Happy Halloween, Cassettes! This year, we recorded our annual (brief) case in a very special location: Wagnalls Memorial Library in Lithopolis, OH! The Library has a reputation for being haunted, so we thought it would be the perfect place to cozy up with a good scary book.
For this episode, we found three spooky tales from books in the library that all take place in our home state: Ohio! So, settle in and don’t get too scared!
THE MOONVILLE TUNNEL
Our first story comes from a book called “Guide to Ohio University Ghosts and Legends” by Craig Tremblay. This story, however, is about Moonville, a small ghost town in Lake Hope State Park. Moonville is a ghost town in the literal and figurative sense. It’s a completely abandoned town that is most famous for the ghosts that people have spotted there. For more information on The Moonville Tunnel, check out this link!
THE OHIO STATE PENITENTIARY
Our second story comes from the book “Haunted Ohio II” by Chris Woodyard. This scary tale recounts the horrific tragedy that occurred in the Ohio State Penitentiary on Easter Sunday 1930 when fires broke out in the prison. Over three hundred people were killed, and the event shocked the entire country. If you would like to know more, check out this link.
THE GHOST THAT ROARED
Our final story also came from “Haunted Ohio II.” It was a personal account of a haunting in someone’s home in Cincinnati, Ohio. The haunting took place in the 1960s, and involved a demon and a bookcase!
Now that you’ve heard the stories, here are some more photos of the haunted library!
Wagnalls Memorial Library was founded my Mabel Wagnalls in 1925. For more info, follow this link!
On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of this decade of our own, the human race not-so-suddenly encountered an informative film podcast hosted by three old friends.
And this (hopefully) educational episode surfaced, as such indie podcasts often do, in the seemingly most common and likely of places…
The Black Case Diaries!
Well, it’s that time of year again. The temperature outside is dropping, Spirit Halloween stores are taking over vacant retail spaces, and the evening air is starting to smell like woodsmoke. Summer’s end has come, and Autumn is here!
And since the end of September is fast approaching, we thought it was the perfect time to talk about something a little…horrifying. In December of 1986, a strange and mysterious plant appeared on theatre screens across America. Cared for by a soft-spoken man named Seymour, the botanical oddity quickly seized the attention of audiences throughout the country. The only problem was that this plant didn’t feed on sunshine and water, but instead craved human blood!
Little Shop of Horrors is not your average Hollywood musical film. It’s darkly funny, with the gritty texture of the off-Broadway production on which it was based. While musicals like The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music featured brightly colored locations and sweeping cinematography, Little Shop of Horrors takes place on the bleak and infamous street called “Skid Row,” and follows a protagonist that feeds people to an evil plant from outer space.
This wonderfully odd film appeals to the strangeness in all of us and gives a biting commentary (pun intended) on human nature. Not to mention, it’s absolutely packed with hilarious comedic performances, incredible songs, and mind-blowing special effects!
So, let’s head back to an early year in a decade not too long before our own to explore the seemingly innocent and unlikely origin of the greatest threat to human existence, in…Little Shop of Horrors!
Before Little Shop of Horrors became a movie musical, it was a stage musical. And before it was a stage musical, it was a movie! So, let’s talk about the origins of this odd story, and how it went from movie to musical to movie musical!
In the late 1950s, director Roger Corman started experimenting with horror-comedy films. A studio manager that was friends with Corman told him that a film was about to wrap with no projects on deck. This gave Corman a funny idea, and he decided to give himself a unique challenge. He asked the manager to leave up the sets from the previous movie so he could come in and shoot another film in only two days.
Corman and screenwriter Charles B. Griffith brainstormed for a day and developed the general plot of a horror/comedy B-movie about a man-eating plant. Griffith then spent about two weeks writing the screenplay before the film began production with a budget between $15,000 and $22,500.
For years, rumors circulated that Corman shot the film on the infamous 2-day deadline because of a bet. Others speculated that he wanted to throw together one last low-budget film before a new rule went into effect, which would require filmmakers to pay actors residuals for their performances after films had been released. Corman has never confirmed this and says it was more of a joke–he did it to see if it was possible.
The movie turned out to be a joke in more ways than one. First of all, audiences found the film to be hilarious, including a cameo appearance from rising star Jack Nicholson as a masochist. Second, the two-day filming schedule cemented the film in B-movie history, and it was widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s most notorious jokes.
But, as you might’ve guessed, the influence of the film didn’t stop there. For years, the film was replayed on late-night TV shows, which is how a young teenager named Howard Ashman first saw it.
In 1979, Ashman wrote and directed a musical called, “God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater,” with musician Alan Menken (it was their first collaboration). The musical was a hit at the WPA theatre where it premiered but hadn’t done well outside of those productions.
Ashman wanted their next project to be fun and remembered the off-beat silliness of Little Shop of Horrors. The next time the film aired on TV, Ashman taped it, and Menken immediately saw the musical potential for the story.
According to Kyle Renick, then-producing director of the WPA theatre where Little Shop of Horrors would eventually premiere, it took the theatre a year to secure the rights to the film, and 8 months for Ashman and Menken to write the musical.
Ashman wrote the book and lyrics, while Menken composed the music. Menken said, “I decided that I wanted the musical approach to come from some early 1960s music—the girl group sound. It has a very dark, menacing ring. You can almost hear whips and chains in the background. There were two ponytailed teenagers in the movie and we decided to turn them into a black trio that functions as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action.”
Although the plot was similar, Ashman made major changes to the story. He cut out characters and changed the ending. Every death in the original movie was accidental, while Ashman’s version showed the protagonist, Seymour, killing people and feeding them to the plant.
The subject matter may seem gruesome, but because of the humor in the show, audiences didn’t seem to mind.
For Audrey II, the theatre hired Martin Robinson, a Muppet performer known for portraying Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street. Apparently, Little Shop of Horrors was Robinson’s favorite film, and he had been dreaming of developing the plant for years. He would finally get his chance.
In May of 1982, Little Shop of Horrors opened at the WPA theatre to rave reviews. It quickly became a crowd favorite, selling out almost every show. After a couple of months, the WPA was approached by at least 26 different producers that wanted to move the show to Broadway. Eventually, it opened at the Orpheum Theatre on Broadway, where it ran for 2,209 performances.
As the musical’s popularity continued, talks of a major motion picture began to emerge. Producer David Geffen, who helped bring the show to Broadway, signed on to produce a film adaptation of the play.
1986 FILM SYNOPSIS
Seymour Krelbourne is a young assistant at a struggling flower shop in Manhattan. He pines after his beautiful coworker, Audrey, as they both dream of one day breaking free of their financial burdens and escaping Skid Row. One day, Seymour witnesses a total eclipse of the sun and discovers a very strange and unusual plant that he names Audrey II. Just when Seymour’s boss is about the close the shop for good, the exotic plant attracts a great deal of attention to the store, allowing it to stay open. As Seymour cares for the plant, he soon discovers that the only way to make it grow is to feed it human flesh! Although he doesn’t initially want to hurt anyone, Seymour must choose between his morals and his only chance at finding a way out of Skid Row and starting a new life.
MAKING OF THE MOVIE
Years after producing the Broadway musical and the feature film, David Geffen admitted that he initially thought that a musical version of the 1960 film Little Shop of Horrors was possibly the worst idea he had ever heard. Of course, audiences disagreed, as the show was an undeniable commercial and critical success.
Geffen’s original plan for the film was to not surpass a 6 million dollar budget, and have Stephen Spielberg as a producer, with Martin Scorsese as the film’s director. This plan never came to pass.
The film would eventually reach an estimated budget of about 25 million dollars. Instead of Martin Scorsese as a director, Geffen approached puppet master Frank Oz. Oz had previously co-directed The Dark Crystal with Jim Henson, and just recently finished directing his first muppet film, Muppets Take Manhattan. Initially, Oz wanted to turn down the project, as he was unsure how to make it work. It was actually the concept of the three women that acted as a Greek chorus, narrating the story on stage, that convinced him to take the job. He felt like they were the key to making the story flow, and they added a certain magic and style to the production.
Frank Oz started the directing process by storyboarding almost every scene, especially musical numbers with Audrey II. This way, he could figure out exactly how big the sets needed to be, and how to work around the limitations of the plant. Each scene averages about 30 takes, and sometimes the takes would last only a few seconds.
Oz wanted the film to flow seamlessly between scenes. One way he achieved this was by planning out each scene’s transition. If you watch the movie carefully, you will notice how well the transitions fit together.
In many scenes, Oz utilized tight angles and close-ups to help the audience connect with the main characters. He refrained from using wide shots, because he felt like they made the setting look grand and very “Hollywood.”
Howard Ashman stayed with the project to write the screenplay for the film, and also penned additional lyrics. When Frank Oz was planning scenes for the film, Ashman was there to help him through the process. Ashman told Oz that it wasn’t just the music that had rhythm, but that there was a rhythm to his dialogue as well. Oz said that advice was incredibly helpful.
Ashman also made sure that Oz understood that the musical wasn’t meant to be subtle. Ashman and Menken’s songs don’t ease the audience into the music, the music just starts and the viewer either accepts it or they don’t. The film is unapologetic in every aspect.
The entire film was shot over 6 months at Pinewood Studios in the UK, on the 007 stage. Oz wanted the movie to be a strange hybrid of stage musical and film, so he knew they would have to create their own universe and environment for the story to take place. Many films are concerned with realism, making their environments look as close as possible to real-world situations. In Little Shop of Horrors, everything is real to the characters, and whether or not the sets and backdrops look realistic to the audience is immaterial. That being said, Audrey II is as real as it gets!
Roy Walker was the production designer for Little Shop and is also known for The Shining as well. It took him and his team three months to build a Skid Row replica. Walker created three different sets for the flower shop in the film. One set was for people to act alone. Another set was for people to act with the plant, and the third set was specifically for the finale, when Audrey II destroys the store.
In order to make the set look as American as possible, Walker gathered up huge containers with trash cans to place on the street corners of skid row.
The key to Little Shop of Horrors was Audrey II, and having a director with puppet experience was vital for production. Oz had previous experience working with designer Lyle Conway in Jim Henson’s creature shop. Lyle was the mastermind behind Audrey II.
According to Frank Oz, it took Conway and his team 9 months to prepare the plants for the shoot, and they continued to work on them even during production.
Oz said that Lyle researched extensively about plants in order to create the beautiful textures and colors within Audrey II. At the end of production he and his team had created 15,000 handmade leaves, 20,000 feet of vine, and 11.5 miles of cable for all the plants combined!
Conway created 7 different sizes of Audrey II, and some that performed different actions for the movie. With each size, more people had to operate the plant. When the plant was small, only two or three people needed to operate it. But by the end of the film, about sixty people stood in a tank underneath the massive plant, looking at monitors as they operated its movement. One person even stood inside the plant’s mouth to make it move, while Brian Henson was camouflaged in a suit of vines and leaves as he helped operate the head.
In order to make vines that would bend seamlessly without wearing down, the filmmakers had to approach the Atomic Energy Institute to research the best metal core to use.
As we mentioned before, Little Shop of Horrors features music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman. Composer Miles Goodman wrote the score for the feature film. Goodman was a prolific composer who wrote music for films like A Muppet Christmas Carol and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. In this film, he used the foreboding sounds of organ music in his theme for Audrey II.
PROLOGUE (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS)
Little Shop of Horrors opens with a drumroll that leads into the prologue music, followed by an iconic narration, setting up the story. This opening gives off the vibes of a classic horror B movie, much like the one on which it was based. The style of music shifts into a 1960s era number, and as the camera takes us through 16 different cues, we hear the voices of the greek chorus that will lead us through the story.
As we mentioned before, Frank Oz almost turned down this movie. In a 1986 LA Times article he says “I didn’t think I could get my hands around it. There were too many elements. It was a period piece, it was horror, it was comedy, there were 14 songs and a puppet that was going to weigh a ton.” He was finally able to bury these worries and take a chance on the film, and one of the reasons he did so was because of the three muses.
The singers bring the camera around the set, introducing the location and characters to the audience as they manage to stay dry during a rainstorm. They provide a type of visual exposition, ending with our main character Seymour.
SKID ROW (DOWNTOWN)
Skid Row is the first ensemble song, and further introduces the setting and intentions of the characters. We hear the two leads, Seymour and Audrey, sing for the first time, and learn more about their characters.
Frank Oz planned “Skid Row” a year before shooting, and the actors knew exactly how many steps they needed to take during the song.
The chorus walks in an off-beat way on purpose, to further drive home the uneasiness and discomfort of their lives.
The song ends with a medium shot of all the actors singing out toward the camera, in a unifying moment. Frank Oz purposely kept the shot tight because he didn’t want the number to feel grandiose.
Seymour introduces his boss, Mr. Mushnik, to a strange and interesting plant that he named after his coworker and love-interest, Audrey. Immediately after placing the small plant in the window, a man steps into the office to inquire about it.
According to Frank Oz, Christopher Guest (who played the customer in this scene) would play the scene much too seriously. Finally, he gave a over-the-top performance that made it into the final cut.
