Archive for Classic horror

What makes “classic horror” a classic?

Posted in Horror with tags , , , , , on 5 July 2008 by Doc Tourneau

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…