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GOLDEN ERA OF HORROR Only a few years after the birth of talking pictures, audiences sat enthralled as a classical stage actor from Europe named Bela Lugosi smiled evilly and intoned: “I am Dracula.” Those moviegoers of 1931 may not have realized it, but they were watching an atmospheric revolution in American cinema. Universal Pictures became the acknowledged home of horror for most of the 1930s and 1940s, though other studios in Hollywood tried their hand at it, sometimes skittishly. Only RKO, which opened a horror unit of its own in the early 1940s under the lowkey management of Val Lewton achieved a certain level of rivalry with Universal. Why did Universal all but corner the market on fear? Maybe because many of the films were created by German émigrés who were able to carry on the atmospheric traditions of Expressionism, or maybe it was because of the unique genius of Jack P. Pierce. Or maybe it was because Universal understood the difference between creating characters who could return time and time again, as opposed to simply filming horror stories.

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DRACULA (1931) The 1931 film adaptation of Dracula, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi, is the most important horror film of American cinema. It’s not that it is such a terrifying film, though it remains memorably eerie, or that it’s remarkably well directed or finely acted; Browning’s direction is often perfunctory, and except for Lugosi’s indelible interpretation of the Count, and Dwight Frye’s creepy turn as the lunatic Renfield, the acting is little more than adequate for its time. The importance of Dracula lies in that it was the first American film to unabashedly present the supernatural, without explaining it away through a trick ending. The German cinema had no such compunctions, of course, but in the United States, prior to Dracula the monsters were either grotesque people (Quasimodo, Erik the Phantom, and Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs), or people in grotesque disguises (The Cat and the Canary and London After Midnight). The now-lost coda to Dracula, in which actor Edward Van Sloan stepped out of character to remind the audience that there were such things as vampires, further yanked away the audience’s security blanket. If the rumors that people fainted upon seeing the picture in 1931 are really true, this could be why. 38

Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s 1927 Broadway stage version of Dracula was largely a drawing-room melodrama, and the Browning’s film version follows suit. Once past the atmospheric opening sequence of solicitor Renfield’s visit to Dracula’s foreboding castle in Transylvania and the journey by ship to England, which only Dracula and Renfield survive (if that’s the word), the film settles into a static, talky, gothic romance. The simultaneouslyfilmed Spanish language version of Dracula, directed by George Melford and starring Mexican actor Carlos Villarias in the title role, is actually much more cinematic and atmospheric, and about twenty minutes longer. Had Universal been able to schedule Lugosi’s time so as to enable him to perform in that version as well, even if it meant speaking his lines phonetically in Spanish, it would have definitely surpassed the Browning version. What seems unbelievable in retrospect is that Universal did not initially want Lugosi for the role of Dracula. It had been earmarked for Conrad Veidt, but Veidt upturned those plans by returning to his native Germany. There was also chatter about trying to entice Lon Chaney away from MGM and back to Universal with the role, but the oft-repeated story that Chaney was actually set to play

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Dracula but then died before film could begin is so much Hollywood mythology. Chaney did indeed die before filming on Dracula began, but he had never signed on to star in the film. A handful of others, including Paul Muni, were considered before Lugosi, who had essayed it successfully on Broadway, was signed. Dracula would change the actor’s life forever. Professionally, and to a degree personally, Lugosi, was never able to step out of the shadow of Dracula. Unlike Boris Karloff, who was so heavily disguised as the mute Monster in Frankenstein that his name became typecast before his face and voice, Lugosi’s face and voice belonged to Dracula, and vice versa. While he would reprise the role on stage several times, he would officially play it only once more on film, in 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. He would be called upon to play the part “unofficially,” however, most notably for a gag cameo in a 1933 Hollywood on Parade short, and as “Armand Tesla” in Columbia’s Return of the Vampire (1944), which was Dracula under a pseudonym. “Dracula never ends,” Lugosi stated with resignation in 1951. “I don’t know if I should call it a fortune or a curse, but it never ends.”

