|Arms, From Grave||Arms, From Walls||Baby, Evil||Barricade
|Cabin, Spooky||Cannibalism||Car, Evil||Cat-Jump||Chainsaw Chase|
|Choice, Impossible||Closet, Louvered||Clowns, Scary||Comedy Horror||Computer Horror|
|Corpse, Falling||Dead on Display||Death Machines||Devil's Garage Sale||Doctor, Insane|
|Doll, Evil||Dream Fakeout||Family, Psycho||First Horror Movie||Geometry, Hellish|
|Girl, Final||Girl, Tripping||Heads, Blinky||Heads, Exploding||Heads, Shakey Fast|
|Hitchhiker, Unsettling||Holiday Horror||Justice, Supernatural||Kids, as Monsters||Kids, Snuffing|
Arms Erupting From the Grave
In front of a neglected grave, the earth stirs, and a gaunt, clawing hand thrusts forth from the earth's cold embrace. Don't ask me how they do it. Buried six feet deep in a coffin (or even a concrete vault), clawing up to the surface... the undead are coming, and they are great diggers. First Use "Die Hand auf dem Grabe," by J. D. H. Temme (1839) details an account of a wayward son in Groß-Redensleben, who 'raised his hand' against his father around the year 1610. Struck dead for his sin, he is remembered in the village by a tablet, under which hangs a length of iron chain, from which swings an desiccated ashen grey human hand, cut off at its root. The hand was said to have appeared from the grave itself. Over the years, this folkloric motif occurred several times in old Europe. Adaptations I Bury the Living (1957) invokes the image, while stopping just short of showing a hand pop out. It certainly creates the anticipation of that moment. A lunatic female-Renfield-type cheers a new vampire bride break to the surface in The Brides of Dracula (1960), although the film is often dismissed as 'I was a Teenage Dracula' by Hammer enthusiasts. An arm opened the coffin and flailed around menacingly in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971), a grindhouse era Italian schlocker. Perhaps the most famed use is in the shock ending of DePalma's Carrie (1976), which had audiences jumping.
Also used effectively in Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead (1985), sequel Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988), and even Michael Jackson's Thriller video (1983). I also think Creepshow (1982) used it in the Birthday segment. See also the cover art for The Evil Dead (1981) as a noteworthy adaptation. The inventive gore-fest Bride of Re-Animator (1990) concludes with a nice twist on this motif, where the protagonists escape from beneath a cemetery by 'fisting' up from the grave-earth. Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992) 'moves the plot' along when a urinating thug is interrupted mid-stream by the arm of Lionel's infected (and buried) mother. An arm holding a wiggling branch erupts unexpectedly from a grave in the opening scene of Cemetery Man (aka Della Morte Della Amor) (1994) in a clever attempt to mislead you from expecting an 'arm pop.' I believe it was also thrown into the very fun Tales from the Hood (1995).
A nice 'hand from the crypt' is slipped into Van Helsing (2004) just before the masked ball. That actually sounds dirtier than it is. We see the whole upward journey in Kill Bill Volume II (2004), although that is not strictly part of the horror genre. The 2007 film Dance of the Dead opens (predictably) with this gag, and uses it again later in the movie. Perhaps the most unexpected entry can be seen early in Troma's long awaited Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006, but released in 2009), in which a number of gooey undead arms erupt from the earth, becoming invasively 'familiar' with an amorous young couple trysting on a grave. We see both arms and big shoes erupting from an unquiet clown grave in enjoyable Stitches (2012).
While it may not be exactly a grave, there are dozens of uses of this image in Dead Snow (2007), mostly zombie hands from the snow, but also an occasional avalanche survivor or two.
Arms Erupting From the Walls
If you are in a haunted house and an army of arms don't erupt from the walls and grab at you, then you aren't in a proper haunted house. This wonderful effect is the perfect marriage of surrealistic shock and low-tech implementation. Some of the time they are attached to zombies, other times they are just... arms. First Use Jean Cocteau's La Belle et La Bete (Beauty and the Beast, French, 1945) provided many nightmarish visual innovations, but the most widely used is the image of living human arms erupting from the solid walls, as usual, in a narrow hallway.
Outside the mainstream, the image of arms projecting through a wall and rattling a martini shaker were used to suggest a doorbell in Un Chien Andalou (1929), the short Surrealist film co-created by Salvadore Dali.
Adaptations While not a horror film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) features living wall-hands as hat-racks (a likely homage to Cocteau). Used very memorably in the opening cinderblock-walled room dream sequence of Romero's Day of the Dead (1985), and creatively adapted in the falling-down-a-pit scene in Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986). Also seen in the Portuguese I'll See You in My Dreams (2003). Perhaps the most stylized use of this device are the seven-foot long zombie arms used by Wes Craven in his fact-based The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) (which may have been an unconscious homage to Freddy Kruger's long-arm scene in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The 2006 film The Slaughter adapted this motif as ghostly arms reaching up out of the floor. Nicely adapted as twitching arms from the ceiling in the 2007 video game Condemned. A horde of demon arms come smashing through old plaster walls near the end of the Night of the Demons (2009) remake.
This motif is much more widely adapted as part of the failing barricaded old house sequences common to many horde-oriented horror films, especially if you see folks nailing boards across the doors and windows - Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) uses it with driving gloves in the zombie return of 'Johnny,' who was killed at the beginning of the film. I spoke to Russ Streiner ('Johnny') around 2006, and he said this was a deliberate tie-back to help the audience understand that Johnny was definitely a zombie, and coming for his sister Barbara. It was seen in the Michael Jackson Thriller video (1983) at about 11:00 minutes in, during the 'trapped in the house' sequence, The motif also features prominently in the "Wee Chapel of the Dawn" battle from Return of the Living Dead (1985). At an isolated house, it is no surprise to see furry lupine arms clawing through the window-boards in the UK lycanthropy epic Dog Soldiers (2002). The Simpsons Movie (2006) included arms bursting through the cabin door while Homer make chainsaw noises to scare them away. Zombie arms plunged through flimsy doors and windows briefly in the refreshing Dead Snow (2009) as well.
Few things are as universally cute as a baby, so turning one into an antagonist caught everyone off guard at first. Now, the motif has become mundane, stretching all the way to subgenres like demonic possession and juvenile psychos. Maybe this is why W. C. Fields wouldn't work with children. First Use Aside from the folklore tradition of changelings, the first film treatment of a baby gone wrong was Roman Polansky's Rosemary's Baby (1968), where the evil apparently stems from the father's side of the family. Adaptations The worst baby on the block has to be Damien in The Omen (1976) and it's remake (2006), again featuring the devil's babe. Also of note is It's Alive (1974), which introduced the iconic evil baby stroller (remade in 2008). Argentinean film Baby Blood (1990) has the baby conducting most of its evil before birth. See also The Unborn (1991) and The Unborn II (1994) where bad science makes bad babies.
Don't forget the messed up baby in Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (aka Braindead, 1992) either - more of a festering muppet than a realistic depiction of a baby, but loads of evil baby fun. The remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) featured a very unpleasant zombie baby following a very unpleasant zombie labor scene. The fairly lame Ghost Son (2007) features a CGI enhanced articulate posessed baby that gives Stewie Griffin a run for his money. Wrong Turn 2 - Dead End (2007) featured a horrifically inbred baby - it wasn't necessarily evil, but it was quite nasty. Also appearing in Inside (2007) and Baby Blues (2008). For a nice zombie baby, look for indie release Grace (2009).
Barricade the House!
The hordes are coming, and there's only one hope - get everyone into the old farmhouse and barricade the windows with whatever you can find. Where did these hammers come from? Did you ever try finding nails in a strange house in the dark? Can you really secure a window with one of those weird tables from Ikea? This dramatic device serves to concentrate the action and set the stage for the climax of any movie featuring more creatures than survivors. First Use At this point, I am giving it to The Killer Shrews (1959), where the sheriff from The Dukes of Hazzard barricades an earthen building from the savage maws of gigantic shrews as they actually chew through the walls.
It could also be considered that The Thing (1951) includes a suitable barricade scene, but I am still chewing this over.
Adaptations Barricades were most famously made in Romero's original Night of the Living Dead (1968), where spare doors, and table-tops are nailed to window frames, with very plausible carpentry. It didn't help for long - which is an important part of the barricade-motif. Also well done in O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead (1985), where the gang barricades itself into the 'Wee Chapel of the Dawn' (a likely Romero reference) as a refuge. Later, a group barricades themselves briefly into an attic. See also the many zombie genre remakes, including Night of the Living Dead (1990) and the crappy 3D mess-remake (2006). The attic motif shows up again in Demon Knight (1995) as well.
A flock of escaped psychos lay siege to a bunch of evil doctors who have barricaded themselves away in Alone in the Dark (1982). Also seen to some degree in Mimic 2 (2001), the remake of Willard (2003), and the remake of Day of the Dead (2008). For a real barricade-filled epic, see Tobe Hooper's Mortuary (2005), where several teens set up multiple barricades against possessed town-folk using coffins, church organs, steamer trunks and more. Used with some humor in Dead Snow (2009) just before everything in the zombie-besieged cabin goes horribly wrong. Indie film Baghead (2008) runs a very realistic barricading scene, using refrigerators, matresses, bedframes, and anything that a person would actually grab in such a situation. The IFC adaptation of The Walking Dead (2010) has a nice barricade scene in the first episode, complete with boards across the door and blankets to keep the windows dark. Most folks don't think about that part.
