The changing face of horror

The monster from popular 2002 horror movie The Ring

Imagine seeing the face of the Frankenstein monster in theaters for the first time. Imagine that you were one of the first to see the haunting image of Dracula’s castle or hear the howl of the Wolf man.

Those images, now so mundane, were at one point considered frightening. The Frankenstein monster was grotesque, the castle was rich in haunting atmosphere and the werewolf’s howl sent chills down people’s spines.

These horror movies inspired fear in their time but one would argue that they no longer have that same power. A lot of the techniques of horror from the age of Frankenstein are still employed today but to a different degree.

For one thing, the advent of technology has greatly increased the realism of horror movies. Also, film standards are less stringent than they were in the 1930s when movies like Frankenstein and Dracula were released. The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, also known as the Hays Code prohibited the portrayal of brutal killings in detail or murder in a way that could spark imitation. This is not the case today, as exemplified by such brutally violent films as Saw, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Human Centipede.

Dir. James Whale’s iconic Frankenstein (1931)
The older films were about the atmosphere; the horror of the unnatural in unnatural places. They featured uninhabited castles with dripping stone walls, locked rooms, secret dungeons, abandoned and overgrown graveyards, creaking staircases, clanking of chains, swirling mists and sudden shrieking winds.

Atmosphere still plays a key role in modern horror films such as Paranormal Activity and Silence of the Lambs but is enhanced with help of technology. The atmosphere of modern horror movies are less about the supernatural and more about the everyday gone wrong.

As technology has progressed so have the techniques of terror. An increase in the quality of sound, costume and visual effect serve to make the horror all the more realistic, and therefore more terrifying, for viewers. Dracula or Frankensteinare no longer as terrifying to modern audiences because we’ve come to expect horror films to be incredibly realistic and engaging as a result of technology.

In movies of old, evil creatures and monsters were supernatural beings, they were costumed to resemble nothing remotely human. These days, evil is more likely to have a human resemblance, suggesting that modern viewers find the idea of evil that looks human scarier than evil in a mask.

In a sense, the fundamentals of horror have not changed all that much over the years. As human beings, we still find the same fundamental concepts frightening but, thanks to our imagination and technology, there will always be new methods of conveying those fundamental fears and new frights are to be had from them. In the words of Edgar Allan Poe, “Perversity is the human thirst for self-torture.”

With files from Amanda L. Shore


ARTiculate: No viewing required

When picturing Frankenstein, what comes to mind? What does Dracula’s castle look like? Imagine a shark swimming in the water, what music accompanies it?

Odds are your mind has a thought for all three. A tall, greenish corpse with bolts in its neck, a sinister man in a black cape standing at the top of stairs covered in cobwebs, and a sinister two-note melody. Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), Jaws (1975): three film classics that have rooted themselves into our culture, so much so that even people who may not have ever even seen the films, still recognize them. That is the nature of a classic; it is a film that is so famous, you don’t even need to see it in order to know it.

Jurassic Park (1993) was one of the most financially successful blockbusters from our generation’s childhood. That initial image of the brachiosaurus walking across the screen while the music slowly plays and the actors in the movie stand transfixed with the same awe as the audience. Not enough time has passed, however, for this film to be deemed a classic. Many critics do not look at Jurassic Park as anything more than just another blockbuster and the film has received little in the way of special honor. For our generation it may be a classic since most saw it as children but for those outside our age, it is still too early to accurately tell.

Now examine Frankenstein. Those who have read the book will know that there is no mention of bolts or that the monster lumbers with arms outstretched, yet both of these things are directly associated with the monster, because of the Boris Karloff iconic film. The film, Frankenstein, was so popular in the thirties that it spawned a number of sequels and planted a seed in our culture that has germinated into an archetype.

It is also interesting to point out that if many of us saw films like Frankenstein, Dracula, Lawrence of Arabia, or Jaws: we may not even like them. Since film appreciation is a subjective art, it is difficult to concretely cement the quality of any film. There are many opinions that some of the films defined as “classics” have not held up over the years and now feel dated and boring to watch. Indeed some of us may even find the best use for a “classic” is to cure the insomnia caused by a stressful night of schoolwork.

There aren’t any requirements for films seeking to become classics beyond being popular enough to succeed. People simply need to see it. This is evident today when looking at what may be the next vampire phenomenon, Twilight. Many would say that the quality of the movie is not sufficient enough to warrant it a place in history but no real argument can be made against it being a prevalent presence in culture. The word “vampire” is starting to have new image associations because of this film, and that is the mark of a potential classic.

Likewise Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy may someday fall under the term classic as it took an already well-established character and propelled him to an unprecedented height of popularity. Many superhero movies are now made with a higher degree of realism in an attempt to emulate the style of Nolan’s films.

It is difficult to predict the nature of the classic. They have become an unusual genre all to themselves, defined by what the public deem popular at the time. To view them is to view an aspect of culture.

For your fix of classic films check out Cineplex’s Fall Classic Film series.

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