Horror & comic Geek from Minneapolis
Our Lance David Fier takes a look at why we don’t seem to see the birth of as many long standing new slasher icons in modern horror films.
What Happened To The Age Of The Horror Icon?
The horror film genre, often disregarded as tripe by many filmmakers and fans, yet as old as filmmaking itself. Horror as a concept has a massively rich history which stems back centuries through story telling. This was essential in human social development since the beginning of civilization. Long before parents could depend on daycares, teachers, counselors, and police to keep their children safe, they simply told them horrifying stories of monsters that would carry them away if they misbehaved or wandered too far from home.
With the birth of film in the late 1800s, horror films became an immediate staple with such titles as Le Manoir du diable or The House of the Devil, by French stage magician Georges Méliès. You see, Méliès believed film was the next evolutionary step for illusionists, as he created some of the very first eye popping visual effects while filmmaking was in it’s infancy. Over 25 years later we get the birth of the movie monster with Nosferatu, the unlicensed German adaptation of Bram Stokers gothic novel, Dracula. It wasn’t long before the “Age of the Movie Monster” came to pass with 1930s and 40s classics such as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man. The 1960s and 70s brought us demonic forces like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen. I could not discuss this era without also mentioning the great George A. Romero and his 1968 flesh eating classic Night of the Living Dead which launched the horror genre’s love affair with the zombie, eventually elevating the zombies to their own sub-genre. Only 6 years later however, everything changed yet again when another brilliant horror director, Tobe Hooper, gave us a revolutionary new flavor of evil.
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In 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released and changed the face of the horror genre in a more significant way than ever before and helped launch the “Age of the Horror Icon” as I call it. It was a time when some of our most cherished and memorable horror villains were brought to life. Sure the classic movie monsters like Dracula are still remembered but those stories of vampires and lycanthropes have been told for hundreds or even thousands of years. The horror icons in the blink of an eye, about a 15 year window, exploded in a kind of horror renaissance. First bringing us Leatherface the hillbilly cannibal, and Michael Myers, a terrifying mental patient that thinks like a demon, moves like a ghost, but kills like a man. Soon there was an army of these modern fairytale monsters & even heroes. Jason, Freddy, Chucky, Ash, Wishmaster, Pinhead, Leprechaun, Blade, Tall Man, Pumpkinhead, Sandman, Ghostface, and the list goes on! These killers were terrifying, but made you want to root for them. Fans couldn’t get enough and it led to each character getting in some cases as many as 9 or 10 sequels. Just as quickly as this heyday of the horror film equivalent of comic book superheroes overflowed, it dried up.
Despite most of these horror icons continuing to be treasured and featured in sequels and reboots, the ability to create new ones that are as likable and sustainable seems to be a lost art, this is due partially to the natural flow of popular horror phases. Whatever style of horror film that is currently popular and attracts the best talent and writing comes in waves. It seems we are back in the thick of a paranormal demonic threat theme, which actually has several excellent entries recently such as The Conjuring. Eventually tastes change of course, but there is more to it than that. Many of the creators of these long lasting characters never intended them to be what they became, they simply wanted to make an impactful film with a terrifying villain, not necessarily a cultural phenomenon. When John Carpenter was first piecing together Michael Myers for his film Halloween, he had no idea the character would spawn 7 sequels to date plus a remake, and 2 sequels to the remake! Once other filmmakers and producers realized the staying power of these teen slashers, the genre became saturated with everyone’s own version of Jason Voorhees. Some worked, but most failed, and by the mid 90s it led to the concept growing quite stale, but not yet dead. The final nail in the coffin was just around the corner.
Horror legend Wes Craven (Yes, even his name is scary) first really hit the scene with the cult classic The Hills Have Eyes, about a family that becomes stranded on a road trip and is being picked off by another family of cannibalistic desert nomads. Later Craven became perhaps best known for his brilliant 1984 film, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Staring unarguably one of the top horror icons from this time, Freddy Krueger, a murderer returned from a fiery death for revenge who can enter your dreams and take your soul. Then, 12 years later he delivered to us the self-reflective, genre deconstructing gem, Scream. A huge breath of fresh air to a decaying horror concept but also an epic mic drop, one that brought a respectable end to a terrifying, fantastic, ridiculous, fun, and forever irreplaceable era of horror films. Craven very sadly passed away just last year at the age of 76, but the impact he made in the horror industry will never be overlooked.
Scream introduced the slasher baddie Ghostface, who had a simple look, the somewhat common white plastic Halloween ghost mask with black nylon hood and robe. Ghostface in the films was simply a series of disturbed people all dawning the same costume at different times. They are psychotic horror fans, who follow horror film themes and rules to commit intentionally horror film style murders, and if they get caught they will blame the same horror films. The killers and also the murder targets all seem to be subconsciously aware that they are in a horror film and use what they know about the genre to get away with murder or stay alive while a classic masked teen slasher is on the lose. Still while engaging in all the same tropes of the genre of course, such as lots of parties and drinking. Not to mention often referencing other iconic horror villains and films who’ve established these rules and tropes. It was the perfect fan-service parody of an aging horror style that simultaneously honored and respected that style. After Scream, the popular horror icons that had already been established were then immortalized and creating new characters that could capture the same spirit became extremely difficult. There was actually a HUGE surge in teen slasher films that resulted from the success of Scream, all featuring masked or deformed killers with catchy names, but none stood the test of time. The “Age of the Horror Icon” was officially over, and Silence of the Lambs had already ushered in the more sophisticated “Age of the Psychological Serial Killer.”
There are some minor exceptions to this rule, but even these stand out from the classic icons is some substantial ways. Some may point to Rob Zombie’s, Devil’s Rejects series which can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be from continuation to continuation, and is more of a mash-up of the best of Rob Zombie’s favorite films. And of course there is Jigsaw, the genius engineer/gamester from the Saw series. The first Saw film from one of my favorite modern directors James Wan was excellent, but belongs more in the psychological serial killer category. This was before the series just devolved into torture porn, which if you are not familiar is horror that is just disturbing brutality for the sake of being as disturbing and brutal as possible without any substance.
Nope, the horror icon era was a one of a kind.
Don’t get me wrong, I like modern horror. We get a relatively good mix of the demonic threats, with the aforementioned Conjuring and also Insidious series. We get great new modern movie monsters in films like The Babadook and It Follows, along with Universal Studio’s plan to reboot their classic movie monsters (Dracula, Wolf Man). The studios certainly aren’t showing any signs of giving up on the classic horror icons either with new Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street films amongst others that are in the works, but no new icons, just the classics from that one glorious pocket of time. Those horror heroes and how they all came to be is just one of those unique film history anomalies.
Maybe one day we will see a resurgence, with a whole fresh new crop of indiscriminate murderers in a second “Age of the Horror Icon.”