Just short of this motif is the scene where a character shoves a dresser against the door (usually in a hotel) to keep out the crazy person. However, without nails, it almost never works.
This entire motif apparently ties back to genuine concerns of premature burial during Victorian times (in a world before embalming), where the funeral industry briefly held an aftermarket for please don't bury me alive alarm bells and sundries. The idea of being buried alive still bothers people today. First Use The premature burial motif was articulated best and probably first in several works by Edgar Allen Poe, specifically The Premature Burial (1844), originally published in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. Adaptations Poe-style premature burial appears several times in the Roger Corman series of loose adaptations of Poe stories in the 1960s (most notably The Premature Burial (1962) with Ray Milland). I have also heard of a newer film adaptation in a project called Nightmares from the Mind of Poe, but I don't think it made it to production. Premature burial also provides plot climax to The Vanishing (1993) and The Pit and the Pendulum with dear Vincent Price(1963) Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) did a great job with this motif, helping the audience feel like they were a part of the boxed-up action.
It is given new energy in Kill Bill Volume II (2004), where again, the viewer is taken for the whole ride. Premature burial is used very vividly as a torture technique in Broken (2006) Until I see it, I can't be sure about all the movies called Buried Alive (including 1908, 1917, 1939, 1990, 2003, 2007 and more), but the allusion is clear. In a deliberate stroke, Uwe Boll gives us Seed (2007), in which a man named 'Seed' is buried alive after several electrocution attempts - and just like a seed, he comes back for revenge. A quick 'buried alive on main street' was thrown into the jumbled Ghost Town (2009) as well, but it was mostly lost in the confusion. Please don't overlook Buried (2010), in which this theme becomes the framework for the movie, filmed completely within a coffin buried prematurely with Ryan Reynolds. Back to Poe, it is incorrect to assume that the Poe-adventure The Raven (2012) could avoid including a premature burial as well.
Once upon a time, a secluded log cabin represented tranquility and relaxation. Drop one in a horror movie, and it is a short-cut to a very likely zombie/demon/hellbilly siege.
Cabins also represent the ideal sort of finite, low budget horror setting in the same way that 'filming in the desert' became synonymous with low budget 1950's science fiction or low budget 1980's post-apocalyptic movies (such as the venerable Hell Comes to Frogtown).
First Use To be fair, this appears to be an archetypal sort of horror element, probably woven into stories as long as there have been isolated cabins on the frontier. One direct invocation is The Haunted Log Cabin an anonymous short story about two young ladies who catch a fright in melodramatic fashion. It was published in The Australian Journal (page 576) volume 7 in 1872 - along with 'Five New Tales by Edgar Allan Poe.'
For fims so far, I am still giving this to Sam Raimi for The Evil Dead (1981), mostly because this movie cemented the image of a lonely cabin. Since this film, all other cabin movies feel like they are borrowing from Raimi. There is no indication that Raimi was inspired by the Bell Witch haunting around 1817 - however, both took place at remote cabins in Tennessee.
The original Cape Fear (1962) exploits the isolation, but it isn't a major theme in the story. There is also an isolated summer house in Taste of Fear (1961), but again, it's not the main setting. Friday the 13th (1980) (and it's weak 2009 remake) also delivers cabin horrors early, but since it is a summer camp setting, it is not strictly 'isolated.'
Adaptations Automatically, Evil Dead 2 - Dead by Dawn (1987) returns to the action of the cabin, complete with an inexplicably extensive basement complex. Certainly Eli Roth's debut film Cabin Fever (2002) ranks up there, complete with the titular cabin. The made-for-TV Cabin by the Lake (2000) is pretty effective and fun, as is the sequel , aptly named Return to Cabin by the Lake (2001). See also The Dark Half (1993), based on a Stephen King story, which benefits from the secluded cabin, but does not really rely on it. Crazy inbred hillbillies have a nice, run-down cabin in Wes Craven's Wrong Turn (2003), but it is not the central set of the film. I believe there was also an isolated cabin full of inbred loonies in Lake Dead (2007), but it wasn't too memorable. Sometimes the titular The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is even able to take center-stage.
Andy Serkis leads a bunch of of thugs to The Cottage (2008) on a remote farm occupied by a fairly impressive melty-farmer. Never watch borrowed videos in isolated cabins, or you will be plunged into The Ring (2002). Norway's Dead Snow (2009) goes all the way by including the cabin, besieging the cabin, and finally burning the cabin to the ground. Well done. Furthermore, Dead Snow actually includes a scene where this 'spooky cabin' motif is used in horror movies, and they cite Evil Dead 1 and 2, Friday the 13th and April Fool's Day (1986), (but that was hardly a cabin).
Decrepit houses in the woods are not too far off base, the only difference being in construction materials. The climax of The Blair Witch Project (1999) uses an abandoned, decrepit house in the woods, but you get the idea. Dog Soldiers (2002) has a nice old house that withstands a lupine onslaught.
Keeping us locked out instead of locked in is The Strange High House in the Mist (1926), a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, centering on an isolated and ancient tiny stone house whose only door faces out over a sea cliff.
When you have run out of ways to horrify audiences without mining the supernatural, a little cannibalism can amp up the shock factor. The genre was especially popular with Italian directors in the 1980s. Still, it is worth noting that some supernatural elements (Wendigo, even vampirism) spring forth from cannibalistic acts. First Use Generally, the first major use of cannibalism as a theme is attributed to Umberto Lenzi in The Man from Deep River (1972), which laid the groundwork for all of the Italian 'cannibalism in the jungle' films to follow a decade later. Adaptations Certainly, Lenzi returned to the theme in Cannibal Ferox (1980, released in the US as Make Them Die Slowly), which has lost much of its punch over the years (although most available versions are cut by 6 minutes). Also in the genre is Deodata's Cannibal Holocaust (1980) which features many of the same elements (animal killing, jungle locations, and cannibalism). Certainly the best known participant is Hannibal 'the Cannibal' Lechter from Manhunter (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Red Dragon (2002), Hannibal (2001) and Hannibal Rising (2007). Man, he gets around. Much thanks to Eli Roth for bringing it back with The Green Inferno (2013), which was actually the working title for Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust.
Ravenous (1999) took the genre to the American frontier with style and occasional humor (including the anonymous quote 'Eat me' at the beginning of the film). Fish (2007), which documents the case of serial killer/cannibal Albert Fish, also deserves mention. Cannibalism was embraced with gusto by one dismembering castmember in the miniseries Dead Set (2010), although the other folks seemed a bit squeamish.
Although not horror (but a musical), it would be remiss not to mention Cannibal, the Musical (1996)(also known as Alferd Packer: The Musical), and early film from the South Park creators that romanticizes the history of Alferd Packer. With music. And a mule. In love.
Actors are expensive, and they whine about sitting in the makeup chair for hours. But make a horror movie about a scary car and let the good times roll! First Use First aired in on January 3, 1964, the Twilight Zone episode You Drive (written by Earl Hamner, Jr.) tells the story of an unrepentant hit-and-run driver, who is nagged and ultimately chased by his car in to confessing his crime. Adaptations An early use is Stephen Spielberg's first film Duel (1971), which deals with an evil tank truck driver who is never seen, which works effectively to demonize the rusty truck itself. This dusty demon chases Dennis Weaver half way across the desert without ever revealing anything about the driver - the truck itself is the antagonist.
The quirky The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) is another early incarnation of this motif. While not occult in any way, the drivers were de-emphasized throughout the moving, again linking the terror directly with the cars. Also the cars had a cool pre-Mad Max look to them. Look for an early appearance by Gyro Captain Bruce Spence.
The Car (1977) brings an obvious title to a tale of a strange black car running people down in a desert town. An old black hearse and witchcraft terrorize a woman in The Hearse (1980), but the creepy driver is included. Stephen King's novel Christine (1983) made a good transition to the screen that same year - and casting a Plymouth 'Fury' as the evil car is just so cool. King returned to the thin theme with angry trucks in Maximum Overdrive (1986), which he reportedly still regrets making. Another 'dark car with no name' drive the story of The Wraith (1986). A very effective mixture of humor and horror weave the tale of an evil monster truck (really!) in Monster Man (2003). Although it wasn't strictly evil, the odd flying-and-sentient car in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) deserves some mention.
Extending back towards road rage movies like Duel, one can include the big rusty truck from Jeepers Creepers (2001) and the 'candycane' taunting psycho trucker in Joy Ride (2001), which was pretty good.
Extending the genre even further to include possessed machines can include the venerable made-for-TV Killdozer (1974), and the Stephen King story about the evil cotton mill, Graveyard Shift (1990).
