If there’s anything the internet has taught us to do, it’s to pointlessly compartmentalize pop-culture trivia to the point it almost seems to matter. You can find lists of everything from Top 10 Worst CGI Effects to 7 Best Songs About Drugs.
Because horror is so diverse in scope, most fans tend to find one or two particular sub-genres they favor; or more often, they go through phases of certain directors, eras, scenarios, or in the case of fiction, authors or publishers.
I recently read a piece about how certain sub-genres of horror seem to correlate with similar strata of metal music; death metal matching splatter horror, power metal comparing to action horror, etc.
As a fan, such classifications help me find the kind of horror film for which I’m in the mood, while as a writer, it helps to have some point of reference with which to promote my work — though, in the interests of being all “punk rock” and whatnot, I pay lip service to the notion of defying pigeonholery, and to seeking films and books that do the same.
Thus, I’ve attempted to compile an overview of horror’s various niches, with some illustrative examples. Almost every horror film is a crossover to some degree, of course, which is why the horror universe keeps expanding.
Influenced by the success of Hammer Films’ 50s era reimaginings of classic literary monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, one Mister Roger Corman produced a series of Poe-inspired films set in gloomy, cob-webbed castles and fog carpeted landscapes, setting the stage for Italian filmmakers to do the same. These films, like the contemporary sub-culture of overly-eyelinered teens which shares the term, relied on gloomy mood rather than startling sudden jumps, leaving an overall impression of oppressive nihilism rather than the roller coaster feeling wrought by less subtle types of horror. Perhaps due to its more deliberate pacing, gothic horror is not one of the more popular sub-genres of recent years, but certainly has its fair share of classics. THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE RAVEN, BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, HOUSE OF USHER
And of course: GOTHIC
Some more contemporary examples: SWEENEY TODD, SLEEPY HOLLOW, THE OTHERS
A splatter film need not necessarily be a horror film, but by nature, it would certainly be horrific. George Romero is credited with the first use of the term, so it’s clearly not meant as dismissive, given that his “Dead” series is heavy on social relevance. However, there is more bad splatter than good, as gore was a notoriously easy sell in the grindhouse -and later- DTV markets, hooking the least compromising of screen thrill seekers.
Hammer once again gets much of the credit for bringing (what was once considered) excessive bloodshed to the cinemas, and again it was the Italians who took it and ran with it. 80s Italian horror films went far beyond the level of their British or American counterparts, with lingering, often close up depictions of eyeballs pierced, breasts chewed off, brains eaten and much much worse, all before the advent of CGI allowed filmmakers to create such mayhem in a sanitary editing room. Yes sir, FX technicians had to live the nightmare, and get down and dirty to simulate brutal slaughter back in the old days.
It’s worth noting that splatter has a good many sub-sub-genres and crossovers, such as blood-spurting-yet-somehow artistic samurai films, and the nearly unwatchable collection of cannibal flicks that stained drive-in screens during their heyday. This subgenre is presently thriving at the mainstream level even on television via popular fare like THE WALKING DEAD and AMERICAN HORROR STORY. DAWN OF THE DEAD, DAY OF THE DEAD, ZOMBI, THE EVIL DEAD, JIGOKU, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, BRAIN DEAD, SIN CITY, LONE WOLF AND CUB, REVENGE OF THE NINJA, MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, HELLRAISER
ALIEN is probably the first film that comes to mind when one thinks of a sci-fi/horror hybrid, but it’s far from a watermark. Thomas Edison himself created what was likely the very first sci-fi and/or horror film when he made a loose adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” way back in nineteen-and-ten. The 30s Universal effort could also be called sci fi, along with it’s sequels and crossovers featuring other, folkloric based beasts. But the mix of sci-fi and horror truly come into its own in the 50s, when fears of the new and seemingly limitless powers of atomic energy and space travel gave rise to fears that scientists had gone too far in tampering with nature. Film producers took up where the long-dated warnings of Mary Shelley, H.G Wells and Jules Verne left off by imagining ever more gigantic and unstoppable mutations and manifestations from just beyond these new scientific horizons.
ALIEN was beaten to the punch during this era, coming across in retrospect as an uncredited remake of IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and Mario Bava’s PLANET OF VAMPIRES.
Some of the best horror is wed with sci fi, as is some of the worst. Getting right down to it, sci-fi horror presents us with some extra-terrestrial threat but genetic mutation is a big seller as well. THE THING, VIRUS, THEM!, TARANTULA, GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS, THE DEADLY MANTIS, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, THE FLY, PANDORUM, GALAXY OF TERROR, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
I don’t think there are any blurred lines in regard to what a slasher film is. Though PSYCHO and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE appeared a few years before the great slasher boom that came in the aftermath of HALLOWEEN, they’re still largely considered part of the subset. But it was actually Bob Clark’s unsettling BLACK CHRISTMAS that set the blueprint. Assuming the set up for a slasher film (with little variation) is agreed to be a set of teens or young adults targeted by a demented stalker on or near a holiday in an isolated setting, it seems to be a pretty limited formula. However, close examination reveals that some of the most highly regarded horror films, such as THE SHINING and ALIEN, are essentially slasher films.
