The first horror film ever made, if you use the term ‘horror film’ loosely and decide to not give a fuck about context, authorial intention or even common sense, was about a train. Specifically, it’s about a train arriving at a station in 1896; it’s not some Metlink slasher flick, but in fact a silent film consisting of 50 seconds of a locomotive being driven towards the screen. Its nineteenth century tophat-wearing, pipe-smoking audience pissed their fucking pants watching it rumble towards them in the theatre. Some left screaming; others fainted. People genuinely feared for their lives, and understandably so – as people unexposed to the moving image of cinema, it would have been a gut-wrenchingly terrifying experience. Remember when marketers released promotional videos of an audience overreacting to Paranormal Activity, a movie that’s basically about nothing? It was like that, except not totally fake – because people were actually scared by the train.
However, the train wasn’t actually meant to be scary. Like a home video filmed by a creepy uncle, the terror was inherent, stemming simply from the fact that its contents threatened to exist outside the screen (again, like that uncle). That foundational moment of instinctual, pure fear that the moving image could evoke became an ideal moviemakers strove towards in subsequent decades. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror may not be a work of art, but it is arguably the first good scary movie that embodied this principle: after all, good horror is not something that necessarily requires artistry. It merely requires exploitation of the survival instinct. It’s about threatening to invade your space. Also like that uncle.
By the late 1970s, a climate in which two distinct types of horror movies coexisted had been around for nearly 60 years. On the artistic end of the spectrum lay such classics as Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds, and numerous other movies that remain deeply, timelessly disturbing. On the other end, we get The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and Orgy of the Dead. In my opinion, the last of these demonstrates how important it is that shitty horror films have absolutely no pretenses about what they are. You read the title, and you know what you’re getting: sex and violence. It’s not pretty, it’s not artistic, it’s probably cheap as fuck, but at least its upfront about it. I’m not a nuanced, three dimensional person, so I’m a big fan of this tactic. If I sit down to watch a movie called Surf Nazis Must Die, fuck, I agree. Surf Nazis must die. Special mention goes to Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator, for pretty much not giving a shit at all.
All these shitty, low-effort horror movies do have a purpose: they’re almost primal in what they deliver. For every Alien, there is an Aliens. For every quiet, subtle piece of psychological scare media, there are countless more slashers, monsters and gorefests. Whilst there’s value in both types of films, there’s a lot more entertainment to be had in the train bumrushing the audience than there is in enduring two and a half hours of other people being mildly put off, which is honestly what psychological horror amounts to. Good horror is like bad sex: entirely lacking in foreplay, and wholly focused on extracting bodily fluids.
However, for a brief, wonderful period in the 1980s and 1990s, horror hit a peak, the likes of which we may never see again – deftly blending psychological drama with crass thrills. John Carpenter, director of the literal classics of this era – such as Halloween, The Thing, In The Mouth of Madness and They Live – is the shining beacon of great horror directing. His films are dumb, upfront, totally lacking in pretence, and yet psychologically compelling. They are the subtle, brooding locomotive that screams directly into the audience’s face. In particular, The Thing holds the singular honour of being the only movie where Kurt Russell plays chess, breaks a computer and then torches a series of puppets with a flamethrower. It is a veritable horror classic.
Speaking of puppetry, horror’s Golden Age is essentially built upon the frayed strings of a pre-CGI-reliant film industry. During the production of The Thing, the dude in charge of animatronics and costume design worked for a year straight, after which Carpenter booked him into a hospital. It shows in the film. The titular Thing is alien in a way no films before or since it captured. It’s gory and gratifying, but at the same time not without subtlety.
You know who else is perfect? Sam Neill. I don’t think people who write broad analyses of narrative canons talk enough about Sam Neill. Jurassic Park is awesome, but that dude shines so hard in horror movies. In the Mouth of Madness and Event Horizon are basically lovecraftian horror flicks, with Sam Neill. He’s terrifying. He has crazy eyes. His tactic is to continually scream in your face for an hour till you’re questioning your own sanity. It’s all about the train, man. It’s about making it real. And there’s nothing more real than puppets, fake blood and Sam Neill.