Horror movies mirror the anxieties of a population. If you look at the best horror in any decade, what made it relevant, what gave it punch, was that it spoke to the anxieties of the society at that point in time.
Case in point: Godzilla. Not long after the end of WWII, a Japanese filmmaker spun a yarn about the end of civilization as a giant kaiju brought about by atomic bombs. You can see how that spoke to folks at the time.
You can also point to one particular film that changed the trajectory of the genre. To use Godzilla as the example again, after that film, you were hard pressed to find a horror film that was not a creature feature.
Here’s our quick primer, decade by decade, on the films that marked the genre, predicted the coming decade’s cinematic output, and articulated the social anxieties of the day.
1914 to 1918 saw the first global war. Germany, France and the US also happened to be the three countries investing the most in film. And while many in the US protested the idea of paying our money to see German films at the time, the most interesting horror was coming from German writers and directors who could feel the ideological changes that would inform not only WWI, but the more horrifying underpinnings of the next generation’s war.
• Nosferatu (1922)
• Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Era defining film:
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Non-practicing Jewish/German director Robert Weine would eventually escape from Germany and make films in Hungary after the Nazis came to power. His expressionistic presentation in this film, much of it owing to an ingenious way to deal with a limited budget, had a lasting impact on cinema worldwide.
But it was the writers of Caligari – Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz – who bring the social anxieties into focus. Both were in the military in WWI and both had a profound distrust of power, which influenced this amazing film.
This was the calm between world wars. Advances in medicine meant that more soldiers came home from WWI than what would have happened in any earlier war. Many of those people were physically disfigured to a degree that we would never have seen before these medical advances.
The films of the 1930s—Universal’s sweet spot—focused almost exclusively on shady Eastern European evil that unleashes disfigured monsters, often sympathetic monsters whose pain and ugliness are no fault of their own, on an unsuspecting population.
It played on audiences fear of the sinister European other, that mysterious presence of evil that they could never hope to fathom. It also picked those scabs of seeing the monstrous in their own home towns.
• Dracula (1931)
• Vampyr (1932)
• Freaks (1932)
• Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Era defining film:
James Whale’s brilliant take on Mary Shelley’s novel looked at Frankenstein’s monster and saw the cruelty humanity was capable of committing. For him, the monster was the central and most interesting figure. Unlike Shelley’s antihero, Whale’s creature was utterly sympathetic, an oversized child unable to control himself, making him simultaneously innocent and dangerous.
Barons and aristocracy, the European setting – the film distrusts scientists and public officials as fools unable to reign in their own ambitions no matter the dire consequences.
WWII was in full swing and Americans were looking for escapism. In a way, though, the 40s were more of the same. Still monster movies, mostly based on Universal’s success. RKO began its run with Jacques Tournier/Val Lewton films that- because of smaller budgets – relied on audience audience imagination over pricey make up effects. The success resulted in a change, however temporary, toward smarter, suspenseful films.
But the real enemy was German. While most of the monster movies of the decade saw some kind of shadowy European figure of power or evil, one really exemplifies the era and where it is.
• Cat People (1942)
• I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
• The Uninvited (1944)
Era defining film:
The Wolf Man (1941)
For George Waggner’s 1941 classic, Lon Chaney Jr. plays the big, lovable lummox of an American back in his old stomping grounds—some weird amalgamation of European nations.
In a real sense, this film was the answer to a formula, an alchemy that printed money. The Chaney name, Bela Lugosi co-stars, and we pit a sympathetic beast against some ancient European evil. But it’s much more pointed than it seems. The evil is purely German, gypsies sense it and yet can do nothing but fall victim to it, and it is an evil with the power to turn an otherwise good man—say, your average German man—into a soulless killing machine.
Few eras have earmarked their horror output with social anxiety as thoroughly as the 1950s. The war was cold and it was everywhere.
You were hard pressed to find any horror film in that decade that were not specifically about fear of the Communist and/or atomic threat unless you looked overseas. Those who needed a minute away from the mutant monsters that followed Godzilla to box office gold found it in England’s fledgling horror company, Hammer.
• Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
• Dracula (1958)
• The Bad Seed (1956)
• Diabolique (1955)
Era defining film:
More than any other film in the genre, Godzilla spoke directly to global anxieties, became a phenomenal success, and changed the face of horror.
As Japan struggled to re-emerge from the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, director Ishiro Honda unleashed that dreaded kaiju—followed quickly by a tidal wave of creature features focused on scientists whose ungodly work creates global cataclysm.
