It can easily be said that with the advent of technology such as 3-D, Dolby Digital, and even the newest D-BOX, what is the point for a horror genre fan to return to the heyday of early horror films? Silent or black & white films, rubber monster suits, cheap effects (by today’s standards), zero to no gore, combined with the plethora of new horror films still being released every year do not make a very good case for wanting to be nostalgic.
The first horror movie on record was filmed in 1896 by the name of ‘Le Manoir Du Diable’ (‘The Devil’s Castle’), directed by Georges Méliès. Since that time, over 10,000 horror films have been made with everything from vampires and werewolves, Satan and demons, murderers and deformed humanoids, to oozes, talking brains and even rampaging dinosaurs. The first sequel saw its way into production in the early 1930’s and reintroductions, reboots, reimaginings, versus movies, and even 3rd’s, 4th’s and on have become the norm; I think ‘Witchcraft’ has the most number of sequels chiming in at 11, with ‘Friday the 13th’ at 10.
With all this going on today, why again should I go back to the 1920’s or 30’s and watch these old films? Simply put, horror is not simply about slashing and eye gouging. Horror (adjective) is defined by Webster as “calculated to inspire feelings of dread or horror”, similar to bloodcurdling, “arousing fright or horror”. That is all. If you think about the modern horror film, it would seem they want you to believe that visuals is what brings horror to the table, the blood splatters, open wounds, and amputations, when in fact, a simple stare, shadow or long period of silence can give the same reaction. It’s about fear after all, not budget, isn’t it?
Facial expressions, complete silence, slow tension build-up, and the viewer’s imagination were used to generate horror, and they succeeded well at it. The work done to accentuate Bela Lugosi’s eyes in his portrayal of Dracula, the makeup of Cesare in ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, the long shadows in ‘Nosferatu’, are all ways early filmmakers captured an essence of horror using the tools they had at hand. The most frightening scene I’ve ever seen involves nothing but a moonlit hillside and a killer’s silhouette; it had no music and only lasted a few seconds but I still remember it over 20 years and hundreds of movies later.
Like most things in society, I feel horror has joined the ranks of profanity, nudity, and violence, and is now at a point where going back is probably impossible; you can’t take away the visuals now and bring the same level of fear as it once had over 50 years ago just as you can’t slow the adoption of the F-word into everyday vernacular. However, to call yourself a true fan of horror and only having experienced modern filmmaking is doing the genre as well as yourself a great disservice as well. It is not very difficult to “put yourself in the period” of an older movie and try to experience it as it was experienced by those who viewed it first and in person. Sit back, turn the lights down and the volume up. The monster is still a monster after all, it’s not that important that it’s a man in a rubber suit as opposed to a 50 million dollar CGI creation. That’s part of the fun, anyway, just ask any Godzilla fan.