In the song, Da-doo, Seymour explains that he discovered the plant during a total eclipse of the sun. The song features one of the only optical effects in the film, as a light shines around Audrey II.
GROW FOR ME
After just one day, Audrey II’s presence has boosted business for Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop. However, the plant seems to be wilting, and Seymour stays late to care for it. It’s in this song that he discovers the plant’s lust for blood.
For this scene, only a couple people needed to operate the plant. When Seymour leaves the room, Audrey II breaks through its coffee can and grows. The special effects team achieved this effect by placing the plant behind the coffee can, and just moving it closer to the camera to create the illusion that it was growing.
SOMEWHERE THAT’S GREEN
In this song, Audrey reveals to the audience her true dreams of marrying Seymour and moving into a suburban home with a chain link fence. She highlights the “luxurious” lifestyle she pines for, taken straight from 1950s sitcoms.
For this scene Ellen Greene wanted to make sure that she really felt at home before shooting, and spent time in her on-screen bedroom.
The scenery for this song is an excellent example of how Frank Oz leaned into the theatre and pushed the boundaries.
The scene is packed with visual jokes that, according to Frank Oz, test audiences reacted to even more than they had hoped. One such visual is an animated bird that lands on Audrey’s hand, akin to Cinderella. The scene took immense planning, especially for that effect to work well.
In order to get a real magazine that they liked for the shot, Frank Oz flipped through dozens of old magazines until he found a Better Homes and Garden magazine that had the perfect imagery of homes and appliances that he was looking for. They used the magazine with permission from Better Homes and Gardens.
When Howard Ashman wrote the screenplay, he expressed that he wanted a continuous shot from Audrey’s room to the rooftop, leading seamlessly into the next song. To make that happen, Frank Oz needed to put two cranes on top of each other, as there didn’t exist a crane tall enough to film the sequence.
SOME FUN NOW
“Somewhere That’s Green” transitions to this next song, where the greek chorus sings about the “fun” Seymour is having taking care of Audrey II.
Since the muses are up at the top of the buildings, they are surrounded by billboard space. Oz hates product placement, so an art director suggested that they use a product from the 50s that no longer existed for the billboard, hence the Chooz billboard.
The scene originally showed more footage of Seymour feeding Audrey II, but test audiences were squeamish, so Oz cut out much of it.
In this song, we meet Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend, a dentist played by Steve Martin. The song opens with Martin riding a motorcycle in front of a 3-foot model, composited onto a blue screen behind him.
Before Roy Walker built the set, Oz had counted out how many steps Martin needed to take while filming the number. The steps needed to match up perfectly with the music.
Although he has one of the biggest roles of the celebrity cameos in the film, Martin was only on set for 6 weeks of shooting. Martin brought a lot of hilarious ideas to the role, and worked hard to avoid comparisons with characters like Fonzie.
For one shot in this song, Lyle Conway created a gigantic human mouth for Steve to sing into, while holding a huge dental tool to scale.
FEED ME (GIT IT)
After Seymour sees Audrey ride off with her abusive boyfriend, Audrey II speaks for the first time. It tries to convince Seymour to kill people for plant food, offering him anything he could possibly want. This is the moment when he decides to make a deal with the devil.
Because the plant couldn’t move fast enough to sing along with Seymour (Rick Moranis), Rick was forced to film sequences in slow motion, so they could be later sped-up. When he’s singing alone on screen, he’s singing at a normal speed and the film was 24 frames per second. When he’s singing on screen with the plant, he’s moving slowly and the speed is 16 frames per second! It was like this for every scene filmed with a talking/singing Audrey II.
After Audrey’s boyfriend disappears (because Seymour fed him to Audrey II), Audrey is free to pursue a romantic relationship with Seymour. Suddenly Seymour toes the fine line between funny and sweet, as Howard Ashman meant for the song to be very tongue-in-cheek, yet the characters are taking it very seriously.
The imagery for the scene references Romeo and Juliet, which foreshadows a not-so-happy end for the two protagonists.
At the end of the scene, the actors run up a fire escape and embrace with the sun behind them. The scene took about 36 takes, and they used the final take. Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene both got lip burns from kissing.
When Seymour cut up Orin, Audrey’s boyfriend, he was spotted by his boss, Mr. Mushnik. In “Supertime,” Mushnik confronts Seymour, threatening him with a gun. Seymour has the option of leaving town, letting Mushnik take over the plant. But instead, he lets Audrey II eat his boss.
The scene is incredibly dark, but is offset by the quick transition into the next song.
MEEK SHALL INHERIT
After feeding two people to the plant, Seymour has found immense fame and success. But, the plant wants more. Some of the song’s imagery was inspired by “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
MEAN GREEN MOTHER FROM OUTER SPACE
In the theatrical release of the film, Seymour confronts Audrey II just after the plant attempts to eat Audrey. The scene escalates as Audrey II reveals that it is being from outer space, here to take over the human race. It’s clear that the plant is too powerful for Seymour to control, and he must destroy it.
This scene was shot in bits and pieces, but pieced together to create a cohesive musical number. At this point, the plant had sixty people operating it, with giant levers and machinery. On set, the music was slowed down so the operators could mouth the words correctly with the song.
The end of this scene is different in the original version of the film, but in the theatrical release, we see Seymour rise from the rubble of the flower shop and electrocute Audrey II.
After Seymour defeats the plant, we see him and Audrey start their fairytale life…with another Audrey II not far away.
Rick Moranis as Seymour Krelborn
We all know him from movies like Spaceballs, Ghostbusters, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
Rick was cast before they even knew he could sing! Geffen had Rick in mind for the role the entire time. He even saw Rick at a concert and told him that he would star in his movie someday.
Ellen Greene as Audrey
She has been in films like The Cooler, and Talk Radio.
She had performed Audrey on the Off-Off Broadway for 4 years and David Geffen wanted her for the part because he knew she would be perfect. Warner Bros had actually wanted Barabara Streisand for the role.
The three young girls that act as a Greek Chorus or muses that lead us through the movie were:
Tisha Campbell as Chiffon
She was most notably also in Martin and My Wife and Kids.
Tichina Arnold as Crystal
She has been in The Main Event and The Lena Baker Story.
Michelle Weeks as Ronette
She has not been in much but a TV movie called Norman’s Corner.
Vincent Gardenia as Mr. Mushnik
Known for parts in Moonstruck, Death Wish and more.
Levi Stubbs as the voice of Audrey II
Most well known for his role as Audry II, as well as Captain N: The Game Master.
Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello (the dentist)
A very popular comedian known for roles in Roxanne and Cheaper by the Dozen.
Jim Belushi as Patrick Martin
Known for many movies including Red Heat and K-9.
John Candy as Wink Wilkinson
A comedian who we just talked about in our John Hughes episode!
Frank Oz didn’t want any ad-libbing but he made exceptions for some of the comedic actors in the film, like John Candy, who was known to be one of the best ad libbers in the business.
Bill Murray as Arthur Denton (the masochist)
Well known for many roles such as Ghostbusters.
When Bill Murray came in to do his role, he wasn’t sure about the dialogue. So, even though Steve Martin’s lines are completely scripted, Bill Murray’s weren’t. Every take was different, and the men decided how to end the scene together.
Stanley Jones as the Narrator
He is a voice actor most known for his roles as Scourge in the Transformers animated series, and Lex Luthor in the Justice League animated series.
When the test audience saw Little Shop of Horrors, the screening went very well. That was, until the end of the film. In the stage musical Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour and Audrey do not end up somewhere that’s green. Instead, Seymour suffers greatly for his deeds, when his true love dies at the hands of Audrey II. Seymour then feeds Audrey to Audrey II, and gets eaten himself.
Then, the muses sing the finale, “Don’t Feed the Plants,” which describes how Audrey II and its clippings spread across the country, eventually taking over.
When he was adapting the screenplay, Howard Ashman felt it was important to keep the original ending. First of all, it drives home the message of the story. Secondly, fans of the musical might be disappointed if the film ends differently. Frank Oz was on Ashman’s side, and convinced David Geffen to let them shoot the ending that Ashman had written. Geffen told them from the beginning that it wouldn’t work, and that they would eventually need to change it. They went ahead anyway, hoping Geffen was wrong.
Frank Oz said in an Entertainment Weekly article in 2017 that, “We [screened] the film the way Howard and I wanted it. The audience was clapping after every number. Then, when Seymour and Audrey died, they turned like an icebox. The reaction was so bad, Warner Bros. wasn’t going to release it. When one dies in the theater, one dies and comes back for a curtain call, but in the movie you don’t come back for a curtain call. The audience was very angry.”
Special effects artist Richard Conway developed a fantastic sequence of the plants, taking over the US. It was dark, yet comical, with groundbreaking visuals and incredible sound design. It was essentially a mini monster movie, ending with a comically large, “THE END?!?” as a plant covered the statue of liberty.
Only 13% of the test audience said they would recommend the film, so Oz and Ashman worked on a new ending and called back the actors for re-shoots. Unfortunately, this also meant that Conway’s effects wouldn’t be seen by most audiences, which Frank Oz felt was the real tragedy.
Oz has said that he learned a very valuable lesson from the experience. While he prefers the original ending (and he knew Ashman did too) he understood that he wasn’t making a movie for him, he was making it for millions of people.
The film grossed $39 million at the box office which, from the viewpoint of the studio, was considered an underperformer. However, it became a smash hit upon its home video release in 1987 on home video.
Roger Ebert said in his review: “All of the wonders of Little Shop of Horrors are accomplished with an offhand, casual charm. This is the kind of movie that cults are made of, and after Little Shop finishes its first run, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it develop as one of those movies that fans want to include in their lives.”
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: one for Best Visual Effects and one for Best Original Song for “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”. The song was the first Oscar-nominated song to contain profanity in the lyrics and also the first to be sung by a villain. The film was also nominated for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Original Score at the 44th Golden Globe Awards.
Heather Henson plays the distraught young dental patient with the headgear on.
Pieces of Orin the dentist’s body were created for Seymour to toss into Audrey II’s mouth, including Steve Martin’s severed head, dripping with blood. This was deemed too graphic, and the pieces were used, but they are covered in newspapers so the audience wouldn’t see them.
The film was originally going to be gorier. For example, there was supposed to be blood on the walls of the dentist office.
If you watch the original ending, there is a scene where Seymour tries to commit suicide after Audrey dies. The scene has no musical score because it became clear that they would not use it in the final cut.
When Ashman first had the idea to turn a B horror film into a musical, it was because he wanted to make something fun. And boy, was he successful. Little Shop of Horrors is weird and wonderful, with a solid story and killer musical numbers. Its lyrics are heartfelt and hilarious, and its performances are to die for.
It’s been forty years and yet, this film seems to get better every time we watch it. So if you’re hungry for a good time, turn on this treat of a film. It’s suppertime!
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So as we wrapped up our month of horror, we thought of the perfect movie to help us transition into the Spring season. Its got everything: a touch of horror, a little bit of romance, some basketball, and a whole lot of fun! We’re talking about the 1985 Michael J. Fox film, Teen Wolf!
In the early 1980’s, Michael J. Fox was the good-natured Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, a somewhat-popular sitcom. When the show got a new timeslot, it jumped to number 2 in the ratings. By the mid 1980’s, Michael J. Fox was a bonafide star, appearing in the wildly popular Back to the Future and of course, Teen Wolf.
Since we’re coming off of Frightening February and into March, we thought it would make sense to do an episode that mixes horror with basketball! We’re not going to lie to you and say that Teen Wolf is Fox’s best film–or even his second best. But, it’s a wonderfully entertaining piece of 1980’s pop culture, and we’re excited to talk about it.
HISTORY OF WEREWOLVES
Teen Wolf features the concepts of one of the most classic monsters: The Werewolf. So, we thought it was appropriate to talk a little bit about the history of the werewolf! We will have more werewolf episodes in the future, so we will have more chances to dive into this mythology!
Werewolves are an ancient part of folklore. How ancient? Well, scholars aren’t entirely sure. Some say the first known mention of a werewolf was in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written in about 2100 BC. The text mentions a woman that turned her lover into a wolf. Since then, humans taking the form of wolves appeared in Greek Mythology and Nordic Folklore. Each time, though, werewolves were wild beasts hungry for human flesh. The idea of the friendly werewolf doesn’t come from classic literature.
There was a string of serial killers that also claimed to be werewolves in the 15th and 16th centuries!
The lore of the werewolf has cited many ways in which people can change into the animal. Some stories included enchanted pelts or elixirs, and many claimed the cause was a curse or exposure through a bite or wound from another werewolf.
The most well-known mythology today is that mankind changes into a werewolf when a full moon appears, and it can be killed with a silver bullet. Werewolves are mortal beings and can be killed by many of the things that would kill humans.
If you’ve ever seen Teen Wolf, then you know that it doesn’t really follow much of this mythology. It adds some head-scratching details. For example, being a werewolf apparently makes you really good at basketball!
