It is two days before Halloween and even though I do not celebrate the holiday anymore, I still love to watch a good scary movie. For the past month, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) has been showing old horror movies each Friday and Saturday. And I've determined that this is when the horror genre was at its best, in the 50's and 60's with stars like Vincent Price, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karlof. The movies were a little cheesy but you didn't need extreme violence and gore to be scary. One of the scariest movies I've seen from that genre is the original version of The Haunting from 1963. The acting and plot made the movie scary, not any special effects. I couldn't even sit through Saw when I tried to watch it a few years ago. It was too gross and disturbing. Horror movies have gone too far, in my opinion, and I am devoting this post to discussing the genre itself as well as some of my favorites.
When I was between the ages of twelve and nineteen, I LOVED horror movies. I watched all of the films in the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, series plus some campy ones on the side. Those specifically mentioned, however, were the main three that I defined horror by, the unholy triptych of horror film. I watched every movie in that series religiously and could tell you exactly which character died by which method and recite the insane plot of each sequel. For instance, want to know the plot of Jason Takes Manhattan from 1989. In my opinion it's the worst in the Jason series! 'Okay so a cruise ship full of high school seniors happens to come across Camp Crystal Lake on its way to NYC and somehow reanimates Jason's body to life. Jason then hitches a ride on the ship and proceeds to pick off the students and adults on board. The ship ends up sinking but the heroes, Rennie and Sean, get away in a life raft to Manhattan. Is Jason dead? Nope. One there, Rennie and Sean are involved in a whole chase sequence in Times Square with Jason.' Yea, it's pretty stupid. But I watched it because I needed to understand every plot element in the Jason story. I couldn't even miss the really bad movies. I've even seen Jason X, where it's the future and Jason goes to outer space. That movie is even dumber than Jason Takes Manhattan, but like I said, I've seen all of them.
My horror movie fan devotion is serious though. I used to read Fangoria on a regular basis. Other kids were reading Sports Illustrated, Teen Vogue, or Rolling Stone (though I read that too). I read Fangoria. I even used to have a Michael Myers 15 inch doll that played the theme when you pressed its stomach. I also had a Chucky doll and a Jason Vorhees and Freddy Kruger figurine. I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer religiously and regularly wore a black t-shirt that said 'Psycho' (from the 1960 film). I watched that over and over again. This is back when I had VHS and before DVDs became the mainstay. I didn't go to lame parties or toilet paper houses. Instead, I often stayed home and watched horror movies. I know it sounds weird but films like Halloween, Carrie, and Psycho became my friends. I was especially obsessed with the films of Tim Burton. I love Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands 1990), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and of course The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). I felt connected to Tim Burton especially because in Jack Skellington's world, there were doorways to different holiday worlds. I remember being shocked by the scene where Jack picks the door to Christmas Town because this is exactly what I used to envision as a child. I sat there wondering how Tim Burton stole the idea right out of my head.
So I was indebted to filmmakers figures like Tim Burton, Alfred Hitchcock, and Vincent Price. In fact, I used to act and work on sets in the Vincent Price Theater. Vincent Price attended my high school, which was at his time called St. Louis Country Day School, a boys' preparatory school. It was pretty cool to act under the shadow of Vincent Price. And he was the perfect idol for me because he assumed both the role as a master of the macabre and of being a magnificent character actor. Two things that I were important in my world as a teenager, as I too wanted to be an actor. Of course, as you know, I was also a student of the macabre. I never got involved in witchcraft, black magic, or Ouija boards or anything like that. I did, however, wear lots of black, burn skull candles, and wear vampire fangs when it wasn't Halloween.