Reviled as the most hackneyed device to elicit a shock, the cat that suddenly leaps out of the shadows (with an appropriate mrrrowr!) has been standing in for good writing in horror movies for decades. They might as well edit in a quick cut of Rip Taylor yelling 'Boo!' First Use Although it is hard to capture the fast editing in prose, Edgar Allen Poe set mark in his short story The Black Cat (1843), where the narrator, wracked with guilt, is haunted by a black cat that embodies his own guilt. Here, the shock is appropriately saved for the end of the story - as the police tear down the stone wall to reveal the corpse of the narrator's wife, there upon her head sits the malevolent, screeching creature - "I had walled the monster up within the tomb!" Adaptations Setting a standard for the over-use of cat-jumps is The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), the Vincent-Price-in-cool-shades adaptation of Poe (by Roger Corman, as usual). The film is also noteworthy for a dream sequence, in which the cat-jumps are accompanied by stock cougar roars. Nice kitty. Also used shamelessly at about 20 minutes into Asylum of Satan (1972) while the atmosphere is still building. Striving to be the 'mother' of all cat-jumps is a scene in Dario Argento's Inferno (1980) which involves so many flying cats, you can even see an occasional cat-thrower's arm. Look for a startling kitten in a barn in Halloween 5 (1989) as well. Among the best is the ever-menacing undead cat 'Church' in Stephen King's Pet Sematary (1989), based on the 1983 novel. The first paperback edition even features Church on the cover. King brings a jumping cat back with anthology film Cat's Eye (1985). Jones the cat does his yowling jump just before being put in his cage during the climax of Alien (1979), after which he possibly becomes the only castmember of the entire series to live a normal life after encountering the titular creature (see Aliens (1986)). Viewing CHUD II: Bud the CHUD (1989) may cause one to wonder how a jumping cat came to be in a hospital closet - better to wonder why one is watching CHUD II: Bud the CHUD We are also treated to a cat jump just before meeting Anthony Hopkins in The Rite (2011). Possessed hospital feature Exeter (2015) features a nice cat jump after one of the girls crawls into the ductwork.
Even better is the cat that jumps onto someone. This employs the same shock, but adds an actual plot element. See The Legend of Hell House (1973) and the oddball Taxidermia (2006) for examples of this, although the cat is actually the hero in one of the tales.
Evil cats drive the entire story in some films, such as the ultra-loose 'adaptation' of Poe in The Black Cat (1934), which features Karloff and Lugosi, and was supposedly based more on Aleister Crowley than Poe. The story has been remade quite a few times over the years, with varying effectiveness - one of the more stylish was Lucio Fulci's The Black Cat (1981). See also Seven Dead in the Cat's Eye (1973), which features the curse of a killer cat, and The Uncanny (1977), which oddly suggests that cats are a lot more in control than we ever thought. Website Boing Boing posted a link to an article in September 2016 entitled "Why jump scares suck, and why there is no hope for them." I remain a little hopeful.
The Chainsaw Chase
As car chases are to crime dramas and action films, so has the Chainsaw Chase become a staple of horror movies, typically within the slasher genre. Chainsaws are, in fact, pretty heavy. However, I think the biggest fabrication is the way characters in films are able to start a cold saw on the first pull. Never happens. First Use Last House on the Left (1972) includes the first chainsaw chase and attack that I am aware of - surprisingly, it is directed at an antagonist. It is surprising that Wes Craven would do it before Tobe Hooper, although it lacks the impact of the latter. Adaptations Tobe Hooper ran with the chainsaw in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series (beginning in 1974), instantly making all subsequent chainsaw movies derivative. An epic chainsaw battle provides the pig-headed climax to campy classic Motel Hell (1980), although there isn't much actual chasing taking place. Sam Raimi locked it on in the Evil Dead (1981 to 1992) films, once even used by Ash on his own (possessed) arm. Chainsaw action was a major component of Pieces (1982), promoted by the tagline "you don't have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre." Don't forget the floating chainsaw that menaces the car in Poultergeist II: The Other Side (1986). Never to be outdone is the chainsaw mayhem marking the conclusion of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992) (along with lawnmower mayhem). See also the unknown film Chainsaw Sally (2004). Also look for a massive chainsaw defense scene in Dead Snow (2009), after which some fresh snow is definitely needed.
I should expand this to tool killings like The Driller Killer (1979) or either version of The Toolbox Murders (1978 and 2003) but those were more directly influenced by Tobe Hooper, who directed the 2003 version.
The Impossible Choice
Nothing like an impossible moral choice to pull a viewer into empathy - given an impossible choice, what would you do? It's much easier to sit back and watch a movie character pick the wrong choice (where there are often no right choices). First Use Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery (1948), in which a community is forced to sacrifice a child of their own to insure a good crop, matches this motif. However, like the blank cartridge in a firing squad, it seems like the folks in that story have found a mechanism to help them make a tough choice without feeling directly responsible - until they all stone Tessie to death. Adapted several time in TV and film, this story somewhat lies outside the realm of horror. Adaptations The impossible choice is seen early by Robert Quarrey in Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), in which he can either save his wife from a horrible death, or his own (with eternal life), but not both. Also seen in Stephen King's The Storm of the Century (1999), with its spin on The Lottery in a more 'rational' community. This story also inspired a storyline in the early soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971) in which one family member per generation is sacrificed to death or insanity by spending the night in a severely haunted room. Tough choices all around, most recently in The Box (2009), where a melty-faced guy offers you one million dollars to kill someone you don't know. While not a horror film, 127 Hours (2010) forces you to consider if you could cut off your own arm to survive.
Sometimes the impossible choice is a no-win situation, as in the unsettling Red White & Blue (2010), in which a child is given the choice to live or die after her parents are murdered. In the Saw film franchise (2004 - 2010), it is all about bad-bad choices, from 'cut a key out from behind your own eye or die' to 'pick two of these five people to live, let the others die.' There is no correct answer.
Louvered Closet Doors
Classic films have made use of deep, irregular shadows to create tension, all the way back to the silent era. These days, if you want crazy shadows during a tense scene, just put someone in a closet with louvered doors, while the villian lurks just outside. First Use
Until I notice something earlier, I will let Halloween (1978) enjoy the 'first use' category. Of course, in this film, the louvers didn't last too long before Michael Meyers began smashing through them. Extra points for the swinging lightbulb to cast crazy moving shadows. Adaptations Among the most memorable of these scenes, emphasizing voyeurism as much as tension, is Kyle MacLachlan in his tighty-whiteys hiding in Blue Velvet (1986), and hiding for very good reasons. A victim hid in a gym locker for the very same effect in Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987), which I say is close enough. Much tension in a louvered closet in the startling High Tension (2003). Lots of closets, but no Louvers in Monsters, Inc. (2001) - sorry. Closet hiding is also used in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). See also Almost Human (2014), a Body-Snatchers-meets-Fire-In-The-Sky alien abduction film, where the heavyset alien needs to look for his old girlfriend in the closet. Hiding in a louvered closed is featured very briefly in the inventive anthology film ABCs of Death 2 (2014), but is not a major plot point.
While the term colurophobia popularly describes an extreme or irrational fear of clowns, it is not a specific psychological term. However, from tramps to joeys, everyone seems to get a little creeped out by a clown. Maybe it is because we cannot see their true face. Maybe it is because of their garish fashion sense. Whatever the case, effect is summed up in a quote often attributed to horror legend Lon Chaney - "There is nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight". First Use Although more drama than horror, the 1869 novel by Victor Hugo, L'Homme qui rit (The Man Who Laughs) establishes the motif of a mutilated man who performs as a clown. Adapted for film in 1928 film as The Man Who Laughs, the tone is tweaked towards gloomy, horrific effect. Originally planned for as a Lon Chaney roll, this film had a huge budget for its time, and was a major release. Adaptations While not a real clown, the fairly nasty clown puppet under the bed in Poltergeist (1982) still makes people nervous. Vintage horrorclown Pennywise sets the standard in Stephen King's IT (published in 1986) - portrayed with loving malice by Tim Curry in the 1990 made-for-tv miniseries. Under 'aliens that look just like clowns' are the Chiodo brother's Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), complete with cotton candy cocoons. The legendary Tiny Tim appeared as a ukelele playing psycho-clown in the much overlooked Blood Harvest (1987) during a reprise of his earlier career. More serious scares came from Clownhouse (1989) which showed just how creepy carnivals (and carneys) can really be. Surprisingly entertaining and vivid is Killjoy (2000). Don't forget Sweet Tooth from the Twisted Metal videogame series and Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses (2003). No report on the effectiveness of direct-to-video Clown (2007), but I have seen Dead Clowns (2003) and it is indeed crap. A killer in Pagliacci-style clown greasepaint brings 100 Tears (2009). For those interested in horrors targeted toward clowns, check out the indie film Vulgar (2000) featuring Dante from those Kevin Smith movies. A nasty zombie clown also appears in Zombieland (2009). In video games, zombie clowns get a whole 'level' in Left 4 Dead 2 (2009), and you can earn an achievement by honking ten of their noses. The heartfelt Spanish film The Last Circus (2010 - aka 'Sad Trumpet Ballad') features the duality of a laughing clown and a sad clown in conflict - and both are fairly deformed and violently insane by the conclusion. The inspired Irish film Stitches (2012) brings a vengeful clown back from the dead, intent on inventive payback to the group of kids who caused his death. Rob Zombie is back with 31 (2016) which features a whole gaggle of maniac clowns without anything new to say.
Also reported in Terror Train (1980), but as I recall that was just a loony in a conductor outfit briefly wearing a clown mask.
Interestingly, Cryptomundo reports that 1981 included a wave of sightings of "Phantom Clowns" in vans, trying to kidnap children, apparently from Boston to Kansas City. A brief repeat was reported in Chicago in October 2008. Peaking in September/October of 2013, a number of people spotted and photographed an evil looking clown (Alex Powell, the Northampton Clown), who took to just standing in the area of Northampton, UK. Looking similar to Pennywise, has reportedly commented that his goal is to bring scary back in a fun way. And Balloons. By the end of 2013, his notoriety hac sparked a nationwide rash of copycat clowns, tapping on windows and waving weapons. August of 2016 brought us another wave of clowns standing silently in desolate locations around Greenville SC and throughout North Carolina.
