Film

Blockbusters and horror films of the 1990s, and why movies aren’t as scary as they used to be.

What are horror movies?

I like horror movies. I’m not sure I approve of all of them or that everyone should be allowed to watch and ‘enjoy’ them. The pleasure derives from the sideshow attraction in which you, the viewer, are not a moral spectator obligated to applaud the cowboy-in-white as he defeats the cowboy-in-black, but instead you’re a voyeur, who is permitted to watch others suffer a series of horrific and degrading punishments and misfortunes as entertainment, which we may assume could also befall us if these events turned out to be true; thank god they’re not! (Although it’s sometimes extremely fun to imagine there might be something hiding under the bed) – ‘momento mori’

I should also make clear that my personal view of horror movies and the never ending debates and controversies about the effect and moral concerns about the images of sex, violence and rape in films is just as cautious, contradictory and ambivalent as anyone else, regardless of their personal taste or interest in the genre. I don’t think that all horror movies are simply a ‘pornography of violence’ or movies glorify violence, to a extent this is probably true of some films, since some films are just badly produced, thoughtless and stupid like most of Steven Seagal/ Sylvestor Stallone action movies, or violent sports such as pro-wrestling in the US, but that these don’t necessarily make people more violent, unless ofcourse they’re already violent. The bottom line is, if a deranged psychopath watches a film, feels inspires and decides that he’s going to recreate that those scenes of violence against an innocent person, the problem isn’t really the film but the person who watched it.

In most cases I realise, just from writing and rewatching alot of films I go on to discuss, films do desensitize you to violence, if these were ever shocking to begin with, but only ‘film violence’ not ‘real violence’ (unless you’re a psychopath), and any emotional, morally conscientious and well-adjusted person (although I hardly consider myself ‘well-adjusted’, whatever that really means) will be able to make this distinction. Children or people suffering from psychosis, who are isolated and vulnerable, or someone a mental impairment might struggle to understand the consequences of their actions, and how violence and sex can cause distress both physically and psychologically, and therefore we should be weary about condemning cinema.

I would also point to a comment that the scriptwriter Paul Schrader had made during a documentary for the film Taxi Driver (1976), which has been lauded for realism and dark examination of the troubled psyche, that was in reference to people who had pursued him years after the film’s release with accusations about their own paranoid delusions and fantasies. Schrader suggests that lonely, resentful and angry men like Travis Bickle are out there in the world, and will always find someone or something to idolise and project their insecurities on to, that the resentment, alienated of men such as Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment will probably always exist. For me this isn’t a million miles away from the extremists and believers who support IS in Afghanistan and commit acts in support of their cause against what they see as the infidels in the West.

I believe it’s possible to identify certain traits which make movies scary, of which there are probably only two or three which are genuinely effective. One factor seems to depend on both the context of where and when the film is viewed; ie in a cinema, or at home with the lights out; another would be the scenario (watching alone, friends or with family), and the age of the viewer, as this will probably determine whether the person is familiar, ‘literate’, with cliches or whether they’re desensitized to depictions of violence or gore. Certainly this depends on the personal tastes and background of the individual, for example, I knew kids growing up who’d seen Chucky or Freddy Krueger films long before I’d had the opportunity and had appeared unfazed, whilst as an adult, I’ve encountered people (mostly women) who adamantly refuse to watch films with supernatural  themes or gore because they find these disturbing (*although I’ve also met women who’d enjoyed violent films and horror films, which is perhaps more disturbing).

Some for these films had genuine craft and imagination, while others were simply gory with graphic violence. I feel that the ones released during the eighties and mid to late nineties had  impact, atleast for myself anyway, where filmmakers, Hollywood studios, television writers, geeks and fans still reference and discuss these to this day, and will probably do so for decades. Furthermore, it seems the annual sequels, remakes and franchises which were abundant in the 2000s (Saw, Hostel, Wrong Turn, Jeepers Creepers, Cabin Fever, Hatchet, Human Centipede, Paranormal Activity, Underworld, Resident Evil, Final Destination) took a clear influence from these earlier b-movies and blockbusters, this in terms of narrative style and content, marketing and theatrical release.

Also, it’s worth acknowledging that for every decade the Hollywood studio system underwent large restructuring to its internal management and industry production methods as a result of social, economic and technological changes at the time.The most significant and visible of these since the 1990s has been with the internet and digital technology, the decline of VHS cassette tapes and DVDs, the disappearance of video rentals stores such as Blockbusters and the accessibility of film and television via websites such as Youtube, BBC i-player, and the use of illegal streaming and torrent download sites.

