A History of Horror Films: Nightmares in Red, White and Blue

Nightmares_in_RedWhy is the horror genre such a successful phenomenon? The Howling and Piranha director Joe Dante puts it bluntly: “they’re about how we cope with death.”

Nightmares in Red, White and Blue describes how horror has mutated over time, but how it continues to reflect cultural fears and anxieties back to us.

Offering a strictly chronological approach to the history of horror, the documentary takes us from the Lon Chaney era, horror’s first bona fide star, who in the Roaring Twenties portrayed ordinary men beset by traumas beyond their control. The Man of A Thousand Faces, “acted out our psyches”, according to writer Ray Bradbury.

We learn that George Romero, “sympathized with the monsters” and that German expressionism greatly influenced Roger Corman, particularly the metaphysical approach of films like M, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and of course, Nosferatu.

Nosferatu_SchreckIn 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die, Ernest Mathijs rightly says “never has there been a more spine-chilling specimen than Max Shreck’s Count Orlok, with his crooked fangs, deformed ears, narrow shoulders, hunched, skinny frame, stretched, bony fingers, and hypnotic stare.”

Genre classics like Cat People and Wolfman, reflected repressed sexuality and puberty motifs respectively, the former involving a hero, Irena, who is descended from panther people and develops a killer instinct when sexually aroused (hard not to think of Anchorman when you think of feline pheromones: “a special cologne… It’s called Sex Panther…It’s illegal in nine countries… Yep, it’s made with bits of real panther, so you know it’s good.”)

The Cold War ushered in nuclear monster movies, films like Tarantula, with its atomic isotope gone wrong theme, creating the title insect in a nuclear cautionary tale. Them! involved gigantic irradiated ants found in the New Mexico desert (that state of course, was famous for the Trinity nuclear test of 1945, the first of its kind and part of the Manhattan Project).

Susan Sontag suggests that these films were an “inadequate response” to major socio-political issues, an objection also levied against vigilante “this city has gone down the crapper” movies from the 80s.  And Andrew Tudor of York University said nuclear movies “glorified government as a bastion of elites uniquely capable of providing for our defense.”

Psycho (1960) was dubbed the true antecedent of the modern horror film, in which it wasn’t external factors like radiation or explorations of gothic horror that carried the day like in the two decades prior, but the mundane. In this case, a seemingly average guy who ran an inn, Norman Bates.

Blood Feast followed in Psycho’s transgressive steps, upping the gore ante with viscera and torn out tongues. As we’ve said on this site, Blood Feast broke down barriers and changed perceptions of its genre forever as horror competed with the real-life violence of Vietnam war footage in grim one-upmanship.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) carried over the senselessness and randomness of Psycho, as that “a bastion of elites” were of no help to lone zombie survivor Ben.

Senselessness reached its apotheosis in Grindhouse cinema in the 70s, the decade that brought us the likes of The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left, films that combined monsters with serial killer realism. “Who the hell are they?” was the question famously asked in Dawn of the Dead to which the retort was “they’re us.” As it’s routinely said of serial killers, they’re very average and blend right in.

maniac803bigIn a not entirely convincing part of it Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, the film makers posit that 80s Reaganomics was a driving force behind slasher films, which, as some authors have put it, feature protagonists who feel they’ve been slighted or sidelined/marginalized and seek revenge. Movies like Maniac (a site favorite not mentioned in the documentary), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc., are seen as lonely outcast embodiments of failed social policy. The 80s action film / political link is a much stronger one (Death Wish series for example), whereas horror simply got more violent with each passing decade, possibly reflecting the rise to prominence of killers such as Charles Manson, Son of Sam and Ted Bundy (Helter Skelter was a bestseller in 1974 and Son of Sam began plying his grim trade a year later). [Editors’ note: Cultural interpretation of horror is a tricky business. An example from the film is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which could be read both as a response to a Red Scare as well as a paean to rugged individualism]

Freddy_KruegerThe 90s brought us more of the “killer with the human face”, the likes of American Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, Seven, etc., while the Jigsaw killer of the Saw movies in the 2000s, was a more overt moral judge than his 80s forbears , offering victims choices of sorts (mutilate themselves before he got to them) rather than the “vice, slice and dice” approach of Messrs. Krueger and Voorhees. One critic called Saw 2 “Vilely violent…the Phnom Penh of splatter movies.” No argument here. One wonders whether they got around to seeing the Mengele-inspired grotesqueries of The Human Centipede franchise.

There’s a tenuous link made between post-9/11 fears and the xenophobic subtext in Hostel,  and not enough emphasis on our hometown favorite David Cronenberg’s body horror, but these are minor quibbles. Nightmares is still a fascinating peek behind the curtain at how the horror genre has changed with the times.

To quote the hilariously excellent Re-Animator, “who’s going to believe a talking head?” so the filmmakers wisely leave the commentary in the capable hands of John Carpenter, George Romero and Tom McLoughlin.

***1/2 (out of 5)

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