Previous spread: Frankenstein (1931), with Boris Karloff (under the sheet), Edward Van Sloan, Colin Clive, and Dwight Frye. Opposite: Mina Seward (Helen Chandler) gets carried away by the Count (Bela Lugosi) in Dracula. Above left: The suspicions of Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) regarding Dracula (Bela Lugosi) are confirmed by a small mirror. Top Right: Renfield (Dwight Frye) enjoying a relatively sane moment in Dracula.

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The vast majority of horror films of the Golden Era—the 1930s and ’40s—were in black-and-white, due to the filmmakers’ belief that the mood was better established that way (well, that and the fact that filming in black-and-white was cheaper than shooting in color). In the early 1930s Warner Bros. put out a couple pictures filmed in the early two-strip Technicolor system, Doctor X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum, but their earth-toned colors were not what made those films successful. Universal later made some Technicolor tests of Boris Karloff in Son of Frankenstein (1939), but those revealed that the Monster’s green-gray makeup, which lent a deathly pallor in black-and-white, looked more like an Easter egg in color. Meanwhile, an atrocious no-budget indie called Scared to Death (1947), featuring Bela Lugosi and George Zucco, was little more than an excuse to promote the inferior Cinecolor system, which had a problem photographing yellow tones and quickly fell into disuse. By the 1950s, though, things had changed, and studios were starting to utilize color for horror films, with an emphasis on blood red. This spread: Robert Urquhart and Peter Cushing in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).

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THE MUMMY (1959) Even though The Mummy is not the best-known Hammer horror film, or even the best-known mummy film, it is arguably the finest living-dead Egyptian movie ever made. Its bandaged menace is genuinely fearsome, its photography is gorgeous, and its sets and décor in the flashback Egyptian scenes put any Cecil B. DeMille epic to shame. What’s more, the rich musical score by Franz Reizenstein is one of the best for any horror film, anywhere. So why isn’t this version of The Mummy more heralded? Possibly because Kharis, the shambling, swathed, silent merchant of vengeance is the Rodney Dangerfield of monsters. He gets no respect. Far better known is Universal Pictures’ 1932 version, which starred “Karloff the Uncanny,” as he was then billed, as a reanimated corpse who wishes to spend eternity with his reincarnated love. While considered a horror film, and featuring impressive monster makeup by Jack Pierce and a masterfully eerie performance by Karloff, it is really a outré romance. Only the scene in which the desiccated Imhotep rises from his sarcophagus stands as a genuine hallmark of horror. Five entertaining (if increasingly threadbare) sequels followed from Universal: The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse 78

(both 1944). However, it took Hammer to revive the concept, borrowing some ideas and character names from the earlier series. Set in the late Victorian era, Hammer’s Mummy begins with the discovery of the tomb of Princess Ananka in Egypt by father-andson archaeologists Stephen and John Banning (Felix Aylmer and Peter Cushing). Upon entering the tomb, though, Stephen goes mad. His affliction is puzzling to everyone except Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), the high priest of Karnak, who realizes that Stephen accidentally revived the mummy of Kharis (Christopher Lee) from the curse of living death he has endured for millennia, due to ancient blasphemy. Bey transports Kharis to England and uses him to wreak vengeance upon those who defiled Ananka’s tomb. But John Banning’s wife, Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux), has the good fortune to be a living dead ringer for Princess Ananka, whom Kharis dared to love back in the eighteenth dynasty. Believing Isobel to be the princess, Kharis turns on Bey and is himself destroyed while carrying Isobel into a swamp (a bit cribbed from 1944’s The Mummy’s Ghost). Drawing on the exhibits at the British Museum for inspiration, designer Bernard Robinson created sets that authentically look like ancient Egyptian tombs for the flashback sequences, which are