The seventies and eighties was an era in which Hollywood appeared to rebrand itself as a corporate empire, and attempted to manufacture blockbuster hits for even greater worldwide exhibition. Historically, US politics and the government’s foreign policy came into conflict with international trade and commerce from emerging economies and developing countries from Europe, Asia, China and Russia, with increasing expenditure and market growth in its military industries, technology, business, agriculture, oil, tobacco products and manufacturing. This was the fast-food MTV generation, where excess and money was power, or as the mantra goes ‘greed was good’. Arguably, from the 1970s onwards consumerism, brand identity and the influence of the media created the ‘ideal nuclear family’, ‘the American dream’, and this would have a powerful and lasting impact both domestically and abroad for generations, an almost Orwellian social phenomenon. And so, arguably, the 1980s was the golden age of trashy,cheap, exploitative, bad horror movies, and this is further discussed in the video of the Mick Garris interview with three of the leading directors of the genre.

In film theory discourses, concerning the relation of the popularity of horror films with audiences and psychoanalysis, alot has been discussed about how films represent metaphors and allegories which symbolize our collective social fears and influences. Whereby films such as Psycho, The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead, really represent our unconscious Freudian fears of the unknown; these being issues challenging civil rights, politics and moral values. To an extent this is probably true, but this overlooks the active interests of both the audience’s desire to be scared and the filmmakers intention to entertain and generate profit. I do like the notion that Halloween and Alien are really about Oedipal fears and anxieties about feminism, and that Terminator and Aliens are really about US foreign policy, paranoia and Vietnam, which are all probably true, but it’s not really why they were made, or what makes them scary (or does it?).

Horror cinema in the 1990s

There seemed to be a brief moment in between the post-Jurassic Park (1993) blockbusters and the pre-Scream (1996), Blair Witch Project (1999) and Sixth Sense (1999) new wave horrors, in which Hollywood tried emulate the success of Aliens and Jurassic Park with special-effects monster movies instead of the Freddy Krueger and Friday the 13th sequels (which were already influenced by the tabloid hysteria ‘video nasties’ of the 1980s; Driller Killer 1979, Re-Animator 1985, Basket Case 1982, Evil Dead 1980, Straw Dogs 1971, Cannibal Holocaust 1980, Demons 1985, The Toxic Avenger 1984, Maniac 1980)

Further information is available here:

http:/www.ukhorrorscene.com/tag/video-nasties/

Event Horizon (Paul WS Anderson, 1997) appears to be the exception, a theatrically released Hollywood film with a supernatural theme set in outer space, however Fallen, Bone Collector, Sleepy Hollow, Copycat, Seven, The Game, Stigmata, Alien Resurrection, End of DaysBlade, The Relic, Vampire in Brooklyn, The Haunting, Haunted, The Frighteners, Spawn, The Devil’s Advocate, Heavenly Creatures, From Dusk till Dawn, Deep Blue Sea, Anaconda and Mimic each contained either gore or a supernatural/serial killer theme that would appeal to audiences between the ages of 15-30. Fear (James Foley, 1996) being another exception, but a commercial failure, a kindof teen Cape Fear/Fatal Attraction in which a violent sociopath (Mark Wahlberg) stalks a college girl (Reese Witherspoon), and which is hindered by the intervention of her protective father (Will Peterson) with explosive consequences.

Fear slightly resembles the formulaic slasher films which would dominate in the aftermath of Scream‘s success the same year. It’s a dark, stylish psychological thriller confidently paced by the talented director James Foley (At Close Range, Glengarry Glen Ross), but essentially just a rehash of previous psycho-stalker films (Sleeping with Enemy, Sliver, The Crush, Single White Female, Unlawful Entry, Pacific Heights, Basic Instinct etc), the key difference being that the central characters are teenagers. The difference between Fear and Scream is that the psycho-killer in Fear is identified in the plot, and that his presence causes an Oedipal conflict between the girl and her father which positions the intruding boy against them the family unit.

In Scream this doesn’t exist at all, it’s told from the point of view of the girl and her friends attempting to evade the anonymous killer, and which would become the prototype for all slasher from then on. Fear is essentially about the family and the father, whereas Scream is about the girl and her friends, and therein reflects the virtues of its target audience. The girl’s virginity and deflowering in Scream is treated less as a taboo or rites of passage, as in Fear, than as a self-fulfilling character arc which comments on the cliches of the genre. Interestingly, the recent It Follows (2014) takes this aesthetic even further by completely omitting any negative connotations about teenage sex along with all recognisable parental or authority figures thus creating an otherworldly scenario reminiscent of Halloween (1978) and The Shining (1980).

It is also worth noting that the last Friday the 13th and A Nightmare of Elm Street sequels finally stopped with Jason Goes to Hell (1993, straight to video) and A New Nightmare (Wes Craven, 1994), before a reboot a decade later with Jason X (James Isaac, 2001), Freddy vs. Jason (Ronny Yu, 2003), and eventually undergoing an unimaginative, cynical remake with A Nightmare on Elm Street (Samuel Bayer, 2010) and Friday the 13th (Marcus Nispel, 2009).

