Director Brad Anderson and Christian Bale on the set of The Machinist
Movies trade in primal emotions, and fear is right at the top of the list. While critics downplay horror films as guilty pleasures (only three made AFI's 100 Greatest list), their popularity is so enduring they literally reach back to the dawn of cinema. What other genre has given rise to cultural icons that can be identified solely by their first names: Jason, Freddy, Michael, Norman and Hannibal?
Audiences aren't the only ones drawn to horror films. From Carl Dreyer's ultra-creepy silent masterpiece Vampyr (1932), to Alfred Hitchcock's groundbreaking use of montage in Psycho (1960), horror has long attracted directors for its creative freedoms. Without reliance on dialogue to further a storyline, horror filmmakers often blend sound and image (as German expressionists like Dreyer did before talkies took over), to probe the very heart of image making. Wes Craven — who says he based his landmark Nightmare on Elm Street series on the true-life incidents of Cambodian and Thai children who had been in relocation camps, dying in their sleep — feels the first and perhaps only rule of horror is that the director be willing to break all covenants of audience trust and cross over into the darkest outposts of human nature.
"All of us, in our minds, have gotten off the road and entered those dark areas where there are fears of psychic, emotional and literal chainsaws," Craven explains, referencing Tobe Hooper's 1974 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. "Horror's strength is its simplicity: a tool invented by civilization for good, i.e. a chainsaw, can suddenly become a weapon of madness. Horror films flip the most benign elements of society to reveal this chaos in our souls."
Recent horror hits like The Others, Cabin Fever and The Blair Witch Project have industry watchers trumpeting a new renaissance. But horror has always been favored by distributors for its easy exploitation in the marketplace. What horror fan has not heard tales of producer William Castle's legendary promotions of the 1950s and '60s? They included a $1,000 "Fright Insurance" policy from Lloyd's of London (for Macabre in 1958), a money-back guaranteed "Fright Break" allowing "cowards" to flee the theater (Homicidal, 1961), and a "Punishment Poll," where the film was stopped and audiences voted on the fate of the villain (Mr. Sardonicus, 1961).
William Castle's films epitomized the funhouse chills of Cold War-era horror. The template for the modern horror movie came from a mixed bag of regional filmmakers in the '60s and '70s. George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and John Carpenter pushed the genre to lean-and-mean graphic extremes via an explosion of realistic, low-budget hits. These films are burned in cinema history for their inventive approach, and hefty box office: Night of the Living Dead — made for just over $100,000 and grossing $6 million; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — shot by UT college students and grossing more than $26.5 million; Halloween — made for $325,000 and raking in more than $47 million. The Friday the 13th franchise alone has spawned 11 sequels and $315 million in box-office returns.
How frightening is the face of horror moviemaking today? Mexican-born filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is part of a new generation of independents who don't view horror as a stepping-stone to somewhere else. Del Toro's cerebral, atmospheric films — Chronos, Mimic, The Devil's Backbone and the upcoming WWII cross-genre Hellboy — have stretched horror's boundaries while upholding established traditions.
"I find horror movies extremely liberating," del Toro notes, "because the characters and creatures are living, breathing metaphors. It gives directors the chance to express ideas of great weight and depth through the form of a fable. In horror, you don't have to force a message upon your audience." Del Toro, who cites horror masters like Mario Bava, Terence Fisher, David Cronenberg and James Whale as his major influences, notes that he does not make "post-modern" horror films. "I have a classic approach to directing horror movies," del Toro says. "The film I present to you firmly believes in the monsters. It is not a tongue-in-cheek ride that lets the audience off the hook. I feel that type of movie dilutes the true horrific emotions that stem from character, and some otherworldly presence."