Far more pointed and insightful than its American bastardization or any of the sequels or reboots to follow, the 1954 Japanese original mirrored the desperate, helpless impotence of a global population in the face of very real, apocalyptic danger. Sure, that danger breathed fire and came in a rubber suit, but history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.
Civil Rights, Vietnam, women’s rights, the pill—the Sixties was a decade that changed an awful lot. And with change comes social anxiety.
A woman’s right to control her own body became front page news with the release of the birth control pill, and worries generated there spilled into horror, the best of these being France’s Eyes Without a Face and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
The decade saw a slew of other true classics, from The Innocents to Psycho and more, but the effects of the social change – which would become even more pronounced in the cinematic output of the next decade – was articulated best by the bargain basement budget zombie film that changed every single thing.
• Psycho (1960)
• Eyes Without a Face (1960)
• The Innocents (1961)
• Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Era defining film:
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Romero’s first zombie film – the first proper zombie film – hit upon cultural anxieties aplenty. The war in Vietnam – televised almost constantly, and for the first time – was reflected in Romero’s onscreen broadcasts of unimaginable horror. He depicts the changing paradigm of the generations in the power struggle going on inside the besieged house.
More than anything, though, Romero hit a nerve with his casting. The filmmaker has long said that African American actor Duane Jones got the part as the lead because he was simply the best actor in the cast. True enough. But his performance as the level headed, proactive, calm-under-pressure alpha male – followed by Romero’s gut-punch of a finale – spoke volumes and is one of the main reasons the film remains as relevant today as it was when it was released.
The rise of independent film in the US in the Seventies led to maybe our greatest era in film. Taxi Driver, The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, Chinatown, Mean Streets, Rocky—it’s dizzying to think of the filmmakers who established themselves in that decade with fresh, gritty, realistic, genius films.
Horror benefitted from the same boon in independent filmmaking. Some of what would become the strongest voices of the genre were making their first sounds: David Cronenberg, Stephen King, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, among others.
It’s a time when the TV coverage of Vietnam has begun to dull the population’s senses to violence. We saw horror movies that did two things. First, filmmakers came up with a way to wake people up to violence, either with extreme violence or with larger-than-life violence.
The second thing was a sense of pitting evil against the status quo. People were wearying, as the decade waned, of the constant state of flux. They longed for simple, wholesome answers. Sue Snell challenged the status quo by showing kindness to Carrie White, and look what happened. Teenagers rebelled in suburbia by partying and having sex when they were supposed to be babysitting, and Michael Myers appeared to punish their unholy behavior.
The most iconic film of the Seventies—horror or otherwise—saw just one way to contend with modern evils.
• Deliverance (1972)
• Jaws (1974)
• The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
• Carrie (1976)
• Halloween (1978)
• Alien (1979)
Era defining film:
The Exorcist 1973
A single mother, a daughter on the verge of puberty and sexual awakening, an opening for evil—much of the grounding concepts of William Friedkin’s masterpiece is simply that the status quo in the Seventies was being challenged and we needed God to come straighten things out again.
The concept that the Catholic Church will save us now seems almost so quaint as to be offensively naïve. But at the time, Friedkin combined this sensibility with an impeccable script, uncompromising direction and breathtaking performances (the film raked in two Oscars and another 8 nominations) to scare the hell out of viewers.
Conservatism, consumption, capitalism—the Eighties had it all. Everything was bigger, splashier, louder. Music videos and their phenomenal influence on teenage buying habits meant movies catered more to a younger audience, partly by ensuring that a short attention span could be kept engaged.
Thanks to the rise of VHS, everybody learned that you could turn a profit more easily with horror – the go-to rental property – than with any other genre of film. They could be made cheaply and they were the most likely to be rented, immediately and repeatedly.
The slasher was king – there were 8 Friday the 13th films in the decade, 4 Halloween films, 5 Nightmares on Elm Street alone. There were also some good movies, but the one that looks the most like the Eighties is one that comes from the era’s most iconic icon, Spielberg
• The Shining (1980)
• American Werewolf in London (1981)
• The Thing (1981)
• Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Era defining film:
Tobe Hooper’s love child with Steven Spielberg may not be the best or most important horror film of the Eighties, but it is the most Eighties horror film of the Eighties. In both of Spielberg’s ’82 films, the charade of suburban peace is disrupted by a supernatural presence. In E.T., though, there’s less face tearing.
