Monday, January 17, 2011

Decades of Horror: The Allure, The Danger & The Cycle of Fear & Fantasy In Film & The Media Part 1

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***WARNING! The following article contains images of a sensitive, or violent nature and nudity***

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There are many who say that movies and television are a reflection of our times--what is going on in society in that moment--wars, protests, mass murderers, racism, invention, advances in modern technology, chaos--Is creativity sparked through controversy and calamity? On the one hand, some gave us lots of escapist entertainment and fantasy pictures that made us forget the trials of world crisis. Others gave us a heightened sense of self awareness to the problems around us. Offering no defining solutions, some of these movies were angry expressions built around those filmmakers feelings regarding certain major events of the day and not just in America, but all around the world. Movies would seem to be a natural progression from the fanciful tales that played it safe to the then cutting edge dramas expressing societal problems to the downbeat demeanor of today's cinema cesspool.

Above: Vietnam protest; Insert: Waterboarding torture in WW2; google images

What was deemed racy in the 30s, had its equivalent in the 80s and beyond; It's just the age we happen to be living in. Still, the graphic depiction of violence has increased through the years on both theater screens and the televisions in our homes. One could say that in recent years, violence on screen mirrors the misanthropic and downbeat tone laid down by the cinema of the 1970s. But why wasn't such a nihilist view in film adapted earlier during the 1940s, a time when the entire world was the centerpiece being fought over by two vastly different and opposing forces? During the 40s the nation truly came together in an effort to maintain freedom in this country. Americans were not only fighting on the front lines, but were fighting at home, too, supporting the troops in a variety of ways. In the 70s, just like today (maybe moreso), there were a number of problems dividing the nation--inequality, women's rights, racism and an influx of illegal immigrants that continues to this day. Now, we're having much of these same problems only in some cases, the problems have escalated to an alarming degree. During that time, people desired to work for what they wanted. Now, people want hand outs. The word "work" has become something of an oxymoron for "won't".

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It would seem that at least the first 30 years of film relied mostly on getting away from the real cruelty of the world and enjoying a double, or triple bill with a coke and bag of popcorn in hand. By the end of the 1960s, movies took a turn down a dark and winding road with seemingly no apparent end in sight till STAR WARS came along and changed audience perception of the "wow!" factor in film. The 80s rolled around and everyone in America got fat with greed and modern comforts and movies changed once more. Horror of the trashy kind became high profile and fantasy pictures got higher price tags attached to them. The 90s came and brought with it a lot of anger, vitriol and violence. People were also carrying their video cameras with them seemingly everywhere. The new millennium brought with it more envelope pushing aggression with a growing amount of vociferousness. "Reality" shows became the alternate purveyor of trash journalism as this type of entertainment continues to plague boob tubes across the country. One thing had remained constant from one decade to the next--the omnipresent media which no doubt was guilty of shaping the gradual and sometimes ghoulish progression of what was deemed permissible for us to see.


A dead Bonnie and Clyde: google inserts

Hollywood was fond of imitating whatever was hot, or controversial in the news. Gangster pictures thrived in the 1930s built around the likes of real life villains Al Capone and his gang. Bonnie & Clyde and John Dillinger and his boys were among a slew of other Tommy Gun toting racketeers that ransacked the Midwest leaving a trail of blood in their wake. As has been proven over the decades, some of these "larger than life" personas have transcended their brutal natures to become national celebrities. Even as far back as Billy the Kid from the latter part of the 1800s, the media, whether intentionally, or indirectly so, ultimately raised these cold blooded killers atop a pedestal they didn't deserve. While such killers garner an incredible amount of publicity, those innocents whose lives were snuffed out from crossing paths with these villains must settle for a mere footnote in an obituary from their local paper.

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This sort of pandering to miscreants and allowing them to attain almost mythical status has been repeated numerous times throughout history, one of the most infamous being Charles Manson and his "Family". This celebration of evil has also been documented in just as many movies over the years. One of the most blatant examples being Oliver Stone's NATURAL BORN KILLERS from 1994 and most recently with the strikingly well made low budget effort, MANSON, MY NAME IS EVIL (2010). That film thrived on displaying some fascinating dichotomies between war and religion, god and the devil, government backed mass murder abroad and capital punishment for killings on our own soil. Some of these movies, while showing the bad guys in all their villainous glory, still manage to elicit audience sympathy for them.


Above: FACES OF DEATH (1979) Japanese poster; Insert: CRUEL TALE OF JAPAN (1963) Japanese mondo movie: google images

Such things bring about lots of questions not just about the media, but about ourselves. How many of you slow down, or stop at the scene of a car accident? For whatever reason, we are all fascinated with death and for many, the more deplorable the more it interests us. This isn't strictly limited to America, mind you. The sometimes real violence of the Mondo movies gave birth to another kind of shockumentary most infamously in the form of the FACES OF DEATH series. Originally financed as a Japan only release, it only took a brief time before this series of death films (some of it real, some of it simulated) made it to American shores and jump-started an entire nauseatingly depressing series of sequels and imitations. Japan had a special place for mondo movies and FACES OF DEATH was a transformation of sorts. Focusing solely on the dead, dying, or anything remotely associated with not living was the main subject.


