The history of modern horror

Posted by David Konow

As I was researching the history of modern horror films for Reel Terror, I couldn't help but wonder where the genre would be by the time the book hit shelves this October. 

As it turned out, horror had a pretty good year, even if the movies weren’t all masterpieces. But even though we started the year with crapola, The Devil Inside, we also had one of  the best horror films in years with Cabin in the Woods.

Horror films have been around practically since the dawn of cinema itself, going all the way back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920, and the genre’s endured many ups and downs since.

There have been masterpieces like The Exorcist, clever rollercoaster rides like The Evil Dead that showed the ingenuity of filmmakers like Sam Raimi, controversial gore fests that shook up the populace like Friday the 13th and Hostel, and of course, a lot of low budget junk.

Cabin was a real breath of fresh air for the genre, and while it didn’t knock The Hunger Games off its perch at the box office, audiences went nuts for it at advance screenings, and it also garnered very positive reviews.

"I don’t think horror’s ever been more popular," says Stuart Gordon, writer / director of Re-Animator and From Beyond. "I just came back from a horror convention, and it was absolutely packed. The fans are just the most loyal in the world, and the fan base is enormous now. So yeah, I think horror’s in a very good place." (Re-Animator has also been adapted into a comedy musical, complete with splatter sections down front where audience members can get sprayed with gore).

Eduardo Sanzchez, who co-direccted The Blair Witch Project with Dan Myrick, says, "I think horror’s in a better place than it was in the ‘90’s. There’s definitely been a re-emergence of the genre. It’s just like every other genre, it has its ups and downs, but I think right now there’s some good stuff coming up."

With the Blair Witch Project, Sanchez and Myrick launched the "found footage" trend of filmmaking, where lost video footage usually tells a horrific back story of someone’s demise. The found footage genre had a big resurgance with The Paranormal Activity series, and it also branched out into other genres, like the Todd Phillips produced comedy Project X.

Sanchez says that with a found footage story, "You don’t need stars, and the monster can be the star. Also found footage can be done much cheaper than normal films, and I think that’s what’s driving it right now is Hollywood’s always looking for ways to make cheaper movies. I think it can be done in every genre really, and I’m glad to see that it’s expanding and being done in other kinds of films."

 As Dave Alexander, editor of Rue Morgue magazine, says, "Studios are following the latest trend of handheld, shot-on-video supernatural horror stories made for next to nothing, and hoping to get a piece of the Paranormal Activity pie. For such a small financial investment up front, all they have to do is roll out a marketing campaign big enough to get asses in seats on the first weekend before word-of-mouth and reviews keep audiences away. There was no advance screenings of The Devil Inside for good reason. Horror fans know the difference between a good and bad film, but an effective trailer and marketing push is all it takes for that first weekend crowd, especially during the post-Christmas dry spell."

And indeed, a major problem that’s always plagued horror is the major studios usually lowball the genre, treating it like a redheaded stepchild.

Make-up artist David Miller, who created the wonderfully hideous look of Freddy Krueger for the first Nightmare on Elm Street, says, "Most of the studios only agree to make horror films so they can make some interim money between blockbusters. They’re still low balling it. They know they can be made cheap, and show an impressive profit, but they still act all hush hush about it. They also often do horror films under an ‘indie’ branch of their studio, like they think horror films are beneath them."

Look for part two of our special report tomorrow.