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Horror films have always been designed to frighten and invoke the audience’s worst fears, often in a terrifying or shocking way. Yet at the same time, horror films are suppose to be entertaining, despite, or in addition to the scariness. They deal with our most primal nature and its fears: our nightmares, our vulnerability, our alienation, our terror of the unknown, our fear of death, or loss of identity. Horror films have developed out of a number of sources from folk tales with devil characters, witchcraft, fables, myths, ghost stories, to Gothic novels by way of Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker. In the last hundreds years, these films have gone through many dramatic changes, however, the basic underlying theme is constant: to exploit all the fears and vulnerability of the viewers.
The evolution of horror films has been affected by many variables. Every director brings his own style to the genre, some directors like Wes Craven, redefine the genre all together. Also, the era in which the movie was made makes a difference. For instance, the 80’s were the time of slasher B-movies, which too many people can be considered a genre of its own.
The first horror movie was made by imaginative French filmmaker George Melies, titled The Devil’s Castle in 1896. One of the more memorable and influential of the early films was Germany’s silent expressionistic classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) from director Robert Wiene, about a carnival hypnotist. The shadowy, disturbing, dream-nightmarish quality of Caligari was brought to Hollywood in the 1920s, and continued into the classic period of horror films in the 1930s. (Beck 78) The first genuine vampire picture was also produced by a European filmmaker, director F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) in a film adaptation from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The undead vampire’s image was unforgettable with a devil-rat face, elongated fingers and long fangs. In the film’s conclusion, the grotesque creature dissolved in sunlight. In the 1920’s, the film was thought to be ahead of its time with its special effects.
One actor who helped pave the way for the change in outlook and acceptance of the genre was Lon Chaney, Sr., known as “the man of a thousand faces” because of his transformative, grotesque makeup and acting genius. One of his most famous roles was as a vampirish character in a film by Tod Browning titled London After Midnight (1927). “At this point in film, directors relied on a combination of good acting and good makeup” (Pinedo 25).
Before the 1930s, Hollywood was reluctant to experiment with the themes of true horror films. Instead, the studios took popular stage plays and emphasized their mystery genre features, providing rational explanations for all the supernatural and occult elements. By the early 1930s, horror entered into its classic phase in Hollywood with Dracula and Frankenstein Eras. The studios took tales of European vampires and undead aristocrats, mad scientists, and invisible men and created some of the most archetypal creatures and monsters ever known for the screen. The studio best known for its pure horror films and characters such as The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man was Universal Studios (Beck 121).
However in the 50’s and 60’s Britain’s Hammer Studios took over the horror genre by reinvigorated the Bram Stoker novels in a collection of low-budget films by employing garish, sensual colors and bloody reds. “They remained faithful to the genre’s classic material in tightly-produced, spectacular Technicolor sequels featuring a seductive vampire” (Beck 135). This was the start of visually stimulating the audience with blood and gore. The next 50 years of horror movies relied on grossing people out as much, or even more then scaring them. This was the opposite of the 20’s and 30’s were directors like Alfred Hitchcock left a lot to the imagination. Hitchcock’s style was to build up as much suspense as possible, so that waiting for the climax was actually more scary then the climax itself.
George Romero debuted as director with the low-budget, black and white, intensely claustrophobic, unrelenting cult classic Night of the Living Dead in the late 60’s. The gruesome story about newly dead corpses and stumbling zombies who returned to life with ravenous hunger for human flesh. Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and Day of the Dead in 1985 were his two most famous sequels to the movie. “In 1968, the MPAA created a new rating system with G, M, R, and X ratings, in part as a response to the subversive, violent themes of horror films” (Pinedo 99).
The 70’s brought in some of the best directors of the time into the horror genre. In turn, the horror was never quite the same. Unconventional filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick’s controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971) was an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel about rape, murder, and behaviorist experiments to eradicate aberrant sex and violence. Future director Steven Spielberg’s first notable film was Duel (1972) about a monstrous and malevolent gas-tank truck without a driver. Evil spirits possessed the body of a young girl in director William Friedkin’s successful The Exorcist (1973). Director Nicolas Roeg’s psychological thriller Don’t Look Now (1973) duplicated Hitchcockian terror in a tale of disaster in Venice. (Beck 67). Some people might consider some of these movies horror, but there is no doubt these movies invoked real fear into many people, which is why I consider them some of the best scary films ever made.
The 1980’s started a new genre of horror known as the slasher movies, or splatter movies. These movies were more about how many young teens can be slashed open by the hands of an unstoppable, supernatural psycho. Most of these movies featured shock, gory violence, graphic horror, using computer-generated special effects and makeup. The favorite motif of slasher movies usually involved a homicidal male psycho who committed a progressive string of gruesome murders on female victims, where brutal killing, slashing, hacking were metaphorically substituted for a rape (http://www.greatestfilm/). Tales of a vengeful murderer motivated by some past misdeed or sexual perversity were also common themes. Friday the 13th (1980), the first of the horror genre’s most recognizable horror series, had an astonishing seven sequels.
Again in the 90’s the horror genre was transformed. After a lack of good scary movies in the early 90’s, Wes Craven, the director of the huge hit A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) created a trilogy called Scream. Scream can be identified as a high budget, “slasher” movie. However, movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer have been criticized for making fun of the horror genre, especially the b-movies. One difference between traditional slasher movies and the Scream trilogy is that the killer had no supernatural powers, and they did not come back from the dead, instead they were ordinary people who just went crazy. Many people do not consider these new age teen horror flicks as scary movies at all, which lead to such spoofs as Scary Movie (2000). Scary Movie basically made fun at every scary movie made in the past eight or nine years. There point: horror movies of the decade were terrible, and that real horror fans wish the genre went back to relying on make-up, bad plots, and bone chilling characters like Jason, Freddy Kruger, and Pin Head.
What will the new millennium have in store for scary movies? It is any body’s guess. Movie’s like The Cell (2000) have already set the pace for computer created thrillers, with unbelievable special effects. Perhaps the genre will go back to the basics using blood, guts, and big knives, to scare their audience. One thing is for sure, if history is correct, someone will bring something new to the genre, whether that is a good thing or not, we’ll have to wait to find out.
Beck, Calvin Thomas. Heroes of the Horrors. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
New York, New York. 1975.
Dirks, Tim. www.greatestfilms/horror.com. 2000-2001.
Pinedo, Isabel Cristina. Recreational Terror. State University of New York.
Albany, New York. 1997.
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