Archives For History of Horror

Pic 014 (1)Christmas time; a time for families, giving gifts, kissing under the mistletoe and ….watching horror movies? That seems a bit out of place, well, maybe not. I’m going to tell you that watching horror movies at Christmas might just be as much a part of Christmas tradition as putting up a tree or going carol singing.

Christmas as we know it, for most of the western world, is a product of Victorian England, and the one thing Victorian’s couldn’t get enough of was ghost stories. The conventional western ghost story was practically born from the Victorian era, and the practice of gathering on Christmas Eve and sharing these ghost stories was both a popular and important part of Christmas celebrations. But where did this tradition come from? Why on Christmas Eve? It’s seems likely that a combination of the cold, dark weather of British winters, combined with the increasing of sales of ghost stories to be given as Christmas gifts was a factor. However, its root my date back considerably further. It’s likely that this tradition drew it’s beginnings from the pagan festival of Yule. Christmas Eve is the pagan winter solstice, and aside from being the longest night of the year, pagan beliefs considered it to be the most haunted. The night where the barrier between the living and dead was at it’s weakest.

The source of this tradition is more evident in some European countries, where scary fables and stories have been passed down through the years, becoming part of modern popular culture and celebrations.
A horned Devil-like creature, called Krampus is as much as part of Christmas as Santa for many Europeans. Krampus has roots in Germanic folklore, but is recognised in most Alpine European countries. As Santa’s evil counterpart, Krampus’ job is to punish the children who have misbehaved. These Punishments include being shackled, pulling out young girls hair, drowning them in ink and if you’re really unlucky, hurling you into the fires of hell. But wait! There’s more, if that was perverse enough, December 6th is Krampus night, where adults are encouraged to dress as Krampus and roam the neighbourhood chasing down children, and your parents might even invite them into your home to terrify and torment you. As an adult, this sounds like unmeasurable fun.
Another interesting fact about Krampus is that in the early 70s he has a brief spell on the Eastern European BDSM and fetish role playing scene. He still make occasional appearances today around Christmas time in costumes and adult literature.
Krampus isn’t alone either, another Alpine country fable is that of Perchta, a sort of low pagan god, who comes down in the 12 days before Christmas to punish children but slitting open their stomachs.

In Iceland, the mischievous sons of a mountain troll called Gryla, come down during the 13 nights before Christmas and generally cause havoc where they can, often stealing meat, milk and candles, and in France, The Whipping Father accompanies Santa on Christmas and rewards naughty children with a good flogging (and this guy didn’t make it onto the fetish scene?).

Sharing scary and sinister stories in the Christmas seasons is a long standing and well established tradition. From it’s pagan roots to Victorian times, and today it continues with Christmas horror films. Although not he most buoyant horror sub-genre, there have still been many attempts at making Christmas horror films. The majority of these have not been particularly good, but there are a few that I highly recommend, and a few have played a significant part in the continuing development and history of horror cinema.

Now, I am sure there were Christmas horror films before Black Christmas (1974), but I can think of any as memorable. Black Christmas was a very typical 70s slasher, full of suspense and slow winding tension. It follows a group of college girls who are harassed, attacked and eventually killed off one by one over Christmas break. The film is well made with a chilling music score, however, I suspect it may seem a little cliché today, this is mainly because Black Christmas subsequently had an obvious influence on the slasher films in the late 70s and early 80s. The story was visited in a very boring 2006 remake.

Italian film, Don’t Ride on Late Night Trains (1975) follows two girls as take the late night train cross country to get home for Christmas, but things don’t go to plan when they cross paths with the other passengers. First thing I’m going to say is that this film is not going to win any awards for originality. It very clearly draws from Wes Cravens Last House on The Left (1972), still, it’s quite a dark and effective film. It’s not quite as graphic or violent as Last House on the Left, but I think this works to its merit, making it a far more interesting and disturbing movie. It may not have the on screen brutality or shock factor of Last House on the Left and other revenge films popular at the time, yet it was still rejected certification in the UK, and wasn’t released until 2008 in a heavily cut version. So, just a word of caution, this is not a ‘family’ friendly horror film.