Without shadows, we cannot appreciate the light. Similarly, filmmakers have discovered that horror can be given extra punch if it is mixed with interludes of comedy. Mixing these two genres allows audiences to relax, settle down, and become ripe for the next fright. Often, the addition of comedy makes a film more naturalistic (e.g. Tarantino dialog), adding to its effectiveness. Intermingling horror performances with comedy performances can be traced back to the Grand Guignol theater in France, which mixed horror and comedy in stage performances as far back as 1898. Lately, a grim, nihilistic sort of comedy is favored in more intense films to provide better balance. First Use The silent 1925 film Dr. Prickle and Mr. Pryde featuring Stan Laurel in title role is the first clear horror comedy mix. Although slapstick and suspense blend in the Bowery Boys films of the early 1950s often seem older, my favorite for full horror-comedy is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) that put big budget comedy horror on the map while simultaneously killing the classic Universal monsters forever. Ironically, this was a vehicle to wring a little more profit out of the tiring Universal stable of horror characters, who were becoming less frightening. Perhaps not as scary as it once was, this movie is still a joy to watch. Adaptations Into the 1960s, horror comedy was big. Don't bother with The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (1954), as these films have lost whatever charm they once had. An early entry in the genre was Roger Corman's The Raven (1963), featuring many of the horror greats (Karloff, Price, Lorre) in a self-effacing vehicle. From the same year is the very gothic feeling The Old Dark House (1963), directed by William Castle, featuring a spooky mansion, inheritance, murder and Tom Poston. Perhaps the best of this era is The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), featuring a gothic murder mystery and Don Knotts at his peak. Atta boy, Luther.
Widely considered a modern classic is John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981), where the comedy and horror were both top-notch. Return of the Living Dead (1985) has quite a lot of dark humor as well, skillfully played off of real scares and gore. Schlock director Mark Pirro brought the world horror parodies Polish Vampire in Burbank (1985) and Curse of the Queerwolf (1988) with little style or impact. CHUD II: Bud the CHUD (1989) is corny, but slightly better. Student Bodies (1981) is typical of the horror parodies. Peter Jackson's Brain Damage (1988) is ultra-gory, but hardly takes itself seriously. Strong story and style from Sam Raimi support the ever popular Army of Darkness (1992), replete with Three Stooges references and Bruce Campbell at his best. Shaun of the Dead (2004), is a lovingly spot-on parody of the entire zombie genre, obviously made by fans for fans. Of a similar vein is the rare Cuban horror/comedy film Juan of the Dead (2011), which appears promising, but may never make it to American audiences. Also in 2011, MTV launched Death Valley, a parody of cop reality shows set in a city overrun by vampires, werewolves and zombies - good effects, but the comedy falls flat.
It could be argued that George Romero's heavy irony in Dawn of the Dead (1978) qualifies as comedy (or dark parody) - perhaps to some viewers. I find any humor overshadowed by the horrors.
See also Eight Legged Freaks (2002) and Feast (2005) for healthy horror comedy blends. Romero's style of irony is attempted in Fido (2006), but less successfully. Hatchet (2006) benefited from frequent transitions between comedy and horror, and the director (Green) commented on the need to keep the two well-separated within a film, since many purists in horror are generally against the use of comedy in horror films. 2007 brought Botched, which derives mayhem from an occasionally ridiculous, often terrifying killer in a Russian failed caper formula. Silly and sad Transylmania (2009) looks awful, which often happens when you put the comedy before the horror. Much better at being funny are Monster Man (2003) and Killer Pad (2008), which even share some cast members while avoiding being corny or contrived.
While often neither horrific nor comedic, some films are noteworthy only for their titles. Consider Saturday the 14th (1981). See also the exceptionally named re-dubbings of classics like Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Terror (1991) (a pretty funny redub of Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968)) and Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Hellbound, Flesh-Eating Subhumanoid Zombified Living Dead, Part 3 (2005), which uses The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962) as its dub source. Perhaps they forgot that brevity is the soul of wit.
Killer Computer Game or Website
As we are inclined to fear the things around us, the computer games and vast internet behind our glowing screens are the new 'unknown.' Either that, or writers are getting lazy about targeting teenage audiences. As video game technology keeps advancing, it seems that paranormal forces want to play as well, evidenced by the growing list 'ghost in the computer' films. Sometime the anonymity of the internet works well to deliver suspense, and the advent of the wireless experience could have the antagonist around the nearest corner. Other times, it is just lazy and boring. I have seen the phrase darknet used to describe this subgenre, although it also describes a sneaky networking technique. First Use Sentient technology is a fairly recent thing. The HAL9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was first to bring the uncertainty of a self-aware automaton to the movies, but those were mainframe days. The thread of computers as a portal for evil was explored in the TV series Millenium with Lance Hendriksen in the 1996 - 1999 timeframe, potentially making it the first real use of this theme. Adaptations Early on the map was Dee Snyder's Strangeland (1998), where the anonymity of the internet provided the link to Snyder's freaky Captain Howdy. How to Make a Monster (2001) supposes that it can be done with a video game. Halloween: Resurrection (2002) placed webcams between the killed and the witnesses, attempting to cash in on the new technology. The 2002 Fear-Dot-Com effectively presented a horrific website (enter and die), and Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005) included Pinhead targeting computer users who had opened a virtual Lament Configuration on a website named Hellworld.com in direct-to-video fashion. I have not checked to whom that website is registered. Stay Alive (2006) presented a nice horrific videogame (play and die - sort of like electronic Jumanji) with Frankie Muniz. 2006 also brought Pulse from Wes Craven, riding the internet to evil. The versatile Jeffrey Combs opens a high-tech holographic haunted house in a former murder house in Dark House (2009), and everything is going well until the unquiet spirits demonstrate their l33t hacking skills and take over the computer system. Spam email takes on a whole new aspect with unwanted chain letters in Chain Letter (2010), where breaking the chain causes you to be murdered... with chains. EOF.
Oh, wait - not EOF. As a spinoff, television-based horror is out there too. See Videodrome (1983) where television becomes hallucination and mayhem, and the regrettable Halloween III - Season of the Witch (1982) where a TV commercial activates murderous Halloween masks, and The Signal (2007), where weird TV static turns people into killers. Don't forget the remote controlled cabin in The Cabin in the Woods (2012), although the emphasis isn't on computers per se.
Please don't make me watch Deadly Friend (1986), where 'Buffy' gets re-animated with a computer chip after her boyfriend digs her up.
Corpse Falls Suddenly
Finding a corpse is bad enough. And when you least expect it, the body suddenly bursts forward, usually right onto someone. Almost as cheap as the 'jumping cat scare,' but at least it uses a corpse. First Use The Kennel Murder Case (1933) features a very early corpse jump, which is a good effort for someone who has been bludgeoned, stabbed and shot. This was a major film for the era, with stars William Powell and silent great Mary Astor.
More in line with horror use is the corpse fall from Maniac (1934), in which a mad scientist is attempting to reanimate the dead with the obvious assistance of a vaudeville impersonator. Which sounds completely plausible to me.
Adaptations This gag served Hollywood well through the heyday of mystery melodramas, including Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) (featuring Warner Oland, also seen in Werewolf of London (1935)), mystery short Who Killed Who? (1943), and the Sherlock Holmes feature The Woman in Green (1945).
As mystery films evolved into horror films, this device came along for the ride. Lou Costello is challenged by a dropping corpse in comedy-horror crossover Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), and a jumper is used shamelessly by Roger Corman in films including Premature Burial (1962). Seen later in Madhouse (1974), Coma (1978), The Cat and the Canary (1978). John Carpenter had an inverted corpse drop when a closet was opened in Halloween (1978). Also very memorably seen in the temple segment of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
The Dead on Display
Honestly, he's not dead yet! Digging up the dead and setting them up in your home may seem odd, but folks have been doing it for years - sometimes in grief, sometimes for Social Security fraud, sometimes to throw another shudder into a horror movie. First Use Historically, King Ferdinand I of Naples (also called 'Ferrante') (1423-1494) had many political and military opponents, and when possible, he would have their corpses embalmed, dressed in their own uniforms, and displayed in his own 'museum,' where he enjoyed giving personal tours to his guests.
Another semi-historical practical example was the use of the Castilian general known as 'El Cid' (c. 1043-1099), who, according to legend, was killed in battle against the Moors in 1099, but was propped up on his horse to 'lead' his troops in a final rally (as in the 1961 film El Cid).
Another case is that of Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832 but was preserved by University College London, where he is present (but not voting) at all College Council meetings (he resides there still). Some folks never can say goodbye.
In fiction, William Faulkner's short story A Rose for Emily (1930) centers on the inability to leave our loved ones.
Adaptations Certainly, Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) put a high-mark on the wall when Norman Bates' mother makes an unexpected appearance. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) brings a few corpses to the dinner table, although one of them just turns out to be Grandpa. Another dinner party of the recently and long departed caps the growing madness of Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil (1974). D'Amato's Buio Omega (1979) where a young man can't forgive himself for losing his girlfriend. A whole table of dead guests enjoy the party in the tepid climax of Happy Birthday to Me (1981).
The whole plot of Cemetery Man (originally released as Dellamorte Dellamore 1994) revolves around bodies that can't commit to staying in the grave (although most of that is a reanimation thing), and are kept 'around' much longer than is prudent. Also include the wax-encased corpses in the 2005 remake of House of Wax, which wasn't as bad as it could have been. It would also be a grave mistake not to mention the epic Weekend at Bernie's films (1989 and the 1993 sequel).
