The horror genre combines a huge number of topics, subjects, and artistic techniques. The question about its primary features does not contain an unequivocal answer. Each era offered a new suggestion, but the answer repeatedly turned out to be inconsistent. However, analyzing a horror film, one should focus more not on the content, but on the variety of techniques. For example, scenes of murder may be present in any genre from detective to the comedy, but in a horror movie, they are the most logical and essential. Such scenes in horror films are used not only to provoke fear but also to deliver pleasure by the originality of shooting approach. The common viewer often cannot pay attention to these things, but that they have determined the overall impression received. However, such strong dependence on the form has negative consequences represented in aestheticization of the concepts of death, murder, and evil. These essential qualities turned into the objects of worship during the evolution of horrors that can be seen in such outstanding examples of different epochs as Bride of Frankenstein by James Whale, Cat People by Jacques Tourneur, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Don Siegel, and No Country for Old Men by Ethan and Joel Coen.
The historical context of chosen movies differs largely. One can hardly overestimate the European influence on the American horror film in the 1930s. The political situation in Europe caused a significant outflow of creative immigrants from Europe. In the US, these filmmakers have brought more than their professional skills. However, in America, immigrants from Europe had to face a fundamentally different filming concept. In the 20s - 30s, Hollywood worshiped the rule: “you get what you see.” In other words, the more spectacular events the screen showed, the better the public understood what exactly money was paid for. Bride of Frankenstein directed by James Whale and produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. completely changed the approach to Horror. Moreover, this film serves as a perfect example of horrors produced by Universal Studios.
In the early 40s, Val Lewton, an independent producer, received a contract for a series of low-budget horror films from the studio RKO. His first film received the title Cat People and was created in 1942 as the product of collaboration with an immigrant from France Jacques Tourneur. This contract was a real success, both for Lewton and studio. RKO had financial troubles, and Lewton was an educated man with a number of original ideas. Moreover, in contrast to Bride of Frankenstein, his films were created in the atmosphere of complete freedom. Therefore, there is nothing surprising in the fact that Lewton in collaboration with different directors chosen by himself revolutionized the American horror film and provoked a new surge of interest in the Horror genre.
In contrast to romantic 30s and revolutionary 40s, the 1950s were definitely the era of the Drive-Ins or, in other words, the open-air movie theaters where one could watch movies directly from the car. At the same time, major filming studios were losing their influence on the industry while the numerous independent studios appeared. Therefore, Drive-Ins’ repertoire consisted of low-budget adventure and fantastic pictures with impressive names. Many independent producers made films directly for the youth since it was the primary audience of these cinemas and Sci-fi was the most popular genre among the Drive-Ins’ visitors. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Don Siegel is a perfect example of that era.
However, decades of evolution transformed the Horror genre into a strange phenomenon. Modern horror film borrows formulas and techniques of other genres, and completely differs from the static masterpieces of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” Therefore, the combinations of horrors and other genres that were unthinkable in the 30s, 40s or 50s are inevitable in шmodern industry. Moreover, the use of Horror and such opposite genre as, for example, Western brings the most effective result. At the same time, the influence of such film industry giants as Universal, Paramount and others resulted in the appearance of blockbusters as the most profitable form of a movie. However, No Country for Old Men by Ethan and Joel Coen finds a delicate balance between mass and independent culture and serves as an outstanding example of a cross-genre movie that took the best features of both Western and Horror.
Themes and Inherent Ideological Conflicts
In the 1930s, America was going through the Great Depression, and Laemmle Jr. subtly felt that people wanted to see not only a spectacular entertainment but also darker and intimate pictures of human nature. Thus, the horror movie became a place where a director can put some deeply personal emotions. For example, the scene with angry crowds igniting Frankenstein’s shelter represents the conflict between director’s homosexuality and “normal” society. At the same time, the concept of monster became the main attraction of American Horror at this stage of its development. The monster has to be spectacular, ominous, but not quite disgusting and able even to please the public. It represents the desire to go beyond the common social and political concepts. The audience’s sympathy for the evil resulted in the occurrence of some rudiments of psychology in monsters. The scenes where Frankenstein rescues the young girl from drowning or enjoys the blind man’s music insist that his nature is much more complex and ambiguous.
Unlike the directors of the 30s, Lewton and Tourneur excluded a monster from the screen and carried it into the off-screen space. It is logical to think that the fear of the unknown is always stronger than the fear of the apparent danger. Cat People insists that the monster is not coming from the outside; it hides in the soul of Serbian girl Irena. Jacques Tourneur uses ancient atavistic fear of the animal nature of human. Irena suppresses her sexuality fearing of becoming a monster. The final scene of the movie exposures Irena in the form of a black panther. Just like Bride of Frankenstein, Cat People opposes the monster to society and finds some sympathy for the evil. Moreover, the appearance of psychiatrist shows the Horror transition towards a psychoanalytic approach that will become even more popular after the Hitchcock’s masterpieces.
