Think all horror movies are the same? Think the stories are predictable and if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all?
Well guess again. Senior Film Lecturer Mikel J Koven introduces some horror films which, in their own way, impacted on the genre, with sufficient intensity, that horror was forever changed.
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
At the peak of his fame, Hitchcock moved away from his big, glossy Hollywood fame to make a little black and white thriller which, for the first time, showed that the monster was not a foreigner or alien, but the boy next door.
Loosely based on the true story of ghoulish murderer Ed Gein, by way of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, Psycho illustrated that America had its own monsters too. In addition, murdering the film’s named star, Janet Leigh, half way through the film, disoriented viewers as to where this remarkable thriller was headed.
Night of the Living Dead (George A Romero, 1968)
A bleak and nihilistic horror film which changed zombie movies forever.
Prior to Romero’s Night, zombies were slaves, raised from the dead and controlled by a sorcerer; but Night changed all that, introducing the shambling gut-munching zombie we associate with the genre today. But Night is more than just a gory spectacle: it is also a dark meditation on (and for) an America shell-shocked from the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. The world had changed, and horror cinema needed to change too.
The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
While The Exorcist is, for the most part, a straight-forward horror film (albeit an exceptionally well-made one), and one which did up the ante on shocking images and blasphemous language, it was the over-whelming success at the box office which changed American cinema forever.
The Exorcist is really the first “blockbuster” film; a film for which people would line up for hours, around the block (hence the term), in the hopes of getting in to a screening. Auditoria were sold out across the United States and around the world. And then with Jaws two years later, the big summer blockbuster films were born.
An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
This is one of my all-time favourite films. John Landis had moved from making the crazy comedies Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980) to this grisly horror film about an American tourist backpacking in Yorkshire, who is attacked by a werewolf.
In most regards, the film is a remake/re-imagining of the 1935 Universal horror film, Werewolf of London, but what makes American Werewolf notable are the practical effects created by Rick Baker, including the onscreen transformation of actor David Naughton into the beast. Baker deservedly won the Oscar for Best Make-up Effects, a new category created specifically to recognize American Werewolf’s ground-breaking work. The same year also saw Joe Dante’s The Howling play on cinema screens, with effects work by Rob Bottin. Together, Baker and Bottin changed the world of horror movie special effects through on-set practical effects, rather than through trick photography or (today) computer generated images (CGI).
The effects work in American Werewolf, The Howling, and The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982; with effects work by Bottin) are still impressive.
Ringu/The Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998)
Based on the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki, Ringu invents an urban legend about a haunted videocassette: those who watch this creepy video die in seven days at the appearance of Sadako, the ghost of the video, crawling out of their television set.
The only way to prevent one’s own death, is to make a copy of the videocassette and pass it on, thereby passing the curse on with it. This is the “ring” of the title: the circle made by passing the video on. Ringu’s significance lies in the sparking of interest in East Asian ghost stories in the West – known as J-horror. The, now clichéd, image of the female ghost with long black hair hanging over their face is a traditional image of the ghost within Japan, but as a film motif, has influenced horror cinema across East Asia – in South Korea and Thailand, particularly. The cycle of J-horror produced a number of such films, many of which were (badly) remade in Hollywood.
The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, 1999)
Blair Witch, at least for me, is more interesting to talk about than to actually watch. The Blair Witch Project was really the first film to build up expectation and word-of-mouth interest through viral marketing via the World Wide Web. Fake “missing” posters were circulated on websites, along with fake documentaries and news reports about the search for the three lost university students. This “found footage” film purports to be the rediscovered lost footage shot by the three, while trying to make a documentary about a local supernatural legend. We experience everything the student filmmakers do: the terror of something attacking their tents at night, the confusion and disorientation of being lost in the woods, and the tensions between the three young people.
Most of the film script was improvised at the time of shooting, with only vague plot points to direct the cast who shot the film themselves. Made for a ridiculously small amount of money, as a result of the viral marketing campaign, The Blair Witch Project became one of the highest grossing films of the year.
There we have it, six films that forever changed the horror genre. As should be noted, with the exception of Ringu, all the selected films are American. This is not to say that horror movies are not international – horror cinema around the world is a very exciting area to study.
Dr Mikel Koven teaches on the Film Studies BA (Hons) course at the University of Worcester. His module “Film & Folklore” considers fairy-tale films, as well as myth and legend films.