Impossibly Elaborate Death Machines
Although this horror genre has been usurped by secret agent movies, there is a rich history of elaborate death machines in horror. Perhaps the difference is that in spy movies, the hero must be able to free themselves from the device; in horror, the exact opposite is typically the payoff. First Use Like so many other literary devices (pun intended), Poe is the originator of this genre, in The Pit and the Pendulum (1842), which described a set of devices pitted against the antagonist. Later, Kafka described a cruel death machine in The Penal Colony (1914) that causes death in a programmatic manner, guided by description of the victim's sins. This 'poetic justice' is a common thread with this genre in horror films. Adaptations Pit and the Pendulum made it to the screen in 1961 with the delightfully over-the-top Vincent Price. While the cheesy Bloody Pit of Horror (1965) features many machines of torture and death, its best involves a fake spider web, a fake spider with poisonous needles, and many tricky ropes to trigger several dozen arrows. It actually worked. The Abonimable Dr. Phibes (1971) made use of several of these, employing the range from acid drips to locusts. Don't forget the Cube (1997) series, in which the entire set of the film is the killing environment. The first installment was conceived to create tension and thrills with a very modest budget - all the Cube-rooms are actually the same, but they altered the lighting colors between set changes. Possible infusion into the Final Destination (2000 and on) movies, which feature 'accidental' Rube Goldberg methods of dispatching cast members.
Although elaborate machines are absent in Saw (2004), each of its sequels (part 7 is reportedly the last) feature increasingly elaborate death machines, including the delightful "shotgun carousel" in Saw 7 (2010). These films took 'elaborate death machines' to whole new levels. A list of these inspired murder contraptions would be vast. The remake of I Spit on Your Grave (2010), in updating the feel of the film, employs judgement-specific elaborate deaths for the antagonists. Feeling like a mix of grindhouse and Saw, each death is elaborate, cruel, and oddly appropriate.
While not in the horror genre, the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964) is credited with perfecting the elaborate, slow, laser-to-the-crotch death scene. "I expect you to die, Mr. Bond." Good luck with that. It might also be possible to extend this to include Alien vs. Predator (2004) in which the entire underground pyramid is an ever-changing maze that disorients and separates the prey until the hunters make their move - or possibly that belongs under hellish geometry, below.
The Devil's Garage Sale
If you want something to be scary, just tell everyone that you got it from the devil. Hopefully in the title of the movie, so nobody misses the point. With the variety of stuff coming from the devil, it must be from some ghastly garage sale (or infernal estate sale, or terrifying tag sale, depending on where you were raised). Hopefully there is room to haggle over the price. First Use So far, it looks like Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary (1911) may be the first, although he was being more pithy and satirical than evil. There is so much unwholesome content in the various urban dictionaries these days that the Devil's Dictionary is probably due for a revised edition - unabridged, of course. Adaptations Firstly, there are a number of things from the devil's garage sale. Perhaps the oldest is the silent film The Devil's Circus from 1926, which is more of a melodrama typical of the era. Typical jungle melodrama abounds in The Devil's Mask (1946), while voodoo madness and a mysterious doll are held by the The Devil's Hand (1962). There is certainly Blood on Satan's Claw (1971) - a very authentic, 17th Century feeling Hammer production that evokes the mood of an ancient fable. Ernest Borgnine suited up for satanic fun in The Devil's Rain (1975). The Devil's Gift (1984), where a demon possesses and animates a monkey doll. This is different from the fiddle-playing gift often attributed to the devil.
For a fine film that delivers beautiful story, setting, horror and suspense, don't miss The Devil's Backbone (2001), del Toro at his best - I think the actual backbone is in a jar in this film. Hopefully a long-sleeved shirt can hide The Devil's Tattoo (2003). Indie release The Devil's Chair (2006) provides a very effective chill, feeling like a good combination of the eerie Session 9 and Hellraiser. I have not seen Devil's Diary, a made-for-TV production in 2007, and The Devil's Tomb (2009) might be empty after all. Also consider By the Devil's Hands (2009), and remember a firm grip with the short production The Devil's Handshake (2009). Mortgage rates plummet in The House of the Devil (2010) which features cult staple Mary Woronov. Rather refreshing was The Devil's Rock (2011), which features a devil, somewhat stuck on a 'rock.'
Crossing over from Ouija boards is the regrettable Witchboard 2: The Devil's Doorway (1993), which reminds us why the 1990s were not a great decade for horror, overall. Also consider , The Devil's Music (2008), which is surely metal.
Secondly, there are the many relatives and associates - possibly the folks delegated to run the actual garage sale. Don't expect much from The Devil's Brother (1933). Other colleagues include Satan's lawyer vs. Keanu in The Devil's Advocate (1997) and Rob Zombie's brash gang in The Devil's Rejects (2005).
The Devil seems to attract a large number of loose women, too - whether Tam Lin - The Devil's Woman (1970), The Devil's Daughter (1933 or the 1973 television production of the same name), The Devil's Bride (alternate title for the 1968 film The Devil Rides Out) or The Devil's Whore (2008). Clearly, old Nick has something goin' on.
Finally, if you do make a purchase at the Devil's garage sale, please be sure to pay what the Devil's Due (2014).
I know this sounds a lot like Mad Scientists , but this is a specific sub-genre - doctors running a hospital or asylum who have gone mad, conducting horrible experiments/treatments on their patients. Mad scientists, on the other hand, are typically brilliant loners who depend on the limited supply of hunchbacks for assistance. First Use H. G. Wells published The Island of Doctor Moreau in 1896, and it has become the template for medical doctors unfolding into bizarre behavior. Granted, he is a loner, but he is running a first class medical facility in a third-world setting.
Adaptations While slow by today's standards, Asylum of Satan (1972) builds well on this motif, featuring a mysterious Dr. Specter, who provides unrequested treatment at his asylum, despite his reported death decades earlier. Although it merely provides a backstory, Jeffrey Combs brought medical gusto to his role in the remake of House on Haunted Hill (1999), and its sequel Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007). Insanitarium (2008) had a very weird doctor making artificial zombies out of mental patients. Autopsy (2008) brought beautiful sets and visuals to a decayed back-bayou medical clinic, also run by a nutjob doctor, portrayed lovingly by Robert Patrick. See also Necessary Evil (2008) in which a doctor is testing a new drug on people in his facility, but something supernatural is the result. A small town psychiatrist has been quietly abducting children and reshaping their outlook with PCP in Perkins' 14 (2009), but due to an original story line, they escape and cause all sorts of trouble.
Sharing a more stark, minimalistic view of insane doctors (an aesthetic possibly inspired by clinical austerity) we find insane surgeons at work on their bizarre pet projects. In Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009), we meet a surgeon who connects A to B to C just to enjoy his creation. In Victim (2010), we meet a doctor intent on recreating his daughter through body modification on a male subject - interesting, but at times unintentionally humorous. The pleasantly unexpected American Mary (2012) tells the tale of a medical school student who finds a twisty road to riches amidst the underground body modification community. While not officially a doctor, she has had more training than most wierdos.
Evil Possesed Doll Running Amok
Just because they are little doesn't mean they aren't lethal. Or creepy. These diminutive golems have been spooking people throughout the history of movies, despite the fact that a well placed kick usually mitigates the threat. First Use Tod Browning's The Devil Doll (1936), with Lionel Barrymore, is the first example of this genre I know of, although it mas more to do with miniaturized people than evil dolls. This film used to run on Chicago's Creature Features show in the 1970's. At the time, it gave me nightmares. Browning is better known for Freaks and Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, although they lie outside of the freaky doll genre.
Although not strictly horror, The Great Gabbo (1929) predates The Devil Doll, and possibly influenced it - but it is more of a melodrama dealing with a descent into insanity.
Adaptations Following the Devil Doll is the English film Dead of Night (1945), which introduces the malevolent dummy Hugo, and includes a nightmarish segment with Hugo walking unnervingly across a skewed room. That particular segment is also credited with inspiring a comedic routine by Danny Kawy in Knock on Wood (1954 - not a horror film) and the 1962 segment of The Twilight Zone entitled "The Dummy," featuring Cliff Robertson and Willie, the dummy. Willie reappeared two years later in another episode entitled "Caesar and Me" with Jackie Cooper. The fine British production of Devil Doll (1964) adapts the classic 'troubled ventriloquist' theme, although it is a little slow by modern standards. And don't forget the Zuni fetish doll that savaged Karen Black in the classic made-for-TV 70's movie Trilogy of Terror (1975).
More recently, a creepy dummy drives the scares in Magic (1978) where a young Anthony Hopkins explores the dark ventriloquist terrain handily. The spooky potential of a posessed monkey doll is often overlooked The Devil's Gift (1984). Adapted again in Dolls (1987) and the Puppetmaster movies (many with Guy Rolfe), which ran with this theme for Full Moon Entertainment from 1989 to 2004's Puppetmaster vs Demonic Toys.
Above all, see also the entire Child's Play series (1988 - 1998), (and its 2010 remake). The Chucky franchise has evolved well from straight horror to dark self parody, but usually with style.
Dolly Dearest (1991) hit the bricks with a Mexican demon getting busy in some dolls. 1995 brought the charm and grace of Gary Busey to life in dough as The Gingerdead Man - slow at times, but good low-budget fun. A demon-hunting dummy named Sid takes the talent show in the 1997 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled "The Puppet Show." Also of note is the basic-cable staple Pinata: Survival Island (2002), where the 'doll' begins small and inanimate before becoming more formidable (and obnoxious). I haven't seen Dead Silence (2008), but a nasty doll is featured prominently in the marketing, so I can only assume 'here we go again.' Tongue-in-cheek blaxploitation film Black Devil Doll (2009) surfaced after several years of rumors and urban myths regarding its production. See also Triloquist (2009) for 'here we go again.'