Scott Howard is your average high school kid. He plays for the basketball team (though they have never won a game) and has a crush on the popular girl. He also has a quirky best friend, and girl-next-door who adores him. One day, Scott starts to notice that he’s going through weird changes, and eventually realizes the unbelievable: he’s a werewolf. Being a wolf changes everything for Scott. He’s now a pro on the basketball court, and has all the attention he could ever want. But this makes Scott question, do people like him? Or the Wolf?
MAKING OF THE MOVIE
The concept of a teen wolf was hardly original, even in 1985. Other films like 1957’s “I was a Teenage Werewolf” and 1981’s “Full Moon High” both explored similar plotlines. This movie, however seemed to strike a balance between campiness and heart, especially due to Michael J. Fox’s performance. This film is self-aware at times, but it’s not a straight parody, allowing the audience to take it just seriously enough while laughing at the strangeness of it all.
In some ways it’s incredibly dated, but it’s a clever portrayal of the average high school experience, with a focus on confidence and a realization that popularity isn’t as important as personal relationships. In a way, we were all teen wolves at some point, right?
Teen films were gaining popularity in the 1980’s. They were easy to make, with relatively low budgets, and drew in big audiences. After the success of “Valley Girl” in 1983 (starring an unknown Nic Cage), Atlantic entertainment was looking for an original teen movie of its own. Enter writers Jeff Loeb and Matthew Weisman, two recent film school grads looking to sell their first movie.
Loeb told Vulture that he was working at TGI Fridays when he and Weisman pitched Teen Wolf. The meeting was only 15 minutes, and the studio already had Michael J. Fox in mind for the part. The catch was, Fox was a busy guy already. The writers had to pen the script in three weeks, in order to get it to Fox for approval. Once he committed, the movie was greenlit for the tiny budget of a few million dollars.
Rod Daniel was hand-picked by Loeb and Wiesman to be the director of the film. They conducted several interviews, but Daniel was the person that seemed to really understand the message and content of the film. He immediately understood that the movie was more about being a teenager than a wolf, and that got him the job. Rod’s son Lucas attributes Teen Wolf and other movies for his wonderful childhood, saying that these helped his father work out issues with his own father.
Special Effects Make-up
While the actors wore special effects make-up, they couldn’t eat solid foods.
The scene where Michael J. Fox is turning into the full wolf for the first time in the bathroom took an entire day to film.
Jeff Dawn worked on this transformation. His grandfather is Jack Dawn, the man that was the make-up designer for The Wizard of Oz!
Jeff Dawn said that Steve Laporte (who did make-up for things like BeetleJuice) met up with him to help. When Michael showed up they began the long and arduous task. They did several different levels of change; from the nails, teeth, hair, and face.
In order to create the facial change that we see, bladders were put under the surface of what appears to be skin. Jeff and Steve could literally pump to have the skin move under the foam prosthetics and lace eyebrows.
When Jeff explained the process he said “It takes all day to do a transformation like that because you do it, you clean it off, you add some more, you do it, you clean it off, you add some more.”
Loeb admits that urban surfing, the act of standing on a moving vehicle, was something he actually did in college! He said that they would do it in the wee hours of the morning, and had to bang on the roof when a traffic light came up, in order to tell the driver to slow down so they could duck under the lights.
The stunt double for the actors weren’t in as much danger. They were attached to the van roof. Jerry Levine, who played Stiles, actually did the stunt himself! The engineers ran a cable through his pants and into the roof of the van, and also had a cable around his waist.
With paramedics on standby, they drove up and down the street for several takes as he danced to “Surfin’ USA.”
Jeff Loeb wants everyone to know that they should not try this stunt at home.
Michael J. Fox’s basketball double was a college basketball player named Jeff Glosser. He was hired because even with two weeks of basketball training Michael could not grow taller than 5’4” or become great at the sport.
Michael J. Fox as Scott Howard
He is of course known for the Back to the Future movies as well as Family Ties, Spin City, and so many more.
At the beginning of production, Fox was still fairly unknown. While they were filming, Family Ties jumped in the ratings and extras started recognizing him as a TV star. Some takes actually needed to be re-done because girls would scream when he appeared.
James Hampton as Harold Howard
James has been in several things but he is known for being in Sling Blade, Teen Wolf, and The Longest Yard (1974.)
Susan Ursitti as Boof, the love interest and best friend we all root for
Susan is now retired but she did appear in a few shows and the movies Defense Play, The Runnin’ Kind, and The Walking Dead (1995.)
Jerry Levine as Stiles one of the coolest guys on the planet
Jerry has been in lots of things but most notably Born on the Fourth of July, Wag the Dog, and K-9.
He was so recognizable as Stiles that he was at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and somebody shouted to him saying “Hey Stiles!”
Stiles is one of the most iconic parts of the film, gracing the screen with his charisma and knack for party games. But one of his most well-known features are his unique t-shirts. They were the director’s idea, and were created specifically for the movie. The most famous one is, “What are you looking at, Dicknose?” a phrase written by the screenwriters.
Matt Adler as Lewis
Matt has also been in Flight of the Navigator, The Day After Tomorrow, and North Shore.
Lorie Griffin as Pamela
Lorie was not in very many things but a few movies were Cheerleader Camp, Drug Runners, and The Burning Zone.
James MacKrell as Mr. Thorne
James is known for his broadcast career and his appearances in movies. For example he was the voice of the broadcaster Lew Landers in Gremlins! He had this same character name in The Howling. Both of these movies were directed by Joe Dante.
Mark Arnold as Mick the popular guy dating the popular girl
He has been in Blade Runner 2049, Angel Has Fallen, and Florence Foster Jenkins.
Jay Tarses as Coach Finstock
Jay is an actor but he also is a writer. He wrote episodes for The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and Buffalo Bill. He also helped write the movie The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Mark Holton as Chubby
Mark is most known for his roles in A League of Their Own, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and Leprechaun.
Scott Paulin as Kirk Lolley
Scott has been in a lot, most notably The Right Stuff, Pump Up the Volume, and Turner and Hooch.
The girl who plays Rhonda (the girl that gets jello shoved down her shirt during the party) was Playboy’s “Playmate of the Month” in July 1982 and had been in Real Genius which was released shortly before Teen Wolf.
One of the writers, Jeff Loeb, has also written for some Spider-man comics. This could explain why Scott’s father tells him, “with great power comes an even greater responsibility.”
Although Teen Wolf was filmed first, it was released a little more than a month after Back to the Future. Back to Future had become a hit and everyone was ready for some more Michael J. Fox. Writers Jeph Loeb and Matthew Weisman and director Rod, however, were still worried when they went to a showing the first day at 5pm and there were only about 4 people in the theatre. After having a silent and stressful dinner, the three decided to head to a college town theatre and see a 7:30 showing. The show was sold out! The three had to beg the attendants to let them stand at the back of the theatre to watch. Jeph Loeb said that the crowd was quiet until the bathroom scene, where Scott opens the door to find that his father is a full werewolf. He said the rest of the night was full of fun and laughter, where everyone had a great time.
Unfortunately the critics hated it, with The New York Times’ Vincent Canby calling it “aggressively boring” and pointing out that Scott’s rival team would somehow have to be intramural as Mick, his rival and antagonist, attends the same high school.
On a 6 million dollar budget they grossed about 33 million, quite a lot for the time.
THE LEGACY OF TEEN WOLF
As silly as it sounds, Teen Wolf has a pretty strong legacy for a campy 80’s film. For one, it inspired an urban myth about an extra exposing themselves in the background of the final basketball scene. There have been lots of articles and videos showing the scene, and upon further inspection, it appears there is no genitalia at all. One extra does seem to have their pants unzipped, but all the camera sees is white fabric. Whether this is underwear or a tucked in undershirt, the world will never know. You can, however, see the extra reach down and zip the pants as they get ready to jump on the floor and celebrate with the others.
As we briefly mentioned earlier, the movie has some dated material. One of the most upsetting and unfortunate parts would be the homophobic slur that Stiles uses when Scott tries to tell him about his werewolf problem. Televised versions of the scene cut it out (rightly so) and writer Jeff Loeb himself has called the line “unfortunate.” Many films from this time period feature the word, generally as an insult or a joke, but we felt it should be acknowledged.
In Teen Wolf Too, which came out only a couple years later, Jason Bateman plays Todd Howard, Scott’s cousin who faces similar problems while in college. Jason said that at that time the special effects make-up was not safe and they ended up having to shut production down for a few days due to him getting chemical burns on his skin.
Jason Bateman’s sister Justine was actually connected to Michael J. Fox, playing his sister on Family Ties!
In 1986, there was an animated TV show based on the movie! Of course, some concepts were changed for the show. For example, Scott has siblings in the show and tries to keep his werewolf-ness a secret from the outside world. In both versions, however, Scott does not have a mother.
In 2011, the film was adapted into a dramatic horror TV series for MTV with the same name! In the live-action show, Scott becomes a wolf via bite, while in the film it’s an inherited trait. There are various other differences, though many character names are similar. The show lasted for 6 seasons!
Teen Wolf is ridiculous. It’s a silly, fun, and laughable film that represents the wild and wonderful parts of 80’s teen life. It built on the concepts of classic horror and turned it on its head. It’s a film that cleverly seems to bury the lead–Sure, Scott is a werewolf, but that’s not his biggest problem. We don’t get much of an explanation because, well, it’s not really what the story is about. This is a story about a teenager that just happens to be a werewolf, which happens to make him good at basketball. The film accomplished what it was meant to and more; it resonated with teens and went on to be a blockbuster and a cult classic.
We knew that after a month of horror, it would be the perfect romp to get us in the mood for Spring. Simply put, Teen Wolf is a howlin’ good time.
In the late 1970’s, one of the most celebrated directors of all time, Stanley Kubrick, was in search of a new project. He sat in his office, flipping through books and throwing them against the wall when they didn’t catch his interest. This went on for several days, until the thudding sound of rejection finally ceased. Kubrick’s assistant went to check on the director, only to find him reading a book: Stephen King’s The Shining.
The Shining was King’s third novel, published in 1977. It followed The Torrances, a family living in a remote hotel for the winter. It was a deeply personal story, based on the author’s own fears of the consequences of alcoholism, and the destruction of a family. His main character held many similarities to himself, a former teacher and aspiring writer, hoping to reconnect with his wife and child.
When the book caught Kubrick’s attention, he went full-steam-ahead on the project. He set out to make a film that would become one of the most iconic and celebrated in the horror genre. Even non-horror fans are familiar with The Shining, with its enduring imagery and classic performances.
The film was a slow-burn that didn’t get immediate praise or huge box office numbers. But over forty years later, The Shining has an intense following of die-hard fans. The film is no doubt a classic, and we thought it was the perfect way to end Frightening February! So, today we’re checking in to the Overlook Hotel for an extended stay, and learning all about The Shining!
Although there are many differences, Stanley Kubrick’s film is based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
After gaining success from Carrie and Salem’s Lot, Stephen King decided to take a vacation with his family in Colorado. It was late September, and they chose to stay for one night at The Stanley Hotel. Because it was the last night before the hotel closed for the winter, they would be the only guests there.
Wandering the halls of the spacious hotel, King decided it would be the perfect setting for his newest book. He said of the experience, “[The hotel] seemed the perfect—maybe the archetypical—setting for a ghost story. That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of bed.”
We wanted to lay out some of the key differences between the movie and the book. Like most of our episodes, this will have spoilers. But we wanted to warn you, just in case you have not seen the film, because the experience relies on suspense and surprise.
There aren’t a lot of characters in The Shining, simply because the plot forces the main characters to be isolated. One of the main characters is Dick Hallorann, the head cook at the hotel. Hallorann has a strong connection with Danny, because both characters “shine.” If you’re unfamiliar, many Stephen King characters have special abilities, and it’s often referred to as “the shining” or “the touch.”
In the film, Danny reaches out to Hallorann for help when things start to get a little distressing. When Hallorann appears at the hotel to help, Jack kills him with an axe. In the book, this does not happen and Hallorann survives.
One of the many iconic features of the film is the gigantic hedge maze on the property. In the book, the maze did not exist, however there were large Topiary animals. Kubrick eliminated these from the movie because he felt they would be too “hokey.”
The Ending of the film doesn’t match the book in several ways. Since there is no maze in the book, there isn’t a dramatic scene where Danny loses Jack in the hedge maze, leaving Jack to freeze. Instead, the hotel burns down after Jack is able to break from his mania to warn Danny and Wendy, telling them to run. Jack then dies in the fire. In the film, Jack never has this redeeming moment.
However, Kubrick had another idea for the ending that differed even more from the book. Stephen King was quoted in an interview with Peter S. Perakos, saying, “When I first talked to Kubrick some months ago, he wanted to change the ending. He asked me for my opinion on Halloran becoming possessed, and then finishing the job that Torrance started, killing Danny, Wendy and lastly himself. Then, the scene would shift to the spring, with a new caretaker and his family arriving. However, the audience would see Jack, Wendy and Danny in an idyllic family scene-as ghosts-sitting together, laughing and talking.”