Above: Hiroshima victim; Insert: Japanese soldier stands over Nanking butchered Chinese (1930s): google images

Japan has both one of the most honorable and one of the most viciously sadistic chronologies during eras of war. Eventually emerging a superpower in electronics and other fields, the "live to work" mentality requires a stress release of some kind and the violent and fetishistic nature of Japan's cinema is an eye-opening and stunning experience emblazoned by a wildfire of creative genius. Could all this violence stem from their "brush under the rug" mentality towards past transgressions, or an expression brought out of the aftermath of the atomic bombs that devastated two of their major cities? Often times for Japan, export movies have their scenes of sadism and grotesqueries juiced up specifically for the Japanese market.

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In fact, Japan had been doing "torture porn" long before that woefully overused term was ever even coined on these shores in the last few years. I am referencing Teruo Ishii's mind-blowing JOY OF TORTURE series that began in the late 60s. This style of voracious sin-sationalism blossomed (or mutated) into a bloody whirlwind of cinematic brutality that changed further at the dawn of the 1970s. Whether it was a subconscious reaction to the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or just Japan needing to express itself in a busy, burgeoning and sexually claustrophobic climate, one could draw any number of conclusions. Japan also has their own unique brand of adult animation that's wildly pornographic depicting various monsters and demonic forces of evil with phallic tentacles ready to penetrate any number of young girls in pig tails and school girl outfits, or even female superhero characters. These violent and graphically sexual cartoons explode on screen with an incredible level of blood, gore and otherworldly spermatozoa.

Above: SEX & FURY (1973); Insert: JOY OF TORTURE 2 (1969)

Oddly, though, Japan has a strict policy on the fogging of pubic hair (something that seems to have been relaxed in recent years), but explicit blood, gore, sex and basic nudity is acceptable. In the 90s, Japan's sex culture was amplified further with nine cinematic adaptations of a popular manga titled RAPEMAN, which ran from 1985 through 1992. The storyline dealt with a "superhero" who used his own unique brand of justice to "right wrongs through penetration". Echoing the plot device of the HANZO, THE RAZOR series from the 1970s, the concept of RAPEMAN was not seen as the satirical black comedy it was designed to be when seen outside of Japan. It stirred a good deal of controversy from Human Rights groups in much the same fashion as the massive brouhaha raised by Kinji Fukasaku's BATTLE ROYALE at the dawn of the new millennium in the United States. Again, the media was there to feed us what was going on outside the US in their own inimitable style. Basically, they were rationing us information shoving only the "best" parts down our throats.


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We, unintentionally, feed the media and the media feeds us that forbidden, fat and juicily greasy all American cheeseburger we all crave; the dark side to our psyche that must be satiated--our need to see violence and death in its most grotesque form. By so doing, do we unwittingly create many of society's killers? While the media has never had to atone for their "sins", activists and crusaders for Christ have tried to make we, the people pay for non existent sins in what appears to have either been a desperate attempt at monetary gains through media exposure, or a decade long brush with insanity as was seen in the 1980s.


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At least as far back as the 1980s, horror movies, heavy metal music and other forms of entertainment found themselves in the spotlight, the target of religious zealots and media violence activists such as WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women) to name just one of many witch hunting factions that were prominently in the news promoting their views of ostracism against anything they felt was potentially damaging to the young minds of society. It wasn't just limited to music and movies, though. Even role playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons came under strict scrutiny from religious groups who seemingly believed that this wildly popular game contributed to the proliferation of satanism, suicide and murder (more on this later). Video games would later come under fire from worried parental groups campaigning against realistic violence in the games despite there being a rating system implemented in 1994.

Evangelist Pat Robertson is either invoking, or rebuking satan; Insert: One of the dozens of rock groups/albums branded demonic by religious fruit loops who likely were just hungry for media attention and the money of the poor souls who believed their shtick: google images

Regardless of what many of these nutty assemblages may come up with as an answer to the problems of Americans, violence in movies, as has been shown to be the case long before the turn of the century, acts as both a release and an escape from the all too real barbarism we see on the news and out in the streets. Where was this public outcry in the 1970s? That was a decade dominated by a plethora of creative ferociousness onscreen that, having been imitated in recent years, has yet to be successfully duplicated. Maybe the 70s was such an angry decade that by the time the 'Decade of Decadence' arrived, people were primed to start pointing fingers at something that wasn't really there in the first place.