These films arrived among a bewildering plethora as Hollywood began try remake almost every horror film since Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968), some of which, for example The Amityville Horror (1979), The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980), The Crazies (George A Romero, 1973) The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977), I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) and House of Wax (Andre De Toth, 1953), were considered terrible films, and not in a good way, whilst the remakes were even worse.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Marcus Nispel, 2003) being the greatest travesty since Godzilla (1998), and Sylvester’s Stallone’s Get Carter (2000). A memorable teen horror from this period was the granddaddy of them all, Michael Myers, who would return to stalk Jamie Lee Curtis again in Halloween:H20 (Steve Miner, 1998), and was  probably marketed after Dimension studios previous successes with Scream (1996) and Scream 2 (1997) during an apparent teen slasher revival, which was also directed by Miner who’d created House (1986), two Friday the 13th sequels, Warlock (1989), and Lake Placid (1999).

In 1998, under much controversy and derision from critics, the acclaimed arthouse filmmaker Gus Van Sant committed sacrilege with his shot-by-shot ‘remake’ of Hitchcock’s classic Psycho much to the mutual apathy and disdain of critics and teen audiences alike. However, I’d always admired Van Sant’s films, and his decision to cause outrage with a seemingly pointless remake of a visually perfect film, and got the sense that he was both attempting to make a tribute to Hitchcock and satirize Hollywood’s lack of imagination.

There might be others I’ve forgotten, and probably hundreds of straight to video films from independent companies, but those were ones theatrically released in UK cinemas with big stars and special effects. Eventually, perhaps, these types of big budget adventure horror movies shifted into films like Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1999), Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998), The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004), 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009), War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005) King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005), before Hollywood began adapting family and teen audiences films with Lord of the Rings (2001), Spiderman (2002) Xmen (2000), The Matrix (1999) and the Harry Potter films (2001).

One could argue that the main difference in the types of horror movies and blockbusters that released in 90s compared with the 00s dependedon the studio’s drive to produce family friendly films with a PG, PG-13 certificates (Jurassic Park, Jumanji, Twister, Godzilla, Forrest Gump, Independence Day, Contact, Twister and Titanic) alongside action, comedies and horror movies for a teen audience with a 15 and 18 (*R-rated and X-rated US) certificates audience (Alien 3, Terminator 2, Blade, Alien Resurrection, Speed, American Pie, Scream, The Rock, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Last Action Hero, The Haunting, Deep Blue Sea). Perhaps this is an oversimplification, although it is worth remembering that the market demographic of teenagers is probably the largest percentage of the cinema-goers, and consequently dramas aimed at adults, such as Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont,1994), make a higher profit with video rentals than at cinemas where these films might struggle to find an audience.

In terms of horror movies and mainstream blockbusters there does appear to be a correlation with industry technology where by the 2000s the studios were making more CGI animated films and had introduced 3D, HD and IMAX screens, along with the trend of sequels and film trilogies. This contrasts with previous decade’s record for sequels, such as Terminator 2, Jurassic Park 2 or Return of the Jedi, in which several years would normally elapse between the productions (presumably, negotiations and contracts needed to be agreed with the original filmmakers and the studios rights to the project.)

I will conclude by saying that the overall contribution in style and narrative of horror films and blockbusters that made these films unique to the 1990s, and different from those in the previous decade or in the 2000s, were with Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Scream, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense. Mainly because of the special effects, studio budget, audience appeal, commercial success and where the content appeared heavily influenced by similar films from the previous decades.

I would list the rest of the titles from this period below. I’ve included science-fiction and adventure films released for family audiences and have indicated the US film certificate* in order to compare these with sci-fi/horror films released for adults.

*The US film classification has a different system to the UK film certificate board. The US systems uses U, PG, PG-13, R and X rated films whilst the UK uses U, PG, 12, 15 and 18 certificates. These certificates may also change for the manufacture films on video and DVD releaes which uses a different license.

Further information about the classification system is available on the BBFC website: http://bbfc.co.uk/education-resources/education-news/same-difference