Luckily King was able to dissuade him from this ending.
Since The Shining has such a dedicated following, many fans have assigned their own meaning to the film. There are enough theories about the movie to make up an entire documentary (that we watched). The documentary is called “Room 237.” Here is a link to a vulture article that lays out the four major theories of the of the film.
Stanley Kubrick offers no explanation of his films. He believed that they should speak for themselves. He believed that a good critical review did not reveal to him anything about his work but only served as a marketing tool to attract more viewers. In light of this, there have been numerous attempts to explain the meaning behind The Shining, ranging from the minute detail to the most blatant.
One of the most famous theories is that the film is about the Holocaust. Viewers have pieced together clues, like Jack’s German-brand typewriter, the number 42 appearing on a Jersey Danny wears, and the image of an eagle. The eagle was a symbol of the Nazi party. Jack wears an eagle shirt in one scene, and the name brand of his typewriter means, “eagle.”
Another theory is that the film is about the historical genocide of Native Americans. There is Native American artwork and imagery in the hotel, particularly a sand painting that features two nearly identical people wearing the same shade of blue as the twins that Danny sees in the hallway. Here is a link to a 1987 article of The Washington Post about this theory.
Recovering alcoholic and aspiring novelist Jack Torrance accepts a job as a caretaker for The Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. Hoping that the isolation will help him finish his book, Jack moves his wife and son Danny to the hotel with him for the winter. As they stay, Jack becomes more and more influenced by the dark nature of the hotel. His son, Danny, is gifted with something called, “The Shining,” and has the ability to see the horrors of the hotel, past and present.
MAKING OF THE MOVIE
After reading The Shining, Stanley Kubrick teamed up with Diane Johnson to begin writing a screenplay. Diane is a novelist and this was her first screenplay to ever work on. To say the screenplay was a work in progress would be an understatement. It changed several times-before and during shooting, actors sometimes learning new lines the day of.
The script would be re-written so many times that each time a new script came out it was put on different colored paper in order to easily see who had the newest versions. This led Jack Nicholson to say that he stopped looking at the first drafts and only took the script from the current day in order to film that scene.
Stanley Kubrick was famous for his perfectionism. He mapped out shots with a telescope device, and reportedly didn’t print anything unless it was the 35th take. Because of this, the film took 56 weeks to shoot–putting it way behind schedule.
Part of this was due to the Overlook Hotel set catching fire and having to be rebuilt!
The crew and actors filmed 6 days a week, up to 16 hours a day.
This reportedly added up to about 1.3 million feet of film by the end of shooting.
Kubrick felt that no matter how great the script seemed on paper, once the actors are rehearsing it you become painfully aware of what you will be missing if you stick faithfully to the script. Along this same note he felt that if you planned out shots and angles beforehand you will miss opportunities to have the best result for the scene.
The exterior shots of the hotel were that of an actual place called the Timberline Lodge. The interior however was a soundstage in England. In order to not scare customers away the Lodge requested that the book’s hotel room number 217 be changed to one that did not exist.
In an interview with John Hofsess for The Soho News, Kubrick said that “Every detail in those sets comes from photographs of real places very carefully copied.” These photographs were taken from several different places.
This would explain the cultural references in the art and decoration throughout the hotel, something that viewers have combed over and analyzed for decades.
In order to simulate the intense light that would be coming from the windows of a hotel in the high latitudes in the winter they used 750 1000-watt bulbs (That’s a lot of light!) These intensely hot bulbs would be what caused a fire to the set.
The chandeliers were also 1000-watt bulbs but on a lower voltage in order to create a warm glow of light compared to the harsh bright light of the windows.
The newest invention for filmmaking at the time was the steadicam, and Kubrick was a fan. He was even able to get the inventor, Garrett Brown, to come and film the movie. Garrett did not mind the fact that Kubrick wanted to do take after take because he was able to learn more and improve his invention. One instance of improvement is when they inverted the device to be able to track Danny, who was low to the ground.
This lower angle conveyed the vastness of the hotel, and the steadicam allowed them to move fluidly with Danny as if being dragged behind him.
Stanley Kubrick and Ron Ford created a special wheeled chair to ride while filming, being able to capture lots of smooth tracking shots, and keeping up with actors as they ran through the hotel.
While the visuals of The Shining surely give us an unsettling vibe, the music helps to elevate the suspense even more. In order to bring the movie to life Kubrick used music from the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. His pieces were also known to bring the creep factor to “The Exorcist” as well.
The Main title and “Rocky Mountains” were written and performed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind specifically for The Shining. These two pieces were the only ones that did not already exist.
They also both worked on A Clockwork Orange and the recent Ready Player One soundtracks.
Wendy Carlos also composed the music for Tron!
Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance
Nicholson is a well known actor that has a wide range. He has been in things such as A Few Good Men, As Good As It Gets, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance
Shelley has retired from acting but has been in Popeye, Three Women, and Annie Hall.
It was her role in Three Women that got her the part of Wendy in the Shining. When Kubrick offered her the part, they had never met, and there wasn’t a script yet. He just told her to read the book.
She also produced the critically acclaimed show, “Faerie Tale Theatre,” and had a television show that featured animation and stories called, Shelley Duvall’s Bedtime Stories.
Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance
Danny was not in very many things and is most known for The Shining. He does appear very briefly in the sequel Doctor Sleep as a father in the crowd of baseball parents.
Since Danny was very young at the time of filming he was told he was working on a drama and not a horror film. He was shielded by Stanley Kubrick of the more terrifying scenes. During one scene Shelley Duvall is even carrying a lifesize doll as she is screaming at Jack.
He was chosen out of 5000 young applicants. During his audition, Danny improvised the classic finger wiggle as his imaginary friend Tony speaks. Stanley Kubrick liked the improvisation and kept it in the film!
Scatman Crothers as Hallorann
Scatman appeared in many television shows like Laverne and Shirley, Magnum PI, and The Transformers. He was also in movies like Bronco Billy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the voice of Scat Cat in The Aristocats!
Barry Nelson as Ullman the employer
Barry Nelson also popped up in many tv series. Other movies that he was in were Airport, A Guy Named Joe, and Shadow of the Thin Man.
Philip Stone as Grady the previous Caretaker
Philip is also known for being in A Clockwork Orange, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, and Flash Gordon.
Joe Turkel as Lloyd
Joe has also been in Blade Runner, Paths of Glory, and The Killing.
Anne Jackson as the Doctor
A few things Anne was in were Dirty Dingus Magee, “So Young, So Bad”, and How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life.
Tony Burton as Durkin who provides Halloran with a vehicle to reach the Overlook
Tony was a professional heavyweight boxer and is most known for his appearances in the Rocky movies as the corner man.
David Baxt and Manning Redwood as the Forest Rangers
Lisa and Louise Burns as The Twins
Thirty Seven years later the two talked about what it was like. The dresses were not comfortable and made of an awful material. On top of this the costume designer only had the two dresses and so therefore they had to shoot the bloody scene last for fear that they could not recover them from any stains.
This also meant that Kubrick could only do very few takes, which was against his style of directing
According to Lisa, Kubrick was only shooting with one steadicam so he would do just one shot but have them roll several times with the same lines. In the Entertainment Weekly article titled The Shining These Twins Still Want To Play With You Lisa said “To us, we weren’t saying our lines any differently. He just heard something different every time.”
The girls auditioned because Kubrick was looking for sisters, but not twins. They speculated years later that Kubrick might’ve gone with two sisters of different ages, as they are in the book, if they hadn’t auditioned.
Acting is tough work, and with every movie there are challenges on set. For this movie, though, there were some particularly challenging moments for a couple of the actors.
The film took over a year to shoot, which was difficult on the actors for various reasons. For one, the actors were mainly American, and they filmed at Elstree Studios in England. This meant they were away from their families for long periods of time.
Shelley Duvall was sick during most of filming, suffering from dizzy spells and other ailments.
She was incredibly dedicated to the role, and rented a flat near the set, living alone for over a year with a dog and two birds.
Duvall also had difficulty crying as much as she did for the film. Remember, Kubrick sometimes did hundreds of takes for scenes, and Duvall is crying in most of them. She told Roger Ebert, “And in my character I had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week.”
One of the most controversial points of the film is how Shelley Duvall was treated on the set of the film. Although Duvall herself has said that she felt Kubrick treated her a certain way to elicit a stronger performance, some of those that witnessed it weren’t as convinced. In a Hollywood Reporter article released earlier this month, Angelica Huston (who was living with Jack Nicholson while he filmed the movie) was quoted saying, “I got the feeling, certainly through what Jack was saying at the time, that Shelley was having a hard time just dealing with the emotional content of the piece,” she says. “And they didn’t seem to be all that sympathetic. It seemed to be a little bit like the boys were ganging up. That might have been completely my misread on the situation, but I just felt it. And when I saw her during those days, she seemed generally a bit tortured, shook up. I don’t think anyone was being particularly careful of her.”
Just as in our last episode Poltergeist, this movie has connections to Toy Story! As a tribute, the carpet within Sid’s house is the famous carpet from the Overlook Hotel, but with a slightly different color. Lee Unkrich who has had a hand with all four Toy Story Movies is such a fan of The Shining that he has a website dedicated to the ephemera of the classic film as well as a book that will be released soon which details the behind the scenes of the film.
In 2017 Universal Orlando did their 27th annual Halloween Horror Night. Every year they create houses based on specific movies and television shows. During that year they created a house for The Shining in which they were able to replicate the wall of blood scene using 80-psi water cannons inside a glass vestibule where the “blood” once finished would filter down the slanted floor to be refilled back into the cannons. It took them 3 days to create it.
One scene from the film is in the Guiness Book of World Records for “most retakes for one scene with dialogue.” It’s the scene where young Danny and chef, Dick Hallorann, discuss what it means to “shine.” The take was done 148 times.
We have found sources citing another scene in the film as the record holder with 127 takes. But according to the Guinness World Records website, this scene holds the record.
HOW THE MOVIE WAS RECEIVED
In the US The Shining grossed about 45 million dollars. It was not a hit at first. It was especially hit by critics reviews that were a mixture of confusion with the openness of the story, disappointment that it was not more like the book and its characters, and dislike for the acting within it. Instead of being nominated to win Oscars or Golden Globes, it instead was nominated for Razzies in the Worst Director category and worst actress category for Shelley Duvall.
However, the film’s VHS release helped make it a classic. More and more people enjoyed it and even Roger Ebert had a great review of it, giving it a full four stars and saying that “The movie is not about ghosts but about madness and the energies it sets loose in an isolated situation primed to magnify them.”
STEPHEN KING ON THE SHINING
One notable critic of the film was Stephen King, who famously hated the adaptation. Over the years, he has gone back and forth with his disdain for the film. This could be confusing to those that love the film, since King has been happy with unfaithful adaptations of his stories before.
Some believe that Stanley Kubrick teased the author with some of the changes he made to the story. For example, in the book, Jack’s car is red and the Snowcat is yellow. The film reversed the colors for no apparent reason.
The likeliest reason that King still dislikes this interpretation of his book, is because the intention of the film doesn’t match the intention of the novel. The stories don’t necessarily have the same meaning. Stephen King felt that Kubrick’s Jack didn’t have any of the heart that his version did, and didn’t seem to love his family at all, even in the beginning. This is especially apparent by the different endings. King’s version had Jack fighting his impulses in the very end, redeeming himself by letting his family go. Kubrick’s version gave Jack no redemption, focusing more on his descent into madness and man’s capacity for violence. Many would speculate that this upset the author because the story was so personal to him.
King was also outspoken about the portrayal of Wendy in the film. It wasn’t necessarily Duvall’s performance that upset him, but more how the character had been changed. King felt that his version of Wendy was much stronger, and that Kubrick’s version had been reduced to a “screaming dish rag.” King felt the film overall was misogynistic, which is interesting with the context of how Duvall was treated on set.
The Shining is a staple in the horror genre. At first glance, it’s a loose adaptation of a book, and a regular scarefest. But upon another look, it’s a layered masterpiece that still has audiences questioning its meaning over forty years later. The Shining gives us a story that is inherently terrifying, attacking the things we all hold dear, and tossing some spooks in for good measure. It’s a film bathed in uneasiness, suspense, and sometimes confusion. It makes you question your own mind, as you watch a man slip into madness before your very eyes.
Stanley Kubrick was such a perfectionist, The Shining is exactly what he intended for it to be. And what that was, we’ll never truly know. But, at least we get to enjoy it forever, and ever and ever and ever…
So far, we have released two full episodes on the history of horror films! But, for now we are taking a break from all that research and study, to bring you an extra special episode about one scary movie in particular. If you listen to our show, you know that our co-host Adam is not exactly the biggest fan of horror. But, Adam graciously agreed to watch some movies that were a little scarier than what he’s used to. The first movie we showed Adam is the one we’re covering today: Poltergeist (1982).