Comic Book burning in 1948: above and insert google images

Let's take an opinionated look at movies and movements decade by decade and see how events both trailblazing and troubling shaped horror and controversial cinema of the time from the advent of the talkies all the way up to now. Everything seems to move in cycles, including movies. Television is also reflective of world views, but equally so in emulating what's big at the bijou. How these cycles are detrimental to our way of life and social structure is subjective and should not be ignored. While cinema is, at its best, viewed as pure entertainment, its frequent mirror image of a world in chaos or at war with itself is equally important and enlightening.


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The 1920s was a time of discovery and beginnings. WW1 ended at the dawn of this new decade. The 1920s were a first in many ways including a cadre of amazing inventions--the car radio, first Mickey Mouse cartoon, the first radio broadcast and sound in cinema. America was a place of vibrance and opportunity at least up until the close of the decade when the stock market crash took everything away via 'The Great Depression'. In the realm of cinema silence was golden till THE JAZZ SINGER opened its mouth in 1927 as the first "talkie" in the pantheon of American films. WW1 was predominantly a European war and they finally marched on American soil under the guise of a handful of influential German Expressionist movies such as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) THE GOLEM (1920), NOSFERATU (1922) and the science fiction spectacle of METROPOLIS (1927). These were among the main proponents of this movement seen in the United States.

Famous Monsters of Filmland 1968 Fearbook

Lon Chaney Sr., the 'Man of a Thousand Faces' was the leading progenitor of American horror and makeup effects in that he suffered greatly for his art by devising his own crude and punishing contraptions to bring his movie villains to life. These included HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) and the now lost LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) were Chaney's shining examples of terror of the silent screen. Chaney was partnered with famed silent film filmmaker, Tod Browning on ten occasions and Browning, himself, would plant his teeth into the horror genre in the coming decade.


Above and Al Capone insert: google images

The 1930s saw a struggling America attempting to rise out of the mire of the stock market crash as well as deal with Prohibition Era gangsters robbing banks and raising hell while contributing to the collapse of law and order in the USA as if the faltering economy wasn't crippling enough. In addition to such colorful crooks as Italian-American Al Capone (remember Geraldo opening his vault in 1986?), there were other Depression Era hooligans that made headlines such as John Dillinger and the Midwest rampage led by Bonnie and Clyde. This was most probably the beginning of the medias glorification of the criminal element while those who represented law and order such as Melvin Purvis, Elliot Ness and his Untouchables were kept in the dark. By the middle of the decade though, Capone would be imprisoned for tax evasion, Bonnie and Clyde were dead and John Dillinger soon followed two months later in July of 1934, the same year the cheeseburger was allegedly created.

Famous Monsters of Filmland 1967 Fearbook; above it's a view of the vast set created for the FRANKENSTEIN series

Not sure if this still is included on the DVD, but as the caption states, it's an unpublished still from the original KING KONG; insert: The mechanical upper body Kong contraption

With so much rampant anarchy, the movie going public seemed even more eager to embrace nightmares of the big screen and the 1930s gave them some spooky entries that still remain genre defining examples even to this day. One wonders that without the likes of Browning's DRACULA and Whale's FRANKENSTEIN, where would horror be today and what direction would it have taken without them. Other ghoulish hits that created monstrous progeny include THE MUMMY (1932), THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and KING KONG (1933). Tod Browning, riding high with the success of DRACULA, dealt a death blow to his own career with the release of FREAKS (1932), a movie that truly pushed too far and is a primary example of a movie that retains its power to shock an audience over 70 years after its brief theatrical run before being banned for decades. It wasn't quite the escapist entertainment patrons wanted, but curiosity seekers definitely got their money's worth.

KING KONG spread from Famous Monsters of Filmland

Two Kings of Horror, Bela & Boris; Insert: Behind the scenes on BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

The 1930s also saw the emergence of two actors who would become synonymous with the horror genre and its marketing--Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Over the course of the decade, audiences proved that the movies was the hottest ticket in town as well over half the US population were in attendance regardless of their social, or monetary status. People craved something to take their minds from the insanity of the real world; the stage (Grand Guignol, anyone? More on that later) and screen did just that. By the end of the decade, WW2 was about to ignite and the horror was just beginning.


Above and insert: google images

The 1940s was one of the most scary and tumultuous eras in American history. WW2 became an even more devastating international event when Japan, attempting to show what they were capable of, attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 during the morning hours of December 7th. The United States declared war on Japan the following day. For the next few years, numerous battles would play out on land, in the air and on the sea. From the Battle of Midway, to the Normandy Invasion (D-Day), to Hitler's suicide, to the ultimate finality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945, WW2 encompassed the triumph of the human spirit from the heroes around the world who fought against the devout tyranny and unbridled villainy of the Axis forces.