  • Star Trek:Generations (David Carson, 1994) PG
  • Stargate (Roland Emmerich, 1994) PG-13
  • The Shadow (Russell Mulcahy, 1994) PG-13
  • Street Fighter (Steven E.De. Souza, 1994) PG-13
  • Timecop (Peter Hyams, 1994) R
  • New Nightmare (Wes Craven, 1994) R
  • Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994) R
  • The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994) R
  • In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter, 1994) R
  • No Escape (Martin Campbell, 1994) R
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh, 1994) R
  • Jumanji (Joe Johnston, 1995) PG
  • Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995) PG 
  • Hackers (Ian Softley, 1995) PG-13
  • Casper (Brad Silberling, 1995) PG
  • Powder (Victor Salva, 1995) PG-13
  • Waterworld (Kevin Reynolds, 1995) PG-13
  • Batman Forever (Joel Schumacher, 1995) PG-13
  • Congo (Frank Marshal, 1995) PG-13
  • Nick of Time (John Badham, 1995) R
  • Haunted (Lewis Gilbert, 1995) R
  • Outbreak (Wolfgang Peterson, 1995) R
  • Judge Dredd (Danny Cannon, 1995) R
  • Species (Roger Donaldson, 1995) R
  • Copycat (Jon Amiel, 1995) R
  • The Addiction (Abel Ferrara, 1995) R
  • Mute Witness (Anthony Waller, 1995) R
  • Candyman 2 (Bill Condon, 1995) R
  • Never Talk to Strangers (Peter Hall, 1995) R
  • Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo, 1995) R
  • Vampire in Brooklyn (Wes Craven, 1995) R
  • Lord of Illusions (Clive Barker, 1995) R
  • Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995) R
  • Virtuosity (Brett Leonard, 1995) R
  • Seven (David Fincher, 1995) R
  • Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995) R
  • Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)  R
  • Phantom (Simon Wincer, 1996) PG
  • Phenomenon (Jon Turteltaub, 1996) PG
  • Space Truckers (Stuart Gordon, 1996) PG-13
  • The Arrival (David Twohy, 1996) PG-13
  • Lawnmower Man 2 (Farhad Mann, 1996) PG-13
  • Twister (Jan De Bont, 1996) PG-13
  • Daylight (Rob Cohen, 1996) PG-13
  • Star Trek: First Contact (Jonathan Frakes, 1996) PG-13
  • Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) PG-13
  • Chain Reaction (Andre Davis, 1996) PG-13
  • Island of Dr Moreau (John Frankenheimer, 1996) PG-13
  • Mary Reilly (Stephen Frears, 1996) R
  • Barbed Wire (David Hogan, 1996)  R
  • The Ghost and The Darkness (Stephen Hopkins, 1996) R
  • Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996) R
  • Freeway (Matthew Bright, 1996) R
  • Thinner (Tom Holland, 1996) R
  • Unforgettable (John Dahl, 1996) R
  • Escape from LA (John Carpenter, 1996) R
  • From Dusk till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996) R
  • The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996) R
  • The Frighteners (Peter Jackson, 1996) R
  • Eraser (Chuck Russell, 1996) R
  • Fear (James Foley, 1996) R
  • Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) PG
  • Volcano (Mick Jackson, 1997) PG-13
  • The Saint (Phillip Noyce, 1997) PG-13
  • Dante’s Peak (Roger Donaldson, 1997) PG-13
  • Jurassic Park 2 (Steven Spielberg,1997) PG-13
  • Devil’s Advocate (Taylor Hackford, 1997) PG-13
  • Batman and Robin (Joel Schumacher, 1997) PG-13
  • The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997) PG-13
  • Men In Black (Barry Sonnenfield, 1997) PG-13
  • Anaconda (Luis Llosa, 1997) PG-13
  • Gattaca (Andew Niccol, 1997) PG-13
  • Retroactive (Louis Morneau, 1997)  R
  • The Edge (Lee Tamahori, 1997) R
  • Breakdown (Jonothan Mostow, 1997) R
  • American Werewolf in Paris (Anthony Waller, 1997) R
  • The Game (David Fincher, 1997) R
  • The Postman (Kevin Costner, 1997)  R
  • Turbulence (Robert Butler, 1997)  R
  • Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997) R
  • I know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997) R
  • Mimic (Guillermo del Toro, 1997) R
  • Event Horizon (Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997) R
  • Spawn (Mark A.Z. Dippe, 1997) R
  • The Relic (Peter Hyams, 1997)  R
  • Alien Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997)  R
  • Nightwatch (Ole Bornedal, 1997) R
  • Star Trek: Insurrection (Jonathan Frakes, 1998) PG
  • Small Soldiers (Joe Dante, 1998) PG-13
  • The Avengers (Jeremiah S. Chechik, 1998) PG-13
  • Lost in Space (Stephen Hopkins, 1998) PG-13
  • Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998) PG-13
  • Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) PG-13
  • Sphere (Barry Levinson, 1998) PG-13
  • Godzilla (Roland Emmerich, 1998) PG-13
  • The X Files (Rob Bowman, 1998) PG-13
  • What Dreams May Come (Vincent Ward, 1998) PG-13
  • A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi, 1998) R
  • Halloween H20 (Steve Miner,1998) R
  • Urban Legend (Jamie Blanks, 1998)  R
  • Desperate Measures (Barbet Schroeder, 1998)  R
  • Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998)  R
  • Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998)  R
  • Fallen (Gergory Hoblit, 1998)  R
  • Psycho (Gus Van Sant, 1998) R
  • Apt Pupil (Bryan Singer, 1998)  R
  • Soldier (Paul W.S. Anderson, 1998)  R
  • Species 2 (Peter Medak, 1998)  R
  • The Faculty (Robert Rodroguez, 1998)  R
  • I still know what you did last summer (Danny Cannon, 1998)  R
  • Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)  R
  • Bride of Chucky (Ronny Yu, 1998) R
  • Phantoms (Joes Chappelle, 1998)  R
  • Disturbing Behavior (David Nutter, 1998)  R
  • Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) PG
  • Inspector Gadget (David Kellog, 1999) PG
  • Sixth Sense (M.Night Shyamalan, 1999) PG-13
  • Wild Wild West (Barry Sonnenfield, 1999) PG-13
  • The Mummy (Stephen Sommers, 1999) PG-13
  • The Haunting (Jan De Bont, 1999) PG-13
  • Instinct (Jon Turtletaub, 1999) PG-13
  • In Dreams (Neil Jordan, 1999) R
  • The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) R
  • Virus (John Bruno, 1999) R
  • Existenz (David Cronenberg, 1999) R
  • The Rage: Carrie 2 (Katt Shea, 1999) R
  • Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton, 1999)  R
  • The Bone Collector (Phillip Noyce, 1999)  R
  • End of Days (Peter Hyams, 1999)  R
  • Lake Placid (Steve Miner, 1999)  R
  • Idle Hands (Rodman Flender, 1999)  R
  • Stigmata (Rupert Wainwright, 1999)  R
  • Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) R
  • House on Haunted Hill (William Malone, 1999)  R
  • Best Laid Plans (Mike Barker, 1999) R
  • Stir of Echoes (David Koepp)  R
  • The Thirteenth Warrior (John McTiernan, 1999)  R
  • Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlan, 1999)  R
  • Astronaut’s Wife (Rand Ravich, 1999) R
  • Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, 1999) R
  • Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) R
  • Thirteenth Floor (Josef Rusnak, 1999) R

