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An Alternate History of Horror. Part XII: Modern Times

By Ryan Fleming.

The horror. The Omen (1976).

Picture Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

By the time Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde ushered in the era of New Hollywood in American cinema, horror fiction in the popular imagination was still largely something that happened in the past. Modernity was the balliwick of science fiction and thrillers. In 1967, the year of Bonnie and Clyde and the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, most popular horror films still had the trappings of Victorian Gothic fiction. It was a trusted formula; both Universal Pictures in the United States and then Hammer Film Productions in the United Kingdom had parlayed it into consistent success from the 1930s onward.

The Universal films were set in this odd sort of European neverland that could be any time between the Franco-Prussian War and World War II. The Hammer pictures, though made later, set their films even earlier and vaguer, sometime between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. It made sense, since the two novels that formed the backbone of each company’s oeuvre, Frankenstein, and Dracula, dated to 1818 and 1897 respectively. Their logic was that it wasn’t broke, so why would they fix it? As we’ve looked at in articles on the fortunes of both studios, they might not have been broken, but they could still wear out.

These were the most successful strands, and even within those, there were exceptions to the rule. Several Universal films were set contemporary to their release, but a combination of their Gothic atmosphere, black-and-white cinematography, and the present becoming the past, as with all things, led to them quickly becoming indistinguishable from those ostensibly set in earlier eras.

Hammer, on the other hand, reserved the modern day for their science fiction and thriller offerings. The output from other studios, the competitors to Universal and Hammer, did not shy away from setting their films in a modern context.

As much as Universal and Hammer might have remained mired in the trappings of Victorian Gothic United Kingdom literary horror, their competition during their heydays were more embracing of the modern. The difference was where the two most successful studios downplayed modernity, even where their films were ostensibly contemporary to their year release, others would embrace it. Embrace modernity in part, at least. However accidentally, the competitors to Universal and Hammer managed to not only offer an alternative to what the leader was doing, but also try to outdo them at their own game. It is possible to embrace being the alternative without sacrificing on diversity.

Though a critical success in its original release, and in retrospect contender for the greatest film ever made, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) was a flop at the box office for studio RKO. The studio needed cash, preferably without spending too much, so they were naturally drawn to horror. A unit wholly dedicated to horror films was established at the studio in 1942, Crimean Jewish born producer Val Lewton was brought on to head the new unit. There were three rules Lewton had to adhere to for RKO: each picture would be budgeted at $150,000 or less; would run under 75 minutes; and would be made to a title provided by his supervisors. The first effort from this unit was Cat People (1942), about a Serbian woman in modern day New York City. Its most famous technique is one that highlights the modern setting: the Lewton bus, more commonly known as the jump scare. Though named for Lewton, it was the creation of editor Mark Robson, who compiled the sequence of quiet tension as the main character (Simone Simon) walks through a deserted street, realising that she is being followed and the tension peaking with the sudden, unexpected, and noisy arrival of a bus in the frame. Cat People was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who would subsequently direct I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man (both 1943) for Lewton’s horror unit at RKO. He also later made the film noir Out of the Past, and the Lewton-RKO pictures have a lot of artistic style in conjunction with film noir. The modern-set, film noir adjacent horrors in this strand could have taken the horror film crown from a Universal that was sliding into crossover and parody, but it was not to be. Only nine films had been made, including The Body Snatcher (1945), set in 1831 Edinburgh and the last film pairing of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, when Lewton’s RKO benefactor, Charles Koerner died. The upheavals that followed at the studio left Lewton unemployed, and he died in 1951.

Boris Karloff. Enough said.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The horror pictures produced by Val Lewton could have filled the void left by the fizzling of Universal’s monster films in the late 1940s. Instead, attention went to science fiction horror films inspired by the arrival of the atomic age and the UFO craze. That several directors who had directed Lewton’s films made horror films long after his death akin to their earlier style, perhaps we have some idea of how these might have looked. These included Night of the Demon (1957, released in the United States as Curse of the Demon) by Tourneur, adapted from the 1911 M. R. James but using a modern setting; and The Haunting (1963) by Robert Wise, director of The Body Snatcher, from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel. Elsewhere, American International Pictures captured the youthful drive-in audience of the late 1950s with their modern set, youth focused horror films like I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957). However, whilst these films were in black-and-white, the Hammer imports from the United Kingdom were in glorious, lurid Technicolor. Ironically, the modern set films looked older than their period counterparts, and audiences preferred colour. AIP devoted more of their efforts to aping the period pieces of Hammer, including a memorable series of films combining Roger Corman’s thrifty production, Vincent Price’s screen presence, and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, starting with House of Usher (1960).

