TAU Special: The Horror Genre Part 1

Since the dawn of the film industry, horror has been a successful genre, scaring people out of their wits in a myriad of ways. Arguably the most suited genre to being displayed in dark cinemas on big screens with surround sound, horror films use these elements to scare the audience even more. We're starting to see a resurgence in the genre, and Hollywood has taken to remaking all the classics that we have grown up with. A new take on Carrie is released this week and, in its honour, The Awesome Update takes a look at the horror genre in all its glory.

The horror genre really began in the 1920’s in the heart of the Hollywood studios. The Godfather of horror pictures is ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’ Lon Chaney; his characters were so memorable they are still recognised today, and his portrayal of the phantom and his reveal in the silent classic The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is considered the first true horror moment. What made Chaney so impressive was not only that he could completely disappear into a part and look nothing like his true image, but that he did all the make-up himself. If it were not for Lon Chaney in the early 1920’s, we would not have the classic horror films and monsters that we are so accustomed to today.


Lon Chaney’s iconic horror characters from The Phantom of the Opera (1925), London after Midnight (1927) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Universal Studios were at the forefront of horror, and developed it into a real genre. Carl Laemmle Jr., the son and partner of the Universal head, had many ideas to push the success of this new kind of film. In 1931 he released Dracula, to great success, with Tod Browning directing Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in the role of the Count. He made it entirely his own, and it is the image that most Draculas have drawn from ever since; Lugosi was even buried in his Dracula cloak. The same year, Laemmle hired James Whale, the eccentric English Director, to direct the adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein. He worked with the genius make-up man, Jack P. Pierce, to transform a little known English actor, Boris Karloff, into the monster creation. Frankenstein was a huge hit, and Universal knew they had found a magic formula; audiences wanted to be scared, and they loved monsters. This lead to a slew of monster pictures, and to this day Universal monsters are beloved around the world. The Mummy and The Wolf Man (1941) were the next two iconic monster flicks, the first played again by Boris Karloff, and the latter by none other than Lon Chaney Jr., the son of the first horror actor. Sequels also followed naturally, the best being The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), widely considered superior to the first, but they soon became predictable and boring with ridiculous titles and even more ridiculous plots. They tried to mix popular monsters together in titles like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and even hired popular comedians of the day Abbott and Costello to take on their monsters. But as the decade slipped by and the 1950’s arrived, horror was failing rapidly. There were some stand outs like It came from out of Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) but - for the moment - the genre had become clichéd and laughable, and horror, it seemed, was dead.


Lugosi as Dracula, Karloff as Frankenstein and The Mummy and Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man

For almost a decade Hollywood forgot about Horror, with it no longer being viewed as marketable nor financially viable. Not everyone had forgotten the genre, however, and at Bray Studios in England, Hammer films found that whilst America might have had enough of Horror films, the Brits were ready for more. Beginning with the slightly more Sci-Fi film The Quatermass Experiment (1955), Hammer recreated the classic monsters for a new generation, along with the helping hand of their new find, Christopher Lee, who has since gone on to have an incredibly diverse and long career. Along with Lee was an actor who became a horror staple, Peter Cushing, with both actors becoming the equivalent of Lugosi and Karloff at Universal, and forever after intrinsically linked to the genre. The most impressive of the collection are of course the most famous of the monsters The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), with Cushing on board as Dr Frankenstein and Lee his creature. Then came Horror of Dracula (1958) with Lee being promoted to star as Dracula himself, and Cushing taking on the role of Van Helsing.


Christopher Lee as Dracula and Frankenstein’s Creature, and Peter Cushing as Dr Frankenstein

Inspired by Hammers success, Roger Corman created a series of films between 1960 and 1964 based on gothic stories from Edgar Allan Poe. He used another English actor who will always be remembered for his work in the horror genre - even being asked personally to narrate the speech at the beginning of Michael Jackson’s hit song Thriller - Vincent Price, who had great success with House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and many more. Still, the genre began following a similar pattern of cheap films with mediocre scares and over acted performances. That was, until, one of the most famous of directors turned the genre on its head, Alfred Hitchcock. He was looking for a new script when he found the book Psycho, about the famous serial killer Ed Gein, and decided this would be his next film. What he ended up with was a film unlike any he or the industry had ever made before. Anyone who hasn’t seen Psycho is missing out; it was Hitchcock’s most successful movie and left audiences screaming and running for the exits.


Vincent Price at his most sinister, Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in Psycho

Psycho did wonders for the horror genre; it showed filmmakers that there could be realism in these films. Hollywood rediscovered the horror genre and, unlike the independent studios, they had money to burn. Films like Night of the Living Dead (1968) introduced the world to zombies without a hint of humour - they were a serious threat. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was the first American film from European director Roman Polanski; his star Mia Farrow plays a woman who moves in next door to Satanists, who decide she is the perfect person to have the devils baby. The Innocents (1961) - whose review you will find on the Awesome Update on Wednesday 18th December - focuses more on the supernatural, but it is played just as straight as, if not more than, those listed. Hollywood had found a new formula for horror movies: play it straight, and give them as much realism as you can.

That seems as good a place as any to end Part 1 of our Horror Special, so, for now, this has been Mary for The Awesome Update.

Interested in reading more? Check back on Thursday for Part 2 of The Awesome Updates Horror Special, where Mary takes a look at the 70s through to modern day!

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