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.
I was once lucky to catch a midnight showing of A Nightmare on Elm Street for which there was no advertising other than word of mouth. At the theater, deal was that you got in if you wore pajamas and the showing was free; just a few days before Hallo-You-Know-When.
The joint was packed, and no doubt some spirits were sneaking about, if you can detect the low notes of the tune I’m playing here…
But this wasn’t Rocky Horror. The only participation the film’s tight narrative would allow was terror — and it was palpable. When the nightmares began, and the claws scratched steel, we all went nuts as a unit, and not via the tossing of toast, or recitation of random lines – but by screaming and holding onto one another, acquainted or not.
It built from there. When Tina was dragged across the ceiling by the invisible force of a laughing Freddy – rewind that: yes, I said dragged across THE FUCKING CEILING, the joint collectively popped in a figurative orgasm of terror and release and youthful madness that must’ve shaken the entire multiplex. Those screams, well, I should say that singular collective scream, was shrill music to me. This, I realized, was a work of genius.
Story goes that a few studios rejected Nightmare because they felt that audiences wouldn’t care about events occurring in a dreamworld, versus “reality.” Seems to me those guys don’t really understand exactly what a film is meant to be, anyway.
Craven did. Like many of us horror freaks, Wes Craven came up in a religious household, banned from watching any films that weren’t from the Disney stamp pad. But of these, he favored Fantasia, itself a celluloid dream composed more of disjointed imagery set to classical music than a single narrative. It seems likely he was deeply affected by the Night on Bald Mountain sequence, with its towering devil figure (based on Bela Lugosi!) and Stygian landscape.
Last House on The Left came to me as a copy on VHS, which only added to its raw, cheap, snuff feel. A few years ago, the horror market became riddled with movies reflecting the shock and horror of torture murders committed and posted online by terrorists. Some of these “tort-sploitation” (“torture porn,” as you’ve probably seen me say, is not a legitimate term) films were rather effective, others not so much. But back in 1972, there wasn’t much of a precedent. Craven and his producer/partner Sean Cunningham were responding to the Vietnam war, a conflict equally as polarizing as our current campaigns and the first war to reach us with the immediacy of televised evening news.
Thus, it is an angry statement from passionate young filmmakers. No ghosts or living dead or vampires, this might have been a standard police thriller if not for the POV’s discomfiting submersion into the events concerning our victims, not to mention their tormentors. This gang, led by a sick bastard named Krug (sound vaguely familiar?) lures and assaults a pair of teen girls looking to score some weed.
But it doesn’t end there, (SPOILAGE ALERT!) as you probably know. Karma directs the crew to the very house where one of the vics’ parents live; and that necklace the degenerates stole from the girls as a keepsake is awwwwfully incriminating.
What follows next is, among other things, death by ferocious fellatio, death by sloppy dentistry and as far as I know, the first ever cinematic butchering of a human being via chainsaw, beating TCM to the punch by two full years.
It’s not an easy watch, even through the filter of cheap filming techniques. Its harsh impact upon one’s psyche is pretty much permanent, and it’s effectiveness as a cathartic release depends on the viewer I suppose. It’s probably a leap to think that the average viewer would detect the anti-war theme at work here, but then, that’s why it’ll never be called preachy. That’s where Craven excelled, and that’s why the tricky backdrop of the dreamworld gave him great opportunity for creating horror that works equally well on both visceral and subconscious levels.
There’s a lot of hate for 1988’s Shocker, and most of it is well-deserved. Studio control on this and a handful of other Craven flicks was far greater, and the creative results predictably suffer. Wes never conceived that the Nightmare films, and more significantly FK himself, would become iconic beyond nearly any previous horror film, and naively signed away rights to the character. It’s nice to think that, if he hadn’t, the watering down of the dream demon wouldn’t have been nearly as pervasive. No Fat Boys videos, no eye-rolling comic quips in the sequels.
However, if Shocker is any indication, Wes wasn’t above going for the commercial appeal; it’s pure paycheck. You can’t really blame him. But there is no denying that Shocker is –firstly- a cynical attempt to create another Freddy, only with Craven retaining creative control of the character, and secondly, maybe, just maybe, a bit of that Last House righteous anger showing itself in the form of a statement against commercial horror – in the form of very very commercial horror, sorta like Korn’s “Yall Wanna Single, Say Fuck That” single.