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Opposite: Despite their onscreen antagonism, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, here in The Mummy, were lifelong friends. Top left: Peter Cushing as John Banning in The Mummy, a character borrowed from Universal’s The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). Bottom left: Christopher Lee as Kharis in Roy Ashton makeup.

vividly filmed by director Terence Fisher. Cinematographer Jack Asher gave a stunningly clear, richly colored look to the film by spraying mist from the catwalks of the film stage before each shot to remove any dust or smoke particles. The cast for The Mummy is among Hammer’s best as well, and interestingly, Raymond Huntley, who plays one of the defilers of the tomb, was the first actor to play Dracula on stage, in 1927. But the film really belongs to Christopher Lee, who, despite being totally encased in muddy bandages and an immobile mask, manages to create a fully dimensional character with his eyes and body language alone.

There is an oft-repeated story concerning an Egyptology expert hired as a technical consultant for The Mummy who became alarmed during the filming of resurrection scene and fled the set shouting, “You don’t know what you’re fooling with!” It’s a good story, though this particular “curse” should best be chalked up to the ancient Egyptian god of publicity, since it in no way interfered with production of any of the film’s follow-ups, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971), the latter being an elegant and creepy adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars.

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Opposite: The Grudge 2 (2006). Above: Kitch reigns supreme in Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). Right: Katsuo Nakamura faces vengeful ghosts in the “Hochi the Earless” story of Kwaidan.

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This page: Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) runs but she can’t hide from fate in Carnival of Souls. Opposite: Police with dogs hunt down ghouls in the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead.

ever made, though his assistant director, Reza Badiyi (credited as Raza Badiyi) would go on to become a prolific television director, whose credits include a scary 1972 TV movie of the week called The Eyes of Charles Sand. A 1998 film “presented” by horror-meister Wes Craven, which was also called Carnival of Souls, had little in common with the original. More literal adaptations of “The Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge” appeared on both Alfred Hitchcock 124

Presents, in 1959, and The Twilight Zone, in 1964. While Carnival of Souls did not generate the acclaim or have the lasting influence of another movie made by regional industrial filmmakers a few years later, Night of the Living Dead (whose director, George Romero, credited Carnival as an influence), it proved that a good picture with professional production values and competent acting could be made for practically no money.

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NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) With the October 1968 release of director George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, everything changed. The reset button for the entire horror film genre was effectively pushed. Emerging at a time when horror films tended to be either gothic romances like the Hammer films, no-budget trash like 1968’s The Astro-Zombies, or TVinspired cornfield camp like 1967’s Hillbillys [sic] in a Haunted House, Night of the Living Dead broke new ground. The set-up of Night of the Living Dead was familiar stuff: a group of disparate people are forced to hole up in a house against a deadly threat outside, but the interpersonal problems between those inside at times threaten to overtake them as well. It might be The Alamo, except for the reanimated corpses with a insatiable hunger for human flesh. No firm explanation is ever given as to why the dead are coming back, though some lip service is paid to the possibility that radiation from a returning satellite might be responsible. Shot mostly in the Pittsburgh area by local commercial filmmakers, Night of the Living Dead established a lot of firsts. It was the first film to feature an African American hero in a role in which his race simply did not matter. It was also the first in which the hero dies a non-heroic death at the end. It had a shot involving full rear nudity,

which was not yet the norm in movies. More importantly, it was the first mainstream film that did not flinch from gore, showing ghouls devouring intestines (real animal offal) and gnawing flesh off of bones (beef bones covered with Silly Putty). The cinematic revolution started by Night of the Living Dead was acknowledged at the time by film critic Roger Ebert, who warned parents not to blithely send their kids off to see the film under the assumption that it was just another harmless, spooky romp. Part of the film’s power is drawn from its simulated newscasts, which were so realistic that for the film’s first television airings, at a time when some people still had black-and-white televisions, a disclaimer was run explaining that the news reports were in fact simulated. Romero’s decision to shoot these scenes in 16mm, as news footage of the time would have been, instead of 35mm like the rest of the film, aided the realism. Most of the cast and crew came from one of the two industrial film companies responsible: Romero’s Latent Image, which he co-owned with producer Russ Streiner and co-writer John Russo, and Hardman Associates, run by Karl Hardman, who played the human antagonist Harry Cooper. Only Duane Jones, who played

