A Marathon History of Cult Horror Films for Halloween

Vincent Price: The Classic Horror Icon

The blog post you are about to read is so terrifying, it might just kill you. If you have a heart condition or a fragile psychological state of being, please do not read any further. I implore you to step away from this computer or digital device. Should anything happen to you while reading this post, you have been warned, and we will in no way be held responsible.

Blood, gore, suspense, virgins, sex, overwrought sincere performances and violence are the heart and soul of great cult horror movies! The more sex and gore, the merrier. Whether the source of the horror is supernatural, psychopathic or extraterrestrial, you’re in for a great night at the movies.

Defining cult horror can be a bit tricky. It evolved out of serious, studio-driven horror flicks. Universal Studios was the epicenter of horror cinema in the early 1930s. Draculahttp://www.moviesunlimited.com/dracula/025192249556 (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932) were big budget, state-of-the-art films for their time. As difficult as it may be to believe today, they scared the living daylights out of audiences who couldn’t get enough of them. Buuut, then came the sequels, which lost their originality and amused more than horrified. Think The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It was a little campier, in spite of its budget and high production values. Whereas most people wouldn’t call the original a cult horror film, the sequel usually gets lumped into the cult side of the column.

Moving forward, cult films were more easily defined by their camp factor, poor production values and amplification of sex and violence. Like many B-movies, horror films were, and still are, very cheap to make. As moviegoers enjoy a good scare, these same movies can be quite lucrative. Film history has seen a steady stream of them since the 1950s!

Director Edward D. Wood Jr. is best known as the worst horror/sci-fi director of all time, with films such as Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). While he barely made a dime on these movies in his lifetime, they have enjoyed cult fame and notoriety since the 1970s. Elements such as bad dialog, shabby sets and questionable plots with lots of horror elements that don’t quite scare but are sincere efforts to scare make them great cult horror flicks.

Yet, producer/director William Castle was the first to take cult horror all the way. He was a marketing genius who bought insurance policies for his audiences, in case somebody died of fright from his films, which nobody did. He rigged buzzers to the seats to elicit screams. He installed glowing skeletons that jumped out of the rafters. In his black-and-white films, he’d only pay for color footage for bathtubs full of blood and such. Mild-mannered, middle-aged Vincent Price was his unlikely diabolical star. My favorite of his films (both Castle’s and Price’s) is The Tingler (1959) which is about this little monster that lives on everybody’s spine. It feeds on fear and can break your spine if you don’t scream to release your fear. Other fantastic films of his include The House on Haunted Hill (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Mr. Sardonicus (1961), 13 Frightened Girls (1963) and the deliciously psychotic, axe-wielding Joan Crawford in 1964’s Stait-Jacket.

It was Alfred Hitchcock who copied William Castle for some of his marketing gimmicks in his genuine horror films such as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963).

In the same league as William Castle was his contemporary and a still active director, Roger Corman. Corman made the very first The Fast and the Furious movie back in 1955, but he became better known for cult horror films such as Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), 1959’s trifecta of Attack of the Giant Leeches, A Bucket of Blood and The Wasp-Woman. He gave Jack Nicholson his start in 1960’s Little Shop of Horrors.

Corman dominated drive-ins in the 1960s with his pictures made at American International Studios. Here he often paired with Vincent Price on films inspired by the writings of Edgar Allen Poe: The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), House of Usher (1960), Tales of Terror (1962), Masque of the Red Death (1964) and many others.

Corman, who is presently 90 years old, is STILL cranking out two or three horror movies a year, often for the SyFy network. More recent endeavors include genetic mash-up monsters such as Dinoshark (2010) and Sharktopus (2010).

The British took an interest in horror films, too, in the late 1950s. Their films more closely rode the line between true horror and cult horror, especially with the extremely popular series of Dracula films starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. These were more drive-in fare favorites that started with 1958’s Horror of Dracula.”Both actors became horror staples in British, and eventually American, films.

In the mid-1960s and through the 1970s, movies got a lot messier with blood and gore galore. These horror exploitation flicks often (but not always) included plenty of topless or scantily clad women. Teenagers became a prime target of villains, as they were the prime audience.

Herschell Gordon Lewis, who recently passed away, became the “Godfather of Gore,” along with his friend David Friedman, because he knew exactly what audiences wanted when he tapped into teenage bloodlust and regular lust with the drive-in hit Blood Feast in 1963. Borrowing heavily from the plot of 1932’s The Mummy, an Egyptian man seeks to perform the rites and rituals necessary to bring an ancient goddess to life…by using the body parts of beautiful, scantily clad women around Miami. Gallons of fake blood, human organs and even whole limbs are chopped off to the delight of fans across the United States. This was soon followed up with gory masterpieces such as Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965).

The Italians developed a special bloodlust, too. Their horror stories that were drenched in blood were known as “giallo.” Director Dario Argento was its absolute master. It is difficult to go wrong with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972), Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977).

Argento was a big influence on American horror master George Romero, helping him with the epic Dawn of the Dead (1979)

With elements based loosely on serial killer Ed Gein, the indy horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) cut new ground in violence and bloodshed on screen. You also can thank it for likely being the first film where someone wears the flesh of another person as a costume for killing.

Adding more camp and comedy to the horror film genre, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Hertz started the Troma film company in the 1970s. Making their own zany gore and crass laden films, they became huge hits on the direct-to-video (yes, VHS) market. Their biggest claims to fame spanned the 1980s and ’90s with The Toxic Avenger (1984), The Class of Nuke ’Em High (1986), Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD (1990), Terror Firmer, (1999) and more recent gems such as Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006).

As the 1980s took hold, slasher films became the norm on big screens. Although they had the gore, they lost much of the camp and corniness of some of the true cult films. For a while, you had to turn to either Troma or directors overseas for good cult horror.

Today, Peter Jackson is famous as the Oscar-winning genius director behind the Lord of the Rings films. However, he got his start with some of the best cult movies of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Set in his native New Zealand, Bad Taste (1987) tells of a squad of “elite” soldiers sent by the government to shutdown an alien invasion that will turn earth into an intergalactic fast food restaurant with humans being food for passing aliens. Funnier and gorier is Dead Alive (1992), a zombie tale in which humans decay into more claymation-like zombies the longer they are undead. It soon becomes the duty of an unassuming mama’s boy to put down a zombie insurrection while also figuring out how to win the heart of the hottest girl in town. You will never laugh harder at a horror film when the penultimate scene boils down a man, a lawnmower and a room full of claymationesque zombies.

As far as foreign cult horror movies go, we don’t even have time to get into the phenomena of Godzilla and the many other fantastic foam-rubber monster flicks from Japan! Mothra is easily one of my favorites, but Japanese monster movies are quite worthy of their own special analysis.

Cult movies are pretty much completely past their prime on big screens in our modern era. However, with the explosion of cable channels on the dial, there is a monster market—so to speak—for cult horror movies, once again. Roger Corman continues to help fill that void, but so do many other directors with the huge sensation behind the Sharknado series and many other films.

So as All Hallow’s Eve approaches, don’t tell me there’s nothing to watch to inspire your dark side. You have more than 80 years worth of great cult horror movies to check out!

Nathaniel Cerf has written the ultimate cult horror script set in Chicago and on Lake Michigan. It is freakin’ brilliant. Now all he needs is financing, a cast and a crew to make it. You can reach him at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.