“One distinction I want to make, a point I am always careful to make in this country and abroad, is that I differentiate between the entertainment ‘terror’ in the Poe pictures and the modern ‘psychological’ terror films.”
Vincent Price in Monsters, Maidens & Mayhem: A Pictorial History of Hollywood Film Monsters (1965)
A Symbiotic Relationship
Question #1: Is terror the same as horror? Can those terms be used to distinguish between supernatural fright films (horror) and movies based on mental, medically explainable aberration (terror)?
Question #2: when is a horror film actually a science fiction film, and vice versa? Frankenstein (1931) is usually reckoned a horror film, but it is also science fiction. It has a laboratory and a scientist using technology to resurrect the dead or create life from the body parts of various corpses. Alien (1979) is generally thought of as a science fiction movie. It has the technological hardware and takes place in space (In space no one can hear you scream read the poster), but it is also creates a sense of dread. Likewise, one of Alien’s inspirations, The Thing from Another World (1951) featured a being from outer space desiring human blood for itself and its progeny. So it’s a vampire? The Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises pose this conundrum: are Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees undeads inexplicably, i.e., unscientifically, returned to life? Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) skirt the issue. It is only in the ensuing films that some, often lame reasons are posited about these killing machines. In Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis calls Michael “evil on two legs.” One can detect an element of the supernatural in Jason’s first outing: the finale suggests he is capable of living underwater. In Friday the 13th Part 6 (1986) Jason is resurrected via “Frankenstein” methods, i.e., lightning. Have we therefore crossed the line into science fiction? In the final analysis, it might be best not to ask too many questions about character creation and motivation in what are often termed “slasher” movies.
For the purposes of this piece, horror will only apply to the supernatural, thus leaving out such terror films as Psycho, Blood Feast, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream, The Silence of the Lambs, and Saw.
After the advent of sound films in 1927, horror came rapidly to the fore as a distinct genre. Although wildly different in tone, like the musical, horror seemed to provide catharsis for audiences suffering through the Great Depression. Hollywood horror was influenced by German expressionistic cinema, e.g., The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922). With Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein Universal Pictures started a trend and became the go-to studio for tales of vampires, werewolves, mummies, and lab-created human beings. Universal created the models we still follow as it delved into the arcane and eldritch in The Mummy (1932), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Werewolf of London (1935), Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and The Wolf Man (1941). Other studios did on occasion jump on the bandwagon and backed some films of equal significance, e.g., Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Warner Bros.’ Doctor X (1932), United Artists’ White Zombie(1932).
The films of the era contain the lines we quote and parody today:
“Look, it’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s moving. It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive. It’s alive! In the name of God, now I know what it feels like….” (Frankenstein)
“Alone, bad. Friend, good. Friend, good!” (Bride of Frankenstein)
“Listen to them. The children of the night. What sweet music they make.”
“I never drink—wine.”
“The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield.” (Dracula)
“Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers at night may turn to a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright.” (The Wolf Man)
Taking a more somber tack in the 1940s was RKO, where Val Lewton produced and sometimes co-wrote a series of moody, dark thrillers, all of which possessed an undercurrent of unease and terror, some of which could be construed to or in fact did contain supernatural elements: Cat People, Isle of the Dead, I Walked with a Zombie, The Body Snatcher, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, Curse of the Cat People.
Real ghosts—as opposed to those who turn out to be hoaxes—inhabited several sterling horror films in the ‘40s. Prime examples were MGM’s The Canterville Ghost (1944), Paramount’s The Uninvited (1944) and Fox’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).
Horror Down, Science Fiction Up
The creation of the atomic bomb in 1945 sounded a temporary death knell for traditional cinematic horror. Science fiction came to the fore whereas the number of bona fide science fiction films prior to the splitting of the atom had been negligible. These included Just Imagine (1930), The Invisible Ray (1936), and Dr. Cyclops (1940). After ’45, with the advent of the A-bomb and the knowledge of radiation and mutation, plus jet planes, rockets and the possibility of space flight, what humans could do and might do for good or evil supplanted what began to seem quaint. Universal parodied itself in 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In 1950, with Destination Moon, science fiction was put on the track into a golden age. [see “The Golden Age of Science Fiction Movies, 1950-1956” on the Multimedia Blog, March, 2013] Spaceships, mutants, giant ants and spiders and mantises, thawed-out dinosaurs, a plutonium blast that made a man a giant, radiation from an alien that made a woman a giant, a radioactive cloud that made a man bug size, alien invaders—these got the public’s attention. It didn’t last, however. Increasingly, science fiction movies became B-movies, i.e., cheaply made programmers with outre titles such as The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), The Alligator People (1959), Invisible Invaders (1959).