AIP collaborated with Hammer more often than they competed, whether it be US distribution, co-productions like The Vampire Lovers (1970). They enjoyed a similar relationship with Hammer’s main UK competitors: Amicus Productions and Tigon British Film Productions. Tigon are most famous today for their folk horror, period films like Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). Amicus, on the other hand, are best remembered for their strand of modern-set, portmanteau (or anthology) horror films. From Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) to From Beyond the Grave (1974) they made seven such films. Each of which was modern set, and several adapted from the short stories of Robert Bloch or the long-defunct horror comics of EC. Amicus and Hammer shared a visual style, directors, and stars, most notably Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Their main difference was that Amicus set their films in the modern day, though they would occasionally make a Hammer-esque period piece like The Skull (1965) and I, Monster (1971). Amicus also brought the most terrifying monsters of 1960s British television to the big screen, battling Peter Cushing, in Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966).

A Dalek's eye view in Daleks' Invasion Earth.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Amicus wrapped up after one-half of their founders, Milton Subotsky (who, along with the other Amicus founder, Max Rosenberg, had submitted a rejected script for Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein in the 1950s) relocated to Canada. That Subotsky tried to continue the anthology trend from North America indicates (with The Uncanny in 1977 and The Monster Club in 1981) had he stayed Amicus might have continued to produce them. Subotsky was also an early purchaser of the rights to Stephen King’s short stories, which makes a 1980s Amicus anthology of Stephen King tales a possibility for that version of history.

As much as the horror output of RKO, AIP and Amicus might have embraced the modern day as a setting, there was still something superannuated in the actual horror content they used to scare audiences. There will still vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and cursed artefacts as they had always been. There was a hokeyness to proceedings, a sense that while these things were happening in the modern day, they still weren’t things that could just happen to you walking down the street. You had to have an aristocrat or scientist move into that crumbling castle down the road, or shoplift a mirror haunted by the spirit of a murderer, or marry a woman whose sexual frustrations might just be manifesting by shapeshifting into a bloodthirsty panther. That was to change before humans landed on the Moon in 1969.

Before the Hollywood mainstream would adopt modern-day set horror, it was already being done by both “B movie” studios and independent filmmakers. Part of the reason for this adoption was purely pragmatic: it would always be cheaper to set something in the modern day and not have to worry about budget for period sets, costumes, and props. The old adage that necessity is the mother of invention holds true for these films and having to go in a different direction to what most horror films were doing resulted in innovation in horror storytelling. Some of which created entire new genres of horror fiction.

Herk Harvey was directing and producing educational and industrial films out of Lawrence, Kansas when he stumbled upon the idea for Carnival of Souls (1962). Its creation was inspired by Harvey passing the then abandoned Saltair Pavillion in Salt Lake City, Utah. The film was budgeted at only £33,000 and made using what would later be termed guerrilla filmmaking tactics. Local officials were bribed, and the film shot in piecemeal fashion. Despite being his first fiction film, Harvey succeeded in imbuing the picture with a massive feeling of foreboding, citing the films of Ingmar Bergman as inspiration. No small credit for that same feeling is owed to lead actor Candace Hilligloss, who was found by Harvey in New York City, having trained under famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg, and agreed to participate for $2000. The story owes heavily to Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, by way of its 1961 French short film adaptation. Something of The Twilight Zone hangs over the proceedings too, and that same Academy Award winning short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge would be screened as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1964. It had previously been adapted on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1959. Whereas the Bierce story and its adaptations are set during the American Civil War, Carnival of Souls is set in the then-modern day of 1962. The similarities to Twilight Zone episodes like The Hitch-Hiker (adapted from Lucille Fletcher’s 1941 radio play) and After Hours speaks to how television had already developed techniques for filming horror in the modern day.

Carnival of Souls went largely unnoticed in its original release but was rediscovered in the 1980s and has since found appreciation for its atmosphere, acting, and score. Had it found a wider audience in its original release, it is possible it might have changed the trajectory of American “B movies” in the 1960s. AIP had perfected the tactic of releasing dual-genre movie packages during the 1950s, and the loosening of Production Code restrictions as the decade wore on created an environment where what would later be called exploitation films became commercially viable. Many of those pictures were influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the scope of whose influence is a tale for another day.

