Through Gore Generations and the Horrific Cult Films

Charles King

Charles King

One curious characteristic of books about horror films is that they tend to end pessimistically, either by prophesying the impending collapse of the genre or, at the least, mourning its decline.

The merits of the old movies versus the new are an endless subject for debate among horror fans, and there is now, in this age of specialisation, a magazine for each camp.

For horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, you can read ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’; for the 1960s, ‘Psychotronic’; for the 1980s, ‘European Trash Cinema’; and for the present, ‘Fangoria’. What produces these generational divisions, and does anything provide a bridge between them?

I have often heard people say that new horror films are less suspenseful than older ones, but in my experience, the sort of person who makes this statement tends to watch neither the new horror films nor the old — and can name few (if any) titles to support the argument.

I have watched a sizable number of horror films from every decade, and I cannot honestly see suspense as a dividing factor. Indeed, the idea that suspense was the dominant characteristic of the early decades of horror movies is rather odd. There are individual exceptions — like ‘Cat People’ (1942) — but most of the early classics are more charming than threatening.

The ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935) is a great film, but it is not a particularly suspenseful one — certainly not more suspenseful than ‘Halloween’ (1978) or ‘Near Dark’ (1987) or ‘Candyman’ (1992). Each era has produced its share of suspenseful films, but also lots of dull clunkers, as well as some horror films that are interesting for reasons other than suspense. I cannot see any grounds for dividing horror films into periods on the basis of suspense.

Gore is a more significant source of division. When Pierre Brasseur, in Georges Franju’s ‘Les yeux sans visage’ (1959), methodically cut the skin from Beatrice Altariba’s face in an unflinching close-up, it ushered in a new era of graphic screen mayhem, which is still with us today. There are those who have never adjusted to the age of splatter, and I suppose for them the horror genre ended around 1960. Still, I do not think that they are particularly numerous, or that the “make-up revolution” has changed the genre as much as it might appear at first glance.

Gore has never worked well as an end unto itself. Movies that attempted to rely solely on special effects for their appeal — like William Lustig’s ‘Maniac’ (1980) — have generally faded into obscurity. When ‘The Exorcist’ was released in 1973, many critics said that its success was due solely to its effects. After twenty years, however, those same effects now look quite primitive, but ‘The Exorcist’ retains its power to disturb because it always had the qualities that make any film useful: a strong cast, a talented director, and an exciting script. The best genre movies of the last fifteen years — films like ‘Videodrome’ (1980), ‘Tenebrae’ (1982). ‘The Re-Animator’ (1985), ‘The Fly’ (1986), ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ (1986), and ‘Candyman’ (1992) — were all bloody, but they all had more than just gore to offer.

Gore in films has actually reached a sort of equilibrium. The novelty has simply worn off. Outside of Hong Kong, where filmmakers are racing to violate every screen taboo before the communists take over in 1997, movies devoted solely to on-screen bloodletting have declined greatly in number. Moreover, there is a growing public acceptance of splatter, as is shown by its penetration (without controversy) of mainstream adventure films like ‘Robocop’ (1987) or Clint Eastwood’s much-praised ‘Unforgiven’ (1992). The more gore becomes a routine element of movies outside of the horror genre, the less it remains an intrinsic barrier between the generations of horror viewers — except in the extreme case of persons who only watch the older films.

I think it is better to explain the chronological divisions among horror fans regarding generational self-definition. If you compare the birthdates with the preferences of various critics that specialise in writing about the genre, the results are revealing. Forrest J. Ackerman has devoted his long career to promoting the horror films of the 1930s. He was born in 1916.

Phil Hardy, the editor of the ‘Encyclopedia of Horror Movies’, provided a list of his ten favourite horror films. Eight of them are from the period 1957-1968. Hardy was born in 1945. A similar list from David Pirie, author of ‘A Heritage of Horror’, again shows eight out of ten films from 1957-1968. He was born in 1946. My own list leans heavily on the 1970s and 80s. I was born in 1965.

