1940s: World War II and the Cold War
During World War II, real life horror was playing across the silver screen in newsreels delivering word back to Americans from the homefront. The holocaust, whose extent of true horror was not revealed until after the war ended, made cinematic versions pale in comparison. Yet during this period, Hollywood continued to churn out horror films to audiences’ delight. Two such filmmakers who created some of the classic horror films of this period were Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton. Russian born RKO producer Lewton teamed up with French director Tourneur to create such suspenseful films as The Cat People (1943), I Walked with A Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943). Though Lewton and Tourneur’s films tended to be more suspenseful psychological dramas rather than straight out horror, the chills they created had far more impact on the cinematic imagination. In the classic The Cat People, for instance, horror is conveyed through what is implied and not what is shown. The film is about a young woman who is transformed into a black panther whenever she is overwhelmed by sexual desires and jealousy, leading her to stalk the young heroine who has fallen in love with her husband. One of the film’s most frightening sequences occurs when the heroine is stalked by a panther while swimming in a local pool. We don’t see the panther crawling in the darkened pool room, but only its shadow and its growling. Other films such as the Uninvited (1944) starring Ray Milland and the gentle ghost love story Portrait of Jennie (1948), starring Joseph Cotton, were films that were also depended on atmospherics to deliver their chills.
The 1950s and 1960s: Repression and Revolution
The changes occurring in 1950s and 1960s America found its way to the movie screen, particularly in many of the horror films created during this golden age of cinematic filmmaking. Capitalizing on the advent of the atomic age, 1950s horror revealed the frightening reality of the Cold War Era. Films such as The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), Godzilla (1954), and Them (1954), about mutant ants, revealed what could happen to the natural order of things when atomic energy unleashed its massive fury. Other films such as The Thing (From Another Planet) (1951), War of the Worlds (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) played on Cold War fears of Soviet invasion as well as the previous decades’ fears of the Nazi blitzkreig. During this period, rock and roll became the dominant soundtrack for a younger generation, prompting Hollywood to take advantage of the teen buying dollars by creating horror films marketed directly to this new demographic. I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957) and The Blob (1958), starring the young Michael Landon and Steve McQueen respectively, were two such representatives of this new subset of horror films. The decade also saw a rise in B-movie horror films produced by such sclockmeisters as William B. Castle (1959’s The Tingler and The House on Haunted Hill). When theater ownership monopolies were struck down by the courts during the late 1940s, independently owned theaters and drive-in theaters opened up a field of independent filmmakers who could now get their films into theaters without dealing with the studios. Filmmakers, such as the director and producer Edward D. Wood (1959’s Plan 9 From Outer Space), despite their lack of filmmaking skills, could raise budgets and shoot films that found their way into movie theaters. While these films lacked cinematic style, they more than made it up in cheesy frights that delighted teenage audiences looking for cheap thrills in the drive-in.
During the 1950s, television had dealt a serious blow to the competitive edge films had over the attention of American audiences by delivering entertainment right into their living rooms. The studios competed with this new medium by shooting films in wide-screen (Cinemascope and Vistavision, for instance), while producers like Castle used gimmicks, such as films shot in 3-D, to offer audiences something extra for their cinematic viewing pleasures. Ironically, many nascent local broadcast affiliates rerunned old horror movies to fill out viewing hours, often in the guise of horror hosted programs such as L.A.’s KABC-TV’s Vampira (Maila Nurmi), which delivered classic 1930s horror pictures to a new generation of fans. It was during this period that a rise in classic horror memorabilia depicting such characters as Karloff’s Frankenstein and Lugosi’s Dracula became a moneymaking enterprise for both collectors and buyers.
While the days of horror films creating household names had ended by the 1940s, the 1950s saw one such actor whose name would forever be attached to horror: Vincent Price. During his early screen career, Price was a supporting actor often appearing in dramatic films such as 1940s noir thrillers Laura and Leave Her To Heaven (both starring screen actress Gene Tierney). Price’s first horror film was in the 1948 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where he was uncredited as the voice of the Invisible Man. But his first starring role in a horror film was in the 1953 Andre de Toth classic House of Wax, where he plays Prof. Harold Jerrod, a sculptor who uses real life victims for his wax models. Price would later star in other 1950s classic horror films such as The Fly (1958), as well as four films released in 1959 alone—House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Return of the Fly, and The Bat.
Price continued his career in horror movies throughout the sixties, starring in a series of Edgar Allan Poe-based films such as House of Usher (1960), the Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the horror anthology Tales of Terror (1962), the Raven (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and the Tomb of Ligeia (1964), all directed by Roger Corman, a film producer and director whose output during the 1950s and 1960s created an arena for low-budget horror and exploitation films. Corman’s films during the 1950s, such as It Conquered the World (1956) and Attack of the Crab Monster (1957) were hardly film classics in the traditional sense, and were often ridiculed on the 1990s Comedy Central show Mystery Science Theater 3000. But Corman set the stage for offering some of the most inventive directors of the film school movement during this period, providing work for such filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13) and Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha). In Britain, the Hammer Studios released an outlet of horror films during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s that have become classics within the genre, including such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and the Brides of Dracula (1960), starring such Hammer horror mainstays as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Other horror films released during the early 1960s include Herk Hervey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1965).
Though not necessarily a horror film director, British born Alfred Hitchcock directed two films during the early sixties that changed how horror films would be interpreted by modern audiences. In his 1960 thriller Psycho, Hitchcock proved that the most horrific models of evil were not vampires or werewolves but other human beings, in this case, Norman Bates, an outwardly normal if troubled young man who turns out to be a serial killer masking as his late mother. In 1963, Hitchcock released The Birds, using another normal and everyday creature as the villain in this piece. In The Birds, Hitchcock dispenses with exposition which explains the random and frightening bird attacks in the small California seaside community of Bodega Bay, making the horror seem arbitrary in the way true horror often visits upon everyday reality.
The films of this period—particularly Hitchcock’s The Birds; Hervey’s Carnival of Souls; the 1961 Deborah Kerr film The Innocents, based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw; and Robert Wise’s 1963 classic The Haunting (starring Julie Harris) based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House—revealed the repressive nature of 1950s Cold War on the American mindset, often focusing on sexual hysteria and repression among its female leads. As the baby boom generation began to dictate popular culture during this period, the youthful rejection of the moral codes of previous generations was met with virulent opposition until the early 1960s, when even rock and roll was tamed for older audiences. But as the underground ideas and movements of the Beat generation slowly influenced artists as broad as Bob Dylan and The Beatles, younger audiences were slowly rejecting older values, giving way to a popular culture that represented this growing freedom of ideas about politics, spirituality, and sexuality.
During this decade, the Production Code, which controlled many of the films previously released, were relaxing, allowing filmmakers to push the envelope in what they could show in horror films. Challenging old Hollywood standards were a new wave of filmmakers, graduates of the nascent film school movement and the stepchildren of the European-based French Nouvelle and Italian neo-realism movements of the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, emerged with a new style of storytelling for the horror genre.
Next: The History of Horror: The Cinema Part III: 1970s and 1980s: The Auteur Movement and Horror Gets Graphic
Source: IMDB.com and www.filmsite.org/horrorfilms.html