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A crash course in horror (part two)

This is the second part of a deeply disturbed and happy film geek and horror fan’s quick and nasty look over what is locally a mostly unknown and underrated genre. I’ve discovered that there’s no way in hell I can honestly detail horror film from 1960 to now in one 1 200-word column, and do justice to what I’m writing about.

So assuming my editors approve and, more importantly, that readers are enjoying this ongoing introduction to an increasingly sleazy, blood-soaked and fun film genre, I’m going to have to stretch this over further columns. I thought I could get away with doing it in two columns over two weeks, but it’s impossible to do.

In the first half, we roughly covered the horror film from its early silent beginnings, up until the dawn of the 1960s. Now read on.

The Sixties opened up on the mainstream front, with Robert Bloch’s Psycho, filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, freaking out audiences and showing us that even big stars could die unexpectedly in movies.

Across the Atlantic, while the United States was generally churning out Cold War-inspired paranoia, it was — of all people — the British who took over the reins of systematically looting literary archives for horror material to make into film. This trend began in more or less 1957, when with a nice little low-budget feature called The Curse of Frankenstein, the British studio Hammer Films became the leading horror studio. Read Wikipedia on Hammer Films, then a quick overview of Hammer Films.

To see the incredibly lengthy filmography of this British studio that by the start of 1960 had made Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing household names in Europe, read Hammer Films Filmography.

Don’t forget the short-lived but equally formative Amicus Films, also in the United Kingdom, which created a number of interesting films using the “short stories woven into a single film” approach — The House That Dripped Blood, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and my favourite, Asylum, among them. The films have become templates for all later separate-stories-in-one films (Creepshow, Cat’s Eye and the likes). Read Amicus: The Studio That Dripped Blood.

To show how popular the Amicus films still are today, note the current UK price of this coffin-shaped five-DVD box set of Amicus Films.

If you’re curious about this brief explosion of creativity in the UK during the late 1950s and early 1960s, browse through British Horror Films.

Over in Italy, schlock film was proving to be big in the box office. The coming new wave of Italian film directors that would become household names with horror fans was still in its infancy — and we’ll return to them a little later. However, for the opening shots of the truly garish, lurid and fascinating genre of Italian horror that would eventually alter the nature of horror film generally, read A History of Italian Horror: Part One.

Now we get into the difficult territory of defining “horror”, as 1964 saw the first mainstream release of a whole new genre unto itself. The film was a sleazy, vicious pseudo-documentary that supposedly was designed to “alert” and “educate” audiences by showing them the depths of human depravity and ignorance — close-up. The film was Mondo Cane (A Dog’s World).

There had been endless sleaze films prior to this, showing the awful conditions and belief systems of humans in various parts of the world for the “edification” of the popcorn-chewing audiences, but Mondo Kane elevated the sleaze factor and brutality to a whole new level of mainstream acceptance. Read Wikipedia on Mondo Cane.

Quoting Wikipedia: “Cruelty to animals, accidents, tribal initiation rites and surgeries are a common feature of a typical mondo. Much of the action is also staged, even though the filmmakers may claim their goal to document only ‘the reality’. This genre continues to today, with various films, ranging from The Killing of America to assorted Faces of Death films and Shocking Asia (1974).”

Read the reviews at the link to the full Mondo Movie DVD box set at Amazon.

Let’s back up and point you towards the magical Italian cinema of the 1960s/1970s and the arrival of Mario Bava — as well as the bright genius of Dario Argento — who made films that have to be seen on a big screen to appreciate fully the visual painting of every frame with painstaking care. Read this very useful critical essay on Dario Argento.

Now here’s The History of Italian Horror: Part Two.

Almost all of Argento’s cinema is still fascinating to watch today — despite admittedly bad dialogue, the camerawork and use of widescreen and colour make most of his films seem like you’re watching a nightmare unfold. Whereas, for instance, British director Ken Russel’s films generally have dated badly, the innovative Italian directors’ films still stand as visually amazing and almost hallucinogenic in style.

