cinematic endeavours, and chances are that two films will be eulogised above all others: The Thing from Another World (1951) and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956). and Hollywood Spoofery --Noel O'Shea

The Thing

'Hawksian' is a word often thrust upon The Thing, because the film's producer being none other than Howard Hawks, the versatile director who proved himself a master of almost every genre. You see, the film has a group of professional men bonded together in the face of a great crisis that they must overcome by using their strengths to the best advantage. Oh, and there's a strong female character who proves her mettle amidst all that testosterone... Hence Hawks. Christian Nyby is the named director, but the theory is that Hawks directed the film and gave Nyby - who was the director's editor on a number of films - the screen credit (a leg up, as it were: Nyby was only starting out). Whoever directed it, it's a superb horror film, wisely keeping James Arness - as the alien monster - firmly in the shadows. John Carpenter made a decidedly different remake in 1982, replacing Arness' 'intellectual carrot' with Rob Bottin's truly terrifying creation (and staying very close to John Campbell's original story). The film's last line - "Watch the skies! - when placed against the plethora of alien invasion films to be released during the Fifties, proved highly prophetic. --Noel O'Shea

Body in Revolt [...]

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, again directed by a relatively new director, this time Don Siegel, was even better. Our worst nightmares made real, Siegel's succinct distillation of Jack Finney's novel "The Body Snatchers" was one of the first films to point the finger at us and say, "You are the monster." The idea that your family and friends could one day turn around and be totally alien to you is one of the primal fears which horror cinema tackles directly, and it is a concern that haunts many classic horror films (The Shining and The Other are but two examples). We can also see the first seeds of the 'body in revolt' idea that became synonymous with arguably the best horror director of the last twenty years, David Cronenberg.--Noel O'Shea

Gore from Hammer [...]

As the technical aspects of filmmaking became easier, and a lot less expensive, horror films became more flamboyant - and gorier - in the late Fifties. Taking full advantage of this, the British Hammer Studios embarked on the mass production of bloodcurdlers that became their calling card. In glorious Technicolour, and replete with scenes charged with sexuality, your basic Hammer horror was often misinterpreted as merely a means of titillation (as the years wore on, this judgment became less and less of a lie). There was clearly intelligence at work in both The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, not least by the casting director (Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were teamed up for both films), and, in Terence Fisher, the company had found a true auteur. The Hound of the Baskervilles, filmed the same year as Dracula - 1958 - and utilising its two stars, is a wonderfully atmospheric version of Conan Doyle's crime thriller, with all concerned on top form. --Noel O'Shea

Roger Corman

While Hammer was achieving great success in Britain, Roger Corman set up his own production company and began making a series of classic low-budget horror pictures (mostly based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe). A Bucket of Blood starred Dick Miller as a sculptor who moulds dead bodies - first, a cat he accidentally impales on a knife - to great critical acclaim. Charles Griffiths' screenplay is exceedingly witty, particularly when poking fun at the so-called intelligentsia of the time. Corman's best work came with the Poe adaptations, however. Beginning with The Fall of the House of Usher in 1960, and continuing on to perhaps the best of them, The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), this eight-film series is a remarkable body of work. Vincent Price is on form as Roderick Usher in the first of these, which, in its effective use of colour (Floyd Crosby was the cameraman), harks back to the expressionism of the German silent era. The Masque of the Red Death is even more expressive - and impressive - with the colourful masque of the title being infiltrated by Death himself (dressed in red robes). Photographed by Nic Roeg, The Masque of the Red Death is beautiful to look at, and Roeg would go on to direct one of the best supernatural horror films ever made, the masterly Don't Look Now in 1973 (and, of course, film scholars will see similarities between the masque and that scene in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut). --Noel O'Shea [...]