Hollywood studios and the popularity of horror

On a theoretical approach, and which has been discussed extensively by academics of cinema discourses about Hollywood blockbusters, one could argue that the various the economic, social and industrial changes to studios from the 1940s onwards (especially within the context of the McCarthy era censorship of the 30s and 40s, World War 2, drive-in theaters, home Television media, the cold war, JFK assassination, the Watergate scandal, nuclear weapons, 60s and 70s counterculture, feminism, black civil rights, Vietnam, and the Regan era), where the moguls and studio system had collapsed by the 1960s after movies became too costly and difficult to distribute, and so the corporations which replaced these looked for blockbusters as commercial investments. The word ‘blockbuster’ is an old industry term that refers to the practice of ‘block-booking’ theaters for distribution, if a movie was successful it would ‘bust’ the company’s supply and demand tariff.

The major Hollywood studios and the moguls who’d governed these, who’d had creative control over it’s writers, stars and filmmakers, were gradually fazed out by the suits and agents who were trained in accounts, profits and losses, revenue margin, and where marketing, production and distribution had clearly defined scheduled and expenditure.  As the famous b-movie directors, Joe Dante (Piranha 1978, Gremlins 1984) and Roger Corman said about Jaws and Stars Wars, ‘the studios have learned how to do what we do, but with better special effects that cost a million dollars’ (not a direct quote).

In summary, any ‘genre’, a horror, a gangster, a musical, a science-fiction, a western, a term indicative of the 1950s, during the 1970s and 1980s, became a genre; in that blockbusters from the 60s and 70s (The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, Stars Wars, Jaws) began referencing and reinventing those earlier films, and this is represented in the narrative components (drama-story) and the visual style created by the production methods: editing, acting, photography and special effects.

By this I mean that King Kong (1933) and Frankenstein (1931) were big budget studio films with marketing and production value, that were archetypes of the horror genre, but then by Jurassic Park (1993) the studios had produced an equivalent blockbuster, but the narrative of the genre had undergone changes because both the audience and studio system had changed, and this is also applicable to blockbusters and horror genre films between the 1990s and 2000s.

This is commented during a TV interview with host Mich Garris and guest filmmakers John Landis, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg from 1982:

If one was to search for patterns of innovations within the horror genre throughout the history of cinema it might apt to say that the key changes were the social and cultural of the audience, this having a postmodern aesthetic (see Frederic Jameson, Jean Baudrillard https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism) in which audiences and filmmakers become ‘literate’ or familiar with cliches and nomenclature of the genre from previous decades, eg the style and narratives of different versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, zombies, aliens and slasher are part of folklore (popular culture), which appears to as trend with audiences before a hiatus, but eventually remade once more for the next decade.

By this, I do not mean to imply that the distribution, style and reception of King Kong (1933), Aliens (1986) and Jurassic Park (1993) represent the same cultural influence and horror genre themes through its content, in fact each of these (style, themes, production and cultural significance) remains particular to those industry practices, cultural attitudes, digital technologies and exhibition standards and certification of that decade.

The depiction of sex, rape, torture, gore and graphic violence has probably be around since the b-movies and midnight teen flicks of the 1950s, but came more prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s possibly with the success of Psycho (1960), Repulsion (1965), Night of the Living Dead (George A Romero, 1968), Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah,1971), The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971), Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972) Deliverance (1972), The Exorcist (1973) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), although films containing nudity and scenes of blood or mutilations had existed with the low-budget Roger Corman exploitation type features beside these.