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PSYCHO (1960) It would be hard to find anyone who is not familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Just about everyone knows the infamous shower scene, a forty-five second slasher murder made up of seventy-eight individual takes, some of which go by so quickly as to be almost subliminal. Equally iconic, and much parodied, is the accompanying Bernard Herrmann music, played on shrieking violin strings. Today Psycho is regarded as the greatest thriller ever made. Back in 1960, though, a lot of people thought Hitchcock had completely lost his mind. The management at Paramount Pictures, then Hitchcock’s home base, were so apprehensive about the subject matter that they tried to dissuade him from making the film any way they could, including claiming (untruthfully) that there was no available soundstage at the studio to house the production. Hitchcock countered every one of their objections, offering to move the production over to Universal City, where his television anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents was being produced, and guaranteeing financing for the picture himself. That move to Universal, incidentally, is why its backlot holds the Bates Motel and mansion sets, which remain hugely popular on the studio tour, rather than Paramount’s.


Above: Alfred Hitchcock (at top, with hands folded) supervises Janet Leigh and John Gavin’s love scene in Psycho.

When Psycho was finally screened for the critics, most were appalled by its combination of brutal horror and very dark humor; the eponymous source novel by Robert Bloch had actually gotten better reviews. But audiences, intrigued by a sly marketing campaign that insisted no patron be seated after the film had started, flocked to the theaters, and within months many of those critics were forced to reevaluate the film for the better. In a sense the film is one big “MacGuffin,” Hitchcock’s pet term for a plot point that is of vital importance to the characters, but about which the audience just doesn’t care. The theft of $40,000 by Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is what gets the plot rolling, but that is quickly forgotten in lieu of Psycho’s legendary cinematic set pieces: the shower scene, the violent murder of Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam), the revelation that motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother couldn’t be closer. What Hitchcock considered to be the film’s real shocker, and what drew him to the property in the first place, was the killing of the leading lady halfway through. This simply was not done in films of the time, particularly if it involved killing a character played by an A-list actress. When

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the focus of the picture suddenly shifted from Marion to her sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Marion’s lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin), audiences felt the rug had been pulled out from under them, which was precisely the director’s goal. Hitchcock filled the picture with cinematic conceits and devices from start to finish, ending with the famous final shot of Norman seated in an asylum, having been completely overtaken by Mother; just before the scene fades, Mother’s mummified face is subliminally superimposed over that of a leering Anthony Perkins. Today this optical effect is in every version of Psycho, though for the film’s initial release, it appeared in only some of the prints. Far from being the folly that studio brass feared, Psycho turned Hitchcock from a star director into a superstar director, more recognizable than anyone in the casts of his films. Anthony Perkins, however, found his brilliantly nuanced performance as Norman rewarded by being henceforth typecast as a good-looking maniac. In 1998 director Gus Van Sant remade Psycho, shot for shot, using screenwriter Joseph Stefano’s adapted script from 1960, slightly updated, and Herrmann’s original music score. It was not a success.

Top left: “Mother” in Psycho. Top right: The elusive Mrs. Bates in Psycho. Bottom left: Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Bottom right: The Bates mansion almost qualified as a character itself in Psycho.