Europe, Fifties and Sixties

Eyes without a Face, French horror, VHS only Around the same time, foreign directors were getting in on the act, creating lurid blood-soaked films of the Grand Guignol variety. Clouzot's Diabolique was a dingy thriller, with enough shock moments to earn it the reputation as the scariest film ever up to that point. Certainly, that last plot twist was enough to give the sturdiest of characters heart failure. Similar in tone to Hitchcock's later Psycho, Diabolique is terribly downbeat, and populated by thoroughly reprehensible characters - just perfect for audiences in the cynical Fifties! George Franju cast Edith Scob in Les Yeux sans Visage in 1959, and created what could be the very first graphic horror film. Poetic realism is Franju's strong suit here; for all the horror of the scenes where Pierre Brasseur uses a scalpel on Scob's face (and in glorious close-up!), the director never uses the violence gratuitously. Eugen Schufftan's cinematography is exemplary (he lensed The Hustler in 1961, winning an Oscar for his trouble). Black Sunday (1960) was another watershed in the use of violence on screen, but the film's director, Mario Bava, is a skilful director and doesn't allow the high-pitched story - a medieval witch is resurrected two hundred years later and seeks her revenge - to run away from him. Nobody will ever forget the first sequence, where Barbara Steele has a spiked mask nailed to her face (Steele became one of the genre's most loved icons). There are many sumptuous scenes (Bava started out as a cinematographer) and the gloomy atmosphere is well-sustained. --Noel O'Shea

Barbara Steele

Barbara Steele The undeniable cult status of British actress Barbara Steele says much about the peculiar status of women in horror films. Generally produced for adolescent males (and their dates), films of this genre tend to reflect both the desires and anxieties of their target audience. In the striking beauty of Steele's asymmetrical features--long black hair, large green bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, high cheekbones, sensuous bottom lip and small pointy chin--can be found the nexus of young male fear and desire.-- Kent Greene [...]

Peeping Tom and Psycho

As we look back on all these well-engineered horror films, it is obvious that most of the terrifying aspects of them are kept at a distance from the audience; many of them utilised fairytale and gothic elements, often enveloped in a heightened realist style, to sustain the wide gap between the subject matter and the viewer. But in 1960 two films were released which sought to close this gap and implicate the viewer in the dastardly deeds shown on screen. One was Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, the other was a very low-budget film called Psycho; horror films would never be the same again. --Noel O'Shea


From the opening shots of Alfred Hitchcock's seminal masterpiece Psycho, it is clear that the director sought to suck the viewer into the world of Marion Crane and Norman Bates; the aerial tracking shot seems to pause momentarily, and pick a window at random, suggesting that the room's occupants could be just about anybody - even you or I - and their identities are not really that important in the film. These are ordinary people getting on with their lives, but Psycho holds a reflective mirror up to the dark side of their/our souls (there are many scenes with mirrors in the film). It is a film about universal guilt - everybody harbours guilt of one kind or another in the film - and how two seemingly very different personalities can be drawn together because of this guilt (Marion and Norman, because of their 'secrets' based on sex - Marion's affair with a married man, Norman's murder of his mother and her lover after finding them in bed - are two sides of the one coin). The graphic shower murder itself led to a plethora of inferior 'splatter' horror films, from which the genre has yet to recover (I'm not sure how many Fridays fall on the thirteenth over the next hundred years, but rest assured, Jason Voorhees will be on hand to celebrate every last one of them!). Hitchcock's film also introduced the serial killer to modern cinema, and who can measure the extent of that influence?! No filmmaker has ever matched the power of Hitchcock's masterpiece, they've just piled on the gore in the service of scare tactics; there is nothing in modern cinema to match the untimely demise - and in such a shocking fashion! - of Psycho's lead character one third of the way through the film (this is what scared audiences the most: after spending 30 minutes identifying with Marion, egging her on when she steals the money from the boorish fat cat, agreeing with her when she resolves to give it back, and then to be slaughtered right after her decision! The most telling shot is the close-up of the money left on the drawer - the $40,000 means absolutely nothing now, it has no value, and will be thrown away). The true brilliance of Psycho lies in its distillation of extremely complex ideas within a wholly commercial framework. --Noel O'Shea