Talk to horror purists like del Toro and the subtle distinctions in the genre come to the foreground. The classic example many directors cite is Alfred Hitchcock's elegant division between surprise and suspense. "Let us suppose there is a bomb underneath this table," Hitchcock told François Truffaut in Hitchcock/Truffaut: A Definitive Study. "Then all of sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now let us suppose the bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it. The audience is longing to warn the characters. In the first situation we have given the public 15 seconds of surprise at the moment of explosion. In the second case we have provided them with 15 minutes of suspense."
Del Toro sees a similar dividing line at work today. "Horror and surprise are very different," the filmmaker adds. "Horror is an atmosphere, an ominous possibility that is hinted at by manipulating light, music, setting, color, place and texture — tools the director uses to create this intangible feeling of dread and menace. Absolute terror, or surprise, presents a warped reality and pushes it right in front of the viewer's eyes without any restraint or tension." A tempting analogy used to outline the variations in the genre is hide-and-seek versus tag. "Terror is playing tag," del Toro continues. "You have an alien or a monster chasing someone. It is a known quantity and the adrenaline of the chase is what sustains the story. Horror is playing hide-and-seek. Whether you are seeking or hiding, there is a huge amount of tension about what is behind that door or curtain that sustains this feeling in the audience."
Director Tobe Hooper (with camera) on the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Mick Garris has spent the last two decades creating horror's hide-and-seek on television via miniseries adaptations of Stephen King novels like The Stand and The Shining. Garris says classic horror films use the language of cinema more purely than any other genre because directors must build something out of nothing. "The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1960) is a great example of showing very little yet scaring the hell out of people," Garris notes from Vancouver, where he is shooting an indie horror feature based on Stephen King's 41-page e-book Riding the Bullet. "You see absolutely nothing in the way of visual effects. Wise uses high angles and wide lenses for exaggeration — placing a small person in a very large room, for example, or messing around with subjective POV so you never quite know who is watching or being watched. The Haunting builds terror purely through camera placement, sound treatments and production design. It creates a feeling that all great horror films strive for. Something you can't quite put your finger on even as it is creeping you out."
Outlining the challenges in creating horror for television (as opposed to the large screen), Garris has this to say, "The commercial interruptions in TV dissolve any tension you build. So you basically have to start over at every act-break. Some directors are wary about going too wide with their framing when making a horror film for TV — the shot in Kubrick's The Shining, for example, where Jack Nicholson jumps out with the axe would not be nearly as effective on a 19-inch screen."
Like Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Jackson began his career making low-budget horror films. The director of this season's biggest fantasy production, the third installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, says horror films are a great way to break into the industry due to their small budgets, cheap production values and lack of star casting.
"I was a horror film fan during my teenage years," Jackson explains. "I saw George Romero's Dawn of the Dead at least four times. It was one of the greatest films I'd ever seen, and it still is. It has great social satire, it's intelligent, and it also has really great zombie horror, which is scary and unnerving. Films like that act as a large influence when you're young and trying to figure out what kind of director you will be. I started doing horror because it gave me an open canvas to exhibit my storytelling ability, and to show directorial flair. In a low-budget horror film, young directors can demonstrate how they move the camera, how they use cutting to build up suspense. With horror you can showcase your ability as a filmmaker without the difficulty of having to get really strong dramatic performances, or creating these huge production values."
Jackson, like Guillermo del Toro, finds the horror medium a "liberating" place to work, mostly for its sheer outrageousness. Fans of Jackson's early work — The Frighteners (1996), Braindead (aka Dead Alive) (1992) and the certifiably disgusting Bad Taste (1987) — can attest to how far he pushed the low-budget horror form on his road to the top. "If you can put a new, fresh spin on the genre," Jackson adds, "or if you can make a film that's scarier than any in the last two or three years, or if you can make one that makes people laugh through its outrageousness or its inventiveness, then your career has got started and you're on your way."
