Our Daily Fear

Once horrors were characterized by a pronounced author approach, often subtle psychological profiling of the protagonists, noticeable doses of irony and subversion, well-thought-out care for every detail and gradation of horror as well as a praiseworthy engaged referral to contemporary social trends and (un)acceptable issues

With rare exceptions, such as the esteemed George Andrew Romero who has tirelessly directed and produced many more or less successful zombie films and offers his audience a fairly intriguing engagement and a certain social critique, the innovative and ironic Wes Craven in 1980s and 1990s as well as the intelligently conceived first films by Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan, contemporary horror films are almost as a rule reduced to unimaginative, trivial, escapist, exploitative and tiresome variations of familiar trash stories about crazy murderers, neighborhood psychopaths and primitive American hillbillies thirsty for human blood. The abovementioned exceptions, which can be joined by the excellent The Mist by Frank Darabont, as well as a few rare representatives of Scandinavian horrors such as the outstanding psychological horror drama Let the Right One In by Tomas Alfredson, and several remakes of old Craven hits (John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper were not so lucky), merely serve as reminders that old horrors were characterized by a pronounced author approach, often subtle psychological profiling of the protagonists, noticeable doses of irony and subversion, well-thought-out care for every detail and gradation of horror as well as a praiseworthy engaged referral to contemporary social trends and (un)acceptable issues.

In the1970s and 1980s, Craven, Carpenter, Romero and Hooper redefined the genre of horror films, enriching it with an independent author approach, realism and pronounced cruelty. By doing so they ambitiously added layers to celluloid horror with social commentaries and subversion that spoke out loud about racism, the Vietnam War and its consequences, political turmoil in America and the rest of the world and other provocative topics. Thanks to these filmmakers, horror films won the critics over and their works, as Romero once pointed out, were reflections of their time and an excellent opportunity to present the audience their own thoughts and opinions and encourage people to think for themselves. For example, Romero’s accidental choice of the dark-skinned actor Duane Jones as the protagonist of his master piece The Night of the Living Dead further encouraged the interpretation of the film as an expression of the fight against racism. In general, the more intelligent authors of horror managed to use the aggravating circumstances of their projects (low budgets, a priori treatment of the genre as less valuable and intended only for cheap thrills and similar critiques) as means to create realistic films in which violence was a bait for the audience as well as a way to bluntly depict the hypocrisy and pathology of modern society.

It all began in 1896, exactly 115 years ago when the legendary pioneer of the seventh art Georges Méliès made the short film Le manoir du diable, a two-minute story about a bat that flies into a room and turns into Mephistopheles. This was the first horror film made. Even though in 1910, Thomas Edison produced and directed the first film version of the famous novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, and even though in 1913, Robert Vignola directed his horror film with melodramatic elements The Vampire about an attractive girl who drinks her lovers’ blood, the most successful and influential early horrors were made in the 1920’s in the time of German expressionism. Besides Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary from 1920, the eponymous film that served the German film critic and theoretician Siegfrid Kracauer as the first elaborated attempt to interpret a film title through the prism of its cultural influence (in this particular case, the emphasizing of totalitarian currents in German society of the time) others include Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod and Murnau’s Nosferatu, films that open this selection of horror films in Tuškanac.

Even though it is undoubtedly one of Lang’s more interesting early silent films, Der müde Tod does not show him to be the master of an impressive visual style and pronounced dramatic intensity that he was later to become. The story of love, devotion and death was inspired by Griffith’s Intolerance and told in a series of parallel stories set in different historical times. Lang created a morally intoned and pronouncedly stylized melodrama, which unfortunately lacks Griffith’s epic impetus. Also, not all the stories are equally interesting and emotionally engaging, and it is apparent that the director had to cut costs on the set design. Nevertheless, audiences should not miss Lang’s film as well as Muranu’s Nosferatu, the unauthorized but faithful adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula characterized by the first inventive utilization of “special effects” such as sped-up film, use of negatives, shadowing and editing tricks. While Stoker’s novel is an allegory about the (British) victory of rationalism over superstition, the equally famous film by Murnau avoided rationalism completely and dove headfirst into the dark world of inverted fairy tales.

Looking at the history of horror films, it is possible to precisely determine the main characteristics of the genre and stylistic and thematic determinants for each decade. The 1930s were the golden decade of horrors in which the main topics were influenced by the growing Nazi movement in Germany and it was dominated by film adaptations of stories about Dracula and Frankenstein, as well as the first film werewolves, zombies and King Kongs. In the 1940s, as the popularity of films with monsters from Universal studios stabilized, there emerged the first horror-comedies such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, producer Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie) began working for RKO and the genre got its first Oscar in the category Best Cinematography in The Picture of Dorian Grey). The 1950s were characterized by the growing psychosis of the Cold War, evident in films such as Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and The Thing From Another World, plots with giant monsters (Godzilla) and crazy scientists (The Fly). The 1960s brought a more direct exploitation of violence, sexuality and psychic deviation, as well as phenomena such as Vincent Price, Roman Polanski and Mario Bava. The 1970s were characterized by film nihilism, a direct consequence of Vietnam, and adaptations of provocative social themes such as religion (Wicker Man) and sexism (The Stepford Wives), as well as the emergence of film cannibalism and the entrance of horrors into the mainstream with the help of Spielberg’s Jaws. The 1980s were dominated by slasher serials such as Friday 13 and Nightmare on Elm Street, and the genre received fresh blood from Sam Raimi, Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon and Tom Holland. We entered the 1990s with the Oscar winning Misery and Silence of the Lambs, and decade was closed with Craven’s Scream films. The first decade of the 21st century was marked by Japanese horrors, extreme slasher serials such as Saw and Hostel as well as remakes of the genre’s classics. You can see some of the most representative horror films of all time in our program in Tuškanac. (Josip Grozdanić)