In comics, Tales from the Crypt published the story The Ventrilquist's Dummy in issue 28 (February/March 1952), and this was later made into an episode of HBO's Tales from the Crypt series. The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror III (1992) segment "Clown Without Pity," in which a Krusty doll is accidentally set to 'Evil.' For the kids, bring on Slappy in Goosebump's Night of the Living Dummy (originally published in 1993) and its sequels Night of the Living Dummy II (published 1995), and Night of the Living Dummy III (published 1996). A strong entry into the genre is the
It Was All A Dream, You Are Really Just Dead
Whenever a screenwriter has written their characters into a corner, there is only one choice left - the 'nuclear option' of lazy writing: Pretend the whole thing never happened - it was all just a dream! Sure, it is done as a legitimate script vehicle on occasion (as it was originally), but overuse has exhausted the surprise that once came with this device. First Use Ambrose Bierce's short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890) established the theme of developing a story as an increasingly disturbing reality, only to resolve the issue by revealing that the entire plot was a near-death hallucination.
Although this is a story, I have seen early use in film, possibly La Riviere du Hibon (French, 1962).
Adaptations Firstly, let me say SPOILER ALERT, since anything you are about to read will likely give away an awesome trick ending. That said, the following productions are entirely based on this motif: early Romero nightmare Carnival of Souls (1962 and the 1998 remake), post-Vietnam nightmare Jacob's Ladder (1990), the infamous season of the TV show Dallas, and the last season of TV show Roseanne. (I told you they were lazy) Argument for inclusion could also be made for The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Some may also argue that the entire Final Destination series (2000 - 2009) falls into this category without ever actually revealing it, but I don't think that was the filmmaker's intent. It's OK to forget Hellraiser 6: Hellseeker (2002) that continues this motif in a cheesy fashion. Easy to miss is Stay (2005), which generally rehashes the theme with a few viewpoint twists. More recently, I have seen it used purposefully and well in The Reeker (2005). It is used in a most hopeful sense in the fact-based account of torture and death, An American Crime (2007). Rob Zombie throws dream-misdirection into the opening scenes in his Halloween II (2009), showing how the device can be used to put the viewer off balance (rather than as a lazy script device). For an unconventional twist, see Someone's Knocking at the Door (2009) which features some very over-the-top horror effects.
An interesting twist in this motif is the 'you just dreamed you were dead, everything is OK' reversal. Perhaps this allows the filmmaker to include gory effects sequences without writing off all of the main characters. This twist was seen most recently with Jigwaw's wife in Saw 7 (2010).
The family that slays together stays together. The 'nutball family of psychopaths' genre brings together the best of ensemble casts with individual over-the-top acting, resulting in enough character angles to keep a movie from stalling. First Use The theme of violently corrupt, inbred families practicing their depravity in isolation was a big theme for H. P. Lovecraft, contributing to stories such as The Lurking Fear (1922), The Dunwich Horror (1929) and others. Such inbreeding was shorthand for the theme of familial evils, compounded in generations of inbred corruption.
Historically, please consider the legend of Sawney Bean, born in Scotland in the the early 1400s, who moved to a cave with an evil woman and started a family of inbred cannibal criminals. It was this tale that inspired Wes Craven's story The Hills Have Eyes (below).
Furthermore, the 1598 account of the Gandillon family, in France, outlines an entire family consumed with the belief that they were werewolves, causing them to eat several children. Pernette Gandillon was torn up by a mob for her actions, while her brothers Pierre and Georges and sister Antoinnette were tried, hung and burned. Calling them insane presumes that they were not actually werewolves.
Adaptations Consider cult classic Spider Baby (1968), which features a dilapidated old house, a family of iconic weirdos, and a young Sid Haig making skin crawl years before it was considered appropriate.
Creepy relations define the whole hammer-slamming family in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and it's many sequels and remakes. Certainly the whole Greek-named mountain cannibal family from Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977) (and the 2006 remake) deserve recognition as an early nutball family. Make sure not to overlook the 'always ready to please Momma' family that celebrated Mother's Day in 1980 (and the 2010 remake with an expanded family). Also making a strong showing are the ever-dysfunctional Firefly family from Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and its sequel The Devil's Rejects (2005). Two weird psycho brothers fill out an unexpectedly extended family in Lake Dead (2007), but can't save this uninspired film.
First Horror Movie
Everyone loves a spooky tale, so it was not long after the onset of motion pictures that filmmakers tried to create something frightening. Certainly these early films were somewhat crude, but considering that early film audiences had never seen moving pictures before, early frights in a darkened theater must have been pretty overwhelming. Horror films are made for dark places, and there was a lot more darkness over a century ago. First Use Early film pioneer Georges Melïes was the first out of the gate with Le Manoir du Diable (The House of the Devil) (1896) and La Caverne Maudite (The Cave of the Demons) (1898), but I have seen neither of these. Le Manoir du Diable is generally regarded as the first horror film, and at two minutes length it manages to pack in a spooky house, a bat, witches, skeletons, ghosts and the devil. Generally I like to cite Thomas Edison's Frankenstein (1910) as the first real horror film, partially because of the cool creation effect and the singular Charles Ogle as the monster. Lost for years, this short film was only restored to the public in 1993 after growing publicity of the film's 'lost' status caught the attention of the Wisconsin collector who held the only surviving copy since the 1950s. Adaptations Rather than 'adaptations,' I would prefer to cite outstanding early efforts in horror. Foremost is Nosferatu (1922) which shows why nobody does spooky expressionism better than the Germans.
An argument may be made against Edison's 1910 Frankenstein, as it was presented specifically to be a morality play, rather than a horror film. Indeed, Edison hyped the film to emphasize its uplifting values:
To those familiar with Mrs. Shelly's story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might be any possibility shock any portion of the audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.Still, it is a cool 15 minute film with fine effects, and I firmly believes it qualifies as a horror film.
Interdimensional portals have always been a little tricky in movies. Either they are swirling vortexes (ala Poltergeist (1982)) or lame devices that look like a gateway (ala The Gate (1987)) or even lamer devices that look like the turnstyle at a Wal-Mart (Phantasm (1979)). Combining unconventional angles and planar intersections with interdimensional portals requires a symbolic representation that is simple enough for people to understand. First Use H.P. Lovecraft began developing the idea in some of his earlier works (The Nameless City (1921)), but the idea did not come to fruition until Dreams in the Witch House (1932) which depends on the use of uncommon geometry to provide intersections between planes of existence. In this story, the odd angles of the ancient house were specifically intended to provide a means for the titular witch to move between dimensions at will, vexing the current occupant. This remains one of my favorite works by Lovecraft. Adaptations The entire Hellraiser series (1987 - 2007 so far) owes much to this motif, as the Lament Configuration is a direct descendant of such thinking. Another is the ship Event Horizon (1997), which is kind of "Hellraiser-in-space." Numeric sequences of supernatural nature figure prominently in Pi (1998), but the evil geometry of Cube (1997) is more terrestrial. Better still, check out the adaptation of the source material, Dreams in the Witch House (Masters of Horror series, 2006), which did a pretty good job of preserving much of the feel of this short story, albeit in a modern translation while adding a lot of new plot elements. The remake of 13 Ghosts (2001) is set in a house that is one big geometric ghost containment/release system, bearing protective inscriptions on the moving wall sections, endlessly reconfiguring itself. Some consideration may even be given to the "Pyramid Head" character from the Silent Hill (2006) franchise of films and video games, as he evolves into ever more complex symbolic layers of interpretation - and his head is a big wonky pyramid!
Strangely drawn symbols that have horrible effect are also central to Stephen King's 1997 short story Everything's Eventual. The shapes themselves are given fanciful names, creating a personal lexicon for the story's protagonist. Yes, please read a book from time to time. Also intriguing, while not strictly hellish, is the mathematically inclined Fermat's Room (La habitacion de Fermat) (2007), which features a mathematical mystery and a compressing kill-room.
Interestingly, I have been told that an offshoot of the Church of Satan developed an entire cult around Lovecraft's odd geometry, called the Order of the Trapezoid. I am far too chicken to check on this, though.
More often than not, it is a girl that survives to the end of the film. Discussion of the effectiveness of this motif suggest that a female provides a better point of empathy from viewers of both genders. Furthermore, by empowering her at the end (with say, a knife phallus) to initiate attack, she achieves a sort of gender crossover, which allows her to overcome the antagonist. Oh, and girls scream a lot better than most guys. First Use Possibly Carnival of Souls (1962), but 'survives' is kind of misleading in this case.
Reportedly, the term 'final girl' was first used by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1993).
Adaptations Possibly the best use is Marilyn Burns in the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), who endures more than most final girls. Jamie Lee Curtis also excels in Halloween (1978), setting the bar high. Don't forget the aggressive androgynous Ripley in 1979's Alien either - one of the best examples ever. Alice makes it into the boat at the end of the original Friday the 13th (1980), followed by other final girls in several of its sequels. The character Nancy Thompson finishes off Freddy in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Tom Savini's 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead inverts the plot of the original to include the final girl.
