What makes “classic horror” a classic?

A message board that I enjoy participating on is over at FEARnet, the website for the cable horror channel. On the “Classics” board, a 38-year-old post the question “What constitutes a classic?”

I chuckled when I read that he used the year 1987 as the cutoff point for “classic” status, giving that distinguished appellation to such fare as FRIDAY THE 13TH and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Of course, he was right, to some degree… everybody defines these things, subjectively at least, by their own age, and the circumstances under which they saw these films. But still… 1987?? Why, that was only, um, 31 years ago… geez, thirty-one years? Shit!

Frankenstein's monster

Personally, and trying to remain somewhat objective about the issue, I peg the dividing line at 1968. That year’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was the first film to really break with the Gothic horror tradition exemplified by Universal Studios in the 30s, Val Lewton-era RKO in the 40s, Hammer Films in the 50s, and American International Pictures in the early 60s. From this point in time, it may be hard to grasp how shatteringly taboo-breaking NOTLD was, and why it was. After that, and the soon-on-its-heels THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT , and THE EXORCIST, well… hell. How can anybody find Frankenstein or Dracula or the Mummy or the Wolf Man truly scary anymore? Vincent Price creeping around some haunted house looked pretty quaint by that time. So, by my reckoning, 1968 was the year of birth for modern horror.

The only thing was, those earlier films were, for the most part, pretty damn good. Some could even be called works of art, if you buy into the argument that cinema is an art form. (Certainly, the first films of each of those studio’s franchises were excellent, even if the various sequels got a little flabby.) So, like many old movies that are well made and still remain popular, the “classic” tag was applied.

Another way to think about it would also be that those earlier horror films always dealt with their monsters as an external threat, to be defeated by men of reason and high moral character. (I’m thinking mostly of the Universal and Hammer product here.) This could also be defined as “classical” horror, as opposed to “romantic” horror. “Right wing” horror versus “left wing” horror; “Apollonian” versus “Dionysian.” “The monster is them, out there” versus “the monster is us, right here.”

Just a theory…

2 Responses to “What makes “classic horror” a classic?”

  1. I think, as you mention, the idea of what constitutes a “Classic” horror movie is incredibly subjective. To my way of thinking, for the purpose of general discussion, I consider three or four decades to be the transition point between film “Eras.”

    I would consider the films made today as Modern; the films made from 1960 to 2000 as Classic; the films made from 1930 to 1960 as Golden; the films made before 1930, I consider to be something like vintage. Naturally, how we look at what is “classic” will change with each generation.

    It is interesting to me that there seems to always be a transitional film, within a decade, that proves to lay the ground work for a “breakthrough” film. In the context of this blog, I have to mention Psycho as the transition film from the classical Gothic/Romantic horror films of the 40’s and 50’s to the breakthrough Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Ironically, and I know I will draw some laughter for this, I believe that it was Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) which was the transition film of the decade. The irony is that a modern (at the time) adaptation of a classical Gothic horror story bridged the gap between Gothic/Romantic horror, the bloody Slasher films of the 70’s and 80’s, such as Halloween and Friday the 13th, and the (then) modern wave of “hip” teen films such as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. These teen-oriented films dominated the 90’s and still somewhat survive today.

    Interestingly enough, another way for me to look at this topic, is that a very strong case can be made that the age of the great picture houses such as RKO, MGM, API, Hammer, etc. comprise the entirety of “classic” horror movies and everything afterward is considered either modern or contemporary.

    To quote the Otherworld receptionist from Beetlejuice, “It’s all very personal.”

    Great post, by the way.

  2. paulbaack Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Rain.

    I had considered PSYCHO as the transitional film between eras, but ultimately opted for the Romero movie. I don’t think I articulated this well, but my focus was mainly on supernatural horror. While the Hitchcock film definitely represents a break from the Romantic tradition, it could be argued (weakly, perhaps,) that being psychological in nature, it’s more of a crime story than a horror story. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, on the other hand, can’t be considered anything other than a straight-ahead horror show — political and satirical elements aside, it’s a zombie movie, man.

    Your labeling of eras has some merit, I think. Adding “Golden” and “Vintage” to the mix makes for finer definitions, although I guess one always runs the risk of splitting hairs. You’re dating of the eras is arguable, but, again, this is all highly subjective and personal. And that’s an interesting take on the Coppola Dracula picture, especially if you take into account Neal Jordan’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE which followed two years later. A one-two punch of classicist, Romantic, old-school Gothic horror — driving a stake, as it were, through the heart of the “Slasher” film subgenre. Something to think about…

    Thanks again!

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