During that decade, AIP’s Roger Corman would act as a mentor to up and coming filmmakers, as he would do for the rest of his career. Two horror films he acted as producer on whilst one of his protéges directed stand out from the 1960s. Dementia 13 (1963), the first feature from the future director of The Godfather (1972), Francis Ford Coppola, filmed in Ireland using leftover budget from Corman’s The Young Racers (1963). Later, there was Targets (1968) by Peter Bogdanovich, albeit more of a thriller, it inadvertently ties together what was happening in horror films, intertwining the narrative of an aging horror movie actor (played, appropriately enough, by Boris Karloff) and the far more grounded clean-cut, suburban insurance agent hiding a disturbed mind and ready to commit mass murder (Tim O’Kelly). O’Kelly’s character was inspired by mass murderer Charles Whitman, and bears similarities to the later stereotypical horror movie villain. There is an irony in seeing this type of character opposite another famed for playing staid old horror movie monsters.

1968 would also see the horror movie monster get a modern take in a way that had almost totally eclipsed the original concept. Before George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the few cinematic zombies that had appeared were inspired by the creatures of the same name from Haitian folklore, a being resurrected by voodoo to do the bidding of whoever raised them. Today, the image of the zombie in popular culture is that of a decrepit, shambling, reanimated corpse that consumed human flesh (or, if they are more picky, human brains). Like Harvey, Romero got his start in filmmaking doing industrial films, along with commercials, and filmed his first feature guerrilla style. Unlike Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead was filmed in a naturalistic style that owed more to the newsreels coming back from the Vietnam War than it did to anything fictitious. Contemporary politics hangs heavy over the film in general, with the final fate of the film’s heroic lead, Ben (Duane Jones), an African American, resonating grimly with real life as much in the 2020s as it did in the 1960s. Night of the Living Dead also stands out as one of the earliest horror films using the supernatural as allegorical stand-ins for social and political issues.

Both Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead quickly entered public domain in the United States, via failure to place a copyright indication on their prints. That has been the case since 1968, with both films readily available for free online, albeit in varying levels of quality. The Romero film launched a franchise of five sequels from Romero, five competing sequels from producer John A Russo, four unofficial Italian sequels to the first Romero sequel, a plethora of remakes and other unofficial sequels, as well as a whole genre. It is interesting to consider the situation if the fortunes of these films had been reversed, Carnival of Souls finding a wider release and success shortly thereafter, with Night of the Living Dead remaining an obscurity until decades later.

1968 was a significant year for horror in many respects. It saw the release of Night of the Living Dead, arguably the peak of Hammer horror in the shape of The Devil Rides Out, as well as the first major Hollywood A picture that was unabashedly a horror film: Rosemary’s Baby. Aside from its industry significance, Rosemary’s Baby also ushered in the era of the demonic and satanic in horror films, which remain prevalent in newly-released horror films more than six decades after its release. Its critical and commercial success would pave the way for more films of its kind in the immediate years that followed.

The commercial potential of Ira Levin’s 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby was recognised before the book had even been published. The galley proofs to the book were brought to Paramount Pictures’ head of Production Robert Evans by William Castle. Castle, a producer of films like House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Tingler (1959), had become infamous for publicity stunts like hoisting fake skeletons over cinema audiences, or wiring theatre seats to vibrate at a given moment. Evans recognised the potential of what Castle had brought the studio, but insisted the famed schlock merchant only produce and not direct Rosemary’s Baby. Despite the potential, Evans believed a big name was needed for the lead role, settling upon Peyton Place star, and recently wed Mrs Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow. Her acceptance of the role would actually spell the end of her marriage to the famous crooner, who had expected her to give up her career upon marriage. She was served divorce papers on the set during production. Aside from Castle, there was almost another direct link to the 1960s horror B movies as the part of Rosemary’s husband was at one point meant for Jack Nicholson, a veteran of Roger Corman’s AIP films. The tale of paranoia, the occult and pregnancy played out in the very modern setting of New York City’s Central Park West.