More self-aware of the theme are the Scream (1996) film franchise, which build on the cultural awareness of this motif. It is one example of the use of an androgynous name (Sidney) for the final girl - this seems to assist in the crossing of gender perception. Behind the Mask (2006), as part of its self-aware horror movie theme, actually identifies the 'Last Girl' (or 'Survivor Girl') part way through the film as a nod to this movie meme.
This is the grand-daddy of all horror movie clichés. A girl is being chased by a sinister antagonist, and just when she is about to make her escape... she trips and falls. The killer is still approaching, and the tension rises. Did she break a heel? Can she dry clean her outfit? Only the final reel knows for sure. First Use This device almost certainly emerged in the melodramatic chase scenes of the silent era, and rose to prominence in 1950's horror films to underscore how helpless women are, especially when they are stereotypical victims.
One fine early example is Fay Wray falling all helpless-like to allow King Kong (1933) to come to her rescue.
Adaptations Judith O'Dea falls well before reaching the farmhouse (where she completely breaks down) in the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), but her pursuers were slowly shambling at best.
More interesting is how the 'tripping girl' has become more realistic - these days, women don't just fall down without a good reason. Marilyn Burns in the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) earns big points for pushing through brush and cutting brambles, and only falling a few times - more from exhaustion than posed helplessness. Jamie Lee Curtis and her cheap wig fall a few time in Halloween 2 (1981), but I recall that she was heavily sedated at the time. The character Audrey trips and falls before escaping over a chail link fence near the climax of the Godzilla remake (1998), right on queue.
Heads With Blinking Eyes
Decapitations are always appreciated in horror movies. They are violent and messy, occasionally breathtaking, and (with the exception of Lovecraft stories) usually a clear indicator that 'this character is finished.' However, there is something a little poignant when a decapitated head takes a moment to blink, often jarring the audience and assuring us that, yes, the victim was able to enjoy that scene as much as we did. First Use
During the French Revolution, public decapitation reached assembly-line levels of effiency. Blossoming scientific interests prompted doctors to attempt to determine how long the head (and thereby human awareness) might remain following a swift beheading. Instructions were given to victims to 'try to blink or speak' following their execution. Despite these efforts, little was learned for sure.
But in films, how do they always manager to roll right for the camera every time?
Adaptations The entertaining remake of House of Wax (2005) employs the head rolly-rolly-blinky trick fairly well. Likewise, a rolling head gives a final blink in Timber Falls (2007). Decapitation with a hammer isn't usually so clean, but it also results in a rolling head giving a final blink for the camera in the first few minutes of the splatter-filled Midnight Meat Train (2008).
Although the re-agent fudges the results, Dr. Hill's head blinks after it is removed from his body in the classic Re-Animator (1985). However, it also speaks, bites, threatens people and commits lewd acts - so it is a bit of a stretch for this category, included here mainly for going so very far over the top.
The pinnacle of special effects is the exploding head. Firstly, it requires some quick editing to set up the gag. Secondly, the artwork of the head must be good enough not to look fake and spoil the whole thing. Finally, more is better as the charge is blown and the kibbles spray. First Use Certainly Scanners (1981) did a great job of creating a whole movie about exploding heads. Prior to this, effects and efforts were limited to occasional head-crushing (see H. G. Lewis' 2000 Maniacs! (1965) for a fine early example). Adaptations Any time Tom Savini is in the room, heads will 'splode. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) exploited Savini's talents first. Infamous among older films is Maniac (1980), where Savini uses his great effects talent on himself - he plays a lothario in a parked car, only to have the shotgun-toting titular maniac jump onto the hood and blast his head apart through the winshield. This was very cutting edge and graphic for 1980. He is actually a very nice guy, often bringing his young son to horror conventions. Maybe this category should be named for him.
Savini returned with a improved methods and more head explosions in Day of the Dead (1985). Big budget allowed heads to explode in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead as well, usually from high-powered rifle blasts. A nice full-on exploding head (clearly with a lower effects budget) is featured in the regrettable 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams (2010), which proves that even good character actors can't always save a terrible movie. An alarmingly high frequency of well executed exploding heads punctuates the sparse and odd French comedy Rubber (2010), a story of a vengeful psychokinetic tire.
Fast Head Shaky Guy
Possibly an effect shaped by accidents with digital production, the 'fast head shaky guy' became the 'Matrix bullet-cam' visual cliché of horror films in the late 1990s. These days, it is used more sparingly, and although it doesn't illicit the shock of that first shake, it still moves along the feeling of unrest for a film. First Use The often overlooked Jacob's Ladder (1990), with Tim Robbins, is the first example of this visual I know of. It involves a speed up of a freaky guy swinging his head back and forth with supernatural vigor. Adaptations They use it in a demon-to-guy transformation in the cheesy Sometimes They Come Back... Again (1996), but it fails to impress. Shaky heads appear with good effect in the 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill. I also believe it is used in The Cell (2000). 2005's Feast used it a little on the monsters to good effect, proving that less is more with this particular element. Shakey heads were also briefly used in Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (2005) to indicate that the rave drug (which turns you into a zombie) was kickin in. Japanese horror-fantasy Akumu Tantei (Nightmare Detective) (2006) used the effect with some restraint (and puckered faces) just before its opening credits. Graphic novel-based 30 Days of Night (2007) successfully introduced an interesting variant, the 'fast head-shaky-biting vampire' motif.
In a possible homage to Jacob's Ladder, shaky-headed demons appear in the very similarly themed The Deaths of Ian Stone (2007) before it becomes something like The Matrix. Virus Undead (2008) shows that even people turned into zombies by a bird virus can have fast shakey heads, too. The adequate remake of Night of the Demons (2009) bring it back to indicate transformation into spooky demons, and shaky heads are faster than ever when pesky angels are doing their fight-stuff in Legion (2010). After a long gap, we can find it again in the haunting The Babadook (2014), a compelling and patiently paced film.
Soon after Jacob's Ladder, music videos took note of this impressive effect. The fast shaky head is stunning in the masterfully bleak music video Sober by Tool (1993). This actually sill appears in a lot of music videos (mostly death metal or speed metal), as it is easy to produce.
The Unsettling HitchHiker
In the 1970s, everyone warned you not to hitch-hike. You never know what kind of creep may pick you up.
These days, the only people hitch-hiking seem to be the creepy sorts of folks you would never want in your car. And they are mostly in the movies. Does anyone really even hitch-hike anymore?
First Use Probably inspired by old ghost tales, the first season of The Twilight Zone ran an episode called The Hitch-Hiker, which aired on January 22, 1960. It involved repeated encounters with an vaguely unsettling hitchhiker, who is ultimately revealed to be much more than he seems.
For overtly ultra-creepy hitchhikers, Edwin Neal set the bar high with his characterization of a creepy, self-mutilating hitcher in Tobe Hooper's original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Not only did he get in the van, but he also got on the van with messy panache.
Adaptations Bill Moseley did a fine, skin-pickin' reprisal of this character in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), and he still signs prop 'metal head plates' at horror conventions. Rutger Hauer also defined the don't pick this guy up character in The Hitcher (1986) and its sequels. Creepshow 2 (1987) also weighed in with a segment entitled The Hitchhiker, which shows that you can't keep a good hitchhiker down, even if hit-and-run is involved. "Thanks for the ride, lady."
The perils of hitchhiking were evident in Riding the Bullet (2004), based on a 2002 short story by Stephen King. Reality shock show Scare Tactics also did a nice treatment of the mythos, complete with a head in a bowling-ball bag, on their second episode (2003). Big points certainly go to the change-up use of the hitchhiker in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake in 2003. As part of the Masters of Horror series, the installment entitled Pick Me Up (2006) introduced menace on both sides of this motif, as we meet a hitchhiker who is just as menacing as the trucker who picks him up.
Holiday-Themed Horror Films
Anyone who made it through the early 1980's can tell you that every holiday has a corresponding slasher movie. This tissue-thin contrivance seemed to run it's course almost as quickly as it started, but lately the theme is making a comeback. First Use Although never intended to horrify, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) includes several ghosts, several of which are intended to be foreboding and terrifying. Long since paired with Christmas, the novella exhibits many characteristics of a good horror yarn.
Adaptations A Christmas party provides the prominent setting for a ghost story in Dead of Night (1945), although the holiday aspect is not central to the plot. The original Black Christmas (1974) probably contributed to the whole 'horrors during a holiday' idea. However, it was clearly the success of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) that inspired a gaggle of holiday horrors when the slasher genre needed a boost in the 1980s.
Perhaps the best of the early holiday films were New Year's Evil (1980) and My Bloody Valentine (1981), since the holiday is actually a major story element. But don't forget Mother's Day (1980), which had a really nice poster, only to be remade in 2010. Even Happy Birthday to Me (1981) may have been loosely inspired by this genre. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) made people uncomfortable enough to merit being pulled from many theaters - Santa as a killer just caused too much conflict.
Christmas seems to be the most adaptable holiday. Other Christmas themed horrors include the rest of the Silent Night Deadly Night series (1984 - 1991), which reached part 5, demonstrating what a solid motif yuletide mayhem remains. Then there's the other movie called Jack Frost (1998) and One Hell of a Christmas (2002). Strangely entertaining is Santa's Slay (2005), featuring a pro-wrestler as Santa (actually the son of Satan) with his buffalo-powered sleigh. Special points for the well named Silent Night, Zombie Night (2009).