Peeping Tom

[...] Peeping Tom received the same frosty reception from the British press, and it took years for the film to garner the kind of critical adulation it undoubtedly deserves. Like Psycho, Powell's work is preoccupied with the relationship between viewer and spectacle, and it plays upon the voyeuristic implications of actually watching films. All these ideas are embodied by Carl Boehm's Mark Lewis character, a very disturbed young cameraman who kills his victims with a spike attached to his camera (there is also a mirror mounted on the contraption so that his victims can see themselves die - not the ideal dinner guest, this Lewis chap). The complexity of Peeping Tom proved too much for most critics in 1960, but it has since been heralded as one of the most intelligent horror films the screen has to offer and is certainly one of the best British films ever made. (It is amazing to think that the best British films made in the Sixties were horror films, and that they were all severely criticised as worthless productions at the time. One of the greatest talents British cinema has ever produced - director Michael Reeves - saw his masterpiece Witchfinder General (1968), with Vincent Price in his greatest role, receive the same treatment as Peeping Tom. What were British critics smoking in the Sixties?) --Noel O'Shea

Japanese Horror [...]

Kwaidan (1964), a Japanese film directed by Masaki Kobayashi, made a huge impression at the Cannes film festival, and is a brilliantly pictorial horror compendium, with each separate story taking place in a different season. The colour composition is awe-inspiring and must surely have influenced the Vlad the Impaler section of Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). Japanese filmmakers seemed to have a penchant for the horror genre, and apart from Kobayashi's work, Western audiences were impressed by Onibaba, a supernatural tale about a woman and her daughter who kill wandering samurai and sell their armour; they kill a soldier wearing a feudal mask, which the mother then wears to frighten her daughter, and finds that she cannot remove it... (Stanley Kubrick must surely have taken notes for his last film.)--Noel O'Shea


One of the finest psychological horror films in the wake of Psycho was released in 1965. Starring French actress Catherine Deneuve, and directed by Polish artist extraordinaire Roman Polanski, Repulsion traces the deterioration into madness of a young French girl living in London. With a bravura opening credits sequence, which brings us quite literally right into the eye of Deneuve, the film's attention to detail is exact - the psyche of Deneuve's repressed character is laid bare before us in a series of startling hallucinatory images. Walls melt and spew forth supernatural arms, a rabbit decomposes in the kitchen, and the unhinged girl kills two men. The final tracking shot, closing in on a family photograph, and picking out the girl as a sad-looking child, looks forward to that last confusing shot in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. --Noel O'Shea

Roman Polanski [...]

Polanski made three great horror films in the Sixties; Repulsion was followed by the fairytale world of Dance of the Vampires (also known as The Fearless Vampire Killers) in 1967, and the highly polished paranoia classic Rosemary's Baby (1968). I'd urge everybody to see Dance of the Vampires: far more than a mere spoof, this chilling addition to vampire lore is one of the most beautiful, lyrical films ever to grace the screen, and Jack MacGowran is simply superb as the bumbling vampire hunter (is he the same actor who made us laugh in The Exorcist? - Good God!). Rosemary's Baby was a huge box-office hit and is a magnificently crafted film, possibly the most faithful adaptation of a literary work ever made. Dispensing with any need to portray the devil-worshippers as caricatures, Polanski gives us a wholly plausible urban nightmare, and in its own way, cleared a path for the ultra-realism of The Horror Film in the Seventies. --Noel O'Shea

The Seventies


Throughout the Thirties and Forties, the Horror Film had a degree of respectability that was lost in the following two decades (think of the critical reception given to Psycho). Big stars wouldn't touch the genre with a barge pole, and they were very rarely offered roles in horror films. This changed when Rosemary's Baby began ringing tills in the late Sixties (clever child!); budgets were upped considerably, and many top names jumped at the chance to flex their thespian muscles in a horror pic (two at random: Ava Gardner in The Devil's Widow in 1971; Laurence Olivier in John Badham's slightly underrated Dracula eight years later). The Exorcist (1973) broke all records for a horror film, and led to the commercial success of The Omen (which is actually directed with greater flair than The Exorcist, but doesn't contain the sense of humour of the latter). --Noel O'Shea

Jaws [...]

