It could be just a matter of perception. Everything is, really.
But I’m not trying to get all philosophical on you. Here’s the thing.
Does it seem to you like various cinematic eras boast distinctive dominant subgenres among fantastical film fare? It seems that way to me.
The 50s had its nuclear monsters and flying saucers. Cold war tension and nuke terror weighed heavy on people’s minds and was equally reflected in the time and culture’s art. Stephen King famously mentioned in his nonfiction treatise on horror, Danse Macabre, an incident in which he went to see Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, replete with Ray Harryhausen’s brilliant spaceship effects. Part way through the screening, the film was shut off and the theater manager entered to announce that Russia had won the first leg of the space race with the launching of Sputnik.
Terror, indeed. Culture and propaganda had blown up the space race in people’s minds. The Sputnik launch was devastating. It was made all the more so for a child watching a well-done and all too effective film about fear from space.
The 70s boasted a stream of more grown-up adult horror, with peaks represented by the likes of The Omen and The Exorcist, both presaged in by Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s 60s treatise on feminism and family (hewing very close to its source novel by Ira Levin), a bold challenge to traditional religious thought, as were Omen and Exorcist. The counterculture eruption of the late 60s, fueled by the Vietnam War (more up-close and personal via the media than any war previously), and the loss of faith it engendered in the heart of America – these all had disrupted traditional values mightily and the country was forever changed by the upheaval. These artier, more intelligent horror films offered a cerebral expression of that.
The 70s was also the era of eco-horror, with nearly every species imaginable running amok, even giant rabbits (Night of the Lepus, with a no-doubt embarrassed DeForest Kelley of “Star Trek” fame)! Environmental awareness – another modern trend with roots in the 60s counterculture – found its way even into the drive-ins.
The 80s were inarguably dominated by a handful of successful slasher franchises and a whole slew of less prolific, weapon-wielding madmen racking up body counts. Haunted houses also remained popular, having, however, enjoyed arguably artier representation in the 70s.
And nowadays? Well, we seem to be – maybe – easing our way out of the era of torture porn. Not that it’s going away but the genre no longer seems to be on a rampage. Of late, what seems to be all over the place are slow-burn horror films.
Found footage, a genre that goes at least as far back as the 70s with Punishment Park, non-horror but grim nevertheless, a scathing satire on the establishment and its treatment of counterculture. In the early 80s, Ruggero Deodato unleashed one of the finest found footage horror films, the notorious Cannibal Holocaust, whose real animal violence and uncomfortably convincing and cruelly graphic effects turned stomachs and even stirred up legal trouble for the director in Europe. In the 90s, The Blair Witch Project planted the seeds of the current, long-lasting trend.
Fittingly, it was a slow-burn for the subgenre, which built up momentum gradually but which now has become a major player among those horror categories which are going concerns. Recently, John Dowdle’s As Above, So Below stepped up as one of the best of its kind, and I’ve seen a lot of these.
The slow-burn film also made its way into more traditional narrative. Sinister employed found footage within its narrative but otherwise used normal cinematic storytelling. The Insidious franchise and other James Wan films offer horror based on mood and creep factor more than overt violence, somewhat ironic from a director who early in his career helmed Saw violence.
Of course, decades are arbitrary mathematical markers of time elapsed. Couple that with the fact that any human endeavor, film art included, is going to move in fluxes, uneven sine waves, with different peaks and nadirs.
Still, it’s nice to think that different eras have their trademark styles. Maybe it’s just me.
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