Poltergeist is the kind of movie that scaredy cats (like us) like to stay away from. Why? Well probably because of iconic lines like, “they’re hereeeee” and images like the young Carol Anne with her hands pressed against the white noise of a TV set. Even to us nearly forty years later, it still seems pretty terrifying.
But like we’ve said before, horror movies seldom turn out to be as scary as we imagine, and Poltergeist was no exception. We thought this film would be a great step into horror for Adam, as it focuses less on ghosts, and more on the human characters (plus there isn’t a lot of gore or a high body count). So this week, we’re heading into Cuesta Verde to investigate the strange happenings at the Freeling house, and learn all about what scares us.
WHERE DO POLTERGEISTS COME FROM?
The word Poltergeist is a combination of two German words. Poltern, which according to Merrium Webster, means “knocking,” and geist, which is the german word for ghost. The first known use of it as an English word was in 1848, which is a relatively short time ago.
Strictly speaking, a poltergeist is any mischievous spirit that makes noise or moves objects. Poltergeists are not necessarily malicious, but they can be. According to legend, they have the ability to manipulate the physical world, and often use that to torment the living. On rare occasions, the ghosts are violent, and can have repetitive destructive behavior.
Poltergeists are often said to be connected to one member of the family in particular. Usually they appear in households where adolescents are present, for whatever reason.
BASED ON TRUE STORIES?
Isn’t it the worst when you go to the movies and see a trailer for a scary movie, only to find the words, “based on a true story”? Scary movies are fun and all, but let’s keep the scares in the movies, please!
Well, usually this is a bit of an exaggeration. “Based” is such a vague word, and it could mean any small part of the movie, like character names or locations that could be pulled from reality. There have been claims that Poltergeist was based on real events, whether it was a story about people building on cemeteries or hauntings. Throughout research, we found a few different stories that people swear were the basis of the film. We’re going to tell you one of them.
In FEBRUARY of 1958 (Frightening February is real, guys!!) The Hermann family in Long Island, NY (7 miles from the Amityville Horror house) noticed some strange popping noises in their house. When they went to check, they found bottles throughout the home without their caps. One was a bottle of Holy Water that had been opened and spilled. At first, James Hermann thought it was a prank. But when similar instances occurred again and again, he got concerned. Eventually, he witnessed the objects moving on their own, and he called the police.
As word got out about the strange disturbances, people everywhere were at a loss for what it could be. The police theorized that it was electrical disturbances, but it seemed unlikely. The strangest part was that the house was new, and the Hermanns were the first family to live there. Usually a haunted house is several decades old at least, with many different owners and a questionable history. Ghosts aren’t supposed to show up in shiny new homes built for young, happy families.
Two weeks after the hauntings started, a priest came to bless the house. The disturbances continued, and the house got national attention. Eventually, a group of parapsychologists from Duke University visited the house to record the disturbances and interview the family. Their leader, Dr. JB Rhine, believed that it was the adolescents in the home that attracted the spirits. Shortly after, the hauntings ceased. Overall, there were about 70 documented disturbances over a month-long period.
If you’re familiar with Poltergeist, then you can see how this story inspired the film. So let’s talk about it!
The Freelings are your average family in search of the American Dream. They have just moved into the brand new subdivision of Cuesta Verde: Where Dreams Come True. But just as the family settles in, they start to notice some strange disturbances, most notably through their TV. Though the family seems to accept the spirits at first (except for the father, Steve) things take a turn when a malevolent force pulls their youngest daughter into the spirit realm. Reeling from fear and frustration, the Freelings hire a group of parapsychologists and a medium to find a way to bring their baby girl home.
It’s horror in the 1980’s, so this film really fits well with the popular concepts of the time. What dangers hide beneath a seemingly perfect life? And what price will we pay for neglecting others to achieve what we want?
MAKING OF THE MOVIE
In horror terms, Poltergeist is a classic. It was the highest grossing horror film of 1982, a year that was VERY good for movies. Although Steven Spielberg didn’t direct the film, he was a major influence as its producer. He was already a household name with Jaws, and having his name on the project likely incentivised people to see it.
Steven Spielberg created the story for Poltergeist, and wrote the screenplay along with Michael Gras and Mark Victor.
Apparently Stephen King was approached about writing the screenplay, but no agreement was reached.
The film was directed by Tobe Hooper, the incredible director that brought us the harrowing Texas Chainsaw Massacre and several sequels..
Poltergeist was produced by Frank Marshall and Stephen Spielberg who was also directing ET at the time (talk about a legend). Although he stepped back and let Tobe Hooper take the helm, many people that were on set of the production described Spielberg’s involvement as being like a shadow director because of all the input and control he would have over scenes.
Despite this, Spielberg has always credited Tobe Hooper as the film’s solo director. He even wrote a letter to Tobe, apologizing for the way others misinterpreted their working relationship.
Celebrated film composer Jerry Goldsmith (Check out our Knowing The Scores Episode HERE where we talk about him and other great composers!) gave Poltergeist it’s chilling score. He used string and wind instruments throughout the soundtrack, along with music boxes to bring in that creepy haunting vibe.
One of the best film composers of the 20th century, Goldsmith was great at creating a mood.
The film begins with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” which further pushes the strained relationship between a fancy new suburban neighborhood and the (spoiler) underlying graves of those that came before.
If you want to take a break from the CGI of today, Poltergeist is a breath of fresh air. The film is filled with a charming mix of practical and digital effects, with some hand-drawn animation as well (something we’ll likely never see in movies today).
Poltergeist impressively utilized practical effects in almost every scene. This helped define the look of the horror film, as many scary films today still use practical effects in their aesthetic.
The effects were done with Industrial Light and Magic, the VFX company founded by George Lucas, and used heavily by major film studios. We’re gonna talk about some of the biggest effects made for the movie!
The outside of the Freeling house was a new build in California. But, scenes inside the house took place on a soundstage. The crew built entire rooms that rotated, along with practical horrors like the monstrous tree that attacks Robbie Freeling.
The light in Poltergeist is a character in and of itself. Effects artists wanted it to feel like it was living and breathing, and that it had its own personality. They used tricks like little squares of mirrors, strobes, fish tanks of water, and 4 large wind machines to direct and choreograph the light in major scenes. One such scene is when the mother is about to enter the “closet” to try to save her youngest, Carol Anne.
One of the most iconic scenes in the film is the encounter with the stacked chairs in the kitchen. The camera follows Diane (JoBeth Williams) for seven seconds, as she steps away from the table and back again, only to find all the chairs stacked. It’s a creepy scene, and sets a wonderful tone for the rest of the movie.
The crew built another set of chairs to look like they were stacked, and when the camera was focused on Diane, they ran in and just swapped the chairs around the table with the stacked chairs. It was a continuous shot, and done in one take! It’s amazing what you don’t see beyond the camera in a movie
There’s a scene in Carol Anne’s bedroom, where objects are flying around and making noise. It took ILM nine months to perfect. The team used an optical printer which has a projector on it that will project previous footage while filming new. The tricky part was that if one of the shots projected was not perfect, the team would have to begin all over again. It had dozens of items flying through and the head of the visual effects, Richard Edlund, described it as the most difficult sequence that he had ever contributed to.
Another classic scene (and one of our favorites) involves one of the paranormal investigators as he encounters some spiritual activity in the kitchen. After he places a steak on the counter, it comes to life, being ripped apart and inching along the counter like a worm. There was actually a puppeteer with his hand under the steak, and wires pulling it along. He then runs to the mirror over a sink, and we watch his reflection as he pulls apart his own face! This was done with prosthetics, and the hands pulling his face were actually Steven Spielberg’s hands!
This scene is heavily referenced in Casper, another Spielberg production over a decade later.
After the family retrieves Carol Anne from the spirit realm, the poltergeist comes back for one final huge scare, trying to pull her back in. This final attempt manifests as an enormous esophagus that begins to try to consume the family into it. This esophagus did not exist in the bedroom space but was instead constructed as a miniature that was composited into the scene!
At the very end of the film, the Poltergeist implodes the house. ILM had this to say about the making of that scene.
“Eventually, a number of techniques operating in unison were devised to achieve the effect. This included rigging the detailed model with steel cables that extended into a funnel-like construction and setting up a vacuum system to capture any dust and fragments not pulled through by the cables. It was all shot with a high-speed camera and done in one take. The actors shot their part on a blue screen set and the optical department worked on rotoscoping the shot and putting it all together using the Anderson Optical Printer.”
Among all the effects in Poltergeist, there’s one that gets the most scrutiny: the use of real skeletons. In the final act, Diane Freeling falls into the unfinished swimming pool in the backyard of their home. Suddenly, a corpse surfaces, providing one of the biggest jump scares in the film. Over the course of the scene, several other corpses rise from the graves below the home, leading to the classic realization: “You moved the headstones but you left the bodies!”
JoBeth Williams was hesitant to shoot the scene, because she didn’t want to be in a pool of water while there was so much electrical equipment on the set. To make her feel more comfortable, Steven Spielberg reportedly jumped in the pool and stayed in during the scene, to show her that he was willing to put himself in the same situation. (Good directors don’t ask actors to do things they themselves wouldn’t do.)
Williams later said she did not know that the skeletons were real, which made the scene much more terrifying to think about, and many have speculated that the use of the skeletons led to the so-called “Poltergeist curse” which we will talk about here shortly.
One idea behind the curse is that the film’s message seems to contradict the use of the skeletons. The Freelings are being tormented by souls of those they have disrespected by living on their graves. Some think that point came back to haunt the actors.
The truth is, using a real human skeleton is cheaper than building a fake one, at least in 1982. Films have been using real human remains since the beginning, in classic films like “Frankenstein,” and “House on Haunted Hill.” So, using them in this film did not set any kind of precedent. Does it raise moral questions? Of course.
In the Shudder series, “Cursed Films,” Craig Reardon, who was the special effects and make-up supervisor on the film, expressed how common the practice was. When explaining why they did it, he said, “wake up and smell the budget.”
Craig T. Nelson as the father figure Steve Freeling
Craig is known for the tv show Coach, and the movies The Incredibles and The Family Stone.
JoBeth Williams as Dianne Freeling
JoBeth has had many small roles on tv shows and has also been in movies like The Big Chill and Kramer vs. Kramer.
Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, the leader of the Paranormal investigators that arrive
Beatrice was mostly a skilled Broadway actress but also appeared in some television shows and some movies. A few movies were Network(1976), Power(1986), and Two of a Kind(1983.)
Dominique Dunne as Dana Freeling the eldest daughter of the three children
Dominique had small parts in a few things, most notably the tv shows Hart to Hart, Breaking Away, and Hill Street Blues.
Oliver Robins as Robbie Freeling, the middle child
Oliver only appeared as an actor in a few things before moving behind the camera. He was in Airplane II: The Sequel and Man Overboard.
Heather O’Rourke as the angelic Carol Anne Freeling, the youngest daughter who ends up being taken by the spiritual forces
Heather was not in very many things but she did appear in all three Poltergeist movies and the show Happy Days.
Drew Barrymore auditioned for the role, but was cast in ET instead. Spielberg discovered Heather O’Rourke while she was visiting the MGM set one day, and brought her in for some screen tests before offering her the role.
Michael McManus as the neighbor Ben Tuthill
Michael was in some shows like Night Court and the 1989 Baywatch. He was also in movies like Hot Shots! Part Deux and The Kentucky Fried Movie.
Virginia Kiser as Mrs. Tuthill
Virginia has been in tv shows like Days of Our Lives, Dallas, and Max Headroom. She has been in movies such as Dreamscape, Space Raiders, and Death Play.
Martin Casella as Marty, one of Dr. Lesh’s assistants
His character has the famous scene where he pulls his face off in the Bathroom mirror. He has been in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark, Robocop 2, and Heart Like a Wheel.
Richard Lawson as Ryan, one of Dr. Lesh’s assistants
Richard has had parts in many things, most notably in the movies How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Streets of Fire, and For Colored Girls.
Zelda Rubenstein as Tangina, the medium
Zelda was a character actress that was in things like Southland Tales, Guilty as Charged, and Teen Witch.
She landed the role after auditioning several times, and did her scenes over the course of a few days. She claimed to be psychic in real life, which also helped her win the role.
One of her most important lines was “Now clear your minds. It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning. Don’t give it any help, it knows too much already.”
This concept appeared in other horror, notably Ghostbusters just a few years later, and also a very special episode of AYAOTD.
James Karen as Mr. Teague who was responsible for moving the cemetery.
James has been in several things including The Return of the Living Dead, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Mulholland Drive.
And Dirk Blocker as Jeff Shaw, the unfortunate guy who while riding a bike carrying a big case of beer drops probably about half of it. You may recognize him now as Hitchcock in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Obviously a pivotal scene that we needed to mention.
ET and Poltergeist both came out in June of 1982, and it was dubbed, “the summer of Spielberg.” Spielberg originally offered ET to Tobe Hooper, and he turned it down for the unwritten Poltergeist script instead (obviously more his speed).
