The Smell of Fear: New Wave Horror

New Wave Horror

What is the Horror New Wave? And how did we get there? Research on the topic reveals that the “New Wave” moniker is often bandied about with little justification. Yet careful application of the term can be enlightening rather than obfuscating.

Suspension of disbelief is not the only criteria for enjoyment of a horror film. Viewers must accept total submersion into a dream state, a world of symbol and metaphor, as if consenting to hypnosis. Great horror films do not merely scare an audience, but possess it like a demonic entity or fatal curse from which the only escape is to see it through to its end. While basic elements of terror have been constant since the invention of the ghost story, certain changes have mutated the genre, both gradually and in sudden fits that have seized it like a compulsive bloodlust.

When examining classic horror films from the first decades of the century, certain themes and styles of presentation become clear. Often these early works are stories about individuals in conflict with society and the seductiveness of the dark side of human nature. Taboos are delineated and vilified, and moral solutions proposed. The Dracula myth, for example, is often read as a dissertation on erotic sexuality in opposition to constraining Victorian mores.

In these films, internal corruption and evil typically mirror the external, monstrous forms of the antagonists. These beasts are easy to spot, and are clearly an infection to be repelled from the citizen body and preferably destroyed. Both Island of Lost Souls (1932) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) reveal man at war with the animal inside of him, and depict failed attempts to overcome our beastly nature with societally approved systems of order such as science and law.

These film classics were often based upon works written in the 18th or 19th centuries, and did not yet reflect 20th century thought. Once film began to catch up with modern literature, newer, more complex forms of storytelling began to emerge, and ambiguity, graphic violence, and dysfunctional psychology entered the language of the genre.

Director Tod Browning was one of the first truly modern horror directors, in that he often looked at extremely dark manifestations of human behavior, saying, in essence, that we needn’t look further than ourselves to closely examine evil. Although most often remembered for Dracula (1931), it is his other, lesser-celebrated films that are often the more disturbing ones. Audiences must have been shocked by early silent works such as The Unknown (1927), which featured the always-brilliant Lon Chaney as a supposedly armless sideshow knife thrower, Alonzo, who lusts after his assistant, Estrellita, played by a very young and quite stunning Joan Crawford. Estrellita has a phobia about being touched by men’s hands, and Alonzo indulges in an elaborate ruse to convince her that he lacks them, which culminates in a terrifying act of self-mutilation. The uncomfortable manifestations of the film’s sexual politics are so disturbing that the film still works its dark magic even now. Browning’s twisted masterpiece, Freaks (1932), starring real — and in some cases deformed — sideshow performers, was so reviled at the time of its release that it was banned. Clearly, Browning wasn’t afraid to depict controversial subjects, which marks him as one of the great innovators of modern horror.

Great works like Cat People (1942) by horror pioneer Jacques Tourneur also led the way. This film portrays a woman, Irena, so afraid of her own sexuality that she believes she turns into a beast when aroused. Yet Irena isn’t evil, she simply fears her darker half, which may — or may not — be a homicidal black panther. Since we never directly see a cat, the film cleverly suggests that her transformation may all be in her mind, the product of sexual panic. Such a psychosexual narrative presaged many films to come.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) single-handedly created a new genre, the “slasher flick.” Its story, from the book by Robert Bloch, was based upon real-life serial killer Ed Gein, whose gruesome exploits inspired many movies. Yet the film was still very much a product of the Hollywood system, and while certainly scary, scrupulously avoided gore. And slasher films did not truly come of age until over a decade later.

Until the 1960s, American horror films were often constrained by self-censorship in the form of a still-influential Hays Code. Section I.1.b of the Code states, “Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail,” and later deems “Brutality and possible gruesomeness” to be a “Repellent Subject.” European cinema, which had no such constraints, was eagerly pouring on the red syrup to rake in exploitation dollars and redefine the genre in the process.