I can’t really discuss Christ Horror Films without mentioning Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) is one of the most controversial films to see a theatric release in the 80s. Protests and picketing began even before the films release, largely in response to marketing that depicted Santa as an axe welding murder. Interestingly, it was opened on the same weekend as Nightmare on Elm Street, and, are you sitting down? Initially it out sold Nightmare on Elm Street, however, as public outrage grew and media grabbed on to the controversy the film was quickly pulled by most cinema’s and ticket sales plummeted. The film itself, is relatively tame by todays standards and in hindsight it’s probably fair to say that the American publics initial response to the film was a bit of an over reaction. At the time, the sudden growth of home video and the availability of subversive and exploitive films, that were previously only seen in grindhouse cinemas, had people panicking about how it would corrupt and taint our children and society. Interestingly Tales From The Crypt had done the same thing in 1972. Two appalling sequels followed, and a remake in 2012, that wasn’t too bad.

Santa’s Slay (2005) is a low budget, direct to DVD film, where the son of Satan loses a bet with an angel, his forfeit is sacrifice his day of slaying, instead being bound to give out gifts to children all over the world. However, Santa has done his time, and is quick to return to his evil ways. Sounds awful? It is. It’s over acted, with a cheesy script, and frankly lacking in some expected gore. Oh, did I mention Santa is played by WWE, two-time world wrestling champion, Goldberg? Awful to awesome in one sentence. This film is packed with great fight scenes and superb one-liners. At 78 minutes, this film comes in a little on the short side, but it feels like just about the right amount of time that’s acceptable to waste to this sort of film. Mindless fun.

UK Christmas horror The Children (2006) centers on a family that meets up together for a Christmas vacation, shortly after arriving their children become sick and begin behaving very ominously towards their parents. The Children starts off strong, and is genuinely chilling. The film is well produced throughout, I need to mention it is let down by weak dialogue and scripting, surprisingly most predominantly with the adult actors. It’s difficult to understand or related their reactions to events unfolding within the story, which can be frustrating. The Children in this film easily outshine their adult opposites.

Norway give us their contribution to the Christmas horror film subgenre with Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Santa is discovered buried in ice during an archaeological dig. He is unearth, and it becomes quickly apparent he is not the jolly symbol of joy and giving we have been led to believe. A strange, funny and wicked film, which is visually stunning in places. It is both based on and a prequel to two short films; Rare Exports Inc (2003) and Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions (2005). I recommend watching both of these films as part of the feature film, for a two reasons. First, they (sort of) explain the frankly bizarre ending to the full feature film, and second, they are fearless, sadistic and brilliant. I would even go as to say, they might just be a bit better than A Christmas Tale.

There are three big films we need to include here. I’m not suggesting that these films fall under the mainstream horror genre. They are family films, but offer an alternative to their cuddly and upstanding peers, by slicing through the film industry standards of their times with a playful dark edge. These films are Ghostbusters (1984), Gremlins (1985) and Nightmare before Christmas (1994). I feel these films deserve an honorary mention for their contribution to the genre. It’s films like these that have twisted and warped young minds just enough to lay the foundation that would later support any diehard horror fans unhealthy obsession.

This Christmas Eve, embrace tradition, and bring people together for a scary movie.

 

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
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After the gritty and subversive exploitation and occult films of the 70s, filmmakers needed a new way to shock audiences. ‘Body Horror’ centric was born of this need and the quickly advancing special effects. The growing popularity of horror movies opened up new opportunities, for example works of fiction such as Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There’ and Langelaan’s ‘The Fly’ could be produced in a more full and graphic way than previously possible.

Body Horror films use body warping, mutation, and transformation to scare and disgust their viewers. They tend to be graphic, gruesome and perverse, playing on our innate fears and anxieties about our health, appearance and personal vanity.

The antagonist typically strikes from inside the human body, usually as a result of parasitism, infection or disease. It can also be caused by external, supernatural forces but the damage or mutation done to the body is rarely inflicted by other people as that veers the genre more towards torture porn or slasher movies.

Another blurry line is Zombie movies, which often include attributes from Body Horror, but, as a rule, body horror centric movies don’t include the living dead. It’s not uncommon for body horror films to have a venereal or carnal undertone, often with the infected endeavoring to have sex with the uninfected, either due to sexual desire or as a way to transmit the parasite or disease.