A young director by the name of Steven Spielberg made a nature-in-revolt film to match Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) in 1975, this time with a shark as nature's champion against an undeserving human race; Jaws became the highest grossing film ever up to that point, and arguably remains Spielberg's masterpiece in terms of directorial style (I tend to agree with this assessment). If these huge big-budget affairs were the children of Rosemary's Baby (Rosemary's grandchildren?), then what about the offspring of the other classic horror film released in 1968? --Noel O'Shea

Night of the Living Dead

George Romero's subversive masterpiece Night of the Living Dead came like a bolt from the blue in the late Sixties (it even played on kiddies' afternoon double bills, scaring the life out of precocious teenagers, before the distributors copped on - how has that gaffe affected the psychological history of America?). I mean, here we had a movie showing the dead rising from their graves to feed on the living, all in grainy black and white (like the newsreel footage from Vietnam at the time), and with a black hero who is killed at the end. This was more like it: this was the emphatic answer to the key question, aren't horror films supposed to be scary? (The answer was usually seen bent double in the aisles, diced carrot congealing around his or her ankles). Running concurrently with the steady stream of big-budget/big-name productions, there was a different, much more subversive strain of primarily American horror films. These were the films horror fans wanted to see. --Noel O'Shea

Key Directors

The key directors of horror films in the Seventies were David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George Romero, and, to a lesser extent, Tobe Hooper (his one big success, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre qualifies him for a place in the Horror Hall of Fame and should not be seen without your laughing gear firmly in place). They were the true masters of horror in that decade (and, interestingly, only Cronenberg has remained a powerful artist into the Nineties - Crash might be a trumpet call for the next millennium in the same way that Night of the Living Dead announced a change was gonna come in the Seventies). If we extend this list to incorporate European directors, then Dario Argento must be added. Forget the relative conservatism of The Exorcist - the real scares were to be found in the heady abominations on show in Craven's Last House on the Left (1972) and Cronenberg's Shivers (1974), along with the more conventional - but no less intelligent - thrills of De Palma's Carrie and Carpenter's deliriously entertaining Halloween. --Noel O'Shea

Wes Craven

Wes Craven was actually a university professor before he turned to directing; he is clearly an intelligent filmmaker, using the horror genre to dissect many social problems in a refreshing way (The People Under the Stairs (1991), for example, is really about the plight of homeless people, a social commentary masquerading as a horror film). The notorious Last House on the Left actually takes the scenario presented by Ingmar Bergman's art-house classic The Virgin Spring (1960), adds extremely unsettling scenes of harrowing violence, all presented in a realist style, and what did it get for its trouble? A membership card to the Video Nasty club in Britain, for a start. (The fact that censors in Britain actually banned Sam Raimi's comic-book classic The Evil Dead in the Eighties, should put this in some sort of perspective: remember those tunnel-visioned foghorns I alluded to in my introduction...) Craven's film made much of its publicity blurb, which urged audiences to keep repeating "It's only a movie, it's only a movie...", but, in hindsight, it was good advice...Admittedly, Last House on the Left is hard to like, but there is no denying the visceral power of it (it's a better film than Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, made the year before, which has a similar storyline). Most critics loathed Craven's film - Roger Ebert was one of the few critics who gave it the thumbs up - but they began to change their minds about the director with the release of The Hills Have Eyes (1977). --Noel O'Shea