With that being said, I want to break down how I see the horror genre. There are a lot of different movies to choose from. There are also a lot of different categories. So before I list off my favorites, I will bore you with some history and sociology of horror. The first film that ever showed any kind of supernatural event was a movie called Le Manoir du Diable (1896) by filmmaker Georges Méliès. The first Frankenstein film was made in 1910, though the Mary Shelley novel of the same name came out almost 100 years earlier in 1818. But Mary Shelley didn't originate what defines and depicts a 'monster'. Practically every culture and ethnicity has its own version of monsters. There are countless tales about ghosts and non-human creatures. In fact, Homer's The Odyssey describes many such monsters like Cyclops, Sirens, and Polyphemus. In fact, Greek mythology is filled with creatures like three headed dogs, Cerberus, and snake headed women, Medusa. And I don't have to tell you how the idea of Satan originates in the Bible (both old and new testament). So monsters have been around for ages. It's nothing new. The only thing that has changed is the way we tell scary stories.
And today, they have a very defined categorical organization. I would divide the genres into the following categories: ghosts/haunting, vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches/Satan, serial killers, and animals/creatures. I do not include aliens as some people do because to me, aliens belong in science fiction. The movie Aliens (1979) and all of its sequels are not horror. They should not be shown during Halloween because they are science fiction. So are movies like Predator (1987) and its sequels or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978). Even Spaced Invaders from 1990 or Weird Science from 1985 are clearly science fiction. Now sometimes, a film stands in-between the two genres. Films like The Fly (1958, 1986), Critters (1986), Gremlins (1984) or even Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). But I stick to my break down above.
Vampires: Clearly this is the sub-genre about blood sucking creatures of the night. Vampires are demonic undead nonhuman creatures that feed on blood. You can become a vampire or die depending on how much blood a vampire steals from you. Traditionally, vampires have a weakness for crosses (since they are demons), garlic, and the sunlight. Though many movies and modern adaptations of the vampire play around with what vampires can and cannot tolerate. Some vampire films I list do spill over into sci-fi, but I will list them anyway. The origin of the vampire, as we know it in modern day culture, comes from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula. The very first vampire film was a silent film called Vampire of the Coast (1909). Other films followed such as The Vampire (1913) and A Fool There Was (1915). Then the idea of a vampire became iconic with the F.W. Murnau film, Nosferatu (1922). I still cannot watch that movie from start to finish. I dare you to turn off all of the lights and watch that movie without squirming. Then 1931 dawned Dracula starring Bela Lugosi who is possibly the most iconic Dracula ever.
Every MGM depiction of his vampire has become synonymous for our vampire pretty much. But here are other notable vampire films: The Lost Boys (1987), Fright Night (1985), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), From Dusk Til' Dawn (1996), Bordello of Blood (1996), Children of the Night (1985) which still scares the crap out of me, 30 Days of Night (2007), Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (2012), Blade (1998), Daybreakers (2009), I Am Legend (2007), The Omega Man (1971), The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), Vampire Circus (1973), House of Dark Shadows (1970), Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), Horror of Dracula (1958), Isle of the Dead (1945), Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Vampire Bat (1933), The Vampire (1957), Vampyr (1932), The Return of the Vampire (1944), London After Midnight (1927), Curse of the Undead (1959), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1965), Corridors of Blood (1958), Dracula III: Legacy (2005), Dracula 2000 (2000), Horror of Dracula (1958) with Christopher Lee, Blacula (1972) with William Marshall, Dracula (1979) with Frank Langella, Dracula (1992) with Gary Oldman, and of course Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi.
Werewolves: Obviously any film that depicts a full moon and a human turning into a man-wolf creature that attacks and kills other humans. Some believe it to be a gypsy curse while others believe werewolves are a whole subspecies of humans. Medieval fiction includes depictions of this monster but the earliest actual account is an an 1839 text called The Phantom Ship. The fiction by Marryat describes a woman who can transform into a wolf. The actual form of fiction depicting this wolf creature begins around the 1830's and 1840's with the writings of European authors. Unlike with the vampire, there is no specific text that throws the werewolf into our modern context. That, we definitely get from movies. The first actual film, The Werewolf, from 1913, which is now lost, is based on a story from 1898 and depicts a female Native American werewolf. The Wolf Man from 1941 with Lon Chaney as the werewolf is what notably throws the idea of werewolf into pop culture.
