As both filmmakers and contemporary audiences are becoming more and more aware of film history, due to the availability of films to watch, the idea of a ‘genre’ has become a somewhat convoluted idea. The days when a film could simply be described as an ‘action’ or a ‘horror’ are long gone, now we have hybrid-genres and sub-genres to contend with as well, causing unnecessary confusion and frustration. I have dedicated this article to uncovering the dark corners of the horror genre, in order to help anyone who loves horror as much as I do, to define and organise films in a helpful manner.
These types of horror film are typical for involving a psychopathic killer stalking a group of young people, and killing them off one by one. They became popular in the late 70/80s with the massive box office hits like Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. It was also around this time that the horror genre became much more fixated with trying to appeal to a teenage audience – creating what some people now term as a ‘teen horror’ film. This created a whole new ‘market’ for horror films which had previously gone unnoticed, and vastly changed the nature of how they were made, from the storylines, all the way to how they were filmed. Modern day slashers include films like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Hatchet, Scream (although this is more of a spoof) and Trick ‘r Treat. It is also interesting to note that a huge number of the old favourite slasher movies have been remade to be slicker and even bloodier than before to satisfy today’s bloodthirsty audiences. This includes – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, House of Wax, Prom Night and (The House on) Sorority Row. Key features to identify a slasher film are an unknown killer wielding a deadly weapon who is unable to be stopped, a group of naive, attractive adolescents, the final girl who is the sole survivor of the brutal attack, and lots of violence, placing more emphasis on this than the actual storyline of the film!
Now, it is this side of horror which seems to have given it a bad name. It’s the sub-genre that your parents really aren’t happy about you watching, with intense scenes of physical torture prevalent in these movies, putting everyone in touch with their sadistic (or maybe even masochistic!) side. I personally think it’s wrong to completely disregard these films as trash without giving them a fair chance. Take the prime example of Saw, which has got an interesting plot structure and complex storyline(which manages to span seven films!) and so it is not a completely one-sided abomination. The relentless brutality seems to offer some people a sense of catharsis, but it has come under heavy criticism from the media as being a lead cause in many violent crimes among young people. Films like I Spit on Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust have been cited as being important ‘splatter’ films during the 1980’s, commonly called ‘video nasties’ (a term originating in the UK due to the violent content). The 2000s saw a resurgence of these type of films featuring mutilation and torture of the human body, with such films as Hostel and The Devil’s Rejects, and of course, the Saw series, as mentioned earlier. It is important to note that the excessive violence in these sorts of films has not come completely out of the blue, but has been growing gradually through the years, and has now begun to enter mainstream cinema.
This genre has been going since the 1930’s, and it seems that we have no shortage of appetite for a good zombie film! From Bela Lugosi (most famous for playing Count Dracula) in White Zombie to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, zombies have certainly developed over the years – from having ‘voodoo-like’ connotations to being due to some scientific disaster or the outbreak of some new ‘disease’. Despite so much change, the portrayal of zombies has remained surprisingly consistent (possibly due to the dominance of George Romero in the ‘zombie’ market with his ‘Dead’ series!), with such recognisable features as slow, unbalanced shuffling and a taste for human flesh! This sub-genre is pretty self-explanatory and obvious to spot, and has even been involved in hybrid films such as Resident Evil (action), I am Legend (action/thriller) and Shaun of the Dead (comedy). It is these types of film which typically question the nature of our current society by offering viewers a vision of a post-apocalyptic scenario, where the characters have to revert back to primitive survival method – fight of flight – and this always leads to an exciting watch!
The way that these films are hugely different from ‘traditional’ horror is the fact that they place more emphasis on creating an eerie atmosphere and surroundings, than a monster of psychopath. It plays with the characters emotions and fears, often causing their current relationships to become strained and confused in the face of this unsettling tension. Films which fall into this bracket would include The Sixth Sense, The Ring, The Shining and The Blair Witch Project. This is probably the broadest sub-genre out there as it can encompass films from all the major genres as well, pretty much any film which involves delving into the characters (good and bad) psyche. As you may have noticed, all of the above films just mentioned are quite diverse in most other respects, but are united in the way that the are able to mess with people’s minds – in a good way, of course! These are the films which are absent of the lashings of blood and flying limbs which are heartily celebrated amongst today’s viewers, and therefore are suited to a more mainstream audience – it is for this reason that they tend to be a lot more popular (therefore making the big bucks) and they have a lower age certificate (12/15) instead of the standard 18 for most ‘traditional’ horror films.