Some of the most influential films of the ’50s and ’60s were those created by Hammer Studios, famous for adding extra blood and licentiousness to their treatments of famous subjects such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy. These films often featured the inimitable Peter Cushing as a concerned scientist, the cruelly stylish Christopher Lee as a monster, and any number of buxom women with low-cut bodices.

During this same time, cutting edge American directors and producers, primarily those of exploitation films, were constantly pushing the boundaries of the acceptable. Roger Corman’s gruesomely entertaining adaptations of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, such as The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964), were successful both commercially and artistically, and helped elevate actor Vincent Price to the status of horror icon.

Another major modification to the horror aesthetic was the gradual transition from black-and-white film stock to color: nothing showed off the crimson sap quite like Technicolor. And an important piece of the modern horror puzzle is certainly the Vietnam War. As the first televised armed conflict, it brought images of carnage directly into the living rooms of the world.

At the end of the ’60s came what was arguably the first “New Wave” horror film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), as it utilized similar techniques touted by the French Nouvelle Vague, namely the use of available lighting and handheld camera shots, which gave it a gritty realism. Yet independent director George Romero was not motivated primarily by aesthetic concerns but budgetary ones. This gruesome zombie feeding frenzy, shot in black-and-white, is still one of the most effective horror tales, that of a hopeless battle against unstoppable flesh-eating hordes.

Last House on the Left (1972) by Wes Craven was also a film that relied upon a stripped-down aesthetic, also using natural light and handheld camera due to a low budget. Its matter-of-fact brutality is often quite effectively chilling, and is only marred by some amateurish performances.

One of the most important films in the sequence of the American Horror New Wave is certainly The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). The movie’s oppressive atmosphere is permeated with impeding doom, squalor, and an anarchic, relentless nihilism. Victims of “Leatherface,” the film’s Ed Gein-inspired chainsaw killer, are chased down and snuffed like insects. While watching the film, the utter helplessness of the murdered is like a palpable weight, and you are relieved when the harrowing journey ends. Director Tobe Hooper’s directorial style is masterfully fluid, and his dissonant original score adds layers of edginess with the use of such instruments as a jackhammer. Actress Marilyn Burns, as sole survivor Sally Hardesty, convincingly terrified, is required to scream continuously for nearly twenty minutes of screen time — which suggests some disquieting connection between horror and Opera.

It was the release of Halloween (1978) that truly breathed life into the slasher genre. Numerous imitators all followed its deceptively simple recipe: a faceless, relentless killer, for reasons unknown, appears as if from nowhere to murder again and again until he is finally brought down. The tropes of this genre are so often repeated, that they were parodied in Wes Craven’s self-referential Scream (1996), which some people have incorrectly labeled as New Wave Horror. If postmodern self-referentiality alone were a defining trope of a New Wave movement, then half of the television programs extant would fall into that category. Scream seems to be nothing more than a curious artifact of its era, and already feels dated.

While America was undergoing a horror renaissance, Italy had already plunged into realms of outrageous splatter and macabre surrealism beginning in the ’60s though its own unique horror genre known as giallo –“yellow,” after the yellow covers of lurid pulp mystery novels. Innovative directors such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento made crazed, fever-nightmares that were widely imitated. Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), possibly the first “modern” slasher film, is a notoriously violent tale of bloody excess, and several of its murders are replicated on an almost shot-for-shot basis in Friday the 13th, Part 2 (1981). Argento’s Suspiria (1976), about a coven of witches, is certainly one of the heights of the genre as well as a stylistic tour de force, and weaves an unshakable miasma of dread. Suspiria also demonstrated that giallo didn’t have to simply be an exercise in splatter, but could also be a supreme vehicle for the spooky surrealism and dark mythology inherent in horror.

One of the most influential series of horror films is surely Sam Raimi’s necro-tastic trilogy, The Evil Dead (1983), The Evil Dead II (1987), and Army of Darkness (1993). These no-holds-barred zombie flicks blended non-stop action and cartoonish slapstick in a Cuisinart of chaotic carnage to create the kind of ghoulish comedic visions that Tex Avery might hallucinate on bad acid. Raimi’s reinvigoration of old techniques such as stop-motion, time compression, and lightning-fast pacing influenced filmmakers of every genre around the world.