Other holidays are also represented. Less well known is Valentine (2001). Adding a fake adaptation of this genre is the fake trailer for Thanksgiving in 2007's Grindhouse, directed by Eli Roth and including some very over the top violence and a boy who loved his pet turkey. There are rumors that a film based on this trailer is in production. Perhaps inspired by this trailer is the deep-indie Thankskilling (2009), which appears to feature a fearful turkey (still rumored to be in actual feature production). 2009 brought the 3D remake of My Bloody Valentine, which is a better movie than we have come to expect from these drop-kick remakes. The Children (2009) takes place on New Year's Eve, but becomes a kids-amok fest. Tackling the often overlooked Easter holiday is Easter Bunny, Kill Kill (2010), which occasionally amuses, but is a roughly conceived low budget slasher film at best. But yes, the killer does wear a bunny mask, and it is Easter-time.
2015 was a good year for Krampus and Christmas themed horror - Krampus (2015) led the pack, with an anthology style A Christmas Horror Story (2015) bringing in Krampus and other horrors. See also Krampus: The Reckoning (2015) and Krampus: The Christmas Devil (2013) to round out the Krampus-pack.
It might be argued that Bill Murray's darker moments in Groundhog's Day (1993) qualify, but I would be stretching the point. Does Gremlins (1984) count?
Over the decades, horror films (especially the slasher films of the 1980s) have taken on the role as modern morality plays. Promiscuous or bullying behavior is a fast-track to a memorable on-screen murder, and the virtuous generally survive. Key to this is a sense of supernatural justice, or predetermination in horror plotlines - you will ultimately pay for your transgressions.
In other words, if you don't like the characters, you can root for the villain without remorse... which is fun.
First Use Plato's Myth of Er (around 380 BC) is credited with originating the notion that your punishment will reflect your sins. Greek tradition describes the suffering in Tartarus of Sisyphus (eternally frustrated by a rolling bolder, for his arrogance), Tantalus (starved for nearby fruit and water, for his deceitful greed), and Ixion (tied to a burning wheel, for his lust).
Certainly, Dante's description of Malebolge got it best. Within the circles described in The Divine Comedy (roughly 1308), flatterers drown in a river of feces, thieves must constantly (and painfully) steal each other's reptile forms, hypocrites labor in gold-colored robes of heavy lead - you get the idea - for all eternity. Indeed, the Italian contrapasso (literally 'suffer the opposite') is a term used by (Canto XX) and first applied to Dante's Inferno.
It may be argued that Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1831) first illustrated the horrific penalty (death of loved ones) for tampering with the mystery of life and death. The German legend of Faust may be considered an early treatment as well; specifically Goethe's well known treatment, first partially published in 1806.
Adaptations Right off the bat, Friday the 13th (1980) put an arrow through Kevin Bacon's neck just for being a hormonal teen. Conversely, the moral rectitude of Kirsty in the Hellraiser (1987) films armors her in her direct confrontation with the Cenobites, who themselves represent amoral indulgence and avarice. I have little hope of such care rendered in the rumored 2012 remake, despite Clive Barker's involvement.
Often, the treatment is more heavy-handed, as in the Night of the Demons films (1988, 1994 and 1997 and another 2009 remake), where two dimensional whores and thugs are quickly dispatched. 2009 brought the release of the Friday the 13th remake, suitably released on Friday, February 13th. Apparently supernatural justice dictates that all horror movies will be remade in 2009.
Throughout the entire Saw franchise (2004 - 2010), Jigsaw lectures his victims, describing how their fate is appropriate punishment for their shortcomings, but these are occasionally somewhat forced to justify awesome gore effects. M. Night Shyamalan scores with a story of five people trapped in an elevator in Devil (2010). Gradually, it is revealed that the devil is among them, and they have all sinned in one manner or another. The devil's justice is patient and spooky.
Kids as Monsters
Children are generally not the problem in a horror film - unless you are hiding from the monster and trying to keep them quiet. Using children as a surprise threat is a motif that used to catch audiences off guard, and really only works in supernatural based horror. Unless you count bullies. First Use At this point, the earliest appearance of a child-monster is the sick daughter in the basement who becomes a trowel-toting zombie in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). Adaptations The use of this motif includes some pretty good titles. Although she is more a victim herself, please don't overlook young Regan Macneil in The Exorcist (1973). Stephen King created a horrific kid-at-the-window vampire in Salem's Lot (published 1975) which also worked well in that book's film treatment (1979). Spain contributed a whole island of creepy, mute killer children in Island of the Damned aka Who Can Kill a Child? (1976). Don't overlook the troubled young Michael Meyers in the opening (4 minute continuous shot) sequence of Halloween (1978), or in its remake (2007). King hit it again in Pet Semetary (1989) which featured an incredibly young revenant. That movie led to sequels that included the motif, including introduction of the 'bully from beyond the grave' (Pet Semetary II (1992)) as a scary genre mashup. Without spoiling too much, it can be said that the children in Sinister (2012) are less than helpful.
For less supernatural juvies, Children of the Corn (1984) set the bar, but by the sixth sequel (or the 2009 remake), the scare factor of kids in gingham and suspenders is wearing thin. Demon Knight (1995), the first Tales from the Crypt franchise film, included a kid named Danny who becomes a full-on demon towards the end of the film. A whole classroom of nasty kids takes down a 'teacher' lady in Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) (all right, she's not a teacher, but that's the effect they were going after). The remake of Dawn of the Dead (2005) had an incredibly alarming child zombie in its introduction, and 30 Days of Night (2007) had a somewhat scary child vampire as well. The French film Them (2006) follows a couple being attacked by unknown persons in their home - the reveal at the end is that the attackers are actually children. A little girl ghost keeps tilting her head in Séance (2006), but comes off as an annoying Ju-On (2002) cat-boy wannabe.
An infected child goes nasty in Quarantine (2008) as well, but everyone saw that coming. Another example of the really nasty kid is The Orphan (2009) featuring an increasingly nasty little girl. After a New Year's Eve party, four kids become nutball killers in The Children (2009). In the very effective Rec 2 (2009) we encounter a small herd of scary children, who apparently prefer travelling in the ductwork. The tepid and somewhat forced Case 39 (2009) also delivers on a bad kid, although the story gets distracted several times along the way. The opening scene of the IFC adaptation of The Walking Dead (2010) uses this motif nicely to introduce their zombies, specifically as a little blonde girl.
You Can't Snuff Kids in Horror Movies, Can You?
It seems that this is one of the firmest taboos in horror films, and for mainstream horror, you could generally assume that the kids would be just fine. This issue is closely tied to the old "dog seemingly killed in act 3 shows up at the conclusion, everyone smiles" motif.
Use of this element seems to be an indication that no holds will be barred in the movie - especially if the kid is killed in the first scene - as if to say 'Yes, we are that serious here.' Our inability to process the killing of a child is precisely why the climax of The Omen (1976) is so very effective.
First Use Innovation honors have to go to James Whale's child drowning scene in Frankenstein (1931), which was cut until 'restored' re-releases beginning in the 1990s.
I have read of a play produced by the Grand Guignol theater in France, entitled L'Horrible Passion in which a nanny strangles the children in her care - this would pre-date even Frankenstein, as the theater was popular in the early 20th century.
Adaptations Out the same year as Frankenstein is Fritz Lang's M (1931), which includes a child murderer as a central plot element, although understandably, the act itself is not fully realized on film. Following that, the first on-screen kintersnuff I recall seeing was in the remake of The Blob (1988), in which a child is consumed just before escaping the sewers. It was very surprising at the time. The Hong Kong film Men Behind the Sun (1988) has never been equaled (thankfully), and became notorious for allegedly including footage of an actual autopsy being performed on a child (shudder). Demon Knight (1995) exploded a kid named Danny just because he became a demon.
More recently, I am seeing a greater willingness to include this motif. Jeepers Creepers 2 (2002) opens with a farmboy being carried off by the creeper to certain doom. Perhaps most disturbing of all is Murder Set Pieces (2004), which includes the murders of several children, one of which occurs brutally on screen without any hesitation. A pretty spectacular end to a child is made in the opening sequence to Beneath Still Waters (2005), in which it is demonstrated that a face can indeed be pulled apart at the mouth. Project Greenlight's horror film Feast (2005) uses it to an ironic end (despite the introduction actually making a reference to the child's 'guaranteed' survival), and Slither (2006) jumps on with two little girls. Apparently this is the new shock needed to take horror films to the 'next level.' Grindhouse's Planet Terror (2007) gives one child a great reason not to play with guns. Also snuffing it is a child at the beginning of the passable Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007). Ghost Son (2007) includes the dispatching of a young babysitter by an evil baby. Trick 'r Treat (2007), a stylish interwoven anthology film, includes a segment about a school principal inflicting some permanent discipline on a troublesome child. Kicking this motif over the goalposts is Feast 2: Sloppy Seconds (2008) in which a baby is suffered to endure a fantastic airborne end (but it's the landings that really get you). The Children of the Corn (2009) remake features a neck-snap on a child bent on murder. It seemed justifiable, but it still surprises.
Taking this serious plot turn still has impact, and perhaps is most effective when it occurs off-camera, as in Funny Games (2007), the US adaptation of the troubling German film of 1997. Clearly in the 'we are very serious here' category is Hostel 2 (2007), where a Slovakian urchin is executed with a calculated ruthlessness that seems reminiscent of Salo (1975). Sam Raimi used the 'opening scene kid snuff' to kick off the relentless modern classic Drag Me to Hell (2009). The Walking Dead (2016) finally did it on screen in the season 6 siege of Alexandria.
Proceed to Part 2 of First Frights...