1975 brought along with a film which has often been cited as one of the greatest films of all time – Jaws. It was this film which revolutionised the way Hollywood operated, by showing how successful ‘blockbuster’ films were at the box office, films which were action-packed and had relatively simple storylines, e.g. a killer shark on the rampage. It is this film which is thought to have been the inspiration behind a great deal of ‘creature features’ such as Alien, Piranha and Lake Placid. Other examples which could also be included in this category would be Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Jurassic Park and Deep Blue Sea (althought these are not-so-much horrors, but more action/thriller type of movies), and even comedy horror films Eight Legged Freaks and Tremors. These types of films typically take place in an exotic location, which is the natural habitat of these dangerous animals, thus already putting the human characters at a disadvantage. They almost always have a happy ending however, with the slaughtering of the creature – but not until it has had the chance to munch off a great deal of the ‘team’ of characters. I think where the confusion comes in here is where the borders between animal and human have been blurred, therefore creating a kind of ‘mutant’ being, neither animal nor human (think The Hills Have Eyes or The Descent). When this is the case, it’s really up to the viewer to use their best discretion to make the distinction.
I actually think anti-religious horror would be a more appropriate term for this lovely bunch of films. As most of these films come from Hollywood, the religion used tends to be Christianity, with the ‘antagonist’ of these stories as the Devil (although he is very rarely shown, apart from through a human ‘vessel’). Think of classic films like The Exorcist, Hellraiser, The Wicker Man, Prince of Darkness and The Omen. However, there has recently been a steady stream of these sorts of movies like Devil, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, The Devil Inside, The Rite and 11.11.11. These films are commonly thought of as being only scary to religious believers, but this notion must be disputed, considering the fact that The Exorcist has become one of the highest earning films in history and was nominated for ten Academy Awards. It has been agreed by many to be the scariest film of all time, with the main star (Linda Blair) having to be assigned bodyguards by Warner Bros. to protect her from fundamental Christians who believe the film ‘promoted Satan’. Religioug horror films usually question the nature of belief and morality, raising issues of good and evil – creating a rigid and obvious division between the two. There’s never usually an excessive amount of blood and gore (sometimes none!) in them and instead we are treated to bodies writhing, twisted and contorted, and demonic bellowing in languages which no one is familiar with.
This is thought of as quite a vague category really, as curses within different films can be quite diverse, and can even be closely associated with the religious horror section which was mentioned earlier – however, they are all united in the devastating outcomes that befall the poor victimes of these movies. Films which would fall into this sub-genre would include The Evil Dead (maybe ‘curse’ is not the right description of the events in this film, perhaps ‘demon’ would be more appropriate), The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Grudge (although this is in fact a remake of the Japanese film Ju-On), The Skeleton Key and Drag Me To Hell (by the famous Sam Raimi – also of the Evil Dead series mentioned previously). These types of films can include weird occult type situations and gypsy/voodoo myths, as well as the obvious religious examples too, and if it is done effectively, they are able to scare the living daylights out of people despite not believing in any of that nonsense! It is this notion of the supernatural which seems to be especially common with Japanese horror films (or J-Horror, as it has now been dubbed) as their culture tends to be more on the superstitious side anyway. ‘Cursed’ horror films definitely make for some unsettling viewing, and act as cautionary tales to viewers against pissing creepy-looking strangers off!
So, you might think that I’m cheating here – and perhaps I am – but I thought it sensible to lump these two ideas together as they appeared to be so closely intertwined that I would only end up repeating myself. Films which fit here would include titles like The Haunting, The Others, The Legend of Hell House, Poltergeist, The Woman in Black, The Innocents, The Haunting in Connecticut, Paranormal Activity and The Amityville Horror. These films are usually (for obvious reasons) focused around one set and it follows the story of how the characters ‘interact’ with that set. It’s the big, old fashioned houses which are predominantly the target for these horrors – buildings which look like they have a history. Creaking doors and secret basements are on the menu of scares for these horror films, choosing to use these to create a creepy atmosphere without even the need for any living thing. It is films like these which leaves one feeling paranoid about any tiny noise that they hear in their homes, any picture frames which fall off the wall suspiciously and any bulb which suddenly goes dark. The fear that these haunted house films create is more subtle, a growing kind of fear that lingers and slowly eats away at you, to the point of losing your mind!
Again, I may have cheated a little with this one but these are also closely linked and have even appeared in many films together (think of the Underworld series, or even more horrific, the Twilight franchise!). Whilst the portrayal of werewolves has remained fairly consistent within the film industry over the decades, the image of the campire has changed drastically. Think of the big-eared, long-fingers Nosferatu from 1922, to the sexy, cool gang of vampires in The Lost Boys from 1987 – it really is remarkable to see the transition of these night-dwelling creatures and one can only imagine what they’ll end up looking like in another 50 years! Other films which are worthy of mention would include The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, From Dusk Till Dawn, Let The Right One In (which inspired the American remake Let Me In) and 30 Days of Night. Of the two of them, it is vampires which seem to have been the most popular – there’s just something about blood sucking and pasty skin that drives audiences wild. These kinds of films are thought of as being a metaphor of adolescence, as we all know how tricky this time is in people’s lives, when one’s body starts to change and hormones start to race. These will always be a favourite among the younger viewers, but there are still some classics which have stood the test of time.
That’s pretty much all there is to it really, although if you feel that I’ve missed anything then by all means let me know! I hope I have helped provide some clarity to the situation, as I know it can’t be fun being a lost wanderer in the dangerous world of the horror movie. Anyway, thanks for reading and happy watching!