Horror films are films of the horror genre that are designed to elicit from audiences emotions of fright, fear, and terror. In such plots, evil forces, events, or characters—oftentimes of supernatural origin—intrude into the everyday world. Common horror film archetypes include vampires, zombies, monsters, serial killers, demons, and ghosts. Early horror films often drew inspiration from classic literature, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, William Bernard's The Mummy, and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In contrast, more contemporary horror films tend to play on insecurities of life since World War II.
Horror films have been criticized for their graphic violence and are often dismissed as low budget B-movies, or at least films not to be taken as serious art. Nonetheless, some major studios and respected directors have made forays into the genre. Some horror films incorporate elements of other genres such as science fiction, fantasy, black comedy, and thriller.
The horror genre is nearly as old as film itself, with the first depictions of supernatural events appearing in several of the silent shorts created by film pioneer Georges Méliès in the late 1890s. The most notable of these was the 1896 film, Le Manoir du diable (The House of the Devil), credited by some as being the first horror film.
The genre expanded successfully in the early twentieth century, beginning with the first monster to appear in a full-length horror film, Quasimodo, the hunchback character taken from Victor Hugo's novel, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831). Films featuring Quasimodo included Alice Guy's Esmeralda (1906), The Hunchback (1909), The Love of a Hunchback (1910), and Notre-Dame de Paris (1911).
Many of the earliest feature-length horror films were created by German filmmakers in the 1910s and 1920s, many of which would come to have significant influence on contemporary Hollywood films. Paul Wegener's The Golem (1915) was seminal in its morbid telling of an eerie statue brought to life. In 1920, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was influential in its Expressionistic style. The most enduring horror film of that era was probably the first vampire—themed feature, F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
In the early 1930s, American film producers, particularly Universal Pictures, popularized the horror film, bringing to the screen a series of successful features including Dracula (1931), and The Mummy (1932). Some other popular works blended science fiction with Gothic horror, such as James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933). These films, while designed to thrill, also incorporated more serious elements. In this decade, actors such as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi centered their entire careers on the horror genre.
Universal's horror films continued into the 1940s with The Wolf Man (1941)—not the first werewolf film, but certainly the most influential. The studio also continued to produce sequels in the Frankenstein series, as well as a number of films that teamed up several of their more popular monsters. Also in this decade, Val Lewton would produce atmospheric B-pictures for RKO Pictures, including Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Body Snatcher (1945). These were lower-budget, more sensational pieces that created the stigma of the horror genre's "cheesy effects" and absurd plot-lines.
With the dramatic changes in technology that occurred in the 1950s, the tone of horror films shifted away from the Gothic and more toward science fiction. Low-budget productions featured humanity overcoming threats from "outside intruders." These included alien invasions, mutants, and dormant monsters come to life.
The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the rise of production companies focused on producing horror films. The British company, Hammer Film Productions, enjoyed international success from full-blooded color films involving classic horror characters, such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959). Meanwhile, American International Pictures (AIP) made a series of Edgar Allan Poe–themed films produced by Roger Corman and starring horror legend Vincent Price. These sometimes controversial productions paved the way for more explicit violence in both horror and mainstream films.
Low-budget "splatter" films also appeared. Examples included 1963's Blood Feast (a devil-cult story) and 1964's Two Thousand Maniacs, which featured an abundance of blood and bodily dismemberment.
With the demise of the Production Code of America in 1964, and the financial successes of the low-budget gore films, the horror genre was reshaped by a series of intense, often gory, horror movies with sexual overtones made as higher-budget "A-movies." Some of these films were even made by respected auteurs.
The ideas of the 1960s were a significant influence for 1970's horror films, as the young directors and producers involved in the counterculture began exploring the medium. Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972) and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) both recalled the horrors of the Vietnam War; George Romero satirized the consumer society in his 1978 zombie sequel, Dawn of the Dead; Canadian director David Cronenberg updated the "mad scientist" sub-genre by exploring contemporary fears about technology and society.
Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) was a critical and popular success, and a precursor to the 1970s occult explosion, which included the box office smash, The Exorcist (1973) (directed by William Friedkin) and scores of other horror films in which the Devil became the supernatural evil, often by impregnating women or possessing children. Evil children and reincarnation became popular subjects, as in Robert Wise's 1977 film Audrey Rose, which dealt with a man who claims his daughter is the reincarnation of another dead person. In The Omen (1976), a man realizes his five-year-old adopted son is the Antichrist. In The Sentinel (1977), a fashion model discovers her new brownstone residence may actually be a portal to Hell.
Also in the 1970s, horror author Stephen King first arrived on the film scene. Adaptations of many of his books came to be produced for the screen, beginning with Brian DePalma's adaptation of King's first published novel, Carrie (1976), which went on to be nominated for numerous Academy Awards. John Carpenter created the hit Halloween in 1978, kick-starting the modern "slasher film." This sub-genre would be mined by dozens of increasingly violent movies throughout the subsequent decades. Other notable '70s slasher films include Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974).
At the same time, there was an explosion of horror films in Europe, particularly from the hands of Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci, as well as Spanish filmmakers like Jacinto Molina (aka Paul Naschy) and Jess Franco, which were dubbed into English and filled drive-in theaters that could not necessarily afford the expensive rental contracts of the major productions. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, filmmakers were starting to be inspired by Hammer and Euro-horror to produce exploitation horror with a uniquely Asian twist. Shaw Studios produced Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1973) in collaboration with Hammer, and went on to create their own original films.