In 1982, PG-13 didn’t exist. So Poltergeist was almost an R-rated film, but the filmmakers were able to make a case for a PG rating, since there are no fatalities (except Tweetie the bird) and because the film lacks excessive gore or bad language. This way, the movie could run alongside ET. Imagine going to the theatre and seeing these two classics at once!
Craig T Nelson isn’t the only Pixar connection with Poltergeist. The Toy Story films make many pop culture references, and one of them is directly from Poltergeist! In the beginning of the film, Craig T Nelson’s character is watching TV, as the broadcast ends with the national anthem. He has fallen asleep eating snacks, and the dog licks his fingers. In Toy Story 2, Al falls asleep watching TV and eating snacks as well, and Woody’s horse Bullseye licks his fingers while he sleeps! Both scenes use the star-spangled banner.
Around 34 minutes in, there’s a weird cut in the film that’s impossible to miss. It goes from Diane speaking in mid-sentence to the couple standing on the porch of their neighbor’s house. What is a horrible, crude cut like that doing in this movie?
Well, Carol Anne is promised Pizza Hut earlier in the movie, and a stressed Steve (Craig T Nelson) says, “I hate Pizza Hut!” likely because he would prefer to focus on the unseen force moving his family around the kitchen, than dinner plans. Pizza Hut was not happy with the line, but they found out late in the game. So the solution was that cut.
The cut is frankly jarring, and a splotch on an otherwise great film. We wish they could release the original and just cut the word “Hut” from the audio, or ADR a different line. Anything would be better than several minutes cut from the film, that likely contributed to it in an artistic way.
Here is the cut scene dialog.
DIANE You can’t believe the feeling.
STEVE What’s the gag? There a magnet back there? He looks behind the door in the dining room. Nothing. Steve just stands for a long moment in hapless silence, then… I hate Pizza Hut! Where’s supper? I don’ t understand, Diane. What the hell’s going on around here? Steve sidesteps the chalk marks, removing himself from the active area.
DIANE I figured I’d never explain it to you. So I showed you instead, but don’t ask me how or what. Just help me figure out what to do.
STEVE You mean there’s no gimmick?
DIANE Not from inside the house. Maybe Tuthill got himself a super remote from the Radio Shack. Carol Anne adjusts her helmet and sits inside her launch circle. Diane and Steve are having the discussion across the room and aren’t aware of her.
STEVE Maybe the shakeup and this thing…relate.
DIANE No shit.
CAROL ANNE Daddy, look at me!! They turn but it’s too late. Carol Anne shoots across the room faster than before, and with no one to catch her.
ANGLE-KITCHEN WALL At a sickening speed her helmet smashes into the wall. Diane SCREAMS Steve runs over. An eight-inch hole in the wall and the cracked plastic on the helmet testify to the force of impact. Carol Anne is dazed but unhurt.
CAROL ANNE You promised pizza.
THE POLTERGEIST CURSE
If we’re gonna talk about Poltergeist, we have to talk about the mythology of the Poltergeist curse. Although this episode only focuses on the first Poltergeist film, the curse is something that covered all three Poltergeist movies.
On the set of the first film, there was a malfunction with one of the practical effects. In the scene where Robbie (Oliver Robbins) was strangled by the creepy toy clown, he called out that he couldn’t breathe. Filmmakers thought he was improvising until they noticed his face change colors, and Spielberg sprinted to him to stop it. Robbins was ultimately okay, but the incident is one of the first that people mention when they consider if the film is cursed.
In October of 1982, only a few months after the release of the first Poltergeist film, Dominique Dunne, who played Dana, was strangled by her ex-boyfriend, and placed on life support. The 22-year-old actress never recovered.
Over the course of the second and third films, there were the deaths of actors Will Sampson and Julian Beck, both of which had known conditions that contributed to their deaths.
But what really solidified the myth in movie-lovers’ imaginations, was the untimely death of Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne. Before the release of the third film, the 12-year-old died suddenly of an undetected bowel defect, which caused her body to go into septic shock.
Gary Sherman, director of the third film, did not want to finish the movie after Heather’s death. Unfortunately, he was contractually obligated to finish the movie, and they used a body double for Heather. He said it was the creepiest thing he had ever done, and he felt like releasing the film was disrespectful to Heather and her family.
Poltergeist is an iconic member of the 80’s horror family. It terrified a generation of kids, as it tapped into the fears they knew best: creepy clowns, terrifying trees, and closet monsters. The film showed audiences that anyone, even a non-believing happy family in a new home, could become the victims of a horror film. It played on the ideas that horror films had been building for decades: forces from beyond the grave, and hidden dangers lurking in seemingly idyllic places.
How did Poltergeist become an instant classic? It’s simple: it knew what scared us.
So last week, we started Frightening February with a horrifyingly historical episode on Horror Film History. Well, this week, we’re continuing to look at how the genre evolved through the decades.
Art often imitates life, and vice versa. If there’s anything we learned from last week, Horror art is no exception. Follow these films, and you will find the history of our fears, and how we responded to them. This week, we’re starting in the 1950’s, when the fears of communism, war, and radiation poison were ruling the lives of the American public. This week’s discussion will stop at the end of the 1980’s. But don’t worry, after this month, we won’t be closing the book on Horror history forever.
So snuggle up with a blanket and a bowl of popcorn. And just so you don’t forget:
It’s only a podcast.
Last week we ended our discussion in the 1940’s, when vampires and werewolves were the least of the world’s concerns. A great depression ended in a world war, bringing old fears from The Great War back into the light. Hollywood took notes, and instead of trying to compete with the real-world horror of the atomic bomb and The Holocaust, they lightened up on horror films. But, as the decade went on, new fears guided the pens of screenwriters and the lens’ of directors; and the horror films of the 1950’s were on the horizon.
A TRAUMATIZED AMERICA
Although the second world war appeared to be over, it left some nasty scars.
After America caused devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of the atom bomb and the effects of radiation started to manifest at the local cinema.
This led to films about giant monsters, huge insects, large people, and even gelatinous blobs!
The truth was, audiences were no longer interested in horror that took place in far-off and non-existant lands. They wanted to be shown the dangers of their own society.
So, the movies of the 1950’s delivered. But, instead of giving audiences terrifying realism, they comically exaggerated the common fears of the American people.
This was the time period where horror fell further out of the mainstream and into B-movie territory. The plots seemed silly, but the scares were real. The stars of these films weren’t considered for the A-list, and you wouldn’t see a movie like, “The Blob” on the Oscar shortlist either.
Also in the 1950’s, theaters started employing gimmicks to get people to pay the price of admission. One of these was 3D viewing, which was really popular with horror audiences.
But no matter how popular (or unpopular) the genre was, it always served its most loyal fanbase: the outcasts. It was the people that didn’t fit in that flocked to the theaters to watch the lives of on-screen conformists get ripped apart by hideous monsters.
Monster movies didn’t just come from fears of radiation poisoning. In 1952, courts ruled that films were free speech, and censorship from local and state committees ceased (Seriously, please listen to our MPAA episode if you haven’t). This was incredible news for horror, as monsters could run amok on-screen once more.
The atom bomb also forced Americans to consider the possibility of the end of days, and what kind of world humans would leave behind. The 1955 film “The Day the World Ended” was the first to address this existential question, and stories concerning the end of man-kind would carry over into the next decade.
Americans (and the world for that matter) had been trained to watch the skies for signs of attack. A current arms race and Cold War with the Soviet Union only heightened the fear that something would be coming from above.
In 1947, there was a mysterious crash in Roswell, NM. A local rancher gathered the debris from the site, which was then seized by the government. A press release referred to the downed object as a flying saucer, and a later press release corrected that statement to say it was a weather balloon.
It’s well known that humans fear the unfamiliar, and nothing was more alien than…well aliens from outer space. Of course the fear of an alien invasion was not new in the 1950’s (hence the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in the 1930’s) but it was clear that this fear had returned and wasn’t going anywhere. So, spacemen were a popular subject matter in many 1950’s Sci-fi/horror films.
In the early 1950’s, aliens were depicted as a terrifying threat. The Thing From Another World (1951) was an example. John Carpenter, who would remake the film in 1982, was drawn to the ending and how they destroyed the creature with flame. Another example came in 1953, when aliens appeared on-screen in HG Wells’ sci-fi classic, War of the Worlds.
These films enhanced the mentality that we should destroy that which is different. It was much more popular for film aliens to be invaders, not lost species’ looking for a way home.
Sure, a great big monster with several eyes and sharp teeth seems pretty scary. But, do you know what’s even scarier? The monsters that we can’t see. After a depression and a war, America seemed to be on the mend (if you were white). Americans were desperately afraid of losing the picturesque ideals they had been promised. They were terrified of losing the American Dream. And in that sense, nothing was a greater threat than communism.
The Red Scare instilled the fear of invaders, posing as regular folks, living in the same pink houses as they did, sitting ticky-tacky all in a row.
By the mid and late 1950’s, films started utilizing this concept. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” (1956) masterfully combined the dangers of mob mentality with the fear of alien takeover–all while serving as a metaphor for the red scare. They look like us, they talk like us, they could BE us.
These fears penetrated the perfect society that Americans wanted to believe in, exposing the darkness that lay beneath the apple pie and lemonade.
Bob Dylan said it best when he sang, “The Times, they are a-changin’.” And boy, was there a lot of change in the 1960’s. Every decade brought about its own shifts in technology or world events, but the 1960’s were all about reform. Of course, this meant the movies changed as well.
The 1960’s were marked by the civil rights movement, sexual revolution, violence, and anti-war protests (especially against Vietnam.)
We mentioned that the death of the Hollywood Production code meant less censorship in the 1950’s, but the effects really started to show in the 1960’s. In the Supreme Court Case of Joseph Burstyn Inc. v. Wilson in 1952, it was found that a movie could not be banned because it is deemed sacrilegious. It was declared that, “Expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guarantee of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” By 1968 the Hollywood Production Code was completely abandoned, which allowed filmmakers to really explore taboo topics like sex and violence. Horror started by challenging social norms, and it could finally return to its roots.
Much like the 3D of the 1950’s, early 1960’s horror also featured the gimmicks of Williams Castle. He issued special glasses to viewers of his film “13 Ghosts,” which he called, “Illusion-O,” in 1960. In 1959, he installed something called, “Percept-O” in his theater for the showing of a film called “The Tingler.” Random theater seats were set up to charge with electricity to simulate audience panic during the film.
Back in the 1940’s, noir thrillers were quite popular. One filmmaker, Val Lewton, created films that walked the line between a noir thriller and a horror film–supernatural creatures with human situations. Psychological thrillers didn’t make it into the 1950’s, against the creature features and gimmicks. But in the 1960’s, a filmmaker emerged that brought this type of scare back to the cinema, and changed modern horror forever.
It’s impossible to talk about 1960’s film, without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock. While movie restrictions faded, film-makers became bolder and began seeing how far they could push the limits, and Hitchcock was no exception. His movie Psycho (1960) would change the genre (and film) forever. The film was based on a novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. After Hitchcock bought the film rights, he famously bought as many copies of the book as possible, to prevent people from reading it and learning the ending. This ensured his film was be as shocking as possible.
Before Psycho, the majority of horror focused on Gothic Romances. Psycho would bring in ideas that are closer to the horror that we have today. It displayed sexuality, depicting a woman in her undergarments, implying that she had sex outside of marriage (TV shows were still showing married couples sleeping in separate beds at this time). Although there is some debate about whether it was the first American film to show a flushing toilet, it was still groundbreaking for doing so. The shower scene showed that nobody was safe, even someone who had more screen time at that point in the film than any other character. It also played on audience expectations with a twist, showing that even the most ordinary of people could be diabolical.
We can even thank Hitchcock for having set movie times. Since Psycho was so dependent on being seen from beginning to end, Hitchcock was insistent that nobody be permitted into the theater after it began. At the time it was common practice that the movies would be on a sort of loop and you could walk in whenever, finish the movie, and then stay to watch what you had missed in the beginning. If Psycho had been seen that way, the ending would ruin the affect of the beginning.
Three years later, Hitchcock continued to push the boundaries of what audiences were willing to watch with The Birds. This film was also psychological, but it shook audiences with a new kind of movie villain that they would never be able to control: nature. The most disturbing part of the film is that there’s no explanation for the attacks, showing that the characters live at the complete mercy of the beasts.
Since these two movies were such big hits and pushed the limits on what crowds were willing to see, many other film-makers tried to upstage them by creating bigger shocks or more violence. One director, Herschell Gordon Lewis, took this direction so far that he is responsible for a horror subgenre known as “splatter.” These films focus on graphic portrayals of blood, as the name suggests.
In the 1960’s, ghost stories were another form of horror on the big screen. Another monster that falls into the psychological category, some films never explicitly state whether the journeys of the protagonists are “real” or not. But, their survival usually hinges on their recognition of what’s happening, and their mental state. These films often featured female protagonists. At this point, it was popular to show a beautiful woman in terror or agony in horror films. You could argue this was popular as early as the 1920’s, but Alfred Hitchcock is credited with making this a prominent trope.