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Back on the home front, the United States was still recovering from The Great Depression/Stock Market Crash of 1929. With the war being the new blow dealt America, it nonetheless aided in bringing the economy out of its slump as many signed up to become soldiers while others kept factories going at home manufacturing what was needed to go to war against enemies of the nation. US propaganda posters and short films spurned on the anger Americans felt for the Axis of Evil. With so much war effort fuel for the fire, the nation came together to get America back on track and restore the financial position the country enjoyed prior to the end of the 20s. There also was a need to restore America's honor even though the way the people were fired up was morally wrong in itself. The seed for the 'American as Apple Pie' suburban Nuclear Family was soon to be planted and would bloom during the Fabulous 50s.


Above: MUMMY'S GHOST Famous Monsters 1969 Fearbook; Insert: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN 1966 Fearbook

To get away from the cataclysmic events engulfing the world, Americans once again escaped into the fantasy realm of cinema with Warner Brothers cartoons and even more Universal monster movies; the decade was full of them. If Americans craved escapism, they got it in the form of numerous sequels to popular 30s productions such as DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. Universal followed up their success with THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) with THE WOLF MAN in 1941. Both THE MUMMY (1932) and THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) got their own string of sequels as well. But with the mountainous assault of monsters, the decade provided little, to no innovation instead relying on successful formulas.

above: google images; Insert: Famous Monsters 1969 Fearbook

Later in the decade, the Universal horrors began to parody themselves with the inclusion of comedy such as the popular ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in 1948. Interestingly enough, the recycling of a proven formula in the 1940s would again rear its head in the latter part of the 1980s and into the first half of the 1990s as well as the reintroduction of the much dreaded horror comedy. But even amongst these varied creature feature fantasy films of the 40s, American theater patrons were still reminded of what was going on in the real world.



Inundated with all manner of propaganda shorts before the movies started, these were designed to maintain a sense of patriotism in US citizens and maybe even quell some of the heated sentiment felt by citizens of the day while being glaringly racist all at the same time. These films were also there to not let individuals forget that while they can enjoy the comfortability of their lives in the safety of the movie theater, Americans were giving their lives so that freedom would not die. The cartoons during this time had their own war time themes. These both poked fun of enemies of the Allied Powers and also trumpeted the patriotic human spirit of those who had no choice but to fight to bring peace.


These war time cartoons are also exemplary of a dark time period where racism was celebrated in society brought out from aggression from opposing forces. Whether it be poking fun of Japan, or Germany, there were dozens of toons that gave audiences the giggles with hilarious interpretations of the enemy at war with America. But while these animated shorts were all in "good fun", there was another form of cinematic racism that had been going on much earlier that brought about its own brand of critical lambasting.


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Now considered grossly offensive, these war time cartoons were something of a reiteration of the racially themed Stepin Fetchit, or Sleep 'n Eat persona, the "Coon Caricature" of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry and Bill Robinson respectively (among others). The former was the first Black actor in history to become a millionaire. His films were deemed offensive then and now as perpetuating a negative stereotype. Despite conflict with the NAACP, Perry's character was the inspiration for Stymie of THE LITTLE RASCALS shorts. Perry enjoyed his success even if others disliked his portrayals. His films (he was most prolific from the 20's through the 40s), like many of the war time cartoons, are hard to come by these days.

Step n Fetchit pic: Google images; Insert: SONG OF THE SOUTH: google images

While these old films are popularly perceived as blazingly racist, whether they were intentionally so is subjective, but obviously the participants didn't mind taking the roles. Like everything else, there's both positive and negatives about those old movies (racist caricatures were featured in numerous animated shorts and even Disney productions) in light of many being embarrassed by these early representations of minorities on film. Serious scholars have written much of interest on the subject. Despite racial connotations of the above quote ("feets, don't fail me now"), it has been adapted by numerous black personalities over the years from jazz musician Herbie Hancock to comedienne Whoopie Goldberg.

Above Charlie Chan played by a white guy; Insert: BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) google images

In the 70's we saw much the same thing with blaxploitation movies and again some time later with the modern comedians of the day whose buffoonic shtick isn't too far removed from the likes of Stepin Fetchit and Sleep 'n Eat 50 years prior and counting. Racism in old Hollywood wasn't limited to blacks, however. Hollywood rarely, or never gave orientals lead roles in films instead opting to dress up an Anglo actor in Asian tresses and makeup to appear more like a Chinese. One of the most (in)famous instances was the long running CHARLIE CHAN series of films. Britain did this, too, in regards to featuring English actors portraying Asians.

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After Japan surrendered, America was finally emerging from the economic muck and was finding financial stability once again. Towards the end of the 1940s, even after the war had ended, there was still unrest in other parts of the world. Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, and in 1949, China became a Communist nation and the United States was shocked to learn that the Soviet Union possessed atomic capability. As the United States entered the new decade (and the Cold War continued), a new era of horror was about to emerge both from outer and inner space.

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