I think I’ll choose to believe the latter, because I know that ANOES and Hills Have Eyes and New Nightmare and even the Scream films were all sincere, and all impressive works, and I know that no director hits a homer at every bat, and because four or five great movies is damn sure a lot more than most directors will achieve.
MISCHIEF NIGHT- I’m usually up on all the latest horror releases, and had a good heads up on this decent slasher. However it turns out there are TWO films called MISCHIEF NIGHT that were released within a year of each other. I’d seen the trailer for the other one, which made for an unsettling experience based on unmet expectations. In this one, a blind teen gets the See No Evil treatment when ax-wielding masked men target her on the night before Halloween.
ALL HALLOWS EVE- Anthology flicks are the in thing right now, probably thanks to the V/H/S films, and TRICK R TREAT before them. This one makes up for its low budget and simple script with sheer gory audacity.
MAY- Angela Bettis is one of horror’s beloved beauties, thanks in large part to this bleak, funny and often sweet character study from Lucky McKee. Some script elements seem out of place at times, but this only adds the its unsettling overall feel.
SHADOW PEOPLE- Yet another film that shares its title. This is a 2008, no budget DTV offering with a cast of unknowns. I have to admit, I did not get past the first few minutes. I try not to be a budget snob, but the problem here is not the lack of funds, but apparently, a lack of talent. The “shadow people” phenomenon is one that interests me to no end, but I saw nothing here that could hold a suspension of disbelief for me.
THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN- Ryuhei Kitamura brings his manic visual style to one of Clive Barker’s most grisly short stories, expanding and realizing the story quite fittingly. A great balance of gore, atmosphere and suspense.
STAY ALIVE- We’ve all seen horror and sci-fi films that rely overly on CGI effects to the point you feel you’re being asked to make a great leap of imagination to accept their veracity. This underrated studio effort turns that problem around nicely by making the antagonist an entity which realizes its manifestation in the “real” world through a cursed videogame. Okay, so the teens are a bit stereotypical–but teens sort of are, so….
THIS IS BLACK METAL- After the fascinating UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US, I’ve been on the search for more great docs about black metal, but unfortunately this is not one. Mostly just interviews with bands and fans interspersed with some live performance footage but not presented in any sort of groundbreaking or even entertaining manner. It’s the usual questions about touring that receive the same general answers. Come to think of it, most of these bands don’t really qualify as black metal, so there’s that.
FUN SIZE- One of my internet haters recently referred to me as a “manchild,” and when I found myself smiling at this cookie cutter Nickelodeon vehicle for one of its TV stars, I realized it was a hard point to argue. It’s a good one for the fam, the only racy moments presented as the common rites of passage that they are. Also, Supernatural fans will be glad to see The Prophet Kevin himself, Osric Chau, in a fun supporting role.
THE PROPHECY- This 90s anomaly, starring Virginia Madsen, Elias Koteas, and Chris Walken at his most eccentric as the pissed-off angel Gabriel, held up pretty well when I re-visited it recently, and apparently scored well enough at the box office to spawn three sequels, which I have yet to see. Watch this space.
DON’T LOOK IN THE CELLAR- The keywords “abandoned asylum” drew me in, even as the one star rating shouted its warning. The luxury of streaming affords us the ability to simply move on to something else if the first few minutes of a film don’t at least try to meet our expectations, such as when two girls dressed like slutty nurses can walk into an asylum and simply enter padded (with crumpled paper, BTW) rooms at will. I don’t think I need to elaborate.
RITUAL- Not to be confused with the more recent film by the same name (apparently a common theme lately) this 2002 effort boasts the Tales From The Crypt umbrella, though it offers no appearance by the Crypt Keeper, nor is it based on any of that beloved comic’s stories. Despite some gore and nudity it feels kind of like a Lifetime version of Wes Craven’s The Serpent and The Rainbow.
BARRIO TALES- Another low budget anthology offering twisty tales of terror as told by a wisecracking Mexican chap to a pair of entitled white boys. All the gringos get what they deserve and if you accept the small scope of the production you’ll have a good time.
SCARY OR DIE- Still another anthology of short horror tales, wrapped by a nowhere segment featuring an unseen ghoul clicking around on the titular website. If you think the trope of evil clowns has been overdone, you might be pleasantly surprised by the central tale. The story of a Korean businessman attempting to be a good samaritan to a damsel in distress does its job as well, but the others seem mostly like filler to make this feature length.
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!