HAVE SPECIAL EFFECTS KILLED HORROR?
Reprinted from Horror magazine #7, 1996
In 1910, what was arguably the first horror film - a one-reel (about 10 minutes) version of Frankenstein - was produced by the Edison company. It hadnít been quite 15 years since the Lumiere brothers had held the first public exhibition of a moving picture in Paris, and D. W. Griffithís Birth of a Nation, the screenís first true epic, was still five years off. Edisonís Frankenstein featured actor Charles Ogle in an extensive makeup, all ratted hair and wild eyes; unfortunately the film itself has been lost, but surviving stills tell the story of the effects involved in the transformation of actor into monster. And so was born the long - and often uneasy - relationship between the horror film and special effects.
Now, the better part of a century later, the art of both film and its attendant effects have come so far that we can only speculate upon how Thomas Edison or Georges Melies, the father of optical effects, would have reacted upon seeing any second- or third-rate effect, let alone a top-quality one. But have the stories the effects supposedly serve kept up with the technology? Could the plot of any Friday the 13th film - or even this summerís The Frighteners - be compressed easily into a one-reeler? Would Edison and Melies gasp in astonishment - or walk out in disgust? Have special effects, in short, killed horror?
We already know that special effects were present from the very beginnings of the horror film; given that, then perhaps the first question to ask is, Why didnít effects in the early days of the horror film take precedence over the story? Or did they?
By the time the talkies took over at the end of the 20ís, special effects had already become an established art, having progressed hugely from Meliesí relatively primitive double-exposures and dissolves. Lon Chaney Sr.ís Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and dozens of others had sent audiences screaming with their makeup creations, and Willis OíBrien established the art of stop-motion with the likes of The Lost World and, in 1933, King Kong. With the introduction of sound, dialogue extended the possibilities of storytelling; is it any surprise then, that given the mutual advances of sound and effects, the early 30ís remain unparalleled in the quality of the horror films that appeared? James Whaleís Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, Island of Lost Souls, The Black Cat, Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, The Old Dark House and more spilled out of studios like tannis leaves from a tomb. The 40ís became the province of sequel and remake, the inevitable downside to any successful cycle, and the 50ís gave way to atomic and Communist paranoia, fusing horror and science fiction in such films as Don Siegelís Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, The Blob and an army of killer-bug flicks.
Then, a rebirth in the 60ís, once again due to several interesting steps forward in cinema. One was the widespread introduction of color and wider screens - television was popular now, and the movies needed a way to compete for the audiences. One way was color; another was the serious addition of sex and violence. To say nothing of the fact that the old studio system, which had ruled the entire cinematic world with an ironclad reel for decades, was crumbling, giving rise to torrents of new independents.
One was Britainís Hammer Films.
Another was an American named Roger Corman.
Although both Hammer and Corman actually started in the late 50ís, both achieved true prominence in the 60ís. Hammerís route initially was to coopt the classics, producing such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula. Hammerís formula consisted of one part never-before-seen gore, one part sex, one part well-crafted script and two parts (Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing) fine British actors. The formula worked, and Hammer went on to produce some of the best horror of the 60ís: The Devil Rides Out, Plague of the Zombies, The Skull.
In America, Roger Corman followed Hammerís example by plundering the works of Edgar Allan Poe and invariably casting Vincent Price. The films had atmospheric sets, scores and photography, and delivered on the chills: House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death. Later, of course, Corman became additionally famous as the one man in Hollywood who gave early breaks to more soon-to-be-icons than anyone else.
One other factor that made these 60ís films work so well: The screenplays were often written by the likes of Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch. Keep this in mind when we move into the 80ísÖ
In 1969, Roman Polanskiís Rosemaryís Baby was released, and in many ways was the true first horror film of the 70ís. It veered sharply away from Cormanís and Hammerís work in its contemporary, urban setting, youthful cast and auteur approach; while not a landmark effects film, it laid the basis for what was to come -
- which come it did, in 1973. The Exorcist changed the landscape of both horror and effects forever. Its combination of state-of-the-art effects and director William Friedkinís documentary-like style created a worldwide sensation. While such special makeup effects as bladder work (Linda Blairís inflating throat) had been used before, never had they been seen in what was, in every sense, an "A" film. The Exorcist soared into the Top 10 money-earners, garnered a holy host of Oscar nominations, and made horror a hot commodity all over again.
The 70ís were, possibly, second only to the 30ís in the quality of horror cinema produced. In the wake of The Exorcist, young makeup effects artists anxious to follow in Exorcist wizard Dick Smithís gigantic footsteps were plentiful, and by 1977 Star Wars had done for optical effects what The Exorcist did for makeup. In the 70ís we saw Alien, Taxi Driver (argue me on this one if you will - its themes of urban paranoia and loss of identity, coupled with its growing sense of true dread, make it a classic horror film), Carrie, Dario Argentoís Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead. Philip Kaufmanís Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jaws and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The films seemed to be at the frontwave of a new era of horror, an era of sophisticated effects overseen by talented young filmmakers, including Tobe Hooper, George Romero, and Brian DePalma.
Thereís one 70ís classic you may have noticed missing from the above list, and thereís a reason for that. Itís the one film that changed everything that has come since. And not for the better, despite the filmís own considerable merits.
The film is Halloween.
Released in 1978, Halloween went on to become the most wildly-successful independent film in history. Its story was simple - psychotic slasher versus resourceful babysitter on the scariest day of the year - but it was told with undeniably compelling style and tension (thanks to John Carpenter).
It also featured virtually no significant effects.
And yet, within a year of Halloweenís release, cinematic horror attained new levels of bloodshed with Alien and Dawn of the Dead. Now, letís factor in one more happening: The Rise of Demographics.