I have yet to find a single example of a critic who shows a marked preference for horror films made after he or she was thirty years old, and the cut-off is often before age 20 — that is, before the person was old enough to become a professional critic. It is also rare to find a critic whose favourite horror films were made before his or her birth.

It seems that the best horror films are the movies of the critic’s youth. This phenomenon helps to explain why virtually all horror movies — even those that eventually become acclaimed as classics — are greeted with hostile reviews upon initial release. No new horror film can ever measure up to the current critic’s own “golden age” of horror, an age which has a lot to do with when the critic reached puberty.

I think that the generational divisions within horror are ultimately the same phenomenon as the divisions within popular music. Each new generation of fans sees something new and bold in the films and music of their era — qualities that they think the older films and music lacked. Soon, though, these new fans have to go on the defensive, for they find that an even younger group of fans with even newer tastes is attempting to push them and their films off of centre stage. Thus, the films of the early 1960s that John McCarty praises so highly in his book ‘The Modern Horror Film’ are exactly the same films that Carlos Clarens blasted in his book, ‘An Illustrated History of the Horror Film’. McCarty was born in 1944, and Clarens in 1936. In terms of popular tastes, a “generation” might not be more than a decade — and is sometimes probably less.

It is really remakes and reformulations of older ideas that provide the glue that holds the horror genre together, both helping fans define “their” generation and providing a common basis for dialogue between the generations. Most of the familiar types of cinematic monsters — vampires, serial killers, scientifically created villains, etc. — can be found already in the films of the 1920s and 30s, but every few years films redefine and adapt them to new contexts. There have been films about serial killers since ‘The Leopard Lady’ (1928), if not earlier, but ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ (1986) is definitely a product of the late 1980s — and could not have been made earlier.

Overt remakes, such as the many “Dracula” films, provide even more direct contrasts between the eras. Such remakes serve two purposes. They allow a new generation to see Dracula, or one of the other familiar horror pantheon, presented in a way that is aimed directly at them — for new movies are always aimed at the young. At the same time, such films allow older critics to canonise the films of their own generation at the expense of the remakes. Thus, in the late 1950s and 60s, Hammer studios’ series of remakes of the 1930s era Universal Horror films was greeted with great acclaim by the young — and with venom by the critical establishment.

Hammer’s period of success, however, was exactly the time at which the old Universal series became “the” classic model for what an American horror film should be. It is always the preceding generation — whose favourites are being pushed aside — that writes each era’s film reference books, and which sets the standards against which the next generation of horror fans and filmmakers will rebel.

To an outside observer, the number of remakes and the conservatism of subject matter within the horror genre must seem remarkable. There are two films of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” coming out in 1995. They are, by my count, the forty-second and forty-third versions of that particular story on film.

“Frankenstein” and “Dracula” films probably number over a hundred each, and vampire films of all sorts may number closer to a thousand. The process of remaking horror films is not, however, as repetitive as it sounds. Like “western” movies, a certain number of conventions need to be upheld for a movie to even qualify as a part of the genre. The entertainment value of a horror film often comes from the skill with which the filmmakers subtly alter old horror conventions and introduce new ideas without entirely rejecting old and familiar forms.

Such variations, as I have already suggested, are often designed to appeal to the sensibilities of the latest generation of fans, but the conservatism of subject matter in the genre gives older fans a foothold at least. A fan of the Universal or Hammer Dracula films might not have nearly as favourable an opinion about the Count’s latest film appearance, but he or she would be able to discuss it in a way that fans of Frank Sinatra probably could not discuss Metallica.

Horror fans may prefer the films of their youth, but they do not stop watching new films when they reach age thirty. Instead, they watch the new films with an eye to proving how the “best” elements of those films are those that were derived from “their” horror films. Despite the disagreements, the lines of communication remain open between the fans of different eras.

While the generational divisions among horror fans are a real phenomenon, they are ultimately less important than the essential unity of the genre and its ability to adapt to each new era without abandoning the elements that made it interesting in the first place.

Moreover, so I think I will break with tradition and end by saying that the horror genre is alive and well and likely to survive for a long time.

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