Hollywood’s “Golden Age” was several decades ago. The 1930s, to be exact.
Long gone are the days of those Pollyanna scripts, analog screenings, and a pool of A-list actors and actresses who stay true to whom they are and what they do.
An important moment in cinematic history occurred in Hollywood when it was thought that a movie can flourish without a leading person, but rather a thing.
This was the glorious inception of monsters — Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Wolfman, The Mummy, King Kong, and even The Night of the Living Dead.
These are the movies that uncovered a darker side of directors and opened an eerie door of opportunity (which, of course, no one wants to answer because monsters may be knocking).
A Nod to the Past
For a little more than 40 years, horror consisted of things you would consider to only be in comic books or in the wild. Then, around the mid-70s, we entered the Occult Era of film.
This was true horror’s heyday with films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, Salem’s Lot, The Amityville Horror, and cinema’s preeminent The Exorcist.
Things never conceived before on screen are happening before your very eyes and making you wish you never knew what you now know.
The 70s also brought us the beginning of an entirely different genre in horror — slasher films. We met Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Pluto (The Hills Have Eyes), and Michael Myers (Halloween).
We also got our first peek at what a zombie movie would look like with Dawn of the Dead, led by the great and grotesque visionary George Romero. And so, it happened. The stage was set for a new, illustrious age for horror films, and right into the 1980s we carefully tiptoed to the cult classics section of any library.
We met some of the most encompassing creatures to ever hit the screen during this time of horror sequels, slashers gone mainstream, and all those damn zombies.
From Jason to Freddy, to Ash and Pinhead, these mononymous individuals made Hollywood darker, stranger, and much more enjoyable to the average flick aficionado.
Take Stephen King’s books. They became screenplays-in-waiting — Pet Cemetery, Cujo, The Shining, Children of the Corn, Christine, Creepshow, and Firestarter. The 1980s was also a decade for new pioneers, like John Carpenter whose murky vantage point of life gave us The Fog, Halloween, Prince of Darkness, and his triumph in horror, The Thing.
And the dead never died during this dreaded decade with numerous zombie productions, such as Evil Dead, Day of the Dead, Re-Animator, The Return of the Living Dead, and C.H.U.D. (look it up).
These two decades were the inspirational times of jump scares, terrorizing scores, and night lights in every room of your house.
It was also a time for production houses to make a quick coin because most horror films were done on tight budgets reaping big dividends.
The problem with that point is everyone wanted in on spending less, earning more, which liquefied the recipe of what makes a good horror film into this morbid stew of bad plots, doltish characters, and forgettable franchises. The idea was sound but the curation was crap.
Horror movies lost its way and it would a plethora of abysmal flicks for Hollywood to get a clue of what to do outside of the summer blockbusters and winter award entries.
And Then There Was One
Initially, let’s agree that while some classic movies in the ’90s stuck with us and tantalized us — The Silence of the Lambs, Flatliners, and The Sixth Sense — they were not “horror” films. The slashers were on hospice. The scares were laughable. And the sequels — all those pathetic, inept sequels.
Wes Craven gave up Freddy’s ghost (more than once). A third Exorcist?! How many Aliens do we need to see again? About as many as stupid, ginger killer dolls, I guess. And for the last time, no one cares what you did last summer. They never did!
Sure, Mr. Craven attempted his comeback tour to reinvigorate the slasher flick. Scream was good in that it attracted people back to the theater during the doldrum months of January through May. The mask was great for marketing, but that’s about it.
And then, off in the faint distance was a sound. It was a familiar sound — one that hadn’t been heard by horror movie producers in quite some time. It was… a cash register.
In 1999, for the price of $60,000 and one magical camcorder, we got The Blair Witch Project. A story of three aspiring filmmakers who hiked the Black Hills in Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary about this “real-life” entity known as “The Blair Witch.”
This movie took the nation by storm and created an entire new, inexpensive genre of horror filmmaking — the “recovered footage” era.
This movie debunked three very popular and longstanding theories among the higher echelon of horror types in movie making: 1.) You need a big budget. 2.) Without a big marketing campaign, you won’t get big results. And 3.) You need big names.
No. Again, the movie was only a $60,000 expense that yielded a modest 416,566% return ($250 million)! The movie starred, well… no one you ever heard of before. And the marketing campaign went “viral” because it was smart. One website, leading posters, and leave the rest up to imagination. It was a recipe that has only been matched once — and will never happen again.
The “once” was ironically, another independent “recovered footage” film called Paranormal Activity, which became the most profitable movie of all time with its paltry budget of $15,000 bringing in $200 million — that’s 1,333,233% math fans!
A Glimpse Into the Future
Did America want another slasher franchise? What would make horror fans unite under one bloody banner again? When have true lovers of gore, suspense, and hair-standing moments brought in the big bucks?
Like Michael J. Fox, go back to the future.
Hollywood was on a mission — make money during the dead months of cinema. Great, but how do we get them there? They needed to combine aspects of the Golden Age and bring them into today. A slasher but with a novel, sardonic twist. A bewitching but no split pea soup thrown on a priest. A dark motive that has to stick with you after to leave the theater.
And then it happened. We met Jigsaw and James Wan.
People were inspired by his creativity and storytelling. Horror got smarter and created a plot around jump scares, like The Others. Yes, in the oughts, we had to rummage through a Final Destination, try to see through The Mist, and deal with the over-the-top Rob Zombie concoctions, but there were gems to be found in all that crap.
Guillermo del Toro brought us to The Orphange. Neil Marshall took us to the depths of the earth and our soul in The Descent. The Indie stalwart Ti West created The House of the Devil. And storybook sequence magic was created with The Babadook.
Oh yeah, we also discovered these streaming networks were a thing, which only prolonged the shelf life of any new horror flick (see the aforementioned Babadook).
But we also got James Wan (did I mention that already)? He was busy creating two of the most successful horror franchises in history with Conjuring and Saw. All the sequels that came from those were thought-provoking, evocative, and customized to create a new feeling of terror in each of us.
More importantly, they were novel and breathed a stank odor of novelty into the lungs of Hollywood’s corpse. There was hope for horror, and timing could never be better for terror than it was in the late 2000s.
What we came to know as “mainstream horror” flicks were no longer scary; they were comical. There was no jump scares, only people jumping out of their seats and darting for the exit. Movies were no longer given multi-million dollar budgets, just enough to get that script to go straight to DVD.
But when indie directors and streaming TV got introduced to horror’s new-found potential, it was like someone took (insert your favorite horror writer, producer, actor here)’s Etch-a-Sketch and shook it like it was a twerking booty at the club.
Hereditary. The VVitch. A Quiet Place. The Visit (Yes, the M. Night movie). And, most significantly, Get Out. These latest films, along with mostly anything A24 and Blumhouse puts out, has resurrected the horror film for today’s audience.
Long live the Golden Age of Hollywood. It truly paved the way for today’s film — the mystery, the intrigue, the plot development, the characterization. It all stems from those monster movies back in the day. It seems that time is finally growing on us all again, and movie goers are all better for it.