Certainly one of a handful of genuinely frightening horror films made in the Seventies (or any other decade, for that matter), The Hills Have Eyes deals with the role of the nuclear family in modern society. When their camper breaks down in the desert, a family are attacked by another family made up of depraved cannibal mutants, led by James Whitworth. Could Craven be suggesting that one is the mirror-image of the other? No wonder his earlier, more socially critical films never caught on. I think that Hills is the director's masterwork, a subtle blending of fairytale elements (the kidnapped baby is straight out of the Brothers Grimm) with urban horror. Deadly Blessing (1981), featuring a young Sharon Stone, was an interesting failure that descended into silliness towards the end (or maybe it's a case of one man's meat...). And then, of course, he made A Nightmare on Elm Street (1985), creating the pop-culture figure of Freddy Krueger (who preys on teenagers by way of their dreams), which was a very good horror film emphasising the surreal aspects of the story, but which, in retrospect, served to put a rein on Craven's talent. I'm not as enamoured of Scream (1996) as the rest of the world seems to be either, but I will admit that it is a breath of fresh air for a genre rapidly running out of steam (ditto for Scream 2). --Noel O'Shea

George Romero [...]

You'll be forgiven for thinking that George Romero has a zombie-fetish, were it not for the brilliance of his one vampire film, the magnificent Martin (1976). John Amplas is Martin, whom we first meet slashing a woman's wrist and drinking her blood on a train (the realism of the scene is as far from traditional vampire films as possible, and indeed, the film serves as an ironic commentary on the assumptions of such films - garlic and crucifixes don't work on this vampire). Romero attempts to place the vampire myth in the real world (much like Frank Miller did for the Batman myth in his graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns"), and the result is a masterpiece. The Crazies (1973), although not a horror film in the strictest sense of the word, manages to offer some thought-provoking scares in relation to the dividing line between madness and sanity, and Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Terror (1988) proves that Romero can still cut it. I'm a little tentative about the news that Romero has decided to direct a film version of the Playstation game "Resident Evil", but let's hold off judgment until we actually see the finished film, okay? For now, it is enough to study his Dawn of the Dead and call it the definitive zombie flick. --Noel O'Shea

Brian De Palma [...]

Brian De Palma has been called everything from a rip-off merchant to the most visually interesting director working in films today. I tend towards the latter viewpoint myself, but there is no denying his plagiarism of Hitchcock's masterworks. Sisters (often called Blood Sisters), more than any of De Palma's films, proves how talented the man is, and it's my own favourite Brian De Plasma flick. Utilising a Bernard Herrmann score (remember that it was Herrmann who provided Psycho's chilling musical accompaniment), and some astounding use of split-screen techniques, the director adds his own spin on Hitchcock's Rear Window (with a couple of nods in the direction of both Psycho and Vertigo for good measure). Both Carrie and Dressed to Kill were well-received by the critics, but Body Double and Raising Cain had the critics frowning upon the director's visual ventriloquism once again (Cain does have a cult following though). Snake Eyes (1998) reveals that De Palma hasn't lost his mastery of the camera, but his directorial flourishes aren't enough to sustain a whole movie these days. --Noel O'Shea

John Carpenter

Halloween is the most entertaining horror film made since Psycho. Fact. John Carpenter was the most talented director to emerge in the Seventies. Fact. No other director married obvious technical ability with a sense of the joy of cinema the way John Carpenter did, and his failure to find better projects to suit his talents in the Eighties and Nineties - with one or two exceptions - is a source of great sadness for the true horror film fan (hell, for any film fan). I love the opening thirty minutes of The Fog, a brilliantly-paced series of escalating supernatural 'incidents' that show the director at his very best (and that prologue with John Houseman casts a spell!); a pity, then, that the ending proved so unsatisfying. His remake of The Thing is - as every Carpenter fan knows - a misunderstood masterpiece, featuring groundbreaking advances in special effects, and a wickedly appropriate ending.