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a quick glimpse of Bon Appétit magazine in Lecter’s cell. The biggest joke comes at the end when Lecter, still at large, phones Clarice and says that he is having “an old friend for dinner,” who turns out to be the incompetent warden of the prison from which he escaped. But even the moments of extreme horror are treated with surprising restraint. Director Demme shows just as much carnage as he needs to, and refrains from wallowing in the sight of mutilated 166

bodies. In one scene, Clarice is shown a photo of a victim of Lecter’s while having what he did to the woman described to her. We never see the photo, but Foster’s expression fully conveys the horror of it. Hopkins reprised the role of Hannibal Lecter in 2001’s Hannibal and in 2002’s Red Dragon; Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen took over the role in the NBC series Hannibal, which premiered in 2013.

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Opposite, top: Dr. Hannibal Lechter (Anthony

Opposite, bottom: Anthony Hopkins made it

Above: Serial killer “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine)

Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs would

a point never to blink while playing Hannibal

in The Silence of the Lambs.

become as potent a human monster as Freddy

Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

Kruger or Michael Myers.

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HALLOWEEN (1978) In addition to Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham, there was a third vitally important figure in the creation of the modern horror film: John Carpenter. Carpenter had made a couple low-budget pictures prior to being asked by indie producer Irwin Yablans to helm a horror film based on the concept of “The Babysitter Murders.” That became Halloween, which established a template for subsequent psycho-slasher films: a society seemingly inhabited by teens with their parents largely absent; the introduction of a human juggernaut who stalks his victims relentlessly; and the idea that having sex is punishable by death. Even the music for Halloween, composed by Carpenter himself and played on piano and synthesizer in a distinctive 5/4 time, has become so well known that it is sometimes used by other filmmakers to elicit a Pavlovian response of apprehension from the audience. Fairly straightforward on the surface, the story of Halloween is actually filled with complexities. Dressed as a clown for Halloween and wielding a butcher knife, six-year-old Michael Myers inexplicably murders his teenaged sister, who has just made love to her boyfriend, and then he appears to go catatonic. He is sent away to


an institution, and placed under the care of Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence), the only person who fully understands how dangerous the boy is. Fifteen years later, Michael manages to escape and returns to his home down of Haddonfield, Illinois, pursued by Loomis. In Haddonfield, he picks up a new mask, an eerily placid white one, and resumes his killings, picking off the friends of a “good girl” named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Eventually he comes after Laurie herself, even though she does not meet the apparent criteria of sexual activity. In Halloween, it is not the slayings themselves that generate the terror; instead it is the fact that Michael Myers seems to possess a near-supernatural ability to know where his victims are going to be at any given time, and is completely impervious to force used against him, even bullets. Carpenter drew Michael’s unstoppability from the marauding alien creature in Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951), clips of which are seen in the film on a television. Halloween made a star out of eighteen-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis, who was then just starting a career as a TV actress. While she was

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Opposite: Jamie Lee Curtis as

Above: Michael Myers was billed

Top right: Donald Pleasence as Dr.

Bottom right: Annie (Nancy

Laurie Strode in Halloween.

as “The Shape” in the original

Loomis in Halloween.

Kyes) is Michael’s most artfully


cast in part because of the publicity that could be reaped from the fact that her mother, Janet Leigh, had starred in Psycho, it is Curtis’s performance that holds Halloween together. An audience cannot be afraid if it believes the actors on-screen are just going through the motions, and Curtis provides a completely convincing portrait of pure terror, so convincing that it led to her being typecast for a time as a scream queen. The role of Dr. Loomis (which is named after a character from Psycho) made veteran British actor Donald Pleasence a genre star, though it was first offered to Christopher Lee, who later admitted regret in turning it down. The actor who arguably had the most influence on the series that followed, though, was William Shatner. Don’t remember Shatner in the movie? His is the face of Michael Myers; it was a $1.98 Captain Kirk mask, spraypainted white, that was worn by “the Shape” (the actor playing the adult Michael, incidentally, was Nick Castle, who later became a prominent writer/director). Over the course of seven sequels (not counting 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which was a sequel in title only), the mythology changed quite a bit, with Laurie ending up as the sister of Michael

arranged victim in Halloween.