Other werewolf films include: I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Cry of the Werewolf (1944), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Hour of the Wolf (1968), Moon of the Wolf (1972), The Howling (1981) and its sequels, An American Werewolf in London (1981), An American Werewolf in Paris (1997), Teenwolf (1985), Wolfman (1979), Strippers vs. Werewolves (2012), Silver Bullet (1985), Wolfen (1981), Ginger Snaps (2000), Underworld (2003), and even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). There aren't as many films as there are of the vampire. And of course thanks to the Twilight book series, there is a new interest in vampires vs. werewolves. Note that I don't include any of the recent movies about werewolves, as there have been many thanks to Stephenie Meyer. These movies don't look very promising so I'm not including any of them. But feel free to view them yourself and correct me if I'm mistaken.
Zombies: This of course is obvious. There is a resurgence of this genre as of late. I have a zombie obsession. There is zombie everything now. It has a new genre of fiction and film. But before George Romero, the sub-genre did not even exist. Okay, yes it did. But all of the movies before Romero's depict zombies as part of Haitian voodoo lore. You steal an item (ie. strand of hair) from a person, put them in a trance or wait until they die, put a spell/hex on them, and then control them like a puppet. In the films White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), one of my favorites, the Haitian version of a zombie is depicted. Every 'zombie' film before Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead did not show or discuss zombies as we know them in modern culture. And note that Romero called his zombies 'ghouls'; they did not eat brains. I don't know where the brain thing came from but zombies eat flesh and guts, not brains. Movies have been made from high to low budget, from impressive to ridiculous as you can see from my list.
Zombie films include: 28 Days Later (2002), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Night of the Living Dead (1968, 1990), Dawn of the Dead (1978, 2004), Day of the Dead (1985, 2008), Land of the Dead (2005), Survival of the Dead (2009), Zombieland (2009), Dead Snow (2008), Evil Dead (1981, 2013) and its sequels, Army of Darkness (1992), World War Z (2013), Pet Cemetery (1989) and its sequel, Quarantine (2008), REC (2007) and its sequels, Resident Evil and its sequels (2002), Redneck Zombies (1987), Pot Zombies (2005), Pop Punk Zombies (2011), Return of the Living Dead (1985), Crucible of Horror (1970), Zombie Lake (1981), The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), Shaun of the Dead (2004), State of Emergency (2013), Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012), Berlin Undead (2010), Gangs of the Dead (2006), Zombies vs. Strippers (2012), and Bong Dead (2011) which are real movies. Many of these don't seem like it, but yes they were released (some straight to DVD) to be seen by the adoring public.
Witches/Satan: Any movie that involves anything about witchcraft and covens. There were a rash of films on this subject in the mid to late sixties. The most notable, of course, is one of my favorites Rosemary's Baby (1968). A movie that involves witches standing within a pentagram and conjuring Satan would be included. Also, there are many movies depicting good witches against bad witches. I'm not talking about The Wizard of Oz (1939) though. That is not a horror movie. Witches and Satan go back to the Bible though. The idea is as old as time itself. There's the story of Saul and the witch of Endor where she proceeds to conjure up Samuel's ghost, supposedly. This woman is referred to as an אוֹב (ohv) which translates to 'talisman' and might also refer to ventriloquism. Obviously, the Bible cannot explain how this 'witch' contacts the now deceased Hebrew prophet, Samuel/Schmuel. Witches are known for herbs, spells, and contacting the dead (necromancy). Maybe that explains the hysteria that occurred in Europe during the 1560's to the 1670's where women were burned, most notably in Germany, for being 'witches'. This hysteria spread to American colonies in the mid to late 1600's. Every culture has its own version of 'witches', individuals who practice spells and communicate with the dead. However, we now have an understanding of things like the Wicca religion and fully grasp that it's different than Satanism. We know that the ones that practice black magic are directly associated with Satan. I'm not sure that movies make much of a distinction between good/bad witches though.