Part of Poltergeist’s success emerged from pairing universal childhood fears – clowns, thunderstorms, that creepy tree – with the adult terror of helplessness in the face of your own child’s peril.
Splashy effects, excellent casting, Spielberg’s heart and Hooper’s gut combine to create a flick that holds up. Solid performances and the pacing of a blockbuster provide the film a respectable thrill, but Hooper’s disturbing imagination guarantees some lingering jitters.
The Nineties was a fairly calm time, although the angst in the music suggests otherwise. More than anything, the social anxiety of the Nineties was more about rebelling against the conservative, self-centered, larger-than-life Eighties. And without a single, overarching, global worry to inform horror, the output of the decade was a mixed bag.
The decade started off with the best film horror may ever see. The Silence of the Lambs won all 5 major Oscars that year – actor, actress, film, screenplay, director – absolutely unheard of for a horror film. It is a perfect movie, and its success led to more heavyweight directors working with a big budget.
The decade would end with a phenomenon that created its own subgenre: The Blair Witch Project. Takashi Miike’s Audition was one of the burgeoning J-horror genre that would have a huge influence on American horror in the next decade.
But the film that reestablished horror among fans and changed the entire trajectory of the genre was Wes Craven’s Scream.
Cape Fear 1991
Silence of the Lambs 1991
The Sixth Sense 1999
The Blair Witch Project 1999
Era defining film:
In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor. What you have is a traditional high school, but director Wes Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.
What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. We spent the next five years or more watching talented TV teens and sitcom stars make the big screen leap to slashers, mostly with weak results, but Scream stands the test of time. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but I think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.
Here’s where things get nutty. New technologies made filmmaking more affordable and made it easier for US audiences to access foreign films.
What we learned with the insane financial success of the bargain basement Blair Witch Project is that horror turns a profit. Netflix, on-demand viewing, online viewing – all of which was in its infancy in the last decade – meant that these outlets needed content.
In terms of high quality horror, we saw an incredible influx from abroad, mainly visceral foreign horror.Required viewing:
28 Days Later (2002)
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Wolf Creek (2005)
The Descent (2005)
The Loved Ones (2009)
Let the Right One In (2008)
Era defining film:
The Ring (2002)
Gore Verbinski’s film achieves one of those rare feats, ranking among the scarce Hollywood remakes that surpasses the foreign-born original, Japan’s unique paranormal nightmare Ringu. Verbinski’s film is visually arresting, quietly atmospheric and creepy as hell.
The film announced Verbinski as a filmmaker worthy of note, brought Naomi Watts into our consciousness, and unleashed countless (sometimes fun) copycats. We saw more PG-13 horror, more remakes, and so many J-horror remakes.
We’ve settled into a world where you can find dozens of brand new horror films from anywhere on earth at any moment of the day or night via countless channels. This means we benefit from a bounty of possibilities never before seen. In this decade, horror has spawned some of our biggest blockbusters.
Horror is suddenly not only a realistic go-to for studios looking for a blockbuster, it’s also become one of the more highly regarded genres for quality, though-provoking, challenging and brilliant content.
The Babadook deals unapologetically with something we’d honestly never seen in film before. It Follows deals with the changing paradigms of adolescence in a way that was fresh and devastating. Hereditary looks at family dysfunction, The Witch contends with the roots of radicalization.
But the movie we’re proudest to call horror is Get Out. Blockbuster, Oscar winner and a brilliant slice of social commentary made by a filmmaker who clearly loves the genre, it will change the face of the genre.
The Babadook (2014)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
It Follows (2014)
The Witch (2015)
Era defining film:
Get Out (2017)
What took so long for a film to manifest the fears of racial inequality as smartly as does Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
Peele writes and directs a mash up of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Rosemary’s Baby and a few other staples that should go unnamed to preserve the fun. Opening with a brilliant prologue that wraps a nice vibe of homage around the cold realities of “walking while black,” Peele uses tension, humor and a few solid frights to call out blatant prejudice, casual racism and cultural appropriation.
Peele is clearly a horror fan, and he gives knowing winks to many genre cliches (the jump scare, the dream) while anchoring his entire film in the upending of the “final girl.” This isn’t a young white coed trying to solve a mystery and save herself, it’s a young man of color, challenging the audience to enjoy the ride but understand why switching these roles in a horror film is a social critique in itself.