Stereotype-in-English

Horror movies, the fine line between trash and cult

Horror movies had often little consideration from critics, especially in comparison with auteur cinema.

rambaldi profondo rosso
The head of the puppet in Deep Red, realized by Carlo Rimbaldi, exhibition in Rome in 2019. Photo credits: Stereotype Magazine

There are relevant exceptions, though, with great directors who ventured with the genre. Roman Polanksi directed Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and then The Tenant (1976) and The Ninth Gate (1999); Stanley Kubrick brought Shining (book by Stephen King) on screen. Other masterpieces are, for example, The Exorcist (1973) or Deep Red, which marks the transition of Dario Argento from thrillers to “pure” horror movies like Suspiria.

Most of the cinematographic production, however, was grotesque, absurd, sometimes disgusting, with stereotypical plots, screenplays or dialogues. The results were also affected by low budgets, which didn’t allow adequate technology and make up. In short, it was hard to put critics and the public on the same page.

nosferatu
Nosferatu by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, 1922

Horror movies had noble roots, as they refer back to an important phase for XIX century literature. The non-summer of 1816 inspired Mary Shelly to write Frankenstein; Robert Louis Stevenson is the author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Bram Stoker made Vlad III of Wallachia immortal with the pseudonym of Dracula. While, overseas, a certain Edgar Allan Poe is very productive, even if he’ll be successful only after his death.

The early cinematography draws in abundance from Gothic literature. German classics like Nosferatu or The cabinet of Dr. Caligari are in any movie manual and they set off the typical atmospheres standards. In the 30’s, this genre is developed also in the United States: Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) are two actors that the public identified with their famous characters. These are also the years of King Kong and Freaks, which aren’t canonical horror movies but they mark a significant moment for the “seventh art”.

triciclo shining
Shining by Stanley Kubrick, 1980

After World War II – and the beginning of the Cold War – the Western movie industry is strongly influenced by current events. The space race, the preparation of star wars (literally wars) or the medical-scientific studies bring on big screen topics like alien invasions or genetic mutations (such as Invasion of the body snatchers, 1956), with that pinch of subliminal anti-communist propaganda.

The next decades see a contamination with splatter movies, where the binomial eros&thanatos (love&death) is carried to the extreme. This movement will even influence George A. Romero, master of low budget flicks and of the so called “new horror” – Dawn of the Dead, 1978. Gothic atmospheres are abandoned in favor of a contemporary scenery. Special effects and make up artists like Tom Savini are crucial for the evolution of the genre.

demoni lamberto bava
Dèmoni, directed by Lamberto Bava and produced by Dario Argento, perfect axample of both a trash and cult movie (1985)

Wes Craven, John Carpenter or Sam Raimi are the main directors, plus other famous colleagues who dabbled in horror movies – David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma. Sagas like Halloween, Nightmare of Friday the 13th give the evil characters (Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees) international fame.

This success had also side effects. The historical theater Grand Guignol, opened in 1897 in Paris and famous for the horrific plays, is forced to shut down – but the big screen owes a lot to it.

In Europe, Italy gives a great contribution. In addition to Dario Argento, directors like Mario and Lamberto Bava or Lucio Fulci had world wide acknowledgment. Those movies tried also to develop psychological and social aspects – sure, there is a lot of trash as well.

yurei spirito giappone
Representation of a yurei by Katsushika Hokusai

Japan also produced a particular kind of horror movies, affected by ancient traditions. In a nutshell, the main characters are the yurei, spirits of people who suffered a sudden or violent death and remain connected to the concrete world. The habit of telling scary stories (kaidan) dates back to the XVII century, then paintings and theatrical performances gave the yurei a “face”. Another constant in Japanese horror films is payback, sought by other spirits called onryo – mostly mistreated women.

Horror movies have been interpreted differently according to times and places or the filters created by a specific cultural vision. Sometimes they moved along the fine line which separates trash and cult, but somehow we all had to do with them. In the end, exorcising fear is an activity as old as humanity.

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