Serial Killers: These are the films that came into notoriety in the late 70's to the mid 80's. All of the films of Friday the 13th and Halloween count in this sub-genre. Any movie where there is a killer with a machete or chainsaw is included. It seems that this genre came out of the phenomenon and rise of the serial killer within American culture. After hearing about such grisly murders at the hands of Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, and John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer America would never be the same. And so we have the 'slasher' sub-genre. Movies about teenagers who drink, do drugs, have sex, and then get their heads chopped off. Literally. The hero/heroine always seems to be the one who not only remembered the car keys and to fill up on gas ahead of time but who also did not partake in dangerous behavior. The killer always happens to be male, though sometimes we get murderesses. And the killer always has some kind of flaw or childhood trauma that made him/her this way. There are always flashbacks of scenes where mommy put junior in dresses and locked him in a closet. I cannot watch newer slasher flicks but I always love the classics.
Examples of films in this sub-genre include: Psycho (1960, 1998) don't see the sequels because they are awful, Halloween (1978, 2007) and its sequels, Friday the 13th (1980, 2009) and its sequels, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, 2010), Sleepaway Camp (1983) and its sequels, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, 2003) and its sequels, Maniac (1980, 2012), Prom Night (1980, 2008), Scream (1994) and its sequels, Child's Play (1988) and its sequels, I Spit On Your Grave (1978), The Burning (1981), Office Killer (1997), The Initiation (1984), Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), Splatter (2009), New Year's Evil (1980), Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1986), Bay of Blood (1971), House of Whipcord (1974), Student Bodies (1981), Sorority House Massacre (1986), The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), The House on Sorority Row (1983), Hell Night (1981), Graduation Day (1981), Final Exam (1981), The Dorm that Dripped Blood (1982), Slaughter High (1986), Bloody Birthday (1981), Cheerleader Massacre (2003), Shrooms (2007), The Girl Who Lived Down the Lane (1976), Girly (1970), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), Comedy of Terrors (1964), Silent Night Deadly Night (1984), Silent Night Bloody Night (1974), Black Christmas (1974, 2006), The Gingerbread Man (2005), My Bloody Valentine (1981, 2009), Easter Bunny Kill! Kill! (2006), April Fool's Day (1986, 2008), Saw (2003) and its sequels, Hatchet (2006) and its sequels, Candyman (1992), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Maniac Cop (1988), Urban Legend (1998), and Cry_Wolf (2005).
There you have it, my breakdown of the horror movie sub-genres. Also note that there are many great, and many more not so great, horror/scary movies out there to see. Netflix has made it much easier. When I used to rent horror movies at the grocery store or Blockbuster Video, I had to rely on the back description and pictures from the movie. I couldn't preview the movie before actually seeing it. With Netflix and modern technology, however, we can stream movies live and decide five to ten seconds in whether it's worth sitting down to watch the entire thing. Thank goodness for that too!
I also recommend a few films I did not mention on my list. The Raven (1963) which is directed by Roger Corman, stars Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff. Roger Corman directed a series of adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's works from 1959 to 1964: House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pedulum (1961), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) and a few others. I'd even say it's appropriate for kids as it begins with the traditional Edgar Allen Poe poem but soon follows Price and Lorre on a whacky adventure to master over a sorcerer played by Karloff. Oh did I mention that a young Jack Nicholson is in this movie too? So without further adieu, I will leave you with a short list of horror films that I love and that are a little bit off the beaten path. You may have heard of some (esp. 5 and 12) but one thing's for sure, these are quirky and eccentric which is just as important as being frightening.
14) Donnie Darko (2001)
15) Blow-Up (1966)
16) The Creeping Flesh (1973)
So kiddies, I hope you have a wonderful time out there playing tricks and getting treats. Stay tuned for tunes of Halloween.