What Is the Greatest Decade for American Horror Movies?
Eight film critics debate the best flicks from each decade, from Boris Karloff's "Frankenstein" to "Get Out"
Over the past month, the 29-film ’70s Horror series on boutique streaming service Criterion Channel has been like a deranged advent calendar, with expressionistic nightmares waiting behind every door instead of milk chocolate morsels. An assortment varied enough to include The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s wave of mutilation, the unspeakably intimate grief of Don’t Look Now, and the sapphic temptations of Daughters of Darkness paints a picture of an eclectic decade. It’s an intriguing method of divvying up horror history, its weird and wondrous juxtapositions yielding new insights and appreciations.
Thinking about the genre in generational terms inspired the discussion below, in which an expert panel of authorities on all things grisly and gory converge to answer the question of the greatest decade in horror cinema history. With deepest apologies to Phantom of the Opera star Lon Chaney, there just aren’t enough entries in the 1920s to merit inclusion here, and to keep things somewhat orderly, we’ve gone by U.S. productions. Sorry to any Hammer-heads or giallo superfans out there. With that established, read on for fresh angles on a contentious feud that’s claimed countless lives, mostly onscreen. Featuring contributions from Reverse Shot’s Caden Mark Gardner, Hagerty’s Priscilla Page, The A.V. Club’s Beatrice Loayza, the Metrograph Journal’s Sam Bodrojan, Cineuropa’s Elena Lazic, Scott Wampler and Britt Hayes of the late great Birth Movies Death and Paste’s Kyle Turner.
A key subset under the broader umbrella of horror film, the “scary movie,” as it’s understood now — a work fun for its fakery, yielding half-giggle yelps of fright instead of an unleaded bone-deep terror — begins in the ‘30s at Universal. The studio ransacked the annals of Gothic literature for its most illustrious ghouls and paired them with grandiloquent European actors; Boris Karloff got put on Frankenstein and Mummy detail, Bela Lugosi played Dracula and achieved a more metaphorical sort of immortality, and Claude Rains disappeared into The Invisible Man. (Somewhat less memorably, Henry Hull got hairy for 1935’s Werewolf of London, only to be overwritten by Lon Chaney’s later lycanthrope.)
These films busted blocks off the charisma of their leading men and the rogues gallery they brought to life, but that was all facilitated by the masters of the uncanny behind the camera. James Whale suffused every scene in Invisible Man, Frankenstein, his Bride’s debut, and underseen pyromania comedy The Old Dark House with a fog of the macabre. Tod Browning, of Dracula and Freaks infamy, extended tender humanity to the ghastly yet tragic abominations peopling his oeuvre. They laid the foundation on which the genre itself would be built, granddads to everyone from Norman Bates to Pinhead. Respect your OGs. –Bramesco
Hollywood was still cashing in on the popularity of the Universal Monsters in the 1940s. Man of a thousand faces Lon Chaney added another character to the fraternity he shared with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi with The Wolf Man, but Universal stuck to formula and reused iconography, ending their decade with 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. As the quality of Universal grew arguably stale, their biggest competitor emerged: RKO Pictures.
The ’40s were a pivotal moment in the history of RKO, forever synonymous as the studio that made Citizen Kane. But equal in import were the horror films (distinguished as ‘B-movies,’ filling out the latter half of double bills) that turned profits and kept the lights on, masterminded by producer Val Lewton, the de facto poster boy for this side of the business. His greatest masterpiece was Cat People, directed by fellow immigrant Jacques Tourneur, about a young woman who can use her foreign land’s lineage of devil-worshipping black magic to turn into a panther. In a decade ravaged by war, persecution of minorities, and postwar existential paranoia, the often oblique presentations of the RKO horror films were rooted in subtext of the real, be it religious persecution and intergenerational trauma (Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People); colonialism (I Walked With a Zombie); or ideology and queerness (The Seventh Victim). It should come as no surprise that Lewton, a Russian Jewish emigre who changed his name, would be responsible for films that subverted how the world ‘others’ villains and monsters; he, too, was an outsider. –Caden Mark Gardner
In the 1950s, America still grieved the losses of World War II. The specter of more devastation loomed via the Korean War and the atomic bomb, and hysteria grew over nebulous threats like commies and UFOs. On the big screen, these anxieties were transmuted into giant irradiated monsters and alien invasions as mad scientists like Roger Corman and Ed Wood brought a personal artistic touch to what was then seen as schlock. (Elsewhere, The Twilight Zone turned America’s living rooms into haunted houses while horror comics hit an early creative hot streak.) Ida Lupino’s horror-noir The Hitch-Hiker and Charles Laughton’s directorial one-off The Night of the Hunter warned of more grounded stranger danger. And Maila Nurmi created Vampira, the very first horror host, just as the elegantly spooky Vincent Price became a legend of the genre with de Toth’s House of Wax.