Repulsion, Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre were all low budget feature films produced in an attempt to make a profit on a midnight b-movie theaters and contained strong violence and sexual, although I would remark that Polanski’s direction on Repulsion and the performance of French film star Catherine Deneuve surpasses its low budget and b-movie status. Each of other titles contained similar themes and scenes of violence, but had the financial budget of a studio, an established director and included a film star to consolidate it’s commercial box office profits.

The final point I wish to make is that the fluctuating popularity of the horror genre and it’s affinity with blockbusters appears to have progressed and undergone a number of trends since the 1960s. It could be argued that the reason for this is simply that horror films have always been popular with audiences, but that the development of technologies, the studios demand of box office profits and the interest in the horror genre from filmmakers and audiences had a direct influence on it’s popularity.

Hollywood cinema, sex, violence, videos and the BBFC

From a list of the highest grossing films from the US box office from each decade since the 1960s it is interesting observe how the style and genre of the most successful films shifts from one decade to the next. In the 1960s, the most successful films were musicals and Disney animated films, with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey being the only science fiction which apparently appealed to a mass audience, although I had expected to see Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) and Planet of the Apes (1968). However, the screen violence in films such as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1968), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and The Wild Bunch (1969), as mainstream theatrical releases, probably went some way in increasing the spectacle of violence in cinema at that time.

During the seventies, Jaws, The Exorcist, Star Wars, Superman, The Towering Inferno and The Godfather, films either directly related to the horror genre or science fiction, or containing adult themes showing graphic violence that seemed more popular with audiences and studios. In the eighties, the majority of the blockbusters appeared to be family orientated fantasy or science fiction films, but then by the nineties Disney returned with several successes in Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and Toy Story (1995), whilst science fiction/fantasy and films with horror movie themes seemed more popular then ever, Independence Day, Twister, Jurassic Park, Men in Black, The Sixth Sense, Armageddon and Terminator 2. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) was one of the most success films of that year, and although it is clearly not a science fiction or horror film,  it’s influence in terms of digital technology, visual effects and screen violence firmly identifies it as a blockbuster.

I suppose my impulse is to suggest that the popularity of the horror/science fiction genre, violence in cinema and the studio’s interests in blockbuster films represents an (somewhat obvious) increase or homogeneity between these. Contrary to this, where violence in cinema and horror films are concerned this may not be so simple, even to assume that violence in the horror genre has its origins in the b-movies grindhouses and video nasties, which in terms of genre narrative, style and violence might be prevalent, but ignores the inherent nature of the business to exploit trends from independent cinema.

It is worth remembering that during the 1970s, and probably even earlier, it became a standard industry practice to test-screen the audience reception with previews to any new releases with score cards in order to predict its success. A famous scene in the film The Bold and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952) depicts an ambitious movie producer (Kirk Douglas) going through a such a process with a teen horror film based an the actual film, Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942), ten years earlier. In Steven Bach’s brilliant non-fiction book about the making of the $30 million box office disaster Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) and the collapse of United Artists film company, he concisely describes the restructuring of the studio Hollywood system and its focus on producing blockbusters and sequels, and its apparent ignorance of their market  audience’s interests.

With the exception of Heaven’s Gate, which at that time was one of the most expensive films ever made (costing several times more than either Jaws or Star Wars), previews and test screenings became the perfect way of marketing and maximising a film’s box office potential (Heaven’s Gate was exempt after a complicated contract in which creative control was given to the director following the success of his previous film The Deer Hunter in a desperate attempt to sign the picture with UA).

From his account Bach also describes the process of reading screenplay proposal from Martin Scorsese where he comments that pitch he’d read was so violent it was unfilmable (presumably Scorsese’s dream project Gangs of New York 2002), and went so far as to insist that the violence be removed from the Raging Bull (1980), but which he’d later called a masterpiece and was one of UA’s biggest hits. Quentin Tarantino once commented on the film Taxi Driver (1976) how difficult it must have been to test screen an audience for it by saying ‘how do you test an audience on how dark or disturbing a film is?’, and then use this to predict if it could be successful commercially. Famously, films such as a Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1992) underwent drastic recuts without the approval of the director after the producers received negative feedback from previews.

Similarly Sam Raimi, on the making of Evil Dead 2 (1987), told how they’d had difficulties distributing their first film Evil Dead (1981) because of the gore, and so had resorted to making the blood look deliberately fake (even green!) in order to get a certificate release from the censors.

Possibly the most significant event in British film history was the long anticipated release of several films which had banned either because of concern from the BBFC or, in an unprecedented decision, removed by the film’s director after apparent threats were made to his safety. Ken Russell’s 1976 film The Devils was never released in it’s original version and received notoriety for it’s scenes of torture and perversion and for it’s themes of heresy. The Exorcist was eventually rereleased in the UK in 1998 to much acclaim, and possible skepticism about what the fuss was all about. Sam Peckinpah’s critically acclaimed Straw Dogs (1971) was only released after the filmmakers agreed to edit a rape scene both in the US and UK. Then in 1986 the UK’s new ‘Video Recording Act’ by BBFC banned the film on video until 2002 when a fully restored version was accepted.

