Years from now, historians may watch horror movies to find out what life in the 20th century was really like. When they do, at least they’ll know what we fear.
With nearly a century of horror films to survey, film historians already are beginning to find parallels between what haunted us on the screen and what haunts us in real life.
Hollywood pretty much stopped making horror movies from 1946 to 1950. It’s conventional wisdom that vampires and werewolves no longer seemed capable of scaring us after Hitler’s death camps and the atomic ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We even started laughing at them, in films like the 1948 “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
By the 1950s, though, we were nervous about a whole new set of horrors: radiation, nuclear war and whatever might be lurking in our newest frontier - outer space. Hollywood responded with a wave of mutated monster movies (“The Deadly Mantis” and “The Giant Claw,” both 1957); atomic war flicks (“Five,” 1951, and “Day the World Ended,” 1956); and alien invader films (“The Thing From Another World,” 1951, and “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,” 1956).
A decade later, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) opened the creaking door to a new generation of slasher films and their bloody sequels (“Halloween,” 1978; “Friday the 13th,” 1980; “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” 1984), just in time to enhance America’s growing paranoia about sociopathic killers roaming the suburbs undeterred by inept cops.
Today, Hollywood has seized upon a new source of horror: the sinister United States government, which may be covering up alien invaders (“The X-Files Movie,” 1998), letting genetically engineered monsters loose in our cities (“Mimic,” 1997) or opening the doorway to ghouls from other dimensions (“Event Horizon,” 1997).
This week, thanks to TV’s Halloween horror movie marathons, we can all play this game. For a century-long overview of screen vs. real-life horror in one breezy hour, you can’t do better than AMC cable’s “Monster Mania,” hosted by Jack Palance. It will be shown twice in prime time Halloween night, at 7 and 9:30 in the Inland Northwest.
Palance’s chiller tour begins with the spooky short silent films of Frenchman George Melies and the earliest screen version of “Frankenstein,” made in 1910 by Thomas A. Edison. An outstanding survey of the genre, it even includes home movies of stars such as Boris Karloff. It won’t take long to notice the uncanny connections between the times and their preferred monsters.
In the early days, for instance, the troubled Germans, struggling to rebuild after World War I, were making the truly distinctive horror films while American filmmakers filmed evergreens such as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” In Germany, Robert Wiene’s bizarre, expressionistic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919) seemed to get inside the twisted human mind; Paul Wegener’s “The Golem” (1920), based on the Hebrew fable of a monstrous clay man created in cabalistic rites to defy the king, seemed to underscore the growing plight of the Jews in Germany; Fritz Lang’s stylish “Metropolis” (1926) was like a preview of the coming Nazi dictatorship.
Social trends are obvious. For decades, the only black people moviegoers saw in horror films were comedians such as Mantan Moreland and Willie Best, who were included only to show how frightened they could get when a zombie was around. But the civil rights movement in America changed that and led to the amazing “Blacula” (1972) with handsome, courtly William Marshall as a resurrected African vampire in Los Angeles, which did so well it produced a sequel, “Scream, Blacula, Scream” (1973).
Both the AMC special and the network’s horrorthon (Thursday night through Saturday morning) pay special attention to the films of England’s Hammer studios, which from the late 1950s through the 1970s revived all the traditional movie monsters of the 1930s and added color, wide screen, explicit sexuality and a new level of gore.
The return to horror movie basics probably owed a lot to the impact of television on American youngsters in the 1950s. Baby boomers who were born after the studios stopped making horror pictures in 1946 got to see all the originals on TV, often hosted by comic ghouls such as Vampira or Zacherley, and fell under the same spell their parents had a generation earlier.
We’re now pulling out of yet a third wave - the revisionist era of the 1990s that brought us “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” and even “Dr. Jekyll & Ms. Hyde.” The revisionist era reaches its nadir Sunday with NBC’s “House of Frankenstein” miniseries, which brings werewolves, vampires and Frankenstein’s monster to a Los Angeles nightclub, circa 1997.
Though future historians may be interested in tracing the paths of our culture through our horror films, it’s a shame we couldn’t leave them a note on one peculiar 20th century trait: We used to sit through an awful lot of crummy movies in our century.
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