Price fully cemented his status as an icon in House on Haunted Hill, a three-ring circus complete with skeletons that flew over the audience’s heads, just one of the immersive gimmicks engineered by showman-director William Castle. This era established enduring characters — Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Gill Man, to name one — and narratives — The Thing from Another World and The Fly, both reincarnated in the ‘80s. It was a decade dominated by B-movies, by creature features and fears of nuclear annihilation and transformation, and yet horror was fun. It ruled the box office and resuscitated the theatrical experience. Though it gets short shrift, overshadowed by the decades that followed, the horror boom of the ’50s shaped the genre, leaving an indelible mark among the flesh wounds. –Priscilla Page
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho is widely considered responsible for opening the bloody floodgates, yet the entire decade was filled with boundary-pushing titles without which modern American horror as we know it would not exist. Hitch’s depiction of sex and violence — epitomized by the infamous shower murder — shocked and mesmerized American audiences unaccustomed to such flagrant taboo-busting; it also primed their palettes for the casual sleaze and bloody cruelty of decades to come. Meanwhile, exploitation pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1963) kicked off the splatter sub-genre as the first of its kind to unite gags and gore for schlocktastic effect. Hagsploitation movies like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1963) emerged, curdling the grandes dames of classic Hollywood into the murdering, deranged sadists of tabloid dreams.
The era of classic Hollywood and its stuffy censorship code was over, and the radical horror films of the ’60s led the charge in tackling subjects normally kept under wraps: consider Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), a masterful mix of paranoia and Satanic supernaturalism that homes in on the horrors of a young woman’s lack of control over her own body, or George A. Romero’s low-budget debut Night of the Living Dead (1968), the first to envision the flesh-eating undead as an allegory for society’s self-destruction. American horror grew teeth and learned how to bite in the ’60s — that’s why the decade reigns supreme. –Beatrice Loayza
At first glance, American horror in the 1970s occupies a vague space. The decade forms the foundation for much of the genre’s high canon, but lacks a definitive trope or filmmaker to serve as its guide, making it easy to dismiss outside the most rudimentary discussion. Upon further digging, however, the seventies hides plenty of rich, weird gems. The windswept suburban sidewalks of Halloween cross paths with the white feminist hysteria of The Stepford Wives and the PTSD hellscape of Deathdream. In the next room over from the unspeakable domestic turmoil of The Brood and Don’t Look Now, you can hear Bill Gunn’s radically subversive Ganja and Hess screaming what other films would never even whisper.
Lisa Lisa, a low-key Texas Chain Saw Massacre rip-off, splinters the usual haze of a Southern Gothic fable. The anxious blood of Carrie flows into the vampiric fairytale of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and the misandrist catharsis of The Witch Who Came From the Sea. Dawn of the Dead’s stupidly fun satire echoes through the zombie Nazi island flick Shock Waves. Even the schlockiest of pleasures, like Phantasm, Phase IV and God Told Me To, reach beyond easy ironies to touch the stuff of myth. More exciting than any individual film, though, is the sheer variance and possibility of this era, when horror could be anything you wanted it to be, speaking to your most sublime fears and most perverse pleasures. -Sam Bodrojan
In American horror, the 1980s are best remembered for a general move away from standalone, big budget studio productions, and towards a more risk-averse strategy of low budgets and sequels. New adventures from Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers could be expected on a near-yearly basis, though the quality of these swiftly-made productions varied wildly from one installment to the next. Their mere existence proved both the immense popularity of horror, particularly with young audiences in search of a dark room to make out in, and the economic effectiveness of repetition. Beyond such extremely profitable franchises as the Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Halloween films, audiences could also find slightly more refined material. A wave of excellent Stephen King adaptations graced the big screen throughout the decade, chief amongst them Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining.
