The motives of early gothic literature (works of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker etc.) were the subjects for the first films of this genre. Its most significant pioneers were the silent films from the era of German expressionism such as ‘Das Cabinetdes Dr Caligari’ (‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,’ 1920) by Robert Wiene, ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau or ‘Der Golem’ (‘The Golem,’ 1915) by Paul Wegener.
The gothic character reflected in the settings of the plot were often terrifying old mansions, castles and fortresses and misty dark places. The protagonists were inhuman, supernatural beings such as vampires, madmen, demons, unfriendly ghosts, monsters like Frankenstein, zombies, split personalities like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, satanic villains, werewolves, mad scientists and freaks. Sometimes it was an invisible immaterial evil, which filled the surroundings.
With the succession of sound in the 1930s during the twentieth-century, horror cinematography spread even more. Hollywood film production, which did not exclude this genre from its repertoire, massively contributed to the growth of its popularity.
Certainly, in Hollywood, horror became famous thanks to director Tod Browning and his favourite actor, Lon Chaney. Together they produced films like ‘Outside the Law’ (1921), ’The Unholy Three’ (1925) or ‘West of Zanzibar’ (1928). Furthermore, he played in films like ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923) by director Wallace Worsley and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925) by Rupert Julian.
In 1920 the first film version of Robert Louis Stephenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ had been produced, starring John Barrymore. This was many times remade and adapted, as well as ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ Eleven years later, in the workshop of director James Whale, the first adaptation of the novel ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born with Boris Karloff in the leading role.
The legend of the werewolf debuted on the screen in 1935 (‘The Werewolf of London’). Other significant works of this period were ‘King Kong’ (1933), ‘Dracula’ (1931), ‘Freaks’ (1932), ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933), ‘The Mummy’ (1932), ‘The Ghoul’ (1933) and many others. Then followed the films that combined these basic legends, such as ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman’ (1943).
In the 1950s horror gained a different purpose. It became the mediator of the creators’ own fears of the phenomena of the era such as The Cold War. The most significant film metaphor of this phenomenon was the ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956) by Donald Siegel.
In ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ (1957) Jack Arnold referred to the consequences of radiation. After an unsuccessful experiment, the main character starts to shrink and even the most trivial things of mundane life, such as his cat or a spider, meant fatal danger.
In this period the film studios started experimenting with three-dimensional effects. The film ‘House of Wax’ (1953) brought Vincent Leonard Price Jr., the actor who played the sculptor Professor Henry Jarrod, fame and the title “King of Horror.”
Even though there had been some adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of terror in the 1930’s the 1960’s seemed to take off with films based on some of his famous stories and poems, in which the main character was mostly played by Vincent Leonard Price Jr., (for example ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1960), ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (1961) or ‘The Raven’ (1963). However, it was also the era when Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock produced his most successful films such as ‘Psycho’ (1960), ‘Birds’ (1960) or ‘Marnie’ (1964).
Films like ‘Rosemary‘s Baby’ (1968) by the Polish director Rajmund Roman Thierry Polański and the first from the zombie-film series of George Andrew Romero, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) excelled as well.
The 1970s were very fertile for horror production. They were characterised more and more by the intensive depiction of violence, blood and brutality. In 1971 the prominent United States of America director Stanley Kubrick shot ‘Clockwork Orange’ based on the eponymous novel by John Anthony Burgess Wilson. It was full of violence, murders and behavioural experiments that tried to eliminate the negative factors.
In 1974, William Tobe Hooper released his low-budget film ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ a terrifying shock horror film inspired by the real life serial killer Edward Theodore Gein aka ‘The Butcher of Plainfield’ which gained the cult status.
A few years later other sequels were produced. In 1975, ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was shot and it combined the genres of horror, musical and comedy, and was later adapted for the theatre.
Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster about a killer white shark, ‘Jaws,’ was released in the same year. Among the other important films of this period were, ‘The Exorcist’ by William Friedkin from 1973, ‘Halloween’ by John Howard Carpenter from 1978 and ‘Alien’ by Sir Ridley Scott from 1979.
The 1980s and the 1990s were ruled by so-called slashers, where the main character was usually a mentally disturbed serial killer or mass murderer, who chose youngsters or women as his victims.
Legends like Freddy Krueger from ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and Jason Voorhees from ‘Friday the 13th’ were born. They were so successful that their creators produced a series of sequels and in 2003 they even got to confront each other in the film ‘Freddy vs. Jason.’ In 1988 ‘Chucky,’ the killer doll-boy was born in the film ‘Child‘s Play,’ which was later followed by two sequels.
It was thus a period of trilogies and sequels from which only a few are to be mentioned: the trilogy of Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead,’ eight films of ‘Hellraiser,’ which reach into the twenty-first-century, the first film of the ‘Hannibal Lecter’ quadrilogy, ‘Silence of the Lambs’ based on the novel by Thomas Harris and the ‘Scream’ trilogy by Wesley Earl Craven.
The most famous works of contemporary horror, the so-called twenty-first-century horror were ‘The Ring’ (2002 — the American remake of the Japanese ‘Ringu’ from 1998) and ‘The Ring Two’ (2005); ‘The Grudge’ trilogy (2004–2009, also a remake of a 2002 Japanese film ‘Ju-On’) and ‘Dark Water’ (2005, a remake of the Japanese ‘Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara’ from 2002).
From the creative mind of James Wan came the movie ‘Saw’ and its sequels, which is a horror about a jigsaw killer and can be considered as a slasher with a very detailed and interwoven plot.
Other significant films are ‘Hills Have Eyes I – II’ (2006-2007, a remake of a 1977 film); ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ (2007, first shot in 1954) and the sequels of box office hit horrors of previous decades such as several sequels and a prequel to ‘The Exorcist.’