The 1980s was a prolific time for horror filmmakers, with many hit productions launching into a lengthy line of sequels. Poltergeist (1982) was followed by two sequels and a television series. The seemingly-endless sequels to Halloween, Friday the 13th (1980), and Wes Craven's supernatural slasher, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), were the popular face of horror films in the 1980s, a trend reviled by most critics. Nevertheless, original horror films continued to appear sporadically, with such smash hits as Clive Barker's Hellraiser (1987), Tom Holland's Child's Play (1988), and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining—based on the Stephen King novel—which became one of the most popular and influential horror films of the decade.
As the cinema box office returns for serious, gory modern horror began to dwindle, the genre began to find a new audience in the growing home video market. Motel Hell (1980) and Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case (1982) were the first 1980s films to mock the dark conventions of the previous decade.
In the first half of the 1990s, the genre continued with themes from the 1980s. It managed mild commercial success with films such as continuing sequels to the Child's Play and Leprechaun series. The slasher films, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween, all saw sequels in the 1990s, most of which met with varied amounts of success at the box office.
As a result, horror became more self-mockingly ironic and outright parodic, especially in the latter half of the 1990s. Peter Jackson's Braindead (1992)—released as Dead Alive in the U.S.—took the splatter film to ridiculous excesses for comic effect. On the other hand, Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), featured an ensemble cast and the style of a different era, harking back to the sumptuous look of 1960s, and a plot focusing just as closely on the romance elements of the Dracula tale as on the horror aspects. Wes Craven's Scream movies, starting in 1996, featured teenagers who were fully aware of the history of horror movies, mixing ironic humor with shock. Along with I Know What You Did Last Summer, these films re-ignited the dormant slasher film genre.
Among the popular English-language horror films of the late 1990s, only 1999's surprise independent hit The Blair Witch Project attempted straight-ahead scares. But even then, the horror was accomplished in the context of a mock-documentary. Other films such as M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999) concentrated more on unnerving and unsettling themes than on gore. Japanese horror films, such as Hideo Nakata's Ringu in 1998, and Masuru Tsushima's Otsuyu (aka The Haunted Lantern) (1997) also found success internationally with a similar formula.
The start of the twenty-first century saw the horror genre slowing dwindling. The re-release of a restored version of The Exorcist in September of 2000 was successful despite the film having been available on home video for years. Franchises such as Freddy Vs. Jason also made a final stand in theaters.
However, horror as a medium took two directions. The first, a minimal approach which was equal parts Val Lewton's theory of "less is more" (usually employing low-budget techniques seen on 1999's The Blair Witch Project) and the emergence of Japanese horror movies which have been remade into successful Americanized versions, such as The Ring (2002), and The Grudge (2004).
The second was a return to the extreme, graphic violence that characterized much of the type of low-budget, exploitation horror from the Seventies and the post-Vietnam years. Films like Final Destination (2000), Wrong Turn (2003), House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil's Rejects, and the Australian film, Wolf Creek (2005), took their cue from The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). A particular sub-genre of this trend was the emergence of a type of horror with its emphasis on depictions of torture, suffering, and violent deaths, (variously referred to as "horror porn," "torture porn," and even "gore-nography") with films such as Turistas, Captivity, Saw, Hostel, and their respective sequels in particular, being frequently singled out as examples of emergence of this sub-genre.
There has been a return to the zombie genre in horror movies made after 2000. 28 Days Later (2002) has been partially responsible for not just bringing zombies back into the forefront, but also updating their overall attitude (although, the "zombies" in this film are not actually the living dead). Where they'd always been slow, lumbering creatures, in this film they became agile and intelligent. Following this movie, an updated remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) was made, as well as (from George A. Romero, who specialized in the zombie sub-genre) Land of the Dead (2005), and the comedy-horror Shaun of the Dead (2004). More recently, adaptations inspired by video games such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil have been brought to the big screen.
One of the most critically acclaimed horror films of the decade was the British horror film, The Descent (2005). Its all-female cast was a departure from "tough-guy" male-dominated stereotypes or other archetypal dispositions common in horror films.
As described by the film aesthetician Charles Derry, contemporary horror films may be categorized into three broad sub-genres, dealing with the horror of personality, Armageddon, and the demonic.
The horror-of-personality sub-genre grew out of mid-to-late twentieth-century American culture, with the early and seminal example being Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). What distinguishes the horror-of-personality film from classic horror is that for the first time the object of horror does not look like a monstrous entity, but rather a normal human being, whose horrific identity is often not revealed until the end of the film. Typically, Freudian psychology and sex are emphasized in these films, along with prosaic locations, such as bright bathrooms and suburban homes, which heretofore had been unimportant in horror film. Other early examples include William Castle's Homicidal, Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Noel Black's Pretty Poison, and William Wyler's The Collector (1965).
This sub-genre depicts the menace stemming from either nature gone mad or God gone wrathful. Though apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes are prevalent in many film genres, when portrayed through the horror medium, the apocalyptic force is typically less religious and more supernatural. A notable example of this sub-genre is George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Hitchcock's The Birds.
The horror-of-the-demonic sub-genre grew out of mid- and late twentieth century American culture. According to Derry, the horror-of-the-demonic film:
suggested that the world was horrible because evil forces existed that were constantly undermining the quality of existence. The evil forces could remain mere spiritual presences, as in Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973), or they could take the guise of witches, demons, or devils. …Films about witchcraft and ghosts have always been with us. Indeed, the idea of an evil incarnate has a long American tradition. … The themes of repression and evil forces have long been a staple of American literature, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables and Washington Irving’s "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
Derry cites two films as "the most important forerunners in this genre": Day of Wrath (Carl Dreyer, Denmark, 1943) and The Devil’s Wanton (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1948), although Derry qualifies the second film as "not a horror film." Four themes that are common to these films lend a consistency to this genre.
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