With the wild success of such films as Star Wars and Jaws, a new breed of executive was muscling his way into the studios. This new mogul saw only dollars; art was not only not a consideration, it was in fact to be avoided at all costs. Studios existed only to supply fodder to that section of audience their Marketing Departments told them went to movies: Young males.
It was probably unavoidable that theyíd want to copy Halloween.
Since, as weíve already established, the new regimes were operating in a shortage of taste, they saw only the killer-on-the-loose-and-young-sexually-active-teenagers aspects of Halloween. In lieu of plot, they opted for the heavy gore effects of those other hits Alien and Dawn of the Dead, and in 1980 Paramount Pictures released Friday the 13th.
Sound the death knell.
This was the first time that what was a low-grade B film was released by a major. Backed by a gigantic publicity campaign, the filmís plotless 95 minutes of hack-and-slash slaughtered the box-office competition. Young moviegoers ate it up (Iíll leave the psychology of young males who seemed to identify with the killer for another writer).
And yet there was a change in what audiences were experiencing, what they were taking away with them. The question was no longer, "Did it scare you?," but "Did it gross you out?" Horror was now equated not with that which truly horrifies, or frightens, or disturbs us, but with how much our stomachs could stand. In the finest demographics tradition of following suit, every company in Hollywood churned out goreflicks over the next ten years, which essentially became the Decade of the Slasher (despite the occasional bright spot here and then, notably David Cronenbergís The Fly or Kathryn Bigelowís Near Dark). No more were we interested in Richard Mathesonís or Robert Blochís script; the new heroes were Tom Savini and John Buechler and Screaming Mad George and the other purveyors of various decapitations, disembowlings and dismemberments.
Now, letís look at what this did to horror literature.
Up until The Exorcist, most horror films had been based on literary properties, either classic works of Poe, Shelley and Stoker, or recent bestsellers by William Peter Blatty and Ira Levin. After The Exorcist, horror novels went through that 70ís period when it seemed obligatory that they each have a two-word title beginning with The: The Shining, The Stand, The Fury, The Wolfen, The Howling, etc. This was also the decade when we first knew of Stephen King; by the mid-80ís he alone was responsible for nearly 5% of all the worldís hardback sales.
It should have been a golden era for horror literature. And yetÖ
Letís not forget what was happening in Hollywood.
Blood. Gore. Mutilation.
It took time - and one more writer - for the publishers to catch on. Then, in 1986, a young Englishman name of Clive Barker took Hollywood gore to the printed page in high style with his Books of Blood, and the splatterpunk genre was born.
Just as had happened with Halloween, the market was suddenly awash with imitators, ripoffs, bastard children. Narrative and craft were now secondary to the question, "How far can we push it?" As if to prove the demographers right, the authors were almost all young white males, all striving to outdo each other in a fierce competition of bodily disfigurements. By the end of the 80ís, the market seemed limitlessÖ
Öand then it crashed.
It was simply glutted with too much bad writing. Readers, finally bored with the 47th eye-gouging or brain-ripping, began to turn away in droves. Suspenseful, well-written mysteries gained in popularity again. Small press magazines folded right and left. Major publishers outdid Freddy or Jason as they slashed their horror lists.
Which brings us up to 1996.
Name the last great horror film you saw.
The Silence of the Lambs? The makers of that film want us desperately to believe it is not a horror film, and although they are wrong, we can understand their reasons.
The Frighteners? Does anyone remember the plot? I saw it last week and canít. Itís not because the writer/director lacks talent - this is, after all, the same Peter Jackson who made the utterly brilliant Heavenly Creatures, and the blackly-comic Dead Alive. But this was Jacksonís first feature with one of the American behemoths, and so it was a triumph of special effects (what they believe will make money) over plot (which they continue to believe wonít).
And what about horror novels? One of the few original voices to arise in the last few years, Kathe Koja, is no longer marketed as horror but as cutting-edge mainstream fiction. Horror is often thought of in publishing circles as "the ghetto". And donít forget, weíre still at the tail-end of the splatterpunk trail of blood.
So - have special effects killed horror?
Yes. Along with demographics and good old-fashioned greed.
But, true to its nature, horror will resurrect. There are a few lights already gleaming on the horizon. Television, where gore must by necessity be somewhat more restrained (as well as effects, which tv hasnít the budget for), has produced the most interesting filmed horror of the last two years. Twin Peaks turned a dark light on small towns, The X-Files and Nowhere Man have finally made horror political, Forever Knight has turned the tired vampire tale into a fresh contemplation of the human condition, The Outer Limits and Tales From the Crypt have carried on the anthology legacy, and in the coming season shows such as The Burning Zone and Dark Skies promise to explore other fears.
In the literary arena, perhaps the most interesting hope for horrorís future is arriving in the form of a new wave of female writers. After all, it was a woman (Mary Shelley) who created the horror novel, and women are traditionally more sensitive to strong emotions. Poppy Brite, Lucy Taylor and Roberta Lannes, to name a few, are all producing fine work which promises to wrest the genre back from the splatterpunk boys, reintroducing the elements of character and fear (not disgust) which are the basis of good horror literature.
Still, theyíll have to fight against the latest demon to assail the cinematic end of the genre: Computer-generated effects. Ideally computers have the potential to create, in two-dimensional reality, anything we can dream; the technology, however, is still expensive and will doubtless remain the sole property of the studios for a few years, so donít expect to see fresh new independent voices taking the image of horror into the future via computers.
And literature will, to some extent, no doubt continue to follow the trends set by cinema, so letís keep our fingers (provided we still have some) crossed and hope for a return to the glory days of the 1970ís or 30ís. Have you watched the 1931 Frankenstein lately? Check it out sometime - itís still a fine film, 65 years later. Which, unfortunately, is a far longer lifespan than any of our recent "classics" are likely to enjoy.