A Brief History of the Horror Film Part 2
The 1980’s – Slashers, Stabbings, and Sequels
The success of the original “Halloween” led to the release of the original “Friday the 13th” in 1980. Directed by Sean Cunningham, who had produced “Last House on the Left”, the film involved a mysterious killer who murders a group of teenagers who are attempting to reopen a summer camp. “Friday the 13th” spawned a remarkably long-running series. Eight installments were released during the 1980’s. Fans of the series annually looked forward to the next installment. Hockey-masked psychopath Jason Voorhees (although his mother is the original killer) became a famous horror villain. The modern horror franchise had been born.
After “Friday the 13th” became a success, all hell broke loose with slasher films in the early ‘80s. Studios flooded theaters with low budget slasher flicks, hoping to make a quick buck. Many of them were set on a specific holiday or special day, such as “Graduation Day”, “Hell Night”, “New Year’s Evil”, “April Fool’s Day”, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” (Christmas) and “Prom Night”. The films were very popular among high school and college students, so others had titles such as “Final Exam”, “Return to Horror High”, “The Dorm that Dripped Blood”, “The House on Sorority Row”, “Splatter University”, “Night School”, “Cheerleader Camp” and “Slaughter High”. Slasher films were released regularly from 1980-1983 but began to taper off after that. Today, many of these films have small cult followings because of their campy elements.
“Halloween II” was released in 1981, the first of four Halloween sequels to be released during the decade. The filmmakers felt pressure to live up to the new gruesome standards and it was much gorier than the first film. “Halloween II” found box office success and is typically considered the second-best installment of the series.
Despite the fading slasher wave, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) became a major hit for fledgling studio New Line Cinema. It introduced famed horror villain Freddy Krueger and spawned a lucrative franchise. Krueger was a child murderer who was burned to death in a boiler room by vengeful parents after he had escaped justice on a technicality. Krueger returns as a type of demon to haunt the dreams of the parents’ teenage children. If the kids die in the dream, they are killed in real life. The creative, slightly more cerebral spin on the slasher formula interested audiences. It too became a franchise. New Line released six installments from 1984-1991. “Nightmare on Elm Street” had a major influence on horror movies that were released in the late ‘80s. Many contained bizarre, surreal dream sequences modeled after the ones in the NOES films.
Although “haunted house” movies weren’t particularly en vogue during this decade, Steven Spielberg (producer) and Tobe Hooper (director) struck gold with “Poltergeist” in 1982. The film told the story of an ordinary American suburban family who move into a haunted house. Heather O’ Rourke played the young daughter Carol Anne, who famously says the line “They’re here!” “Poltergeist” was followed by two sequels.
Vampire films were popular in the ‘80s. “The Lost Boys” (1987), “Near Dark” (1987), and “Fright Night” (1985) all found audiences. “The Lost Boys” starred Corey Feldman, Corey Haim, and Keifer Sutherland in an entertaining but remarkably juvenile R-rated film. “Near Dark” was a rural tale of a young man who falls in love with an attractive female vampire. He must deal with the girl’s violent vampire gang, especially their leader, played by Lance Henriksen. “Fright Night” featured Chris Sarandon (Prince Humperdink in “The Princess Bride”) as a smooth-talking vampire. He moves into a suburban household, but the teenage boy next door figures out what he is, and sets out to stop him. It was followed by a sequel and a remake.
Writer/director Clive Barker released “Hellraiser” in 1987. The fantasy/horror film introduced the demonic Pinhead, another character who gained a fan following. Pinhead had only a supporting role in the original film, but was featured in its many sequels.
A look at ‘80s horror would not be complete without a mention of a certain evil doll. Chucky was introduced in “Child’s Play” (1988). The film became a surprise hit and spawned its own series of sequels. Like Freddy and Jason, Chucky is still well-known today.
A tremendous amount of horror flicks were released in the 1980’s. By 1989, audiences were burned out. “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child”, “Friday the 13th Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan” and “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers” were all released that year. All three bombed at the box office. It was a sign of dark days to come for the horror genre at the box office.
1990’s – The Rise of the Postmodern Horror Film
The first half of the ‘90s was a dark time for the horror genre. After the colossal flood of horror films in the ‘80s, interest in the genre faded. Few horror films were released from 1990-1995, and most did not find critical or commercial success. One notable exception was “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), which won the Oscar for Best Picture and introduced iconic villain Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins.
