The Reemergence of Horror 60' – 74'


The years between 1960 and 1974 were arguably the most important time in the evolution of the horror film that we know, love, and recognize today.  The gritty realism of the cinema verite 70s left us such horror classics as The Last House on the Left (1972), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Exorcist (1973), and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) all of which scared the ever-living crap out of us due to their realistic portrayal of violence and horror.  Now looking back just over a decade prior to these classics, was Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho which has a style that is inherently different from these early 70s classics.  The gore is there, but much more subdued.  The feelings of isolation, fear, and entrapment are there, but they are in no way as graphic and blood soaked.  So what took us from Psycho to the crazy 70s?  In order to see how we got there, we have to take our time and look carefully at 1960.  This was the year that one of the most important horror films in history was released to the public.

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho shocked and appalled audiences back in 1960 upon its release.  Now back then, the horror genre hadn't been very prolific at all.  There were a few successful sci-fi horror films including The Thing from another World (1951) and the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), but these were an off shoot of the popular incident in Roswell New Mexico more than anything else.  They played off of the fears of Aliens from another world, changing the way that we live.  In the years surrounding World War II, there weren't many horror films being made because there was no audience for it.  People were trying to escape the unbelievable real life horror of World War II by disappearing into the only films that the major studios were releasing: Musicals.  When Psycho was released, this completely changed, marking the death of the big budget musical and the emergence of the horror genre film as a status of popular culture.  Because of its ground breaking story, its well developed characters, and some of the most memorable scene in cinema history, horror was back on the fast track.

Night of The Living Dead appeared only 8 years later in 1968 setting a new benchmark for the horror genre.  A non-studio horror film, made by a group of kids in Pittsburgh with a camera and a little elbow grease, this indie took the horror genre one step further with the explicit gore and the paranoia inherent in the film.  Your friends and neighbors have turned and now want to kill/convert/eat you and all you can do is try to survive while disposing of them by destroying the brain.  The end credits of the film not only give the viewer a sense of absolute hopelessness, but also called back movements of the Civil rights struggles in American in the 1950s.  Horror was no longer just scares and cheap gimmicks; it became representational and self reflexive.  It's no longer about camp and a fun time at the movies, but rather a mirror on society's wrong doings.  This was a new threshold where horror cinema decided it would use the ugliness of the antagonists to shine the mirror on the ugliness of society.

The gritty realism of the 1970s then led the way for two other important horror films, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Both of these films were clearly influenced by the effects of the Vietnam War on the human psyche.  Dead bodies of soldiers populated the news while America waited in fear of a communist threat (just after that whole Cuban Missile Crisis thing where the world almost went into nuclear war).  Nothing became more frightening than turning on the news in the late 1960s, so therefore in the early 70s, horror films decided to see how far the envelope could be pushed.  And holy Jeez then bent the bar back to its breaking point without any remorse for the psyche of the audience.  The Exorcist gave us a feeling of fear where no one, not even our innocent children are safe in the world, while the Texas Chainsaw Massacre showed the viewers a skewed and disgusting portrayal of the traditional nuclear family.  After these films busted the flood gates wide open, we're still waiting for the water to subside.

Let's put all of this into perspective.  Take a look at Psycho which appeared in 1960, then take a look at the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 14 years later in 1974.  The horror film went leaps and bounds in that time amping up the gore, dread, and fears of a society without any concern for the viewing public.  This kind of growth in a genre hasn't been seen since sound made its way into cinema (yes it's that much of a leap).  Now let's think about this in relative terms.  Its 2008, so let's think back 14 years to the glory days of 1994.  Some of the big horror films released that year include Interview with the Vampire, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, In the Mouth of Madness (so underrated), Brainscan, and Demon Knight.  Has horror cinema completely redefined itself since the release of these films?  Are we discovering new methods, themes, and societal contradictions on a massive scale?  No, the horror film has barely changed since 1994.    Hell the horror film has barely changed since 1974.  But don't worry kids, one day in the near future, someone will come along and create the new standard for horror cinema that will spawn countless imitators.  Right now you're saying: "Hasn't (insert film here) already done that?"  I don't care what movie you pick, the answer is no.  You'll know it when you see it.

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