The following essay will contrast the horror movies of the 1940’s and 1950’s with today’s plethora of gore and mayhem. The basis of the paper’s thesis will rest upon these previous films having greater cinematography and creativity than the bombardment of today’s high tech industry. “Shots of Gothic manors lit by lightening, of shadows glimpsed under doors, or of a hand gliding along a banister, are examples of the ‘spectacular means’ of horror; they are the kind of devices that have been used so often that they have come to define the genre of the horror movie” (White The Poetics of Horror 1).
This is the common definition for both previous horror movies and those created in today’s industry. It is veracious to state that today’s horror movies rely too heavily upon the amount of gore and blood seen in the movie and less on plot and character development (although there are exceptions to this rule). The horror movies of the 1940’s and 1950’s although sometimes cliche in their development give to the audience a wonderland of cinematic detail and emotional impact that is not replicated. Such movies are often also defined by their talented actors.
One such movie is The Body Snatcher (1945). This film, directed by Robert Wise (who also directed The Haunting in 1963), brings in elements of gore but also suspense. This dichotomy of conceptual realization in the film is what lends it as a classic horror film. The performance given by Boris Karloff is what truly heightens the story line of the film. That is one great difference between these two eras of movies; character development has become strained and non-existent in today’s genre but in Boris Karloff’s character Gray.
The character has a true identity and is itself dichotomized from a man who gets along with children and animals but whose cold nature allows him to black mail the doctor. This film’s greatness does not hinge upon its graphic detail and gore but instead its subtle ability to incorporate into the story line such special effects as lightening and the covert viewings of bodies leads the viewer to image for themselves to a certain extent the gruesome details of the plot. This is one point of contrast between these two different styles of horror films.
The 1940’s and 1950’s horror films presented something that does not exist in today’s horror films as did during this time; the theme of paranoia. Paranoia was not just presented by the character’s depiction of the feeling but through different effects such as lighting and sound that suggestively pointed towards paranoia and accomplished not only the main character’s involvement with the feeling but by extension of these effects the audience’s involvement also, as White states, “Because we all fear death and try to protect ourselves from it, even the most clinical presentation of a murder is apt to interest us.
But the arousing of our fear of death by itself is not enough to produce horror; horror requires a certain manipulation of that fear. ” (White 7). This type of fear, and involvement of death in horror as represented in the 1950’s film era is seen in The Curse of Frankenstein. The psychology of this film is riveting. It is the classic horror tale of man trying to cheat death or more aptly put it is man trying to be God. In the scenes that depict the creation of Frankenstein’s monster and the camera angles (both the low and the high angles) reveal to the audience the otherworldliness of the moment.
The film also has a very strong use of light and shadow especially in scenes with the monster and Frankenstein together. This is especially true when in the film the stray bolt of lightening brings the creature to life; in the symbolism of nature bringing the creature to life where science failed is also a small evidence factor that contributes to the idea of these effects having a greater sway on an audience because of their metaphorical qualities than the slasher films of today whose main purpose is to frighten but not seduce.
The movie The Curse of Frankenstein seduces the audience by giving them a chance to feel compassion for the creature and diabolical understanding for the doctor, but none of these emotions would be possible is not for the camera angles aiding in this portrayal and the use of light and shadow (especially in the lab). Another effect in the movie was the depiction of the monster. The monster was created to embody a very animalistic side of nature and thus the creature was more of a blank canvas (Noel Nightmare and the Horror Film 17).
The monster was violent yet in the film the audience, through the course of the movie and the lighting effects as they represented and lingered on each character in certain fashions (i. e. the progression of the film increasingly shadowed Dr. Frankenstein while the monster became increasingly vivid) allowed the audience to relate more with the monster and to associate the animalistic symbols in the film with Dr. Frankenstein; for it is Dr.
Frankenstein who is the monster, “The fact that audiences tolerate, even seek out and enjoy, a film designed to horrify them, can tell us a great deal about what it is in these films that makes them inspire fear or dread” (White 7). The horror movies of the 1940’s and 1950’s brought something different to cinematic history; the empathizing of the audience with the monster. In today’s horror movies the anti-hero has overswamped the screen, the lighting effects are nonexistence as digital has taken the place of talent.
Choices are being made in the film that allow CGI to almost be a viable character instead of emotions as portrayed through effects such as lighting and camera and sound. The vampire films have definitely changed dramatically than when Horror of Dracula was conceived. The replacement film of this genre is more about action. This can be seen in such movies as Blade (each version) and Dracula 2000. There is no real possession of the audience in these films.
Blade especially does not do the genre justice as its characters are ill developed and its light focus is minimal as it only delves into the use of sunlight and lamplight (on the street scenes and in warehouses). The darkness in the film is not a weighty character, and even the night scenes are too bright. The only truth behind this film in regards to it being a horror film is the club scene where the lights are flickering at fast speeds and the dancing crowd is being consumed by vampires.
But even in this scene the focus is about the gore and the technique utilized to represent the gore. It seems to be increasingly true that a horror movie in today’s market is only a horror movie if it uses the right amount of blood and guts. In contrast to this film, The Horror of Dracula is strikingly different. The highlighting effect that emotionally drew in the audience is the films underscore.
The musical development of the film as it fits with key scenes allows the film to transcend the genre of horror and allows it to be at once horror, tragedy, and surprisingly romantic. The musical underscore tied the characters together in a love triangle and even without the films marked up-angle shots of the monster and the castle angles, the films music make a definite impression. The association between the monster and the music is completely riveting.
Although music is used in horror films today their portrayal is mixed with a rock star atmosphere (as mentioned in the club scene in Blade), or the fact that the film wants to associate with the younger generation and so places guitar riffs into the action scenes. This effect merely produces a lot of hype that does nothing to replace the character development and scene development that a truly great musical score (as is witnessed in The Horror of Dracula) can bring to a picture (Internet Zombie Production). In the Curse of the Werewolf the use of lighting is essential.
Although the makeup of the creature is slightly less than believable as compared with the genres advancements in this area (even American Werewolf in London had a great make-up team and From Dusk Till Dawn showed innovations in the field) for current day movies, the abundance of dream sequences relaying to real life and the use of darkness is captivating, as White states about these past horror films, “Their mixture of comedy and tragedy, reality and fantasy, captures something of the chaos of the world and some of the ways men go about giving that chaos the illusion of order” (14).
This statement is especially true in application to The Curse of the Werewolf. One special effect used in the film is when the mute servant girl gives birth in Alfredo’s home on Christmas day and the sound effect of bells chiming is paired with the simultaneous crying of a new borne babe. The implications and symbolism in this sound effect is stunning.
The film renders symbolism in the birth of Christ but the juxtaposition of the animal in place of the divine is an element that makes this film especially harrowing. Although the werewolf movies of today such as The Howling have a brief focus on the birth of a werewolf no version or continuous sequel of The Howling produces quite the same effect as this sound bit even thought he make-up and artistry is of a superior quality in this more modern day horror film.
The Curse of the Werewolf also includes dream sequences where the character Leon begins dreaming like an animal and goes to confess these dreams to the parish when a flock of sheep is discovered to have been eaten, as White states about dreams in horror movies, “As the dream can express what the character cannot normally express consciously, the aberration elements of the dream can become confused with normal life providing a character with a way of doing what he wants to do while denying that he has done it or desires to do it” (15).
Thus, in comparison of the techniques used by the 1940’s and 1950’s horror movies with today’s special effects the quality of the former is much more impressive in context and is utilized in such a way as to cause empathy from the audience and to reveal a solidly conceived character.
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