Another film of note was Clive Barker’s “Candyman” (1992). Featuring Tony Todd as the title character, “Candyman” explores the idea that urban legends can come to life if enough people believe in them. A female graduate student named Helen investigates the legend of the Candyman – the ghost of an ex- slave with a hook instead of a right hand – who allegedly haunts a run-down Chicago apartment complex. The film was followed by two sequels.
In 1996, the genre received a shot in the arm courtesy of Wes Craven’s “Scream”, which was based on a script by writer Kevin Williamson. “Scream” was a self-aware spoof of the horror genre. It featured recognizable performers such as Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox, and Neve Campbell. No longer were horror films filled with unknown z-list actors. “Scream” started slowly at the box office, but became an enormous hit as word-of-mouth spread. It was followed by three sequels. The film’s success paved the way for other, similar movies such as “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Urban Legend”. Old horror franchises were dusted off, such as in “Halloween H20”, which featured Jamie Lee Curtis’s return to the series and a much higher budget than the prior “Halloween” sequels.
While serious, straightforward horror films were “out” during the late ‘90s, one unorthodox chiller became a box office smash. Thanks to a then-innovative internet marketing campaign, “The Blair Witch Project” took audiences by storm in 1999. Its “found footage” documentary style influenced countless other horror films in a trend that continues today. “Blair Witch” was unable to establish a franchise, however. Its sequel, “Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows”, was a critical and commercial flop.
2000’s – Torture Porn, Remakes, and Found Footage
The self-referential style that “Scream” had popularized began to fall out of fashion as the 21st century began. The first few years of the new millennium were relatively slow. The first “Final Destination” installment was released in 2000. Instead of a flesh and blood killer, the movies chronicled characters escaping certain death and then being killed off by an invisible force (death/fate). The film’s four sequels (so far) followed the same formula.
In 2003, the remake of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and the slasher movie mash up “Freddy vs. Jason” found significant box office success, but new properties were having trouble connecting with audiences. A slew of remakes of popular horror flicks from the ‘70s and ‘80s were released during this era, including “Prom Night”, “Friday the 13th”, “Halloween”, “Nightmare on Elm Street”, and “Last House on the Left.”
Another trend in the mid-2000s was American remakes of popular Asian horror flicks. "The Grudge" and "The Ring" became major box office hits. However, those films' sequels fizzled and this trend quickly died out.
In October 2004, the original “Saw” was released. It featured the Jigsaw Killer, an old man with terminal cancer who uses elaborate devices to trap, and usually kill, people who he deems to be unworthy of life. The film’s brutal violence and gloomy tone struck a chord with audiences. The next major horror franchise had been born. New “Saw” films were released like clockwork every October from 2004-2010. Meanwhile, Eli Roth’s “Hostel”, a somewhat similar film, also found box office success. Critics derided these films, and others like them, as “torture porn”. The producers of “Saw” rejected this term, but the series remained controversial until its popularity began to fizzle out.
The most recent major horror franchise was unexpectedly established in 2009 with the success of the original “Paranormal Activity”. Purportedly composed of home movie footage shot by a couple whose home was haunted by a mysterious entity, “Paranormal Activity” built the same type of buzz that “Blair Witch” had experienced a decade earlier. “Paranormal Activity” crushed “Saw VI” at the box office, marking the beginning of the end for the latter series. After two enormously profitable sequels, the negative reception to 2012's "Paranormal Activity 4" led to a delay for the next installment. A spinoff, "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones", was released in January 2014 and another installment, "Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension", is in production. Haunted house movies have also come back in vogue recently thanks to the commercial success of "The Conjuring", "Insidious", and "Insidious 2".
Be Afraid...Be Very Afraid
Horror movies remain popular. It will be interesting to see where horror films go from here. What will be the next major franchise to take off? What trends will we see in the future?
What is your favorite horror movie era?
Earlier Horror Film History
- A Brief History of the Horror Film Part 1
A history of the horror genre, from its humble beginnings through the 1970's.
- Slasher Movie - Television Tropes & Idioms
The Slasher Movie trope as used in popular culture, with a list of examples from all media.
- Top 10 Best Slasher Movies Of All Time - Forbes
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- Retro Slashers: Unearthing Forgotten Horror
Unearthing Forgotten Horror
- Horror Films at Filmsite.org
- Horror Film History Introduction
Classic horror movies - context and commentary examining how the codes and conventions of the horror film genre developed over the last century - by Karina Wilson