Another product of the psychological thriller era, was Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone. Many episodes of the classic show preyed on abstract fears of its audience; like loneliness, and the capability of men turning on each other.
Due to its B-movie-status in the 1950’s, there weren’t a lot of well-known actors that were considered horror stars. In the 1960’s, Vincent Price was possibly the most popular horror actor.
Vincent Price has been known and remembered for his work in horror films even though this made up a small portion of the films he starred in.
Some of his most well-known are, “The Last Man on Earth” and “The Tingler,” which we mentioned earlier! His distinctive voice and ability to bring an unsettling presence to the screen left a mark on horror fans everywhere.
The late 1960’s is still known as one of the most tumultuous times in American history. It was filled with violence and fear, along with a rise in counterculture. Now that films could show blood, filmmakers didn’t hold back. They used the medium to spread messages to their audiences. Looking through the horror films of each decade, you can see the warnings that filmmakers desperately wanted to express; from environmentalism to racism to xenophobia to war.
George Romero was one of the most influential horror filmmakers of all time, and is fondly known as the Father of the Zombie Film. Although his 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” was not technically the first zombie movie, it is the most influential in what would become a zombie trend and set most of the lore that is held behind them.
George Romero was a big fan of making statements within his works. However, one that he didn’t mean to tackle was the problem of Racism in America. In the documentary “Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue” he says, “Why do you do horror? Well you do it to upset the uppercut. But in the end it kind of gets set back up again. We kill the monster, and I didn’t wanna do that.” In order to accomplish not killing the monster, Romero (spoilers) instead kills the main character who happens to be a black man.
It’s safe to say, the horror genre only got bloodier as it ventured into the 1970’s. Filmmakers built on the fundamentals of horror that had already been created, mixing psychology with gore, using horror to send a message or to express themselves. In terms of history, the 1970’s seemed to be a more mature 1960’s. Building on the pain and turmoil of the previous decade, the violence in Vietnam continued on–as did the sexual politics of the time.
Some films still focused on the topical issue of war, like Deathdream (1974). This film follows a soldier that was presumed dead, as he returns home from the war and starts to exhibit strange behaviors.
George Romero sure did start a trend with his flesh-eaters. Audiences gobbled up zombie films, as more and more were produced.
Copycat zombie movies took over an entire section of horror. Over the years many more continue to be added with many of the same “rules” that began with “Night of the Living Dead.” The major contributing factor in this is surprisingly a lapse of copyright! Originally the movie was to be called “Night of the Flesh Eaters.” When the title was changed, the distributor failed to put the copyright on the final print and it entered into the public domain. This unfortunate accident would be in the end a happy one, for it has grown the zombie horror genre exponentially.
As the war in Vietnam raged on, Americans felt divided. It was a type of class warfare in the states: Rich vs Poor, Young vs Old, Us vs Them mentality.
Larry Cohen’s film, “It’s Alive” focused on the alienation that parents felt from their children. What happens when you’re afraid of the thing you love most?
This also perpetuated the “keep it in the family” concept of horror films, where the family’s secrets are best kept as secrets.
As horror films included more sex and violence, they became known as Savage Cinema. Films like “The Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes” used graphic violence in a meaningful way. They depicted horrific acts that should insult viewers, to great effect.
In The Last House on the Left, we see a naked kind of violence. Films often justify revenge violence, but this film promoted the message that violence is always ugly. The protagonists act just as violently as the antagonists, and it does not undo the harm that the antagonists caused to begin with.
One of the most iconic of these films is the Texas Chainsaw massacre from 1974. Many horror films begin with a sense of calm to lure in the viewer and make them feel comfortable before traumatizing them. Texas Chainsaw Massacre did no such thing. This film told audiences what it was from the very beginning, by bringing them into a world unafraid of gore. This film gave audiences the sense that there was something wrong with America.
Much like the 1950’s, 1970’s horror still had roots in the American Dream. Films like The Stepford Wives created a reality where that dream was manufactured, turning something that Americans strived toward, into a nightmare.
The Exorcist was a film that traumatized audiences by letting them connect with the lives of the classic American family. Nothing is more precious than a young child, and watching a demon destroy the dreams of a law-abiding American family, filled audiences with dread.
Since sex was previously a taboo subject, the 1970’s tackled it with reckless abandon. The proposal of The Equal Rights Amendment ignited conversations about sex, and women were becoming more powerful on screen. Just 10 years before, women were often the victims, and now they could be the heroes or the antagonists–they could be anyone.
Sexual liberation was a prominent theme in the film Shivers (1975) where a group of people spread parasites through sexual contact. The parasites make them essentially sex zombies, definitely something new for major motion pictures.
Among other horror themes, sex is prominent in 1979’s Alien as well. The aliens hijacked the human reproductive cycle, with graphic imagery that mimics that of giving birth, and seems to show the violation of the human body.
In 1975, film changed forever when Steven Spielberg debuted the first summer blockbuster: Jaws! Spielberg tapped into the sentiment that Hitchcock attempted with The Birds a little over 10 years before. Against man, nature is an unstoppable monster. He utilized the uneasiness and suspense, paired with John Williams’ iconic score–just as Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” theme helped make that film a masterpiece.
Jaws was an important moment for horror, because it brought it back to the mainstream. The film was high budget, and showed that the genre was growing in popularity.
It was another instance of American middle class life getting shredded.
The horror of the 70’s was a beautiful culmination of fears and concepts from the years before. Movie-goers were still dealing with The Cold War, with Vietnam, with the shock of Charles Manson and the still-developing concept of the serial killer (they weren’t called that yet, though). So John Carpenter’s masterpiece, Halloween, built on the films of the past while also forging ahead where no film had gone before.
In an homage to Psycho, Carpenter cast Janet Leigh’s daughter as the lead in his low-budget slasher film. It ended up being a break-out role for Jamie Lee Curtis, as she plays the timid virgin that fights her way to the end of the film.
Halloween took the concepts of Psycho (pre-marital sex, unmasked killer, and even a similar score) and applied them to teenagers. Horror stories had been used to dissuade teens from having sex for generations, and here was an updated example.
Carpenter later said that he was “punished for killing sexually promiscuous girls” in the film.
Producer Debra Hill pointed out that the character who isn’t promiscuous ends up being the one to “penetrate” the killer with the knife. She has no sexual release, and this is her character’s outlet.
Filmmaker John Carpenter said of the horror movie process: “Audiences don’t want something too horrible. That’s not entertaining for them, they wanna be entertained. They wanna have a good time. They don’t mind some of the characters on the screen getting bumped off even if in terrible ways but you can cross a line and the audience will turn against you. And if you’re a filmmaker you can sometimes use that to your benefit by teasing the audience. The audience will be like God are they gonna show me something I don’t want to see? It’s great because then the audience provides most of the action for you in their heads.”
By the end of the 1970’s, Zombie movies were still going strong. They were like the tofu of the horror film world, sending any message and holding any meaning necessary. George Romero is often remembered for using his zombie to parody consumer culture. In 1978, he brought us Dawn of the Dead, a continuation in his Zombie series that he would make several installments in throughout his career.
And as we know, Zombies would never die.
The 1980’s were a call back to traditional values. A new President, Reagan came into office and while many felt that his new policies would help the country, others felt like they were restrictions on freedoms. The horror movies of the 80’s would address this by bringing horror into the normal everyday suburban American life.
Film-makers would even be able to do this more convincingly as technology, animatronics, and liquid latex were improving SFX and VFX. It would be a decade of excess. Excess of consumerism, horror, and Stephen King (lol).
Building off John Carpenter’s Halloween, films like Friday the 13th continued to place teenagers in murderous situations. This film followed some of the same tropes that had been built and perpetuated in the 60’s and 70’s in regards to sex and horror.
To further bring home the American ideal, it was quite popular to go after the Soviets, as the Cold War neared its end after forty years. Americans still clung to their dream of a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, striving for the picturesque moments captured in Norman Rockwell paintings.
The concept of something sinister lurking in the most unexpected of places certainly hearkened back to the 1950’s and 60’s, and would explain why films like “Little Shop of Horrors” got remade at this time.
This concept was also promoted in the film Poltergeist, even in its trailer.
Because history repeats itself, there were plenty of horror remakes in the 1980’s. But one of the most prominent was John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982. Carpenter said that the film was a bleak look into the future. He was inspired by communism and the fact that no one seemed to trust each other. This was true in the 50’s, and it was true in the 80’s.
Stephen King’s novels and short stories lended themselves well to the cinema. In the 1980’s, many filmmakers took advantage of these stories and brought them to the screen. Some of the most notable of course being The Shining, Creepshow, Cujo, Pet Cemetery, and Firestarter.
In the documentary “Nightmares in Red, White and Blue,” Mick Garris says, “Stephen King is the horror version of Norman Rockwell. His characters live in your neighborhood.”
It’s impossible to cover the amount that Stephen King has contributed to horror cinema, and we will talk about him more later. But it’s important to note that these stories are still influencing movies and shows today. (Stranger Things?)
If it feels like we’re repeating ourselves when we draw parallels from the 50’s to the 80’s, it’s because we are. Just like in the 1950’s, Horror became a spectacle again, with horror camp films becoming cult classics and fun spectacles to enjoy with friends. It became clear that filmmakers could have fun with these films, and that horror could be lighthearted.
Some films walked the line of camp and horror, like “Nightmare on Elm Street.” One of the most iconic characters of the decade was Freddy Kruger, with his striped sweater, fedora, disfigured face, and hand with razors. He would often have funny one-liners that would bring a little lightheartedness to the horrors that he was committing. In the documentary “Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue” Freddy is compared to FDR. Freddy kills the children of those that murdered him, bringing the punishment of the parents’ sin down on the children. FDR during the arms race brought debt onto the children of America.
The Evil Dead was meant to be a serious delve into the horror genre. It was edgy and excessive and ended up being cut by 49 seconds in the UK version for its obscene visuals. When it was released into the public, the over the top scenes, blood, etc made the film comical even though this was not the intent.
Since the first Evil Dead had become seen as comical, Sam Ramey leaned into this and created Evil Dead 2. He went all out with shaky moving cameras and over the top effects. If a normal amount of blood in a scene would call for one gallon, Ramey would insist on 10 gallons.
These films receive a lot of recognition, but a lot of horror camp stayed out of the mainstream. These were the movies that garnered cult followings, and explains why the 1980’s is synonymous with campy horror films. One of these was Killer Klowns from Outer Space. It’s one that we (Robin and Marci) remember seeing as kids.
And horror camp of the 1980’s is probably a good place to stop for now, you know, before things get too scary. We will get to the 1990’s and beyond someday soon…
Remember, history often repeats itself, as does horror. It’s incredible to think that we can be afraid of the same things that people feared many years ago. Horror can transcend generations if it taps into the fears that make us human. Sometimes we don’t find something as scary as we once did, and that type of horror will dip out of the mainstream, only to find its way back years later when old fear reignites.
Our journey through Horror Film History will be stopping here for now, at the end of the 1980’s. Sure, there is a lot more to talk about, and a lot more to go back and dive into. In terms of the genre, we’ve just grazed the surface. The best way to learn about horror films is to watch them. So get out that remote, friends, and come back and see us soon!
We often find February to be frightfully boring. It’s cold, dark, and lacking in fun holidays (I’m looking at you, Valentine’s Day). So, we’re jazzing this February up with some episodes on Horror!
Ever since there has been life, there has been fear. It’s a constant, a truth, something that unites us all. And when humans gathered together to share their fears, those horrors became stories. Eventually, those stories made their way onto film.
Horror is tricky. It’s a genre that many people love or hate–with no in-between. Some people write off many films belonging in the genre as low-budget and lacking in worthwhile stories or development. Others will simply say that they prefer not to be scared, and leave horror unexplored. Although scary movies are popular, they still sit on the fringe of mainstream filmmaking. Horror films rarely win prestigious awards. It’s a genre built for the masses; born in counterculture, and thriving in social deviance.
So today, we’re exploring the history of this fascinating film genre. Things might get a little hairy…or slimy…or just downright grotesque. If you are faint of heart, gather close, and remember: it’s only a podcast…it’s only a podcast.
THE BEGINNING OF A NIGHTMARE
Horror is everywhere, and it has existed as long as humans began telling stories. You will find it in ballads, folklore, and mythology. Some of our favorite stories today were once horror stories, but time and technology have dulled the fears of the past. Horror is ever-evolving, and it’s shaped by whatever is the prevailing fear of the day.
Although it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where it started, it is easy to see who refined the genre and shaped it for the coming generations.
HORROR’S FOUNDING FATHERS
Edgar Allen Poe is considered by many to be the father of Horror. He used literary techniques that enhanced the anxiety of the reader. One of these was first-person narration, which added a layer of realism by drawing the reader into the character’s account of the story. These situations are far scarier when we feel like they are happening to us.
Poe shaped horror literature with stories like, “The Tell-tale Heart,” a first-person account of a man going mad with guilt. The common themes of guilt and madness give the story a lasting appeal, and it is still adapted today (Spongebob being a notable example.)