The fear of inner spiritual mutations, loss of human essence and a paranoid feeling of being the last man on Earth are the driving forces of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This film brilliantly exploits the idea of an invasion of the monster from the outside and such political context as fear of communism infiltration. The scene with Jack exposure insists that the viewer should not trust even the closest friends. Such constant tension completely transforms the whole movie. Even the predictable romantic line between Miles and Becky finds attractive, unexpected, and tragic overtones in the excellent scene when the lover fell asleep and awakened as another “body snatcher” a moment later. However, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a very humanistic film that contains strong faith in the invincibility of society. The scene with the lucky accident of cocoon truck proves this thesis.
No Country for Old Men consists of two different stories. The first narrative relates to the old sheriff and the second story talks about the welder named Llewelyn Moss, who found an enormous sum of money and runs from the hired killer. Both storylines exploit different classical Western conflicts. The nostalgic monolog of the sheriff about the time when the streets were so quiet that the police did not have to carry a gun represents the conflict between stability and violence. The scene when Moss finds money contains an internal conflict between unlimited freedom and consequences. However, while all previous examples sympathized the evil to a different degree, this movie provides an unbiased representation of this concept. The figure of an unabashed killer with an oxygen cylinder suddenly appearing and disappearing into nowhere is not a person with a certain set of properties but the embodiment of ultimate evil.
Stylistic and Visual Characteristics
Bride of Frankenstein created a morbid atmosphere and psychological tension using fascinating dance of shadows. The viewer can see the implementation of these techniques in the scenes of the creation of Frankenstein and his bride. The concept of the monster was crucial for the industry. Monster’s plastic and appearance should amaze imagination of the viewer. Every appearance of the character of Boris Karloff is emphasized with a sophisticated makeup. Moreover, the good movie funding allowed create an impressive culmination scene with explosions and massive decorations.
At the same time, Lewton insisted that the principle of “you get what you see” was not suitable for horror movies. While monster’s makeup and special effects may be impressive, they still cannot compete with the viewer’s imagination. Lewton believed that the main thing in a horror movie is the creation of an atmosphere that stimulates the imagination of the public. Thus, the author focuses on the images of deserted streets, dim lamps, and almost physically tangible darkness. The scenes of night zoo and conversation with psychiatrist surround the heroes with darkness where the most incredible horror can hide. Cat People rejects the traditional “scary” music that signalized the appearance of evil in the horror movies of the 30s. Instead, the key scenes in the swimming pool and Alice’s night walk occur in almost complete silence interrupted only by the sound of woman’s heels, the noise of the trees, and sudden screech of bus tires. Another interesting concept proved by Lewton states that one not necessarily needed to use the Gothic architecture for mysterious atmosphere. In fact, all the scenes occurred in modern studios, cabinets and apartments.
Unlike the Bride of Frankenstein, Don Siegel had little money but a lot of ideas similar to Lewton. Therefore, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers contains numerous original artistic decisions. Siegel wanted to expose with a limited budget the evil that did not enter into an open fight, but could literally penetrate the skin and kill the soul of human leaving intact and capable body. Therefore, the movie is full of close-ups of characters’ faces that catch every single emotion. In addition, the director focused on the soundtrack. For example, in the scene with disgusting evil cocoons the music emphasizes the inhuman nature of invaders. However, despite some naivety, a minimum of combined shooting, and complex makeup Siegel’s film reflects on different philosophic themes and serves as one of the first examples of philosophical science fiction.
No Country for Old Men took from Western a slow manner of filming with long panoramic shots. At the same time, Coen brothers wanted to convey visually the unemotional character of Anton Chigurh, who represents the horror side of the movie. The viewer sees how Chigurh, as well as the camera, remains calm in the sheriff’s office or even after the car accident. However, the audience does not know what is happening inside the killer’s head. Thus, the focus on internal and unknown that originated in Cat People is also presented in Coen’s movie. In contrast to Siegel’s film, Coen brothers reject almost any music but speed up the tempo in the episodes of murder. The scene where Chigurh kills the sheriff’s deputy perfectly illustrates their approach. Such combination of the elements of Horror and Western creates the unique rhythm of the movie and keeps the audience in suspense.
Horror was born at the beginning of the XX century as romantic fantasy with black erotic reflections of pain, pleasure, beauty, and death. During its evolution, this genre worshiped the concept of monster, focused on the inner nature of human, sought the evil outside the Earth and experienced many other stages. Currently, the industry uses Horror in the combinations with other genres with varying degrees of success. In all epochs, movies served as the accurate reflection of the social, political and economic situation. At the same time, industry, technological progress, and money influenced the quality of sound and visual effects. However, the ideas and techniques used in previous eras still remain successful and effective. What is more important - they remain original and will keep this status in future. Thus, the Horror genre will preserve its aesthetics and attractiveness for the viewer.