Universal Monster Movies (1920s – 1950s)
A precursor to the Hammer Horror era of the 1950s- 1970s, Universal’s classic monster films took Victorian literature and brought it to life. While in turn giving birth to some of the biggest horror stars of a generation. However, Universal’s passion for horror was born out of a need to create cheap movies with high audience turnover. The studio struggling to find a unique voice as it entered the world of colour, sound and drama.
The studio’s first endeavour came with Lon Chaney in the silent The Phantom of the Opera 1925. However, it was not until 1931 that the Universal monster flick truly came of age, with Bella Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein. With both films setting a style and tone that has long been imitated but never equalled. The gothic darkness and sumptuous set design, setting a benchmark that continues in modern horror to this day. And while Hammer may have taken the horror crown by the 1950s, without Universal there would have been no Hammer Horror.
The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo) 2001
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Ghosts are often used in films purely for sudden shock and audience reaction. Creating a way to make viewers jump and squirm while offering no real explanation of their presence. However, with The Devils Backbone, Guillermo del Toro takes the classic ghost story into new realms. The apparitions having both meaning and purpose; desperate to share their hidden knowledge. The Civil War locations and symbolism of grief far scarier than the ghost at its heart.
The Devils Backbone not only uses its period location to significant effect but dovetails the terror of the adult world with childhood innocence. As the opposing forces build to a dramatic and emotional conclusion.
Director: F. W. Murnau
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu marks the beginning of the Vampire on screen, a prelude to everything that came after. Murnau based his silent film on Bram Stoker’s Dracula; however, the Stoker estate refused the film the rights to the Dracula name. Not realising the power his film would deliver in translating Stoker’s written word to moving image.
With much of the film based in shadow, Nosferatu carries a dream-like quality, the deepest fears of our subconscious reflected on screen. The power of early German filmmaking and expressionism didn’t start here, but it did find its timeless and long since copied style in Nosferatu.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Director: Wes Craven
Due to the plethora of sequels following it, many people have forgotten the sheer genius of Wes Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street. A film that not only created the cult horror figure of Freddie Krueger but explored themes of young people paying for the mistakes of their parents. In the case of Elm Street, this was a group of parents taking justice into their own hands by murdering a paedophile. Unaware that man would return in the dreams of their own children to exact his revenge.
Craven delivers a cinematic journey to hell, while never using his heroine as simple bait or fodder for the villain. In the process giving us some of the most iconic scenes in horror history, alongside one of its creepiest musical scores.
Read our retrospective look at Nightmare on Elm Street 2 here
Read our review of Scream Queen! here
The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
In May 1980 Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining received its world premiere, its cinematic and cultural influence showing no signs of dissipating forty years later. As film fans old and new continue to unpick the reasons for its sheer brilliance. For me, as a young teenage film fan, The Shining was not only my introduction to the genius of Stanley Kubrick. But also my first real experience of the power horror films could wield in the public imagination. Wrapping the viewer in the deepest and darkest corners of the subconscious mind, while challenging them to think beyond simple jumps and scares.
However, like many films now classed as a masterpiece, The Shining did not find universal favour on its initial release. As a result, receiving mediocre critical reviews, alongside award ceremony snubs for Kubrick. Mainly due to the film’s divergence from Stephen King’s source material; the author openly expressing his unhappiness with Kubrick’s film adaptation.
Within King’s book, Jack is primarily a good man struggling with the inner demons of his addiction, while in turn, caring deeply for his family. While Wendy is a robust and assured figure, who wants her husband to get back on track. Subsequently leading to the family unit overcoming the evil of the hotel.
However, for Kubrick, Jack does not walk away, freezing to death in a maze of his own making, his addictions never overcome; his character never redeemed. Considering the links between King’s own recovery from alcoholism and his novel it is therefore easy to see why King disliked Kubrick’s adaptation.
Of course, Kubrick made other significant changes, introducing the river of blood, the creepy Grady twins and the death of Dick Hallorann. The latter courting controversy as Kubrick explored the racial segregation and injustice of America. With an axe-wielding deranged white man violently dispatching a man of colour. More importantly, placing this within corridors adorned with culturally appropriated symbols, patterns and colours of Native American life.
Read Here’s Johnny! The Shining at 40 here
Doctor Sleep (2019)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Connecting the competing visions of Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece with Stephen Kings 2013 follow up to his 1977 novel was never going to be easy. After all its no secret that Kubrick’s film deviated from King’s source material, changing several character’s and outcomes. Therefore, Director Mike Flanagan had a tough job in pleasing both the die-hard fans of the 1980 film and those who loved King’s novel.
But surprisingly the result is one of the best horror films of 2018/19. Exuding admiration for Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece, while lovingly translating Stephen King’s sequel to the big screen. In turn, building a bridge between Kubrick and King that lovingly honours both men’s visions. With the supernatural terror of King’s imagination interfacing with the far more nuanced horror of Stanley Kubrick.
But aside from the links to the past, Doctor Sleep also embraces its place in telling a new story. Introducing us to one of the scariest horror characters of recent years with Rose the Hat. While never shying away from the abject horror of the True Knot gang, especially in the nerve-shredding and horrific scenes involving ‘Baseball Boy’.