This sub-genre of film is known as giallo, which literally means “yellow” (the colour of a certain type of lurid trashy mystery novels that were very popular in Italy at the time). Here’s a quick Definition of a Giallo. Now look over The Master of Colours and Dark Dreams: The Films of Dario Argento. Also read about the “other” major Italian director, Mario Bava. Then take a look at the vast filmography of a director whose work would only really come into prominence at the end of the decade: Lucio Fulci.

The horror genre was bursting out all over the globe. To get an overview (although we’re leaping ahead in time), read this brilliant abstract of a paper entitled Horror International.

The mainstream horror genre was chugging over quietly, most notably with Hitchcock’s 1963 revamp of the Daphne du Maurier short story The Birds (although, in keeping with mainstream ethics, its apocalyptic ending was removed in favour of a more ambiguous and possibly “optimistic” ending). Read The Birds.

In the US, the indie horror genre was rising. A quiet little sleeper was made in 1961 that would influence later directors, called Carnival of Souls. Read an interview with the cinematographer and Carnival of Souls.

Away from the mainstream releases, sleaze horror was quietly doing big business over in the US, and mainly in drive-in cinema markets. Apart from the previous mentioned American International and Roger Corman beach epics, you had Herschell Gordon Lewis pouring out great sleazoid epics, such as the 1964 classic story about a Southern town of ghosts wreaking their revenge on unsuspecting tourists: 2 000 Maniacs. Take a look at the wildly over-the-top titles in Lewis’s filmography.

These drive-in movie B-classics were to spawn a multitude of sub-genres in horror and cinema in general. Film geeks and horror fans, as well as the unsophisticated popcorn-munching viewers, soaked up and caused the creation of subgenres — from the “beach-party-threatening monster” to the “axe murderer”, the “chicks in prison”, the “sadistic scientist’s evil experiments gone wrong” and “nature bites back” genres.

You name it, these late-night, drive-in-only films gathered momentum in genres of their own. Leaping ahead slightly in time, one of my favourites is the sub-genre featuring nuns in general, as well as killer nuns! (Yes, you read it right.) Read this excellent overview of Nunsploitation Cinema.

A film reviewer in the early 1980s realised he couldn’t seriously review these various genres in the “normal” way. After 30-odd years of each of these genres mutating and creating sequels, the style and substance of these films were so alien to official “quality” mainstream cinema that he invented a fictitious persona to review them.

He came up with a drive-in, beer-drinking cowboy character known as Joe Bob Briggs. Browse through some of his deeply affectionate views on this gleefully tacky and awful sub-genre of film that they don’t teach you about in film school: Joe Bobb Reviews. And read a mainstream review of Briggs’s book on assorted classic films titled Profoundly Disturbing.

There were two final kicks at the end of the decade that would propel horror forward in ways no one could have foreseen — one in mainstream, one in indie film. The mainstream: in Europe, Roman Polanski had made a number of macabre and claustrophobic films using standard themes that were fresh to European audiences — “the guest from hell” in Knife in the Water (1962); “woman going crazy” in Repulsion (1965).

Then he shifted to mainstream, putting the ill-fated Sharon Tate in his classic vampire flick Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) But it was his pairing with novelist Ira Levine that gave mainstream horror and audiences a serious fright in the final years of the 1960s with the still über-creepy Rosemary’s Baby.

We covered Richard Matheson’s earlier stories in the previous column, yet he features again. He kick-started the career of a little-known filmmaker called Steven Spielberg in 1971 with his script about an on-road fight between a little red car and a big truck, called Duel.

But it was Matheson’s grim 1954 vampire-apocalypse novel I Am Legend that moved the horror film forward in ways that continue to reverberate today. Read an all-too-brief review of the original book I Am Legend. (The book was first filmed and it’s still a creepily evocative film at times — read this discussion about I Am Legend.)

However, it was when George Romero in the latter half of the 1960s — partly inspired by Matheson’s vision — created his own apocalyptic film about the dead rising to attack the living that horror film changed forever. On-screen flesh-eating was the least of what came next, thanks to Night of the Living Dead Read Project A: George Romero.

Some of the next generation of horror-makers to come had been soaking up some or all of the above-mentioned films and were about to take things to the next level, in both splatter and snuff. Among them were John Carpenter and Wes Craven.

Until the next time, if the zombies don’t get me.

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