Myers. Michael himself proved to be the Frankenstein’s Monster of his generation in terms of how hard each successive filmmaker had to work to figure out how to bring him back from the “dead.” One who did was rocker, filmmaker, and all-around horror aficionado Rob Zombie who launched a reboot of the franchise in 2007 with Halloween, featuring British actor Malcolm McDowell taking on the role of Dr. Sam Loomis. McDowell and Michael returned for a sequel, Halloween II (2009).

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SCREAM (1996) Wes Craven’s Scream is at once a tribute, a referential homage, and a spoof of the entire psycho-slasher genre, cheerfully sending up its conventions and clichés while offering one last notable masked killer, a robed figure known as Ghostface. The film begins with a young woman (Drew Barrymore), home alone, receiving mysterious phone calls. At first she plays along with the strange voice on the other end, who quizzes her about the scary movies she’s seen, but it soon becomes apparent that the caller can see her and is out for blood, hers and her boyfriend’s, whose eviscerated body is discovered on the patio. The mysterious caller then turns his attention to a young highschool girl named Sidney (Neve Campbell), who is still struggling to cope with the rape and murder of her mother one year earlier. She also has to contend with an ambitious, self-absorbed newswoman Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), who believes that Sidney’s testimony resulted in the conviction of an innocent man for the crime. If that weren’t enough, she has intimacy problems with her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich). New murders start occurring, but the teens, who are all steeped in the lore of R-rated horror movies, seem incapable of relating to 188

Above: Steve (Kevin Patrick Walls) can’t scream in Scream.

the horror taking place around them in a real-life sense. Ghostface is finally unmasked after numerous plot twists, turns, and false death scenes, and his motive is half personal, half nihilistic insanity. On one level, Scream is a very funny puncturing of what by then had become the “rules” of teen horror movies: 1) the virgin always survives; 2) any character who leaves the group saying, “I’ll be right back,” won’t be; 3) the person you think has been killed is just biding his or her time before popping up again; and 4) the only adults in sight are ineffectual at best and imbecilic at worst. It is filled with in-jokes, including a funny cameo by Linda Blair as a journalist, and an even funnier one by director Craven as the school’s janitor, who is dressed exactly like Freddy Krueger! What’s more, Billy’s last name is Loomis, though at this point it’s a second-generation homage to Halloween, not Psycho. On this level, Scream plays like an episode of the old Saturday morning television series Goosebumps, only with blood and gore. But on another level, Scream is an examination of the breakdown of reality. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven blurred the lines between reality and dreams, and here he blurs the line between reality and movies. The film’s third act is essentially a duel between horror

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Top: Courtney Cox, Matthew Lillard, and Neve

Bottom left: Casey (Drew Barrymore) realizes

Bottom right: “Ghostface” from Scream

Campbell face the killer in Scream.

she’s under surveillance in Scream.

joined the pantheon of modern horror movie nightmares.

movie reality and horror-movie-within-a-movie unreality, with neither one a clear winner. Drew Barrymore (who is the granddaughter of John Barrymore) was originally slated to play Sidney but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, resulting in her taking the part of the quickly dispatched character in the beginning. Skeet Ulrich, meanwhile, was cast as Billy largely because he looked like a younger Johnny Depp. Voice-over actor Roger L. Jackson provided the phone voice

of Ghostface, though when it came to casting the look of the mask, Craven based it on an actual packaged Halloween costume. If there is a message to be found in Scream, it might be the declaration of the killer: “Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos creative!” Three sequels followed Scream, though in an incongruous nod to reality, the original killer stayed dead while copycats took over for subsequent films. As of this writing, a Scream television series is in development.

