[This is the first in our ongoing Halloween series taking a look at the most influential horror directors from around the globe.]
Alfred Hitchcock was not a horror director.
In a career that spanned five decades, he only made three genuine horror movies (and to be fair, two of them are masterpieces), so putting him in a lineup of the "greatest horror directors of all time" feels disingenuous. But this isn't the "greatest horror directors of all time," this is "the most influential horror directors of all time" and Mr. Hitchcock's fingerprints can be found all over a genre that he he rarely directly worked within. Take a moment and compare the horror cinema of the first half of the century with that of the second. You'll find a changed landscape that Hitchcock helped cultivate.
Alfred Hitchcock generally made thrillers, but he made thrillers that were so black-hearted, vicious and darkly humorous that from them grew the likes of modern horror. Many of his films are seismic and their influence can be clearly read on dozens of imitators, both poor and sublime. Others are a bit subtler and sneaky, feeling like they were getting away with something that hadn't been created yet.
Let's break this down into five categories, shall we?
The Birth of Slasher Film
Let's get it out of the way right now: the conversation about Hitchcock's lasting influence on the horror genre begins and ends with Psycho, one of the most influential and widely imitated films of all time. Based on Robert Bloch's novel (which was loosely based on serial killer Ed Gein), Psycho gave birth to one of the most common and popular of all horror subgenres: the slasher movie. Although it bears little resemblance to the likes of Friday the 13th, the roots are here. A deranged killer with a signature style racking up a body count. Set pieces built around shocking kills. A morbid sense of humor. Even revealing the killer's identity in last-minute twist is a device still used today (Scream or Sleepaway Camp, anyone?). It's not in the least bit surprising that the three Hitchcock-less Psycho sequels essentially became typical '80s slashers. It's all in the same DNA strand.
In fact, you can draw a direct line from Psycho to two of the greatest slasher horror films of all time, both of which have also have their fair share of imitators. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in addition to also being inspired by the gruesome handiwork of Mr. Gein, shares Psycho's strange ability to repulse and shock without being nearly as gruesome as their reputations suggest. In the same way that many people claim to have seen the knife directly piercing skin in Hitchcock's infamous shower sequence despite there being no such shot, many remember The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as being a gorefest when hardly any blood is ever spilled on-screen (it's an easy PG-13 by modern standards). And then there's Halloween, which firmly established the '80s horror template while simultaneously showing the patience and restraint that defined Psycho. Halloween's admittedly entertaining sequels kept the template, but lost John Carpenter's Hitchcockian attention to pacing and dread.
Hitchcock would contribute to the slasher genre again with 1972's Frenzy, but to be perfectly honest, there's a reason why no one talks about that one.
The Rise of Independent Horror Film and the Fall of the Prestige Horror Film
The making of Psycho is just as important to the horror genre as what's on-screen. After years of lavish Hollywood sets and increasingly large budgets, Hitchcock took the financial failure of Vertigo to heart and set out to make Psycho on the cheap. Shooting in black and white with the faster, more mobile crew of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, Hitchcock redefined the low-budget horror movie, proving that a low-budget horror production isn't necessarily a B movie. Although the indie horror movement would truly kick off in 1968 when George Romero made Night of the Living Dead, Psycho is the first example of something that all movie studios and filmmakers are well aware of now: horror, unlike most populist genres, can be made quickly and with pennies. The roots of the independent horror film stretch all the way back here.
Hitchcock's immediate follow-up to Psycho couldn't have been more different and it represents a movement that never truly took off: the major studio horror movie. The Birds was expensive and a trial for everyone involved and to make matters worse, it bombed with both critics and audiences at the time (although it has since become one of his most famous and acclaimed films). The Birds was not the first "nature runs amok" horror film and it certainly wasn't the last, but it is undoubtedly one of the best. Although uber-expensive tentpole horror movies followed in the coming decades (Rosemary's Baby and The Shining spring to mind), The Birds represents the kind of movie that Psycho killed. Why make expensive, lavish studio horror when it can be done for dimes? Guillermo del Toro's aborted At the Mountains of Madness is a victim of this mindset.
Who Cares If It Doesn't Make Any Sense?
Sight and Sound's most recent poll named Hitchcock's Vertigo the greatest film of all time, which immediately places it in some pretty high and mighty (and pretty hoity-toity) company. Unlike Citizen Kane or Bicycle Thieves, Vertigo is a mean-spirited bad dream of a movie -- a creepy, bizarre and nonsensical slice of nightmare cinema that threatens to permanently blacken your heart and mind if you think about it too hard. Also, surprisingly little of it makes sense, but that's beside the point. Vertigo is a film that operates on emotions and bad feelings: sense is secondary to your senses, if you will.
If all of this sounds a little familiar, it's because it perfectly describes the careers of Hollywood auteurs like Brian De Palma (whose handful of true horror films are often incredible Hitchcock riffs) and Italian filmmakers like Dario Argento, whose supernatural-tinged brand of horror feels like Vertigo's oddest moments with a case of rabies. In fact, much of '70s Italian horror owes a debt to Hitchcock, who gave filmmakers mainstream permission to not make sense. And come on, you know the mysterious gloved killers of giallo films wouldn't exist if Hitchcock hadn't done his thing.
Film as an "Experience"
"You know, we're not making a movie. We're constructing an organ... the kind of organ that you see in the theater. And we press this chord and now the audience laughs and we press that chord and they gasp and we press these notes and they chuckle. Someday, we won't have to make a movie, we'll just attach them to electrodes and play the various emotions for them to experience in the theater." -Hitchcock to screenwriter Ernest Lehman on the set of North by Northwest.
This organ has already been built and it's called Fantastic Fest. But in all seriousness, what are odd and unusual horror movies like Evil Dead if not a machine that can make you recoil or giggle or scream at a moment's notice?
Sympathy for the Devil
There's a scene about halfway through Psycho that is the key to comprehending Hitchcock's evil genius. After discovering the dead body of Marion Crane, poor Norman Bates (not wanting to incriminate his psychotic "mother") puts the corpse in the trunk of her car and pushes it into the swamp. It starts to sink and then... it doesn't. Our hearts stop. The suspense ratchets up. We find ourselves subconsciously desperately wanting this man to successfully hide the body of a woman we spent the past 45 minutes rooting for.
Rooting for the villain to win is not uncommon in horror cinema. After all, those stupid, sexy teenagers only exist to meet the business end of Jason Voorhees' machete, right? But Psycho has one of the earliest and best horror villains, a serial killer that's so likable that -- gosh darn it! -- maybe he should be allowed to get away with it! Hitchcock's films are frequently about horrible people doing horrible things to each other, but his true genius is making us feel complicit in their actions... and making us okay with that.
Now that's scary.
The Alfred Hitchcock Horror Essentials:
Shadow of a Doubt
Dial M for Murder