The expanded edition of The Art of Horror Movies: An Illustrated History is a truly phenomenal book. Its pages are adorned not only with diverse artwork, from posters and paintings to cigarette cards (more about this later), but they are also replete with both obscure and mainstream information, from the very beginning of horror as a cinematographic phenomenon. For anyone interested in the history of horror films, this book is a gem to own.
The truly remarkable quality of the book is that it is not a mere compendium of horror art with a film-reference index at back, but that at each point of this journey through more than a century of horror movie history we are immersed in the historical background, attitudes, prejudices, and tastes of the different horror eras. This also serves as a broader introduction to cinematic history as whole, for horror films, as the book shows, is not a coincidental genre that appeared along the way but was there from the start of cinematic history.
The first horror films were, just like the rest, silent. In the aftermath of the First World War, horror became widespread in Europe (both literally and figuratively). As it is pointed out, horror was, initially, only a minor trend in the United States as the country was prosperous, victorious, and had cinematic preoccupations of a more positive sort. It was over in Europe where horror films got their major start. The explosive popularity of the horror genre was predominantly due to films coming from Weimar Germany, especially Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. These early iterations of horror cinema, though thematically transgressive—creating “the sense of a visual world which is an outward sign of inner turmoil”—grew out of the Expressionist movement in painting, literature, and theater. One could argue that the German silent horror film became an art form of its own, as illustrated by Mary Pickford’s claim that “adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.” This assessment is unsurprising given that the silent film was far closer to the theatre and actors had to find a way of expressing what we now take for granted from special effects.
The 30s and the 40s are decades that consolidated the horror genre in the public psyche, and even if horror cinema was not yet seen as a high-brow endeavor, it nonetheless produced its own prolific celebrities. Figures such as Lou Chaney, Boris Karloff and Tod Slaughter are just some of the names that defined those decades. However, what really changed matters is that horror now became mainstream in Hollywood. Just like how horror was unleashed in Germany after the First World War, it was the Great Depression that did so in the United States, for “there’s a parallel between time, history and horror pictures…In times of peace, there’s no place for horror films; times of fear-like now-bring out the need for violence in people. This reflects…a fear of the people of tomorrow.”