Because the themes of Poe’s works were so universal, he has been adapted more than any other horror author.
But other authors around the same time also made an impact on the horror we know today. Horror writer Stephen King has cited three novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the foundation of horror. These stories are perfect examples of the three types of monster: man-made, self-made, and back-from-the-dead.
THE FIRST HORROR FILMS
Moving pictures changed the world. Early filmmakers astounded audiences with the concept. But as time went on, audiences got used to the marvel of the moving image. Not long after viewers were famously cowering at the footage of an oncoming train, they were happily spending time in picture houses, handing over money to see the latest creations from artists like George Méliès, Thomas Edison, and the Lumiere Brothers.
The shock had worn off, and creators could no longer rely on the sheer novelty of movies. So, they started using it to tell stories; and some of the most popular stories were the scary ones. Film was remarkable in that it could simulate life. And once audiences got used to that, it was only natural to simulate things beyond life–the fantastic, the unbelievable, and the horrific.
Horror made its way into movies during the very early days of film history. You see, for many people, just the idea of moving pictures was horrifying. For the first time they saw real people that were moving and living their lives…but that weren’t actually there. They were stuck in some sort of black and white realm, without sound or escape. In this sense, every early film was terrifying; and it meant film and horror were a perfect match.
The Lumiere Brothers, two of the most influential film pioneers, made several short “spook tales” (they weren’t called horror movies back then) in the 1890’s. Spook tales were often created with the same techniques that spirit photographers had been using for a couple decades, and also drew influences from expressionist painters. Remember the word expressionist, because it has a strong tie to the horror genre.
George Méliès, the stage-magician-turned-filmmaker who was renowned for his pioneering visual effects (listen to that episode please) is credited with the first narrative horror film! It was three minutes long and has a few titles, but we know it as, “The Haunted Castle.”
Méliès continued to shock audiences with his incredible advances in special effects, making the impossible a reality for movie-goers. He created his pieces of art in his special glass studio, employing groundbreaking techniques like stop-motion and coloring his film.
Do you remember Stephen King’s trilogy of horror novels, mentioned earlier? Well, those stories were also some of the first narratives to make it to film as well. In 1908, Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde got its first film adaptation, though like many early films, it has been lost.
Thomas Edison also got in on the fun, and is also credited with some early horror as well, even if not intentional. Some will point to his infamous film depicting the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant as another example of early horror. The film was intended to show the dangers of Alternating Current. This is an example of someone using graphic imagery to instill real world fears into an audience. It’s important to note that Edison also electrocuted other animals for this purpose, though Topsy is the most famous.
In 1910, Edison created the first adaptation of Frankenstein. At this time, there started to be resistance to horror, an unfortunate and ultimately predictable response from those that felt it insulted their delicate sensibilities. Because of this, Edison cut the story to fit a 14 minute runtime, and published a press release stating that changes to the story were made so the film wouldn’t offend audiences. The movie was a commercial failure.
Horror, as a genre, responds to the times. It’s ever-evolving, changing to meet the fears of its audience. The history of horror films is a history of the world, but more than that, it’s a history of human response to the events of the world.
Much like early horror stories, the earliest films focused on the themes of religion and good vs evil. The word monster even has the latin root “Monstrum” which translates to “divine warning.” These movies harnessed the fear of eternal damnation, with monsters committing sins on screen, and the heroes using religious talismans to defeat them.
For example, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde shows the consequences of interfering with God’s design.
Another prominent fear of the time was science, especially since science seemed to interfere with religious ideals. A mad scientist creating a man from the mutilated corpses of other men? That doesn’t seem to be in God’s plan.
By the mid-1910’s, the world was engaged in a terrible war that wiped out an entire generation of young men. Suddenly, reality became more terrible than anything that a screen magician could create. The so-called “War to end all Wars” was so instrumental in the development of Horror films, the aftermath of the conflict is still affecting movies today.
In an article for Vice, Seth Ferranti interviews historian W. Scott Poole about the effect the war had on the genre. Veranti writes: “A whole conceptual world died. Certain ideas about the nature of the human being, and optimism about the human future became impossible in a world of poison gas, machine guns, and shells that could tear a human being in half.”
When asked why he believes that the war was responsible for modern horror, Poole explains: “What I have seen in the writings of veterans, including those who became some of the first horror auteurs, is a desire to compulsively relive the trauma over and over again. Horror is a language of trauma.”
The war introduced new kinds of fear: Mutilation, dismemberment, and the ghosts of those that died in horribly tragic ways. Film monsters would have missing limbs, reflecting injuries that many sustained in the war.
Due to a ban on foreign films, the German film industry boomed during and directly after the war. The horror films that came from this period were heavily influenced by German expressionist arts. The sets were abstract, representing emotional themes and the mental state of the characters.
This concept has lasted throughout horror. Have you ever noticed the scenery change in a horror movie based on the mood of a character? Sometimes it even happens when we’re afraid in real life, when our senses are heightened.
The German expressionist films of the 1920’s featured prominent fears of the time. Mental illness and losing control over your mind or body were more fears caused by the war, and the PTSD that soldiers now dealt with.
“The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” dealt heavily with mental illness, as it deals with a protagonist wrongfully imprisoned in a mental hospital, facing an evil doctor. However, the film is framed in such a way that the audience doesn’t know who is sane. This kind of uncertainty gives the audience a feeling of unease, and is a technique still used today as well. Does everyone remember the Leonardo D’Caprio movie Shutter Island?
Roger Ebert in his review of Caligari: ”A case can be made that ‘Caligari’ was the first true horror film. There had been earlier ghost stories and the eerie serial ‘Fantomas’ made in 1913-14, but their characters were inhabiting a recognizable world. ‘Caligari’ creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy. In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible.”
Building on mental illness, the screenwriter for Dr Caligari famously plagiarised Bram Stoker’s Dracula and created the horror classic: Nosferatu.
Although the story was completely lifted from Dracula, director F.W. Murnau essentially created the movie vampire archetype, and his features have been famously used again and again.
This particular film had a heavy dose of realism with some of its scenes, and it reflected fears relating to sex and women. Of course, the nature of Dracula is sexual, and we will talk about that more later. But Nosferatu also showcased the fear of women in power, of women not being under control (sleep walking), and also explored disease, since the Spanish Flu epidemic was still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Because the sensation of going to the movies felt so much like sleeping (dark room, strange images) sleep was a common topic as well. Monsters in these movies often strangled people in their sleep, which was effective to an audience seated in the dark.
Many of these films also reflected sexual politics. Like the issues of promiscuity, especially from women. The German film “Warning Shadows” is about a woman being stalked by shadows, warning her of the consequences of flirting with party guests (sheesh.)
As German filmmakers immigrated to the US, Expressionism followed, influencing horror films for decades to come.AMERICAN FILMS OF THE 1920’S
The films of the 1920’s showed the truths of the time. These truths showed the doubt that the film-makers felt towards the sentiment that all men were created equal. The KKK and war were two of the most forthright examples of this inequality.
We’ve talked about The Man of a Thousand Voices, Mel Blanc, but now we can talk about someone many refer to as The Man of a Thousand Faces, Leonidas “Lon” Chaney. At this time looks were everything because it was still the time of silent film. Lon mastered disappearing into roles, with the help of make-up and physical performance. Since his parents were deaf, he had learned to amplify his emotions through facial expressions and movement.
Lon is known as America’s first horror movie star and the monsters that he often played on screen were ordinary men turned outwardly monstrous by cruel fate and inwardly monstrous by the cruel actions of humankind.
Loss was a fear among this time. It was the loss of family members from the war and the loss of limbs (and the loss of alcohol due to Prohibition.) American life was tough at this time and Lon Chaney’s outsider personas represented the dark side of life.
Two of Lon’s movies that survived and are excellent examples of this are: the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame and the 1925 Phantom of the Opera.
These movies also gave rise to the romantic love viewed as what we would call today… a Beauty and her Beast.
Towards the middle and late 1920’s silent films would begin to become a thing of the past and “talkies” the new form of cinema.
After facing the horrors of war just before the 1930’s America would be hit hard again but this time by the Stock Market crash of 1929. It was then that Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In the 1930’s, horror got a new voice when Tod Browning’s Dracula took America by storm. This was the first of the Universal movie monsters, and it is a perfect example of the types of film audiences were yearning for. It was quickly followed by Frankenstein, an incredibly successful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s work, starring a fairly unknown Boris Karloff. American horror in the 1930’s took place in far off lands, and featured supernatural elements. While the horror of the 1920’s expressed how people were feeling, the horror of the 1930’s served as escapism for depression-era audiences.
The first four years of the 1930’s is considered the Golden Age of Horror, as films produced villains that viewers identified with, and created stories that sparked imaginations.
A combination of that escapism and the novelty of the talking picture skyrocketed horror into the mainstream. Audiences’ mental health had been ravaged by the depression, so this type of horror seemed “safer,” lacking the grotesque and uneasy sensibilities of the 1920’s silent horror. The ability to hear a monster changed everything about how audiences would perceive them, and the advent of sound forced filmmakers to reinvent horror.
On her site, Horrorhistory.com, Karina Wilson says about this time: “Filmmakers of the time were drawn to the Genre That Didn’t Have A Name Yet because of the opportunities these dark tales offered to break taboos, exploring the lurid and sensational as well as probing deep into the sexual and criminal elements of the human psyche. The characters in these movies lived in out-of-the-way and out-of-time-places, outside the usual boundaries set by moral conventions or even the laws of physics. On screen, they had the freedom to run amok, flirt (even with the same sex), consume all manner of illicit potions, use violence to get their way, kill and — most blasphemously — create new life. It was inevitable someone would come along to spoil the fun.”
In 1934, all film changed forever with the introduction of the Hayes Code. The code unsurprisingly focused some rules at the horror genre, specifically stating that all movie monsters must die by the end of the film. (This explains why every disney villain got got.)
Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein showcased the concept of sympathetic monsters. Although audiences may have grown to love the characters, the film killed them off due to the Hayes Code.
Increasing censorship and lack of new ideas caused the American horror film to grow stale as the 1930’s marched on. Increased anxiety about turmoil in Europe hearkened back to the ghosts of WWI, and the fears of real life began to creep onto the screen. At this time, film’s most horrible monsters were human.
By the end of the 1930’s, horror had declined drastically, a long fall from the golden age of Dracula and Frankenstein. The production code even removed lines from previous movies that it deemed too offensive. The early 1940’s was a rough time for horror. This shows how detrimental censorship can be to art. When horror wasn’t allowed to reflect the times, the art suffered.
The 1940’s horror started with the mad scientists, villains that seemed just vanilla enough to not be too upsetting. In these types of films, the villain was science, not the scientist. They often seemed like victims of pride, a lesson audiences grew tired of learning.
These films also introduced more romantic plots in horror movies, which was very different from the loveless depictions of sex and promiscuity of the 1920’s.
Screenwriter Curt Siomak had a Jewish background and fled Germany. He penned the screenplay for The Wolf Man, creating a story about someone who feels unwanted and outcast. The story was heavily influenced by his feelings of the war.
By 1941, the fear of the looming war was completely realized for Americans, and the memory of the not-so-distant Great War sat at the forefront of viewers’ minds. For this reason, the monsters of the past were given a little bit of a make-over to seem more campy and less horrific.
Most of the time when war happened horror would try to keep up in shock value, but this time was different. Some Film-makers realized the immense real fear and horror at the images and video of the holocaust. Not only could they not compete with that but they knew their audience had changed. In order to accommodate this they jived the genre up by releasing more light hearted horror where old monsters were made to be just a bit sillier. An example of this would be that the Invisible Man became the Invisible Agent(1942.)
The most upsetting imagery to come from the 1940’s was from the aftermath of the Holocaust. There was absolutely nothing that movies could show audiences that would be nearly as terrifying. Hitler’s rise and his atrocities rocked the world.
Since WWII was costly, many studios had to approach film with a minimalistic style. This would not only save them money but also be an artful approach to how films would be made. In the darkest imagery Americans could imagine their own worst fears coming to life.
Horror in children’s films
Due to the change in audience for horror, especially with some being toned down, horror began to be thought of as something for children. It began to trickle into animation. Walt Disney would even dabble in its use with smaller scares. An example of this would be in Pinocchio when the children are being turned into donkeys. This scene is actually quite harrowing for some children, but for those that enjoyed this scene it was clear that they would be prone to enjoying more horror.
The history of horror is as long as the history of film. Today, we talked about how it went from the outskirts of popularity to the mainstream, and then how it suffered from censorship and lack of ideas. But as years went on, past the 1940’s and beyond, horror continued to evolve. Sure, you could say there are mainstream horror films, but horror isn’t made for the mainstream. Horror is a genre of outcasts, and appeals to the outcast in all of us. As Horror evolves still today, it is quite possibly the most studied of all genres because it’s such a clear picture of the human experience.
This was just part one of our exploration into the realm of the Macabre. Don’t fear, we have more frightening history on the way…