Perhaps science fiction’s loss of prestige made it easier for horror to retake its position in the fantastic film firmament. If the early Hollywood sound horror films had been inspired by Germany, Britain spurred this latest change when in 1957 Hammer Studios released The Curse of Frankenstein—in color! Hammer followed with Horror of Dracula (Dracula in the U.K.). Both were extremely successful. Gothic horror would dominate Hammer films for more than a decade, with the studio remaking The Mummy, continuing the Dracula and Frankenstein series, adding its own werewolf and zombies, and creating the “Karnstein Trilogy” featuring voluptuous female bloodsuckers. Peter Cushing, who played Van Helsing in the vampire films and the doctor in the Frankenstein sagas, and Christopher Lee, the face of the new vampire count, became cult stars.
Hollywood took notice, and “The King of the Bs,” director Roger Corman at American International Pictures, gained fame with adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories even if at times only the title was Poe-inspired. House of Usher (1960) starred Vincent Price, the tall, dark supporting player of many mainstream Hollywood films. He was to become a cult star himself, working for Corman in, among others, Tales of Terror, and The Raven. Sometimes Corman went far afield, literally. The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) were filmed in England. Novelist Stephen King reckoned that along with the Hammer films, Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) paved the way toward explicit gruesomeness. Vincent Price opened the coffin of his wife to find her body frozen in rictus, her hands held up in a desperate attempt to push off the bier’s lid. She’d been buried alive! This, observed King, demonstrated how far filmmakers were going to go to shock us.
The Corman films and science fiction and horror movies in general catered to the youth market, aka baby boomers, and were fodder for matinees and drive-ins. “Gimmick” horror films, some of which were bogus horror (rational explanations offered during the finale) came from the entrepreneurial mind of producer William Castle. On the Macabre (1958) poster audience members were informed that “Any member of the audience is insured for $1000.00 against DEATH BY FRIGHT during the performance of this terrifying picture.” In Halliwell’s Film Guide, British author and critic Leslie Halliwell aptly observed: “We are not aware that the money was ever paid. But then, if someone did die of fright, how would they prove it? (Having seen the picture, we can definitely say that death by boredom is more likely.)” In The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, author Michael Weldon called it Peyton Place set in a graveyard.
Castle continued the horror gimmick route with House on Haunted Hill (1959). In some theaters a skeleton on a wire rocketed out above the audience. For The Tingler (1959) a device known as “Percepto” was used to vibrate selected seats when the title creature escaped its human bonds in a theater. (Shades of The Blob!) Warned Vincent Price, “Ladies and gentlemen. Please, do not panic, but scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater, and if you don’t scream it may kill you. Scream! Scream! Keep screaming! Scream for your lives! Ladies and gentlemen, the Tingler has been paralyzed by your screaming. There is no more danger. We will now resume the showing of the movie.” A pseudo-3-D was used in 13 Ghosts (1960). Featuring a “Fright Break,” Homicidal (1961) was a Castle film obviously owing a debt to the previous year’s Psycho.
A mix of horror and science fiction took place in 1957 with three films, all with a Hollywood staple, the mad doctor. Two featured Whit Bissell in this role: I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Werewolf. In the latter he proclaimed himself the world’s benefactor who through hypnosis would unleash “the savage instincts that lie hidden within.” Moreover, “Mankind is on the verge of destroying itself. The only hope for the human race is to hurl it back into its primitive dawn, to start all over again. What’s one life compared to such a triumph?” In Blood of Dracula a young woman was transformed into a demonic-like killer. The real villainess played by Louise Lewis told her charge, “Power, especially the power to kill, is never pretty. It won’t go on much longer. In time you’ll be proud of the part you played in saving mankind. Here, drink this.” The potential for atomic annihilation might be the subtext for one or more of these cheaply made but very successful movies.
Other low-budget horror films of the era included Curse of the Undead (1959), about a vampire gunslinger, and The Return of Dracula (1958). High class horror was represented by The Haunting (1963), directed by Academy Award-winner Robert Wise.
Zombies had a history before 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. In White Zombie (1932), the coach driver played by Clarence Muse explained, “Yes, monsieur. Zombies. The Living Dead. Corpses taken from their graves or made to work in the sugar mill, or fields at night. Look! Here they come!” After Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), the title character had little exposure on cinema screens. A small comeback occurred in 1966 with Hammer Studio’s Plague of the Zombies, but in 1968 that there was a real breakthrough, and what a resurrection it was: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. (“Don’t you know what’s going on out there? This is no Sunday school picnic!” railed Duane Jones) Were these zombies of supernatural or scientific origin, e.g., a virus? It took another decade for Romero to jump start this oeuvre with Dawn of the Dead. After that came a zombie boom with increasingly fast-moving undeads that has yet to abate. At the time, many reviewers were appalled. Even the exceptional genre magazine Castle of Frankenstein called Night of the Living Dead “putrid.” Variety, the Bible of the entertainment industry concurred: “Casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers,…the film industry as a whole and exhibs who book the pic, as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and about the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism….No brutalizing stone is left unturned….” . (Director George Romero had been said to be making a racial statement by having a black man, Duane Jones, as his star, but the director told a West Chester University audience in 2000 that he chose Jones as his lead because he was the best actor in his cast.)