With A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Wes Craven re-injected needed surrealism into American horror, but the series became a hit-or-miss dark comedy franchise that eventually lost its relevance or scary edge.

Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) went to new extremes in the quest to simulate documentary reality, and this approach proved extremely effective. One infamous sequence even shows the murderers using a video camera to tape a crime so that they can re-watch it later in a smart, creepy echo of horror fans’ own home video experiences.

This horror documentary style found its ultimate expression in the “snuff film” aesthetic. The actual existence of snuff films is generally regarded as an urban legend, but many exploitation films went out of their way to simulate them, often with minimal plot to get in the way. One infamous manifestation is the sadistic Japanese Guinea Pig series of the ’80s and ’90s. These films are usually under an hour in length, and show sickeningly realistic depictions of homicide and mutilation. In Flowers of Flesh and Blood (1985), a textbook example, a kidnapped woman is slowly, excruciatingly dismembered by her assailant, who considers what he does to be an art form. These films inspired a real serial killer in Japan to emulate specific scenes, and spawned an FBI investigation in the US to determine whether the films might be genuine snuff.

1991’s Silence of the Lambs changed the nature of the police procedural thriller by merging it with horror. This was yet again another film inspired by Gein’s dirty deeds, as the film’s killer skins young women in order to make a female suit for himself, just as Gein himself actually did. Lambs single-handedly spawned a sub-genre of horrific thrillers based on forensic science and psychological profiling; later imitators such as the rock-video styled Se7en (1995) were clearly following in its footsteps.

Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame, made an early reputation for himself as a director of movies designed to disgust and amuse. Dead Alive (1992) was one such film. Greatly influenced by the Raimi model of zombie horror, Jackson treats viewers to one of the most splatteriffic scenes in horror history, involving a roomful of undead and a gas-powered mower that results in hundreds of gallons of pulpy gore.

The willingness of Asian cinema to depict realistic violence has put them at the forefront of a new horror film movement that often takes cues from equally violent comics and animation. Japan has experienced its own recent Horror New Wave, which was cemented with such creatively dark titles as Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998) about an evil video tape that curses whomever watches it, or Takeshi Miike’s Audition (1999), concerning a man who meets a very strange, possibly murderous young woman at an audition. These films are often distinguished by a nightmarish surrealism that recalls giallo at its best, yet they gleefully reach their own unique depths of depravity.

Much hype surrounds the most controversial American horror film of the ’90s, The Blair Witch Project (1999). A few hardcore horror fans are aware that its plot conceit, that the film itself is supposedly recovered footage shot by a lost documentary crew, was lifted from Cannibal Holocaust (1979), an extra-bloody giallo film from Ruggero Deodato. What is clear is that while Blair Witch follows the classic New Wave moving-camera-natural-lighting model, it actually recalls an older style of horror filmmaking in which the monstrous is implied but not seen. One of the best models for this kind of film was the original version of The Haunting (1963), in which evil spirits are completely suggested via effective sound design to create one of the most effectively frightening horror films ever made.

When examining what constitutes New Wave Horror, we often return to a common thread: an adherence to unflinching realism. Whether that manifests as a documentary, low-tech shooting style or as anatomically correct depictions of quivering viscera, these grimly visionary filmmakers are trying to make us squirm by accepting what they show us as possible. This is sometimes accomplished by drawing audiences into hellish universes that occasionally bear uncomfortable parallels with stories seen on the nightly news. Since documentary realism is also a defining aesthetic of the digital video revolution, audiences can be sure that this bloodthirsty genre will only continue to expand both in style and realistic execution.