Once a horror director does arrive, of course, there are all kinds of established tricks to build terror and suspense. Rapid cutting, subjective camera and selective POV are all standard tools of the trade. But no cinematic technique is as invisible to audiences or as preferred by filmmakers as the use of sound. "Clouds don't roll across the sky with a low rumble in real life," Garris says. "But when we did [the TV miniseries] The Shining, even the weather had this feeling of encroachment because of the audio layers we built in." Garris notes that anytime he dollied his camera in The Shining, some type of low sonic noise accompanied the move. "It's like the shark in Jaws," he explains. "Spielberg only used that sawing of the cello when the shark attacked, not as a red herring. You can surround and trap your audience through even a subtle use of sound. It works on an almost unconscious level."
(Top) Mick Garris (left) with actor Simon Webb as the imaginary Reaper of Death in Riding the Bullet (below) Wes Craven and actress Neve Campbell on the set of Scream 2
Lucky McKee is a young horror director who feels sound, or the lack of it, is one of his best tools for "scraping out the beauty from grim places." McKee made his debut feature, All Cheerleaders Must Die, in the Calaveras County foothills outside Stockton, where he grew up. The USC graduate followed up that "crazy, wild zombie movie" with the atmospheric and character-driven indie festival hit, May. "Silence juxtaposed with intensely loud or grating sound or music is a technique I'm using on my new film, The Woods, to inspire terror," McKee says. "It's a principle you can see clearly in a film like Psycho. Up until the shower scene, the editing is straightforward and seamless. Then all of a sudden Hitchcock bombards you with imagery in this aggressive cutting style that's the opposite of what has come before. A great horror film lulls you into believing one thing — then explodes everything you thought was safe."
When it comes to making audiences feel unsafe, there is no better template than Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Every director interviewed for this article pointed to Hooper's film as one of the most influential, and scariest, ever made. Lucky McKee, who is in his 20s, saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre during a college film class nearly 25 years after it first came out. "Everybody in the room was laughing because they were familiar with it," McKee recalls. "But it scared the living crap out of me! The story is so real, and the way all of these characters are tied together into one family is horrifying. It's not a graphic film by today's standards. But the ideas and characters presented are so believable that you really think a band of maniacs got hold of a 16mm camera. Next to Psycho, it's the most groundbreaking horror film. It really kicked things up to another level."
Talk to Tobe Hooper about the filmic mayhem let loose in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and he credits directors like Hitchcock and Godard for changing the face of cinema before he ever arrived on the scene. "If you're talking about cinematic style in horror films, then you have to talk about Hitchcock," Hooper says as he wraps production on his latest, The Toolbox Murders, a horror film shot under the DGA Low Budget Agreement. "In essence, Hitchcock put you inside the head of the monster. He used subjective camera angles and those beautiful tracking shots, which brought people closer to the emotional center of the character's fears than horror had before."
Hooper's Chainsaw, along with Wes Craven's Last House on the Left and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, are generally regarded as the antecedents of a blood-spattered sub-genre aimed at teenage audiences. But Hooper and Craven both say their films have more in common with the European directors of their era — Fellini, Buñuel and Bergman — than the slice-n-dice cheapies made today. "I was the only student in UT's film department before making The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I'd been watching a lot of European art films," Hooper explains. "I always wondered why those techniques — the verité style, the unusual editing and moving camera — had never been used in a horror film." What made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so new, and so long lasting, according to Hooper, was that the monsters were human beings. "We portrayed this family of blood-thirsty cannibals as real people who were having just as bad a day as the kids they were hunting and killing! They had their own peculiar morality to justify their actions, which made them more human, and terrifying, I suppose," he says.
Although the perception of horror films is that their popularity is cyclical, Guillermo del Toro insists horror is never far from audiences' minds — or their wallets — because it faithfully mirrors society's anxieties. "Horror films are like a very smart virus that mutates according to what is happening in the world," del Toro observes. "The Cold War produced atomic horrors that came from far away; the '80s yuppie-ism and corruption of the social structure produced horrors coming from within. I cannot imagine a more end-of-the-century, 1990s horror filmmaker than David Cronenberg, with all the venereal and existential anxieties that mark his work of that time."