A Brief Sci-Fi Boom
Quality science fiction made a comeback the same year with two large-scale smash hits: Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nevertheless, it would take a decade for a true high-quality science fiction film boom to materialize.
TV Horror, Blaxploitation, Possession
Dark Shadows was an afternoon TV soap opera that ran from 1966 to 1971. Jonathan Frid became famous as the vampiric Barnabus Collins. The series spawned two decent theatrical films with the TV cast, House of Dark Shadows (1970), and Night of Dark Shadows (1971).
Robert Quarry had his moment in the sun in Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and The Return of Count Yorga (1971). In the latter he watches Hammer Studios’ The Vampire Lovers (1970) on TV.
“Blaxploitation” was not just private eyes (Shaft, 1971), bank robbers (Cool Breeze, (1972), pushers (Superfly, 1972), ‘Nam vets taking their revenge on the mob (Slaughter, 1972), or pimps (The Mack, 1973). Horror was part of this oeuvre, most notably Blacula (1972) and Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973) with classically trained actor William Marshall giving gravitas to the title character. Played straight, both were frightening and amusing tales. Thalmus Rasulala, the heist planner in Cool Breeze, played the vampire hunter in Blacula.
Films of possession were next in the pipeline. Preceded by 1972’s The Possession of Joel Delaney with Shirley MacLaine, The Exorcist (1973) captured the public’s imagination. Two Blaxploitation horrors were concerned with possession: Abby (1974) and J. D.’s Revenge (1976). Stephen King’s novel Carrie became a surprise hit in 1976. That same year The Omen (1976) reinvigorated superstar Gregory Peck’s career.
As noted, in terms of quality and scale, there had been no immediate science fiction consequence for Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey until Logan’s Run (1976), which while an often silly version of the novel did make money and portended a new age of handsomely-produced science fiction movies. The following year came Star Wars, in 1978 Superman, and in 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Nevertheless, horror was not supplanted, and in 1978 another ground-breaker was released. John Carpenter’s Halloween featured the unstoppable Michael Myers, hiding his face behind a William Shatner Star Trek Captain Kirk mask. This ostensible lunatic returned to Haddonfield, Illinois to terrorize the community. Even though Tommy (Brian Andrews) knew “You can’t kill the boogeyman,” Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode managed to confound him, or…it! How could he take bullets and fall from the second floor and escape? The success of the film spawned a series, as did 1980’s Friday the 13th. Counselors at a deep woods summer camp (where there are no screens on the windows) find their number reduced by a maniacal mother and in the ensuing films her equally murderous offspring, Jason Voorhees. Curiously, actress and former game show guest Betsy Palmer turned out to be the maniac, Jason’s mother who lived a double life: “Kill her, mommy. Kill her. Don’t let her get away, mommy. Don’t let her live….I won’t, Jason, I won’t!” As the series progressed, Jason became a truly supernatural entity who like Michael Myers could take a licking and keep on ticking. Some critics found the subtext to be warnings about teen sex and its ramification, e.g., death.
Since the 1980s, horror movies—some major, many independent and in some instances made on a shoestring budget but looking good and, as Variety might have said, generating coin—have coexisted with science fiction on a fairly equal basis. Based on Stephen King’s novel, Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining (1980) was a deeply disturbing film, with Jack Nicholson (who’d served some of his film acting apprenticeship in The Raven and The Terror) become iconic as the increasingly maniacal and possessed Jack Torrance (“Here’s Johnny!”). Some of the groundbreaking horror films since The Shining are The Evil Dead (1981), The Howling (1981), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Poltergeist (1982), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and The Last Exorcism (2010).
In addition to Michael Myers and Jason, Freddy Krueger joined the pantheon of horror movie icons in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Most of the sequels were actually good.
As it had been influenced by silent German films and in the 50s British Gothics, Hollywood would look to Japan for some of its recent projects, e.g., The Ring, The Grudge, Silent Hill. As with science fiction, sequels and remakes became de rigueur. Videogames such as Silent Hill found themselves filmed, often to no good effect.
And today? Without excessive fanfare, in 2017 Stephen King’s giant novel It, which had been a 1990 2-part TV mini-series, became an immensely popular feature film. Shortly after release it surpassed The Exorcist as the highest-grossing horror movie of all time in the United States. Chapter Two is in the works.
It is fitting that coexistence between horror and science fiction has continued in recent decades, with Jason Voorhees himself (itself?) transplanted onto a spacecraft in Jason X (2001). It remains a symbiotic relationship and helps explain why Horror, Science Fiction (and Fantasy) comprise a specific film genre.
Beau. “Night of the Living Dead.” Variety, October 16, 1968, p. 6. [film review]
Castle of Frankenstein, July 1970, p. 60. [Night of the Living Dead review]
Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell’s Film Guide: A Survey of 8000 English-Language Movies. 1977.
Hardy, Phil. The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies. 1986.
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. 1981.
Steiger, Brad. Monsters, Maidens & Mayhem: A Pictorial History of Hollywood Film Monsters. 1965.
Weldon, Michael. The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. 1983.