Films Mentioned

1927 The Unknown
Dir. Tod Browning
Starring Lon Chaney, Sr., one of the greatest actors of his generation, who was often cast as grotesque or deformed characters which he brought to life with complicated makeup and often painful apparatus he designed himself. A psychologically disturbing film of intense emotional power, and an excellent example of the long collaboration between Lon Chaney, Sr. and Tod Browning.
1931 Dracula
Dir. Tod Browning
One of the canonical American classic monster movies. Using the same sets, it was simultaneously shot as a Spanish language version by director George Melford.
1932 Island of Lost Souls
Dir. Erle C. Kenton
An effective adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Stars Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.
Dr. Jekll and Mr. Hyde
Dir. Rouben Mamoulian
Frederic March in a career-defining performance. This important film is in part a scathing indictment of abusive relationships.
Dir. Tod Browning
A genuinely disturbing film that relied on its shock value in the casting of actual circus freaks.
1942 Cat People
Dir. Jacques Tourneur
A masterpiece of psychological horror and gorgeous cinematography.
1960 Psycho
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock’s genre-defining horror film, and one that gave people nightmares.
1961 Pit and the Pendulum
Dir. Roger Corman
Corman does Poe. With Vincent Price, who operates the titular torture/execution device.
1963 The Haunting
Dir. Robert Wise
One of the best horror films ever made, its fear generated by never showing the viewer a ghost.
The Raven
Dir. Roger Corman
Corman does Poe. Horror-comedy starring three greats of the genre, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, who play dueling sorcerers.
1964 The Masque of the Red Death
Dir. Roger Corman
Corman does Poe. With Vincent Price.
1968 Night of the Living Dead
Dir. George Romero
Ground-breaking film that set the style for the American Horror New Wave.
1971 Twitch of the Death Nerve
Dir. Dario Argento
An important — and notably violent — film in the development of the slasher genre.
1972 Last House on the Left
Dir. Wes Craven
Craven’s first feature.
1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Dir. Tobe Hooper
A classic, and a brilliant piece of indie filmmaking.
1976 Suspiria
Dir. Dario Argento
Scary and atmospheric; Argento’s best film.
1978 Halloween
Dir. John Carpenter
A genre-defining outing by horror master Carpenter.
1979 Cannibal Holocaust
Dir. Ruggero Deodato
A gruesome and controversial film that features the actual killing of animals; the faked human deaths are tame in comparison.
1981 Friday the 13th, Part 2
Dir. Steve Miner & Sean S. Cunningham
The second film of the long-running series.
1983 The Evil Dead
Dir. Sam Raimi
Game-changing and stylistically influential.
1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street
Dir. Wes Craven
The first film in this wildly successful franchise.
1985 Flowers of Flesh and Blood
Dir. Hideshi Hino
One of the key films in the ultra-gruesome “Guinea Pig” series.
1986 Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Dir. John McNaughton
Dark, savage, and unforgettably bleak.
1987 The Evil Dead II
Dir. Sam Raimi
While the first film was horror with comedic touches, the later films in this series were played increasingly for laughs, but were just as entertaining.
1991 Silence of the Lambs
Dir. Jonathan Demme
Single-handedly changed the police procedural genre with the introduction of explicit examination of serial killer psychology and methodology.
1992 Dead Alive
Dir. Peter Jackson
One of the bloodiest films ever made, but utterly cartoonish and over-the-top in its execution. Very influenced by Raimi’s Evil Dead series.
1993 Army of Darkness
Dir. Sam Raimi
The final film in the trilogy; continued on cable TV as Ash vs The Evil Dead beginning in 2015.
1995 Se7en
Dir. David Fincher
“What’s in the box!”
1998 Ring (Ringu)
Dir. Hideo Nakata
One of the central films in the Japanese horror craze of the late ’90s. Spawned several sequels, as well as American remakes.
1999 Audition
Dir. Takashi Miike
One of Miike’s smartest and creepiest films, with a devastating and harrowing ending.
The Blair Witch Project
Dir. Daniel Myrick &
Eduardo Sánchez
This film had huge influence, though much of that had little to do with the movie itself; its online viral marketing campaign was one of the first of its kind. Plus, its micro-budget inspired hundreds of imitators.