One of the first to explore the body horror themes was David Cronenburg, with early movies such as ‘Shivers’ (1975) and ‘Rabid’(1977). David Lynch was another pioneer for the genre, he wrote and directed the surreal, and frankly confusing, ‘Eraserhead’ (1977). Another innovator was Ridley Scott, with the masterpiece, ‘Alien’ (1979).

These were early explorations into the subject, and prior the special effect explosion of the 80s. They laid the groundwork for the films that would define the genre, arguably, the two most significant of these being ‘The Thing’ (1982) and David Cronenburg’s ‘The Fly’ (1986).

At the height of its popularity, in the mid to late 80s, Body Horror style effects started showing up within the majority of horror films as a part of a bigger theme, such as the ‘Hellraiser’ series. By 1990, the overblown and extravagant 80’s style body horror began to fizzle out. The problem was that each film tried to out do the last, and eventually they became so visual they left nothing to the viewers imagination; death by special effects. The films became increasingly reliant on their effects, and frequently the quality of the story was overlooked. These once edgy, transgressive films became standard, even boring, and as a result, Body Horror centric films all but disappeared from mainstream horror through the mid nineties. However, the genre made a modest return after the millennium.

Body horror films by rating in descending order:

16. Ticks

15. Tetsuo: The Iron Man

14. Street Trash

13. Splice

12. Teeth

11. Shivers

10. Society

9. From Beyond

8. Slither

7. The Brood

6. Splinter

5. Leviathan

4. Hellraiser

3. Alien

2. The Thing

1. The Fly

I’ve tried to order this list by reviewing these films from a body horror standpoint. As overall, the order would be different, however, although some these films listed have considerable body horror content, they also explore many other horror themes which are an equal part of their story and they cross over into several different horror subgenres. Whereas, The Fly is debatably a pure body horror film, checking off subjects such as infection, mutation, and transformation, along with venereal elements. David Cronenburg’s clearly has some issues, but nevertheless is widely considered the father of body horror films, so it seems fitting that The Fly is top of this list.


The Video Nasties

June 5, 2012 — 10 Comments

By 1980 the home video market was taking off, and there was very little censorship or regulation for video distribution in the UK. Censorship from the BBFC only applied to films being showed in theatres at that time and subsequently, a wave of films from Italian horror and the American Grindhouse cinema quickly took advantage of the UK’s lacking regulatory system.

It wasn’t long before the tabloids began focusing on these films, highlighting and playing on their excessive violence and sexual nature, branding them as immoral, corrupt, and blaming them for youth violence. As far as horror films go, this kind of bad publicity is about as good as publicity gets. As the films were named and shamed by the tabloids newspapers, it did wonders for their popularity, and of course, sales.

In 1981, Go Video started distributing Cannibal Holocaust in the UK. As a marketing ploy, they wrote an anonymous letter to Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association expressing their outrage and disgust for their own film. In a way, this backfired, as it spurred Mary White to lead a national campaign against these movies that were soon given the name ‘Video Nasties’.

The tabloids, notably led by The Daily Mail, fed the hype and whipped their gullible readers into a frenzy with headlines such as “For the sake of all our children, burn your video nasty”, and “Ban the Sadist Videos! Before they invade your home!” Clearly both sound advice.

In 1983, as a response to heavy, if not a little misguided, public pressure, the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) published a list of films that were banned by name. This kick-started raids on video stores, and a somewhat trial-by-fire of the horror film industry in the UK, resulting in a total of 72 films being added to the list and facing the risk of prosecution for public obscenity.

Today, most have been re-released, some with cuts and editing, and 10 remain banned because they have not been resubmitted to or have been refused classification. However, what remains truly shocking isn’t the content of these films, but the abuse of power and ignorance displayed by the British government, who inadvertently created a black-market, and essentially prompted the start of movie pirating in the UK. The list gave these films instant cult status and immortalized them as part of cinematic history, whereas, had they gone ignored it seems likely most would have faded into obscurity.

Ironically, these days, the list makes a solid check-list for horror enthusiasts and connoisseurs to follow. So, as standalone films, are they any good?