An edited Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was released on video in the UK in 1982 along with multiple different cuts until 2002 when restored version was released on DVD. Famously, in 1971 after incidents of alleged copycat crimes, controversy and publicity, Kubrick apparently asked Warner Brothers studios to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from UK theaters until the film was re-released in 2001 to much applause. The eagerly awaited Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was banned in the UK and then again on video in 1984 due to it’s scenes of torture, but finally given an uncut release on DVD in 2000. Deep Throat (1980), Salo, Or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975) and Last House on the left (1972) were all released on DVD with either marginal cuts or uncut. Politically in the 1990s, there had been public concern and campaign activities to the BBFC to increase restrictions to violence in films following the James Bulger case in 1993.

An analysis of a rape scene; Straw Dogs (1971)

Originally, Straw Dogs had been banned in the UK between 1986 until 2000, and had been released theatrically here and the US only after cuts were made to the second rape scene. The edits to the rape scene are interesting, because at first it looks like rape without serious violence which then becomes consensual before a second man intrudes and it turns violent again. Perhaps as a comment on the issue, the wife never speaks of the crime and the husband appears to never learn of it, and perhaps which reflects the theme of impotence for the hero. If the censors had cut the second rape, the depiction of rape appears to be become ambiguous – as in, if she was raped, why doesn’t she tell anyone? Also, the reaction of the townsfolk involved in the rape to a similar incident in which a mentally handicapped man is seduced by a young girl and then falsely accused contrasts with this earlier incident and its moral paradox. On its re-release in 2002, the full scene was restored and thereby eliminating any ambiguity from this edited version, which the censors may have felt was gratuitous. Arguably, the edited version still remains a disturbing depiction of violent sexual assault and rape despite the reaction and apparent consent of its victim.

A more detailed list is available here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_banned_in_the_United_Kingdom

THE 1960s DECADE

TOP TEN FILMS
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)

  1. The Sound of Music (1965)
  2. 101 Dalmatians (1961)
  3. The Jungle Book (1967)
  4. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
  5. The Graduate (1967) (tie)
  6. Mary Poppins (1964) (tie)
  7. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
  8. My Fair Lady (1964)
  9. Thunderball (1965)
  10. Funny Girl (1968)
  11. Cleopatra (1963)
  12. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (tie)
  13. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) (tie)
  14. Goldfinger (1964)
TOP FILMS BY YEAR
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)1960: Swiss Family Robinson (1960) 1961: 101 Dalmatians (1961)
1962: Dr. No (1962), also The Longest Day (1962)
1963: Cleopatra (1963)
1964: Mary Poppins (1964)
1965: The Sound of Music (1965)
1966: The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), or Hawaii (1966), or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
1967: The Jungle Book (1967), also The Graduate (1967)
1968: Funny Girl (1968), also 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

THE 1970s DECADE

TOP TEN FILMS
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)

  1. Star Wars (1977)
  2. Jaws (1975)
  3. The Exorcist (1973)
  4. Grease (1978)
  5. The Sting (1973)
  6. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
  7. (National Lampoon’s) Animal House (1978)
  8. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
  9. The Godfather (1972)
  10. Superman (1978)
  11. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977/80)
  12. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
  13. Blazing Saddles (1974)
  14. Rocky (1976)
  15. The Towering Inferno (1974)
  16. American Graffiti (1973)
  17. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
  18. Love Story (1970) (tie)
  19. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) (tie)
TOP FILMS BY YEAR
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)1970: Love Story (1970), also Airport (1970)
1971: Billy Jack (1971), also Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
1972: The Godfather (1972)
1973: The Exorcist (1973), also The Sting (1973)
1974: Blazing Saddles (1974), also The Towering Inferno (1974)
1975: Jaws (1975)
1976: Rocky (1976)
1977: Star Wars (1977)
1978: Grease (1978)
1979: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

THE 1980s DECADE

TOP TEN FILMS
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)

  1. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  2. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
  3. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  4. Batman (1989)
  5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  6. Ghostbusters (1984)
  7. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
  8. Back to the Future (1985)
  9. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
  10. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
  11. Tootsie (1982)
TOP FILMS BY YEAR
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)1980: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
1983: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
1984: Ghostbusters (1984), also Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
1985: Back to the Future (1985)
1986: Top Gun (1986), also Crocodile Dundee (1986)
1987: Three Men and a Baby (1987), also Fatal Attraction (1987)and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
1988: Rain Man (1988)
1989: Batman (1989), also Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

THE 1990s DECADE

TOP TEN FILMS
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)