Media watchers read horror films as political mirrors of their eras, and filmmakers offer nothing to dispute this. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, like Wes Craven's horrifying Last House on the Left, was made at the tail end of the Vietnam War, when trust in authority had been eroded beyond repair. As Tobe Hooper points out: "Politically intense times increase the need for people to have an outlet for their emotions. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was made when there was this huge gap between youth and the established, adult order. Today's equivalent would be 9/11, which is so horrific it demands some type of release — even if only for two hours. Horror films endure because they offer a safe place for people to go and spew up all these fears and anxieties."
Director Lucky McKee with actress Angela Bettis on the set of May
Wes Craven says horror films distrust authority and the illusion of a smooth-running society. "The car always runs out of gas, the phone never rings, the cops are always inept, and the gun runs out of bullets," Craven says. "All the givens of a civilized world are ripped away and you're forced to deal with this basic question of survival." Craven says horror directors shroud their metaphors because their audiences would never sit still for political diatribes. "The People Under the Stairs was based on the Reagan Administration," Craven notes of his 1991 horror film, "but I wasn't going to make a documentary about what was going on in the country. I was reading Eastern mysticism when I made Nightmare on Elm Street. But my audience would have run for the doors if that had been an overt part of the story."
More than most horror directors, Craven's career has covered the spectrum: from the gritty drive-in realism of The Hills Have Eyes to the consciousness-bending visual schisms of Nightmare on Elm Street, to the most popular trend at work today — teenage slasher films. Craven, who has directed three installments of the Scream franchise, defends the teen slasher picture against what some purists feel is a misappropriation of horror's root strengths.
"Scream acknowledges that its audience has no experience outside of horror films and puts them in this familiar, comfortable place, before offering something completely different," Craven notes. "Horror directors use misdirection to their advantage all the time. In Scream, the character of Randy pontificates about the rules of horror films: 'never say I'll be right back, because you'll be dead.' Then someone gets up and says, 'I'll be right back,' but it turns out to be one of the killers, not a victim. These films are funny and entertaining, but they are also profoundly unsettling because you're playing around with the audience's expectations."
Brad Anderson, who is editing his second entry (The Machinist) in the "dark, brooding, creepy movie genre," says he's not surprised by the rise of teen horror flicks, given the similar mechanics of horror and comedy. "Frightening an audience or making them laugh has a lot in common from the director's standpoint," Anderson says. "You have to construct and build tension up to the moment of the reveal. The results may be different emotions, but the suspense and timing feel very much the same."
Anderson, who made his debut with the indie romantic comedy, Next Stop Wonderland, veered into psychological horror with his 2001 film, Session 9. His goal was to challenge and reinvent himself as an independent director. He feels current remakes of classic indie horror films — New Line Cinema's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Universal's upcoming Dawn of the Dead — fail to raise the genre to a new level. "The future of horror may very well rest with independent filmmakers who don't have a lot of money to throw into gore and special effects," Anderson explains. "If independent filmmakers, who want to explore emotions like fear and menace, are forced to be as inventive as George Romero was when he made Night of the Living Dead, then the genre might see a true renaissance."
Mick Garris doesn't see the need for horror's resurgence, given its solid link in the historic chain. "Those of us who direct horror films are part of this great dysfunctional family," Garris says, "that stretches back to the horrific imagery of the silent impressionists — Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, etc. — right on through to a beautiful modern film like Guillermo del Toro's ghost story, The Devil's Backbone. Horror filmmakers may not get much respect, but they've been providing a great service: confronting our deepest, darkest collective fears in the safety of a movie. Nothing may appear more ludicrous than a man going through a transporter and turning into a mutant insect. But David Cronenberg made The Fly so real and human that you willingly went through these terrible stages of death, transformation and decay, all while being entertained!"
