A Cultural History of the Horror Film | Review

A Cultural History of the Horror Film  |  Review

Black Box, Belfast Sunday 27 November 3pm

By John Patrick Higgins

Horror films have been around for as long as cinema. Horror films, in a sense, are cinema. Most of the grammar that we associate with the cinematic art: the editing, the dissolves, jump cuts, forced perspective, has been invented to facilitate scares. What cinema needs to do in order to terrify you is to make you involved, to bring you into the action, to make this all about you. That is the function of a horror film, the same as a fun fair or the sort of Victorian “sensation” novels that would have been written around the birth of cinema. These are “sensation films”.

Comedian Lorcan McGrane, self-confessed rural geek, is donning the dark mantle of his previous profession, that of Film Studies lecturer. Indeed, as he shows us a series of photographs of the horror experts featured in the Video Nasties box-set it soon becomes clear that there is a dress-code among horror aficionados – every single one of them sports glasses and a black shirt, as does Lorcan. As do I. What? It’s a strong look.

And this really is a rollercoaster ride as Lorcan attempts to fit the entire history of horror films, (including “haunted bed films”) from 1896 – 2016, into just over an hour. He not only manages this but also involves tertiary horror media, including the lurid books and comics that proliferated in the 1970s, giving him “a chance to see the sort of imagery you wouldn’t ordinarily see in rural Ireland!”

We embark with the Lumiere brother’s “Arrival of a train La Ciocat” (1895) in which the sight of a train approaching on the screen saw the audience fleeing the cinema screaming for their lives. Next comes Georges Melies’ “The Devil’s Castle” (1896). Melies had been a stage magician but here he uses the emergent box of tricks that cinema supplies: the cuts, editing and spliced shots, to really confound his audience. This might as well have been actual magic.


The Edison studios get in on the act in 1910 with the first ever filmed version of Frankenstein, starring Charles Ogle as a monster that bears no resemblance to the later, more famous Karloff creation. The monster here is half man half soiled laundry. The film was thought lost for years but now, given the wonders of the modern world, you can view it on Youtube.

We leap over to Germany for Paul Wegener’s “Der Golem”, much more of an influence on Universal’s later Frankenstein series and the extraordinary and influential “Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari” which saw German Expressionist art and Jungian archetypes assail the humble horror flick. Suddenly these films had intellectual heft and artistic worth. The often literal darkness of these films cast a shadow over the Noir films of the thirties and allowed occlusion and subtly to enter the frame: if you don’t show something but merely suggest it then people see it anyway and the censors can’t touch you for it! It was a lesson well learned and then utterly forgotten by the 1970s, when less was definitely less!

By the fifties horror films were fighting against two implacable enemies: television and nuclear Armageddon! Television was stealing the movies audiences so they needed to provide an experience that television couldn’t match, hence producer William Castle’s theatrical innovations such as “Percepto” for the film “The Tingler”, which involved giving selected patrons a mild electric shock during the screamy bits! You can’t get that with television – unless your wiring’s knackered.


Nuclear war brought with it the horror of mutation. Films reacted to this by massively inflating insects, unleashing sleeping giants, or creating stygian horrors like The Creature from the Black Lagoon – a mudskipper on steroids. Greatest of all was Godzilla, a fire breathing dragon with a real grudge against Tokyo. Godzilla was the physical incarnation of an atom bomb: destroying everything, utterly mindless and unstoppable, a scourge on the earth. There was no sign of Godzooky at this point. Godzooky was like Pete’s Dragon with a smoker’s cough.

The sixties and seventies brought lashings of bosoms (literally in some of the “Killer Nun” films) to the screen, as the censor unclenched and blood and a veritable pubic carpet was unleashed upon a ravening public. From this point forth everything would be louder, bigger, uglier and bloodier. Slasher movies and torture porn were just around the corner. There was little attempt at unease and atmosphere in these films anymore– gore was the law.

McGrane brings us nicely up to the state of modern horror which finds itself in rude health once again. This is horror cinema’s secret: it is protean, forever changing, and all things to all people. There will always be new scares to scare you, strange things to be frightened of. At the Q and A afterwards I ask Lorcan if there are still things that frighten him in films. He thinks carefully and answers “There was a scene in Forrest Gump where a boat comes out of nowhere and goes right into the jetty and I screamed, in the cinema.”

His scariest film is Forrest Gump. No further questions, your honour.


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