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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Blood & Guts: A History of Horror Movies, Part 5

In the wake of the turbulent 1960s, the horror genre had been dramatically and permanenently altered. One taboo after another was being torn down, and it would be in the following two decades--viewed by some as the genre's second golden age--that the doors would be completely blown off.
In many ways, the 1970s represent an era in horror flicks which has yet to be equalled in terms of shocking themes, graphic violence and unflinchingly grim outlook. The demise of the restrictive Hays Code spawned two branches: one in which top-flight films began to be made with horror subject matter, and the other in which blood-soaked low-budget exploitation material meant easy money.
The success of Rosemary's Baby led to 1973's The Exorcist, often hailed as the most frightening horror film ever made. Whether or not it was, The Exorcist was a mainstream American film dealing with demonic possession--something that would've been unheard of just several years before. A series of occult and Satanic-themed pictures would follow, including Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) and The Omen (1976). All dealt frankly with matters of religion, and contained powerful dramatic performances.
On the other end of the spectrum, American audiences were confronted with a type of horror they were thoroughly unprepared for, and in the process some of horror's finest directors would make their names. Wes Craven emerged on the scene in 1972 with The Last House on the Left, featuring brutal scenes of rape and disembowelment. Two years later, Tobe Hooper created what was arguably the pinnacle of the subgenre, the nightmarish Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And in 1978, George Romero followed up his seminal '60s masterpiece Night of the Living Dead with Dawn of the Dead, this time ratcheting up both the gore quotient and the social commentary.
This explosion of explicit gore content was unheard of in the history of cinema, particularly American cinema--and it didn't go unnoticed outside U.S. boundaries. Other countries, most notably Italy, soon followed suit. Italian filmmakers such as Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci churned out films that in many ways surpassed their American counterparts in terms of their power to both disturb and revolt.
Popular horror fiction writer Stephen King would become a force to be reckoned with in the movie world, as well. Beginning with 1976's Carrie, his novels and short stories would prove a fertile source of film material. Perhaps the greatest of them all would be Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), quite possibly the best-made fright film ever.
By the end of the 1970s, the new style of horror was firmly in place, and even some of the old subgenres would begin to be reinvigorated by it. Ridley Scott gave us Alien in 1979, capitalizing on the success of Star Wars to bring back the horror/sci-fi movie. And it was the year before that John Carpenter produced a film that would take the territory first mined by Psycho to a whole new level, defining 1980s horror in the process.
Halloween was a new kind of horror flick, specifically, it was a slasher flick, portraying a superhuman, stalker/killer (in this case, Michael Myers) who systemically murders a series of hopeless victims over the course of 90 minutes. Although most still regard it as the high watermark of slasher movies, it spawned literally countless followers.
Chief among them would be Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the franchises which gave the world Jason Voorhess and Freddy Kreuger, respectively. The 1980s would be dominated by these types of horror movies and their limitless sequels. And although today a generation of fans who grew up on them look back with fondness and nostalgia, at the time they were viewed by critics and older fans as the genre's all-time nadir.
Nevertheless, by the early 1980s horror had begun to struggle again at the box office. Some point to the advent of VHS home video, with most low-budget flicks in general having trouble competing for audience dollars with massive Hollywood productions. Horror would find a new home in the video market, with releases such as The Evil Dead (1981), The Fly (1986) and Re-Animator (1985) becoming run-away hits with audiences that found it easier to pay less and watch in their own homes. In the U.K., this led to the phenomenon of the so-called "video nasties"--movies deemed by British censors to be unacceptable due to home video's availability to children. Naturally, these pictures would become the most sought-after for British horror fans.
The 1980s' other major contribution would be the proliferation of horror comedy. Although humor had always had a place in the genre, never before had gut-wrenching violence been so deftly meshed with black comedy as it was in such pictures as Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II (1987), Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead (1985) or Peter Jackson's Bad Taste (1987). With the almost mind-numbing level horror movie violence had achieved, it was a natural reaction to spoof it.
The 1970s and 1980s produced some of the most powerful and disturbing horror movies ever seen. Some would even argue the genre hasn't reached similar heights since. Yet despite changing times, the standard set during those years would become a benchmark to inspire and motivate every horror filmmaker who came after.
Other major releases:
Part 1: The Silent Dead
Part 2: Gods & Monsters
Part 3: It Came from Hollywood
Part 4: The Times, They Are a-Changin'
Soon to come - Part 6: From Post Mortem to Postmodern

5 comments:

Ryne said...

Wow, nice summary of the 1970s and 80s. But what about Black Christmas!

B-Sol said...

Thanks. Yeah, everyone has their favorites, and unfortunately some titles are always going to be left out. But you're right, Black Christmas should at least get a mention among the "Other Releases".

Dove said...

Gosh, reading this took me back to my youth. Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen were the first three horrors I saw and was hooked. It's my Mum's fault she loves them too! How lucky was I then.

Anonymous said...

^^

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Daniel said...

Thanks for the awesome reviews here. Lot's of memories that's for sure. How good was Commando! And the Exorcits is a classic

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