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THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) The old “based on a true story” hook has never been used as effectively as it was in the marketing of The Blair Witch Project. Shot in cinema vérité style for practically no money, the film was heavily improvised by its three person cast of principals, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard. Blair Witch purports to be the student film record of a group of students who go into the woods near a small Maryland town to research a local urban legend called the Blair Witch. They never return, but later the videocassette of the film that they made, which chronicles their terrifying experience inside a forest that appears to trap them as completely as a jail cell, is discovered in a location where it should be impossible for it to be. The Blair Witch in question is never seen in the movie, though strange symbols made of sticks and string are left around for the students to find, which indicate that some kind of supernatural force is at work. The film’s plot also includes an investigation of a child murderer from the 1940s, who factors off camera in the very last chilling shot. The Blair Witch Project was made in just over a week in 1997, with much of the footage shot by the actors themselves in order to make 214

it look like a genuine student film. Other scenes were staged in the town of Burkittsville, Maryland, using non-professional actors. Co-writers and co-directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick would prepare an outline of the day’s filming and then leave messages and clues for the trio individually as to what that day’s shooting had to cover plot-wise and from a character standpoint, and then let them go on their own to improvise. The result is realistically intense, particularly a scene in which Leonard can be heard shrieking in pain somewhere in the distance, while the others, fighting panic, are unable to locate him. The next morning, his bloody teeth are found wrapped in a cloth. Harrowing as the film is, the real genius behind The Blair Witch Project was its advertising campaign, which established the concept of viral marketing. For months prior to the film’s release, Artisan Entertainment, the distribution company that bought the picture after it became the must-see entry at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, took to the Internet to create a brand new urban legend that the story of Blair Witch was absolutely true. Because the three actors used their real names as their characters, many audience members went into the film believing they were seeing an actual

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Opposite: Heather Donahue in the signature image from The Blair Witch Project. Top left: Joshua Leonard in The Blair Witch Project. Right: Michael C. Williams in The Blair Witch Project. The film’s video vérité style helped support the rumor that it was true.

documentary made by three young people who really had disappeared. That rumor was shattered when Heather Donohue started showing up on late night television talk shows, but by then the film had already become a phenomenon. Produced for the cost of a new car, The Blair Witch Project went on to earn an incredible quarter-billion dollars at the box office, and popularized the concept of a movie based on found footage, recordings of horrible events that have occurred that are rediscov-

ered after the people involved are gone. While it is true that none of its actors or filmmakers catapulted to the Hollywood A-list, it reinforced the idea there was still room for very small personal films made with an ounce of money and a ton of ingenuity (unfortunately, for the film’s sequel in 2000, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the equation was reversed).

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FIFTY ADDITIONAL HORROR FILMS WORTH SEEING The Ghoul (1933) The Walking Dead (1936) The Mummy’s Hand (1940) The Ghost Breakers (1940) The Devil Bat (1941) Son of Dracula (1943) The Uninvited (1944) The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) The Maze (1953) The Haunted Strangler (1958) The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) Tales of Terror (1962) Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) The Haunted Palace (1963) Kiss of the Vampire (1963) The Terror (1963) Danza Macabre, aka Castle of Blood (1964) 220

Masque of the Red Death (1964) Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) Die, Monster, Die (1965) It (1966) Games (1967) Theatre of Death (1967) The Devil Rides Out (1968) Spider Baby (1968) Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) Count Dracula (1970) House of Dark Shadows (1970) Scream and Scream Again (1970) Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) Madhouse (1974) Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) The Hills Have Eyes (1977) The Changeling (1979)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) Videodrome (1983) Fright Night (1985) The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) Blade (1998) The Mummy (1999) Sleepy Hollow (1999) Final Destination (2000) Cabin Fever (2003) Shaun of the Dead (2004) The Corpse Bride (2005) The Mist (2007) Zombieland (2009) Devil (2010) ParaNorman (2012)

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Essential Horror Movies: Matinee Monsters to Cult Classics  

New book from Universe Publishing. Learn more at:

Essential Horror Movies: Matinee Monsters to Cult Classics  

New book from Universe Publishing. Learn more at: