Friday, July 27, 2012
The End Of The Gothic Era?
The 1960s was revolutionary change in the horror genre, as the subject of the films became increasingly adult, while visually, the impact of sex and violence, led to a more visceral effect. Hammer Studios had initiated this in the late 50s with it's groundbreaking remakes of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, and would continue with this throughout the next decade. The innocence of the 50s gave way to a darker form of cinema that was both more cerebral in approach, while also being more potent in it's impact.
Having already discussed the best horror films of the 1970s earlier this month, it probably seems bewildering for me to discuss practically the same topic again, however that's not my objective.
For nearly six decades, the dominating form of horror cinema, was the Gothic, which was derived from both classic literature and folklore. This gave way to a more "realistic" kind of horror in the 60s, which in turn, led to the cynical horrors of the 70s, which are still the source of contemporary inspiration, setting the template for modern horror.
When one thinks of this era, films like Psycho(1960), Rosemary's Baby(1968), Night of the Living Dead(1968), The Exorcist(1973) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974) come to mind. These films represented the new guard and established the look and feel of modern horror, but what became of the classic horror? What happened to the archetypes of the genre, such as Frankenstein and Dracula?
Many assume that such characters just became passe' and were skipped over in favor of the new terrors, but that's probably only half of it. History, in some ways, repeated itself.
After, the Second World War, audiences had grown tired of the traditional horrors, finding them quaint and less frightening, especially in comparison to the real horrors of war. That's why the focus in the 50s was largely on radiation fallout and alien invaders, most often interpreted as Communist invaders, while classic monsters were given a backseat. Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein(1948) was the final horror film to feature Dracula, the Wolf Man and The Monster for many years.
A similar thing occurred towards the end of the 60s, as well. Various social problems in the United States and abroad, desensitized viewers into believing in the Gothic creations, much like they had after World War Two.
Vietnam, Civil Rights, the various assassinations and political movements, made the public urge for more realistic and gritty fare, which was heightened by the fall of the Production Code and the rise of the MPAA.
This is where the fall of the classic horror film really began.
The 60s was a boom for monsters, leading to a renaissance in horror culture that has never been seen before or since. Kids flocked to the movies to go see the latest Hammer films and Roger Corman/Vincent Price films, based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Magazines like Famous Monsters catered to this young crowd, celebrating the horror of old, and helping immortalize the names of Karloff and Lugosi. However, the party was stilled in 1969 with the passing of Boris Karloff, who was the very figurehead of the movement. Shortly, before his death, Karloff appeared in a film that was indicative of the rising era in horror and that was, Targets. That film managed to juxtapose the fantasy horror that represented Karloff's world, playing an aging horror actor, very much like himself, with that of a psychopathic killer who uses an arsenal to kill innocent people, climaxing(quite appropriately) in a drive-in movie theater. This was real horror and Karloff felt that what he made paled in comparison and he was right. That same year another violent horror film was unleashed in America that forever changed the genre and the role of the zombie forever. That film was Night of the Living Dead, and it's nihilistic world view, complete with it's entire cast getting killed, led the way for increasingly gruesome fare as the next decade arrived. These films were terrifying films, as well as being representative of the changing times, and the classic horror was finding it difficult to catch up.
Hammer films insisted on continuing their franchises, and were slow to capitalize on the current trends. The studio that helped revive the horror film, along with the Gothic archetypes, was quickly falling by the wayside. New monsters were entering our realm, including mad killers, flesh eating zombies and even, the Devil, himself.
The zombie was originally a more passive character, being featured on the screen as far back as 1932, with the release of White Zombie. These zombies were under the control of a master, usually somebody like Bela Lugosi, and were completely subservient. They had none of the ghoulish tendencies of the later Romero-creations and were often steeped in the folklore of Haiti. By the 70s, the voodoo zombie was largely passe, only appearing in the odd film(Sugar Hill(1974) and the Romero template became the standard. Zombies were forever changed in 1978 with the release of Dawn of the Dead, with it's survivor premise, became the standard for all zombie apocalypse films to follow. Soon, the makeup became more advanced as well, with the usual white makeup with black eyeliner, being dispensed for more extreme makeup, depicting decomposition. This is particularly apparent in the 1979 film, Zombie, a rip-off of Dawn of the Dead, directed by splatter filmmaker, Lucio Fulci. As the 80s loomed, the zombies had become carnivorous and soon virtually all living dead films would focus on the same concept created in 1968, which still is the standard til this day.
The werewolf saw very little action during the decade, often being relegated to cheapie productions, like the kind popularized by Paul Naschy in Spain, depicting a character obviously inspired by the Universal Wolf Man. These films became increasingly silly as the decade went on, with the werewolf fighting Countess Bathory(" The Vampire Woman!"), Dr. Jekyll(which he becomes?!) and even, The Abominable Snowman!
Traditional werewolves also appeared in such films as Moon of the Wolf(1972) and Legend of the Werewolf(1975), which had more than a passing resemblance to Hammer's The Curse of the Werewolf(1961).
For the most part, the werewolf would not see much change until the 1980s and the arrival of new effects artists, of which the werewolf would benefit the most from. The transformation scenes in The Howling(1980) and An American Werewolf in London(1981) would prove groundbreaking, but would also forever end the era of a "wolf man" which has been largely unseen on the screen, becoming more of a wolf and less man-like with every incarnation of the creature.
The vampire probably went through the most dramatic changes in the decade. Starting off as a grotesque, decaying fiend in Nosferatu(1922), the vampire became a sex symbol with Bela Lugosi in Dracula(1931) and later with Christopher Lee in the Hammer films, but never was it as blatant as in the 70s. By that time, Dark Shadows had been on the air and this introduced the vampire to a largely female audience, who enjoyed the romantic and sensitive side afforded the vampire, which led to later romanticized versions of the Count. The Broadway revival of the Hamilton Deane Dracula, that made Bela Lugosi a star, was reshaped for contemporary sensibilities and released as being far more romantic with Frank Langella in the lead. This was later made into a film in 1979, a big year for the vampire, and now depicted the Count as a "tragic hero" which was far different than what had been originally seen on the screen.
Dracula saw a few straight adaptions, however, including the lamentable 1970 Jess Franco adaption with Christopher Lee, which attempted to be faithful to the novel, as well as a 1977 adaption for the BBC with Louis Jourdan. Jack Palance appeared in a 1973 adaption, produced by Dan Curtis, that attempted to link the Count with Vlad the Impaler, and was fairly successful.
Perhaps, the Dracula story saw the most ridiculous revisionism when Paul Naschy(!) starred as The Count in Count Dracula's Great Love(1973), where the distraught Count actually commits suicide by stake to the heart! Gotta give that Naschy some credit: the man was creative.
The most spectacular version made was the 1979 remake of Nosferatu, made by Werner Herzog, yet even this version created a sympathetic vampire, quite unlike the demon of the earlier film.
Hammer continued with Dracula films during the 70s, but gave way to popular trends of the time, including allowing the Count to walk in swinging 70s London(Dracula A.D. 1972) and even get mixed up with Martial Arts(The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires) but all lacked the sincerity and horror of the previous films and were relative failures.
Far more successful was Count Yorga-Vampire(1970) which depicted a classic depiction of the vampire, set in contemporary times and with an added slice of humor and sadism, that helped inspire many modern horror films. 1972 saw the release of Blacula, the first black vampire, though the film was far more intelligent and seriously made than the somewhat racist title implies. It featured a good lead performance from William Marshall and some sympathy for the title character, cursed by Dracula, himself. It was the bets of several Blaxploitation horror films, most of which are unmentionable, save for laughs.
The most successful modern day adaption to emerge from the decade was the made for TV, The Night Stalker(1971) which focused on an ancient vampire unleashed in Las Vegas, being stalked by an inrepid reporter named Carl Kolchak(Darren McGavin). This was the most successful made for TV film for years and led to a sequel(The Night Strangler) as well as a series.
Sexuality in the horror film had been explored, however subtly, since the 20s, but would become more potent during the liberalized 60s with the release of several steamy horror classics, including Blood and Roses(1960) a film which started a bizarre trend towards "Lesbian-Vampire" films, which must have seemed to be a producer's dream, offering up the right amount of horror and female nudity to ensure a large audience. Hammer really jumped on the bandwagon with the release of The Vampire Lovers in 1970, which starred the beauteous, Ingrid Pitt. This film was supposedly based on Sheridan la Fanu's Carmilla, about a female vampire who preys on teenage girls at a boarding school, though it's doubtful that he would have approved of the soft core shenanigans of this film! This led to two sequels, Lust for a Vampire(1971) and Twins Of Evil(1971).
The popularity of these films led to a string of other pictures, including some that pushed the envelope for erotic horror as art, particularly, Daughters of Darkness(1971) and the highly sexual Vampyres(1974)
The latter film, focused on the odd theme of sexual dependency and addiction, likening it to vampires in a way, scarcely hinted at in earlier pictures and had a slight philosophic edge, even under all the obvious, exploitation elements on hand.
Perhaps, the most ludicrous of the more erotic vampire films, though I cringe to refer to it as that, is Blood for Dracula(1974) a ridiculous film where Dracula has to move to Italy, because the blood of whores is killing him. Boy, is he in for a surprise. This film combined a high libido with graphic violence(you should see the Count's demise in this) also pushed the envelope for how far the genre could go.
The character of Elizabeth Bathory was also due for revision, appearing as a vampire babe that goes toe to toe with Paul Naschy's werewolf in Werewolf Shadow(1971). Less ludicrous, was when Ingrid Pitt became the Countess for Hammer's Countess Dracula(1971), though she is about all that was commendable about that film, which focused on the Bathory's nude blood baths, which makes sense when you have Ingrid Pitt in the lead. Clever producers also capitalized on this by using Rosabla Neri in a similar fashion in The Devil's Wedding Night(1972), an otherwise lamentable film, save for the gorgeous star and some unintentional hilarity.
It's amazing how far the vampire woman had come. From the creepy school marms of the 1931 Dracula through Hammer's seductresses and Barbara Steele's sexy undead, to the contemporary Playboy version of the vampire. What a long, strange trip it's been!
Dracula and the vampire were not the only ones subjugated to revision. Frankenstein had seen a a resurgence of interest during the 70s, much like Dracula had. The Hammer series only made two films during the decade, one of those attempting to reboot the franchise and starring Ralph Bates as Frankenstein. Horror of Frankenstein(1970) was a remake of the groundbreaking, Curse of Frankenstein(1957) but suffered from an identity crisis, unsure of whether or not it wanted to be parody or straight adaption. Peter Cushing made his last appearance as Baron Frankenstein in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell(1973). Both films will probably interest Star Wars fans, since the Monster was played both times by Dave Prowse, who later portrayed Darth Vader.
Several adaptions tried to adapt the Mary Shelley novel as written, but with mixed results. Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame, produced his own version with Bo Svenson as the Monster, but the results were mixed and the video production cheapened the effect. Frankenstein(1973) was not as successful as Dracula had been, the same year. Far better was the epic three hour long, Frankenstein: The True Story(1974), which really did not tell the true story, but offered the novel idea of the Monster being created and appearing brutally handsome upon birth, much different than either the novel or any earlier film adaptions. This version also heightened the romantic sweep of the narrative and was far removed from the horror backdrop of previous versions, opting for a more dramatic punch.
The most faithful adaption of the novel appeared in 1976, a Swedish-Irish co-production entitled, Terror of Frankenstein. This film followed the original narrative almost to the letter, much like the next year's BBC adaption of Dracula would. It was a creepy and grimy little film, but was little seen upon it's initial release and never was a big commercial success.
Perhaps, the most successful Frankenstein film of the period was Mel Brook's loving parody of the Universal classics, Young Frankenstein(1974), which showed just how removed audiences were from the Gothic horrors of yore. While, a brilliant comedy and certainly one of the best ever made, the imagery parodied was indicative of how much audience's tastes had changes in the interval years. Most audiences probably missed that this was not meant to mock these films, but acted almost as a love letter to the artistry of James Whale and Boris Karloff and it's fun to see this almost as a continuation of that series.
Other bizarre Frankenstein adaptions appeared, including Flesh For Frankenstein(1973) a ludicrous film that saw a level of depravity, that was not seen in any Frankenstein film, as brother and sister Frankensteins, create new creations to satisfy they're strange sexual desires! And speaking of which, Lady Frankenstein(1972) with babetastic, Rosalba Neri, also has plans for making a monster that will please her in bed. If the theme of Frankenstein was always that of creation through alternate methods, it became blatant in the decade, as the story became more sexual and ridiculous.
Other horror staples saw similar collapse, including the Poe adaptions and the mad science films. Instead of finding material from other great horror writers(paging, H.P. Lovecraft, calling,Albert Machen, paging, Algernon Blackwood...) they became more formulaic and less arty, resulting in mediocrities like Murders in the Rue Morgue(1971). Vincent Price, who had starred in most of these in the 70s, still found good material appearing in the proto-body count films of Dr. Phibes(1971) and Theatre of Blood(1973), the latter where he portrayed a Shakespearean actor who commits revenge on theater critics!
The literary horror front was torn asunder and fewer Poe and Gothic adaptions appeared. Even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was forced to a gender switch with Hammer's Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde(1972) which is much better than it sounds. The story did see a "straight" adaption with I,Monster(1970) starring Christopher Lee, which was only moderately successful.
The Phantom of the Opera was largely dormant, though a somewhat brilliant revision arrived in the form of The Phantom of the Paradise(1974) which set the classic story in the age of rock and roll. Directed by Brian DePalma, this was one of the most successful and entertaining modern adaptions of any of the classic horror stories produced that decade and one of the most memorable.
So, what happened to the classic horror film?
The answer is that they simply evolved and adapted to the changing times. Much of what occurred in the 70s would change the look of the genre forever, as increasingly violent and sexual fare took the subtle menace and dread out of many of the classic chillers.
The purpose of this article was to examine the genre and discover the genesis of our current state of Gothic horror. If anything, the end of the 60s really did see the end of an era, as horror became a different animal altogether. It was at once meaner and leaner, giving way to the burgeoning slasher and splatter genres, as well as making the classic monsters more sensitive and romantic, in a way, feminizing the genre, which had been previously dominated by a male audience.
Modern day abortions, such as the Twlight series owe their livelihood and existence to what began in this decade. Films such as Dracula(1979) and TV shows like Dark Shadows, coupled with the books of Anne Rice, can lay the blame for what lie ahead in our current horror state.
These developments, revolutionary in the time, helped weaken the impact of the stories, often bluntly addressing the themes told so subtly decades before. Frankenstein and The Opera Phantom would suffer the most from this weak revision, as both characters always had sympathetic qualities, but were now in danger of being sappy and/or insincere in the emotions, which is certainly true of many current adaptions of the characters. Yet, some filmmakers are smart enough to realize their worth and successful adaptions have been made since, though not in the numbers they should be.
However, as bleak as it may appear, one thing was certain. These creatures were not dead. Through the darkness, a greater appreciation also arose for these classic monsters, which in turn led to serious film and literary criticism and it's because of this pioneering in this era that these stories have the kind of acceptance that they do today. In this, there can be a found a positive side to the revisions and re imaginings of these classic creations, for here they would find new life and in essence, come closer to achieving immortality, of which we knew they had obtained all along.