Rosemary’s Baby was a box office success, and received two Academy Award nominations, winning one. Ruth Gordon won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of elderly neighbour and Satanist Minnie Castevet, whilst director Roman Polanski received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Sadly, Mia Farrow did not receive even a nomination after Evans secured her continued participation in the film following Sinatra’s serving of divorce papers by assuring her that she would receive one for the film. Those two Academy Award nominations were a rare achievement for a horror film, but would be overshadowed five years later when another horror film would be nominated for a whopping 10 of them, including Best Picture. Like the earlier film, The Exorcist (1973) was based on a novel: William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name. Blatty would win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, adapting his own novel for director William Friedkin.

It kick-started the horror film’s obsession with demonic possession. When possession had been featured in films, horror or otherwise, previously it was usually the situation of a deceased person possessing a living person. The Exorcist introduced the demonic aspect which has been the norm since. It was the highest grossing film of 1973, amidst much criticism that the MPAA’s new ratings system was too lenient on the film, giving it an R (for Restricted, meaning children could only see it if accompanied by an adult) instead of X (adults only) rating that might have harmed its commercial success. Its success probably owed more to the decision to quickly release it in over 300 screens nationally, which was rare for the time and normally reserved for B and exploitation movies. Another studio made not of this strategy, and two years later Universal would release Jaws (1975) on over 500 screens in the US during its original run, leading to it becoming the highest grossing film of all time and the original summer blockbuster.

By the time 20th Century Fox released The Omen in 1976, the concept of a Hollwood A horror picture was so ingrained that stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age would be willing to star in them, as producer Harvey Bernhard was able to secure Gregory Peck for the lead role in that film. The Omen was from an original screenplay by David Seltzer. It would bring together various disparate elements of what was happening in horror films at the time, combining the notion of the offspring of Satan from Rosemary’s Baby, the influence of Christian theology from The Exorcist, and the intertwining of the occult and modern politics pioneered by Night of the Living Dead. Politics are seen as the theatre in which the spawn of Satan will rise, and the feeling of malaise pervavise in both the US and the UK (where The Omen was filmed) at the time provided a fitting backdrop, In addition to film, The Omen had its predecessor in a 1974 episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker entitled: The Devil’s Platform, which sees a rising politician played by Tom Skerritt having done a deal with the Devil for his success. Both the Kolchak episode and The Omen make heavy use of rottweilers as instruments of Satanic power. The popularity of that dog breed actually increased following the release of the film, which begs many questions.

Themes of the occult, possession, the Antichrist, and the Christian apocalypse became popular in film following the success of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen. Those were heavily promoted Hollywood productions, all of which won Academy Awards (The Omen earning Jerry Goldsmith his only Best Original Score award). However, their existence, and in turn the existence of all they inspired or influence, owes a great deal to the B movie and exploitation pictures that were being made in the 1960s, skirting around the moribund but still in-place Production Code. The skeleton in House on Haunted Hill walked so that Linda Blair’s head could spin in The Exorcist.

Upon its original release, the review for The Exorcist in Cinefantastique said that the film had “done for the horror film what 2001 did for science fiction.” It is a difficult assertion to argue with, since the critical and commercial success of that film (again, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and the highest grossing film that year) had never been achieved by a horror film before... or since. Though Jaws became the highest grossing film of all time in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) actually won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1992, both are usually classified as thrillers despite their horror overtones. Nevertheless, however fleetingly, horror enjoyed a brief period of legitimacy as a result of those films.

Widely regarded as the best horror film of all time, the head spinning scene is a truly iconic moment in film history.

Aside from the whims of the box office and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, neither of which are ever a guarantee of quality, the same era also saw horror begin to tackle political and social themes in a way not seen since the heyday of the Expressionist films of 1920s Germany. Further examples would appear throughout the 1970s, before taking a break for the commercial realities in the 1980s and returning from the 1990s onward. Those films will be the subject of the next article in this series, looking specifically at the evolution of horror films carrying a social message that might have been difficult to achieve in mainstream drama.

The change in horror films from being mostly set in prior centuries to being mostly set in the modern day was a simmering one, and arguably a reversion to the norm since many films of the 1920s and 1930s were ostensibly contemporary. What the change really allowed for was the introduction of modern characters with modern problems, accessible to modern cinemagoers. Much as AIP recognised in the 1950s, most of those were of a younger age than the average cinemagoer, and teenagers would not have to wait long before horror stories about them were the most prevalent in cinemas. But the follies of babysitters and camp counsellors is a tale for another day.

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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid.


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