I'm not sure how good Christine is, but it is one of the best screen versions of a Stephen King novel (not saying much, I know), and Keith Gordon gives a great performance (Cronenberg's The Dead Zone is still the best). Prince of Darkness is an honourable misfire, as is the more interesting In the Mouth of Madness, but his remake of 1960's Village of the Damned might be the return to form every fan prays for (I haven't seen it yet). This year's Vampires might yet prove to be Carpenter's Holy Grail... --Noel O'Shea

David Cronenberg

My introduction to the cinema of David Cronenberg was provided by an exploding head in Scanners (1981); I was hooked. I watched The Brood, Videodrome and The Dead Zone in quick succession (and not chronologically, I must point out), and the director's major themes were made clear. Cronenberg is fascinated by the human body, particularly the human body in revolt. His best films - The Fly, Shivers, Dead Ringers - are all concerned with the sometimes-tentative relationship we have with our own bodies. Often sexual in nature (think of Jeff Goldblum's penis stored in a jar in The Fly), the cinematic concerns of Cronenberg reached their apotheosis in the controversial Crash. The novels of JG Ballard would seem like a good stomping ground for the Canadian auteur, and his treatment of Crash bears this out (how about an adaptation of Ballard's "The Drowned World" Mr C?). Highly confrontational, the film links sexual practices with injuries sustained in car crashes, and this is taking us to a place that nobody really wants to go, except at the local cinema (and that's as good a definition of a great horror film as I can come up with).

Cronenberg, it seems to me, provides the only link between subversive Seventies' horror and the root of what is great in Nineties' horror (and hopefully well into the next century). While all other directors associated with the genre are falling into self-parody (Carpenter with Escape from LA, De Palma with just about every film he's made since Scarface, and Craven with the Scream franchise, of course), Cronenberg continues to subvert the expectations of the genre (take a look at Naked Lunch if you doubt me). --Noel O'Shea [...]

Abel Ferrara [...]

Another director who shows that he might - just might - prove that there's life in the old genre yet, is Abel Ferrara. He drew attention to himself - for all the wrong reasons - with his Seventies' exploitation film The Driller Killer, but he has since displayed an original vision in such impressive fare as Body Snatchers and The Addiction. Here is a director who is working within genre conventions - Body Snatchers is a subtle reworking of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers - to create something that escapes those conventions and takes off in all kinds of directions. What happens next? To borrow the closing line from John Carpenter's The Thing - let's just wait around and see what happens. --Noel O'Shea

The Present

Let me throw some titles at you. Phantasm (1979); Basket Case (1981); The Company of Wolves (1984); Near Dark (1987); The Vanishing (1988); Lost Highway (1996) - okay, I'll stop. These are the minor horror films that most impressed me over the years (by "minor", I mean any horror film not directed by either Carpenter, Romero, De Palma... you get the picture), and they are becoming very scarce indeed (I didn't think Event Horizon was any great event either). I shudder to think what direction the horror film will take over the next ten or twenty years (and that's not a welcome, shiver-up-the-spine-because-I'm-enjoying-John Carpenter's-latest-masterwork kinda shudder either!). Do we put all our faith firmly on the shoulders of Cronenberg and Ferrara? Are we to embrace the cosy return of Frankie and The Count at the hands of both Kenneth Branagh and Francis Ford Coppola? (Branagh's film is downright silly, not least his own deliriously OTT portrayal of Frankenstein.) Is Clive Barker the new voice of horror? (I liked Hellraiser and Candyman well enough, but they both left me cold, I'm afraid.) Should I start up a Save The (James) Whale Campaign?...The beauty of cinema: not knowing what to expect. Maybe The Blair Witch will prove some kind of salvation for the genre. Time, of course, will tell a tale.

Well, as a final piece of advice, might I suggest that you increase your diet of horror films? You really should, you know. I mean, where else can you open the door to terror with Fr Merrin, travail the Corridors of Blood with Boris Karloff, see your dark soul reflected in the celluloid mirror, with Norman Bates looking over your shoulder, and find that you've entered The Last House on the Left. And is it really only a movie... (Of course it is.)

- Noel O'Shea

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