Some of those King adaptations also intersected with other major horror players of the era: released in 1983, Christine was one of several John Carpenter films to terrorize audiences throughout the decade, while The Dead Zone remains a mid-career high point for Canadian master of body horror David Cronenberg. Both filmmakers tapped into the decade’s taste for an in-your-face horror that felt little need for jump scares or dark shadows, revelling instead in details of bodily harm and perverse transformations. The ‘80s proved a golden age for practical effects, with masters like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Dick Smith and Rob Bottin crafting some of the most vividly disgusting wounds and creatures in cinema history. This grotesque aesthetic also lent itself well to comedy, giving us such gut-busting gutwrenchers as The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, Re-Animator, Society, An American Werewolf in London and Gremlins. –Elena Lazic
By the time the Me Decade came to a close, the slasher sub-genre was running on empty. It had enjoyed a helluva run, generating multiple blockbuster franchises and a countless number of knock-offs, but even the biggest acts on the block (your Freddy Kruegers, your Jason Vorheeses) simply weren’t bringing in the bodies in like they used to. The ’90s needed to scare up some fresh blood. It took them a while to find it, though that’s a major part of the decade’s charm. For the first half of the ’90s, horror was a mishmash of ideas and approaches: horny vampires (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Interview with the Vampire), slick remakes (Village of the Damned, Night of the Living Dead), and a handful of okay-at-best Stephen King adaptations (Needful Things, The Dark Half).
Only when Scream arrived in 1996 did the decade finally find its predominant flavor. Subverting the very rules he’d helped to establish in the ’80s, Wes Craven’s sleek, sexy and legitimately funny ode to the slashers of yesteryear was a massive hit, spawning multiple sequels and an army of self-aware copycats. None of them were as good as the genuine article, of course (and none of its self-deprecating sequels were as good as the original), but the ’90s finally had its killer hook. The decade ended with a bang, when The Blair Witch Project introduced America to the concept of “found footage” in the summer of ’99. Before long, the genre would veer back toward a new version of the derivative, repetitive rut that Craven has just broken it out of. –Scott Wampler
The painful irony inherent to the horror films of the 2000s is that they are hard to look at, with so much to see. This is in part due to their extreme nature, as so-called “torture porn” submerged the viewer in pools of grimy viscera and pits of used hypodermic needles. But credit is also owed to the palette of rusty browns, gangrene teals, and muddy blacks, as if the partially decomposed image is daring us to look deeper, even if we have to pay the price to do so. The aftermath of 9/11 and the Abu Ghraib photos imbued a political subtext to the major horror of the 2000s — marathons of suffering like Hostel, Saw and High Tension which broke tissue, transgressed bodily boundaries, and flayed each layer of skin one by one.
At this same time, a fresh strain of fear drifted into the ephemeral from the tactile, spreading abstract terrors through burgeoning technologies. J-horror remake The Ring and found-footage freakouts [REC] and Paranormal Activity asserted our obsession with documentation as proof that human nature would just wrench what little control we thought we had over our lives and send us, our memories — our conception of ourselves — into oblivion. The horror cinema of the 2000s is paradoxical, both grounded in the physicality of flesh and rootless in the intangibility of video tapes and camcorders, quick to confront the viewer with inhumanity and yet unable to reconcile with the possibility of our own complicity. –Kyle Turner
The horror classics of the past have remained classics for good reason, but genre standouts over the last decade have the advantage of hindsight, synthesizing the combined wisdom of nearly 100 years into new feats we’ll still be watching over the next century. We’ve seen the rise of new and distinctive filmmaking icons like Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Sophia Takal and Robert Eggers, whose defiance of genre labels (including the cringe-inducing “elevated horror,” a “fetch” that we cannot let Hollywood make happen) fostered bold, brutal works hailed as instant classics.
Long overdue social reckonings found an artful voice in films like Peele’s Get Out and Us, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow, and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. Filmmakers established outside of the horror ranks, including Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), Darren Aronofsky (mother!) and Luca Guadagnino (Suspiria) further refined their craft through confrontational, deeply unsettling works that deployed and twisted the language of the horror genre with surgical precision. These works and the careers they launched would be impossible without the decades of horror that came before, and they’ve crystallized the very best of their influences into something even more potent: a horrifying whole greater than the sum of its parts. –Britt Hayes
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