Many, especially from the 80s, also double as whodunits in the best Agatha Christie tradition. Once the initial wave of holiday-themed cash-ins settled and other flavors took over the public palate, slasher films became nostalgia, and soon after, fresh again, via Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson with the SCREAM series. Everything that made the sub-genre overtly formulaic was turned on its ear and used against the audience in brilliant fashion. Ironically, this ushered in a whole new age of cookie cutter slashers in the 90s.
These days, the slasher film is surviving, if not thriving, via mostly superior, amped up or intentionally retro variations like LAID TO REST, MALEVOLENCE, HATCHET, and the surprisingly clever BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON.
With 1984’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the addition of supernatural elements mutated the sub-genre and squeezed some more life from it, giving us an undead Jason in FRIDAY THE 13TH 6 and other defining entries like: BAD DREAMS, CANDYMAN, VENOM, KILLER PARTY
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Italy’s giallo movement, but it deserves a more extended treatment and might even be considered its own sub-genre.
That’s it for this week. Come back next week when we explore more horror sub-genres including Creature Features, Comedy Horror and more.
TOURIST TRAP: Right before the slasher craze of the eighties, a double fistful of more surreal entries found their way to cinemas, including this gem. Chuck Connors of all people, shows up to make your skin crawl, in a story that does a good job of capturing that elusive “dream logic” feel that can make a film seem like a nightmare.
THE RAID: REDEMPTION: The action spectacle I’d read raves about found its way to my DVD player, and delivered as promised. Simple enough siege story with Iko Uwais from MERANTAU kicking asses from one and of a criminal-infested apartment building to the other. The intricate fight scenes will fill the bill for action junkies.
CREATURE OF DARKNESS: Few films have actually ever filled me with rage because of nothing more than the incompetence and utter lack of care that went into making them. This POS is on that short list. I will award kudos to the designers of the titular creature–but other than that, I hereby forbid anyone in my family or circle of friends from ever again mentioning this egregious mess.
DRAGON (WU-XIA): It’s a shame this recent Chinese release has such a generic title; it’s sure to get lost in the shuffle of martial arts films–and it deserves much better. The always excellent Donnie Yen in another dynamic role (also working as fight choreographer, though there are only a handful of fights) opposite Takeshi Kaneshiro in a what can only be described as a historical action mystery akin to a Chinese period version of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. Excellent on all levels.
A FORCE OF ONE: One of Chuck Norris’ earlier vehicles. So hopelessly dated there’s no way to recommend it, especially if you’re a martial arts fan. The fight scenes here are Norris’ worst without exception (yes, that includes “Yellow Faced Tiger”) but that’s mostly owing to utterly clueless and careless camerawork. Interestingly, the “helicopter kick” that Jean Claude Van Damme claimed to have invented is performed here by Eric Laneuville, years before JCVD’s advent.
2 DAYS: Paul Rudd plays an actor who drafts a film crew to document the twenty four hours leading up to his planned suicide. Less depressing and edgy than it sounds, this low budget comedy, lensed on 16mm, is worth a look.
THE ABC’s OF DEATH: An anthology film with each entry based on a letter from the alphabet is a mediocre idea at best. After about C or D, the law of diminishing returns kicked in, with each entry becoming worse. Part of the problem is that most of the stories are more comedy than horror, and not very funny at that. A shame, because there are some true talents credited here. Full disclosure: I stopped watching after about H or I, when a torture scenario that involved child rape, among other things, suddenly drained away the last scrap of enjoyment. I get being edgy, but don’t go cheap, boys and girls.
UNDERTAKER: THE STREAK. I’ve long since given up on professional wrestling, but it’s nice to relive some of the highlights of my old favorites. Mark Callas, a.k.a. The Undertaker, is one of the most imposing and talented performers in the business, and his morbid gimmick strikes a chord with a horror fanatic like me. Really only of interest to like-minded folks.
SPLICED: After a long string of disappointing horror viewings, I somehow managed upon this enjoyable 2002 ode to teen slashers. Drew Lachey, who I believe was in a boy band or perhaps an MTV “program,” leads a cast of good-looking high schoolers in the tale of a horror movie icon seemingly come to life. It’s like a tribute to Wes Craven with elements of both SCREAM and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET coming into play, and handled fairly well at that. (Editor’s Note: Drew Lachey is brother to Nick Lachey, who was indeed in a boy band.)
11-11-11: Dripping with creepy atmosphere and a sense of dread, as well as some fine performances and nice direction by SAW vet Darren Lynn Bousman. So why did it seem to lie so flat to me? Maybe it’s the now-cliched twist ending.
Stay tuned for future installments from PCG’s Quirky Queue!