Well, for most, the answer would be no. The majority are low budget, poorly produced films, with bad acting and a fairly loose plot, and that’s the American Grindhouse movies. The Italian films share these qualities, but are far more confusing and have painfully bad dubbing. I would suggest that even the most die hard horror fan would not do any injustice to their preoccupation by missing most of these off their watch list. However, the Video Nasties fall on a scale that goes from one extreme to another, yes, most are quite awful, but some are very good. You know, in a sick, perverse kind of way.

10. There was a Little Girl

9. Cannibal Holocaust

8. House by the Cemetery

7. Fight for your Life

6. Dead and Buried

5. Zombie Flesh Eaters

4. The Beyond

3. Tenebrae

2. Possession

1. The Evil Dead

I am still looking out for SS Hell Camp and Mardi Gras Massacre, I’ve struggled to find them. I suspect someone, somewhere has a dusty VHS copy packed away in there loft. If you have seen them, I’d be interested to know what they are like? Or if you have a copy, start rewinding it, and ill begin relearning the art of tracking on my old video player now.


During the 1930s, burlesque theatres became increasingly popular in America. These vintage equivalents to modern-day strip clubs included ‘bump and ‘grind’ shows, and subsequently they became commonly referred to as Grindhouse’s. By the late 1950s, a combination of a social pressure on burlesque shows, which had gained a sleazy and shady reputation in the 1940‘s and, later, with nudity becoming more accessible at movie theatres and drive-ins, most of these clubs ended up as neglected, run-down, empty buildings. With their theatre style set up and no expectations to renovate or refurbish, the rent and upkeep was cheap, so they were an obvious choice for the market gap in paracinema movies. These theatres showed predominantly  exploitation films known for their emphasis on extreme depictions of sex, violence and gore, that general would not get a mainstream release, therefore, it seemed fitting that they adopted the Grindhouse name. The typical subjects of movies seen at a Grindhouse were pornography, horror, and sometimes martial arts. These films traditionally had low budgets and poor print quality, leading to their famously scratchy grained picture, and rarely any prominence to artistic merit.

The popularity of drive in theatres had begun to decline in the 1960’s, leaving theatre owners to look for new ways to bring in customers. With Grindhouse theatres gaining seemingly overnight popularity by 1970, and making a notable profit, one solution was to start booking Grindhouse movies. Soon, filmmakers were producing  films directly for the drive-in market, which at the Grindhouse peak in the mid 1970s, were probably more popular than the smaller theatres that had earned them their name.

However, By 1982 most homes had VHS home video players. People could now view exploitative or pornographic films in the privacy of their home, and Grindhouse theatres disappeared into hazy memories and rumors for over 20 years. Until 2007, when Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez brought Grindhouse cinema back to big screens with their double bill; Planet Terror and Death proof, complete with a collection of fictitious Grindhouse-esque trailers for upcoming attractions, advertisements, and in-theater announcements. Clearly their goal was to pay a deconstructive homage to the long forgotten genre, that had influenced their film making careers, most evident in their previous joint venture, From dusk to Dawn. However, it seems that they have achieved much more than that, their double bill kick-defined a whole new genre; modern Grindhouse. A genre that is independent of exploitation films, and become a style of filmmaking of its own.

There has been a recent surge of modern Grindhouse films such as; Nude Nuns with Big Guns, Dear God No! and Bitch Slap. Also, two of the fictitious trailers from the Tarantino / Rodrigues double bill have spurred full feature movies; Machete and Hobo with a shot-gun, with more on the way.

Whilst gathering up a list of Grindhouse horror, exploitation films that I hadn’t watched, it became quickly apparent that I have not seen nearly enough to even think about posting top list. Nevertheless, here is a list of Grindhouse movies that I recommend if you are interested in exploring the genre: The Gore Gore Girls, Last House on the Left, The Maniac, They Call her One Eye, 2000 Maniacs, Faster Pussycat Kill!, Tentacles, Switchblade Sisters, Primitive Desires, I Drink your Blood, IIsa She wolf of The SS, Fight for your Life, and Zombie Flesh Eaters.

As modern Grindhouse goes, it’s still in its infancy, but I suspect you’ll struggle to find better than Planet Terror and Death proof for sometime. Kurt Russell’s performance as Stuntman Mike, is nothing less than magnificence.