  1. Titanic (1997)
  2. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
  3. Jurassic Park (1993)
  4. Forrest Gump (1994) (tie)
  5. The Lion King (1994) (tie)
  6. Independence Day (1996)
  7. The Sixth Sense (1999)
  8. Home Alone (1990)
  9. Men in Black (1997)
  10. Toy Story 2 (1999)
  11. Twister (1996)
TOP FILMS BY YEAR
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)1990: Home Alone (1990)
1991: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
1992: Aladdin (1992)
1993: Jurassic Park (1993)
1994: Forrest Gump (1994), also The Lion King (1994)
1995: Toy Story (1995), also Batman Forever (1995)
1996: Independence Day (1996), also Twister (1996)
1997: Titanic (1997)
1998: Saving Private Ryan (1998), also Armageddon (1998)
1999: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

THE 2000s DECADE

TOP TEN FILMS
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)

  1. Avatar (2009)
  2. The Dark Knight (2008)
  3. Shrek 2 (2004)
  4. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
  5. Spider-Man (2002)
  6. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
  7. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
  8. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
  9. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
  10. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
TOP FILMS BY YEAR
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)2000: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
2001: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
2002: Spider-Man (2002)
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
2004: Shrek 2 (2004)
2005: Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
2006: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
2007: Spider-Man 3 (2007)
2008: The Dark Knight (2008)
2009: Avatar (2009)

THE 2010s DECADE

TOP TEN FILMS
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)
(tentative only)

  1. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
  2. Jurassic World (2015)
  3. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
  4. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
  5. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
  6. Toy Story 3 (2010)
  7. Iron Man 3 (2013)
  8. The Hunger Games (2012)
  9. Frozen (2013)
  10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)
  11. Despicable Me 2 (2013)
  12. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
  13. Furious 7 (2015)
  14. American Sniper (2014)
  15. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)
TOP FILMS BY YEAR
(unadjusted domestic gross totals)2010: Toy Story 3 (2010)
2011: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)
2012: Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
2013: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
2014: American Sniper (2014)
2015: Jurassic World (2015) (tentative)

source: http://www.filmsite.org/boxoffice2.html

Films I don’t discuss here, but worth mentioning for any fans looking for some good titles they may not have already seen, you should checkout the following:

  • Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Weine, 1920)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulin, 1931)
  • M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
  • Testament of Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933)
  • Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
  • Fantasia (Norman Ferguson, 1940)
  • Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, 1949)
  • Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
  • The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957)
  • Revenge of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1958)
  • House of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958)
  • The Mummy (Terence Fisher, 1959)
  • Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960)
  • Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)
  • The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
  • Curse of the Werewolf (Terence Fisher,1961)
  • The Birds (1963)
  • Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976)
  • Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Terence Fisher, 1966)
  • Plague of the Zombies (John Gilling, 1966)
  • Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (Terence Fisher, 1966)
  • Frankenstein Created a Woman (Terence Fisher, 1967)
  • Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Freddie Francis, 1968)
  • Targets (Peter Bogdonavich, 1968)
  • Klute (Alan J Pakula, 1971)
  • Twins of Evil (John Hough, 1971)
  • Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972)
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
  • A Boy and his Dog (L Q Jones, 1975)
  • Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
  • Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)
  • Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981)
  • Southern Comfort (Walter Hill, 1981)
  • The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981)
  • An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
  •  The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983)
  • Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
  • Terminator (1984)
  • Blood Simple (Coen Brothers 1984)
  • In the Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984)
  • Razorback (Russell Mulcahy, 1984)
  • Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)
  • Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 1986)
  • In the Name of the Rose (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1986)
  • Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)
  • Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986)
  • Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)
  • Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)
  • Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)  
  • Dead Calm (Phillip Noyce, 1989)
  • Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990),
  • Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)
  • Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
  • Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991)
  • Barton Fink (Coen Brothers, 1991)
  • Delicatessen (Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1991)
  • Death Becomes Her (Robert Zemeckis, 1992)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)
  • Braindead (Peter Jackson, 1992)
  • The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994)
  • Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994)
  • Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994)
  • Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994)
  • Seven (David Fincher, 1995)
  • City of the Lost Children (Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1995)
  • The Frighteners (Peter Jackson, 1996)
  • A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi, 1998)
  • The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001)
  • Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
  •  28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
  • Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
  •  Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004)
  • The Village (M Night Shyamalan, 2004)
  • Saw (James Wan, 2004)
  • King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005)
  • Silent Hill (Christophe Gans, 2006)
  • The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)
  • Welcome to the Jungle (Jonathan Hensleigh, 2007)
  •  Paranormal Activity 1-3 (Oren Peli, 2007)
  • Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)
  •  Cloverfield (Mat Reeves, 2008)
  • District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
  • The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009)
  • Tucker and Dale Versus Evil (Eli Craig, 2010)
  • Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
  • The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm, 2010)
  • Ti West’s films The Innkeepers (2011), The House of the Devil (2009) and The Sacrament (2013)
  • Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012)
  • Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)
  • Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012)
  • The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013)
  • As Above, As Below (John Erick Dowdle, 2014)
  • Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2014)
  • It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2015)

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