Entertainment, not art, has been horror's long-standing thorn, as directors with great vision and artistry are routinely bypassed come awards season. As Tobe Hooper concludes: "It's baffling to me why horror films developed as B or C movies. Why a film that makes someone cry should earn more respect than a film that makes someone scream is a mystery. They both spring from the same sad wellspring of primal emotions and move audiences in equal ways."
Wes Craven, who risked expulsion from his strict, fundamentalist college to see To Kill a Mockingbird, has a theory. And in true horror fashion, it's pretty scary. "Whenever young directors ask me what makes a movie frightening, I tell them the first maniac you have to scare is the filmmaker. The director must be willing to convince his audience that there are no rules, that there are no dark places he is unwilling to explore. When I saw Blue Velvet, I thought David Lynch was crazy and would show me something so disturbing I would never recover. To validate these films with awards or accolades is to admit that terror can be either true or entertaining. It says something about society and human nature that's very unsettling, hence the reason the genre is not given its due in the larger picture of film artistry."
What Makes a Film Horrifying?
"The simple shot of the reveal of the tray of bizarre surgical instruments in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, followed by the face of Jeremy Irons, cool but obviously well on his way into insanity. Another great sequence is from Joe Dante's The Howling, where Belinda Balaski's character is chased by the unseen werewolf through the woods and the cabin. One door slams shut as another slams open in breathless speed. You don't see what's chasing her, but you know it's inescapable. I'd also include John Landis's An American Werewolf in London. The two young men out on the moors at night, surrounded by these sounds. The camera moves with them, leading them off the road and surrounding them with ... who knows what? A great Hitchcockian laugh for a breather, and then the sudden attack of the never-clearly-seen monster in a flurry of cuts. A great example of building, then undercutting the tension, and then slamming you with terror."
"For me it's the long Steadicam move behind the kid riding the Big Wheel toy in Kubrick's The Shining. It was one of the first uses of Steadicam and one of the most dramatically appropriate — it's like you're being lured inexorably toward some awful horror. The longer the shot lasts, the more your dread builds. The way the wheels rattle on the wooden floor and then rush silently across the carpet is terrifying."
"The sequence from John Frankenheimer's Seconds when Will Geer, the corporate character, is sending Rock Hudson, the re-born, to his death. It's such a sweet and gentle prelude to murder; Geer talks to Hudson like a disappointed football coach sending a man to the cadaver file. That strange executioner's morality I saw in Seconds directly influenced all my films, specifically the dinner scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's a view of life that seems perfectly reasonable to the executioner, even though we may find it terrifying. Frankenheimer set that scene at night, with this soft lighting that gave it a very humanistic tone. The next shot is of Hudson being rolled down the corridor to the operating chamber. It's one of the most mind-blowing moments in all of cinema."
"Todd Browning's original Dracula. When Bela Lugosi first appears in the film, he's dressed up like a bat. It's the central image of that movie, and no one has ever done that again with Dracula. He's so bizarre. He's a bloodsucking little bat. There's not even much makeup. It's just beautiful black-and-white lighting and perfect costuming. To see him as the personification of a bat, was just so inspired. It's one of the more bizarre images in cinema history to see a human vampire bat. In terms of contemporary horror movies, an image that's always stuck with me was Brian de Palma's The Fury. The end when Fiona Lewis' character is hanging off the chandelier by her teeth, and blood is splattering all over the room. But Dracula is the one that impressed me a long time ago and I've had to go back and look at many times."
Guillermo del Toro
"The creature from the Black Lagoon swimming under Julie Adams in the Universal movie. Everything is perfect ... the white bathing suit, the composition, the hypnotic, ballet-like coordination of Beauty and Beast. The image is a perfect metaphor for their impossible coupling but also distills the distant longing of the creature. Separated only by a few feet but so very far apart.
The films I present to you firmly believes in the monsters. It is not a tongue-in-cheek ride that lets the audience off the hook. I feel that type of movie dilutes the true horrific emotions that stem from character, and some otherworldly presence."