For many fans, independent horror filmmaking seems like a relatively new concept. So you may be surprised to find out the maverick spirit that fuels our beloved genre has been burning for almost 100 years now, since the 1912 version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde was produced by the independently-run production house Thanhouser Company.
Since then, we’ve enjoyed countless films that bucked the studio system tradition and gave us bold, refreshing explorations of some of our greatest fears and introduced us to some pioneers in the entertainment industry. In honor of these achievements, we here at Dread Central are taking the entire month of March to celebrate all things indie horror.
To kick things off, over the next five days we’d like to take you on a historical journey through the last 100 years of indie horror by taking a look at 25 milestones that helped define the horror genre and, in many cases, sparked the careers of many of our favorite Masters of Horror and forever changed the cinematic landscape for the better.
First up, we take a look at some of the key milestones in independent horror from 1921 until 1960.
1921- Production Begins on Nosferatu:
In 1921, independent Prana Films took a gamble when they greenlit production on F. W. Murnau’s expressionistic horror flick Nosferatu. The project has gained notoriety throughout the years for many reasons, the first being the stories surrounding the film’s infamous star, Max Schreck, who was rumored to be a bit too much of a “method actor” while filming. The other reason for the film’s infamy is that Nosferatu ended up being both the launchpad and the demise of Prana Films, due to some legal snafus.
Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau, who co-founded Prana Films themselves, hired screenwriter Henrik Galeen the task to write a screenplay inspired from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, despite never having obtained the film rights to do so. They dodged initial conflict by changing some plot points and changing Count Dracula to Count Orlok but ultimately had to declare bankruptcy to avoid the wrath of Stoker’s widow. But despite all its problems, Nosferatu remains one of the most honored genre films ever and even became subject matter for the award-winning film Shadow of the Vampire.
1955- Roger Corman Releases Swamp Women:
Even though B-movie pioneer Roger Corman was more well-known for his later work which included classic films like Death Race 2000 or Galaxy of Terror, it was Swamp Women that put him on the map as a successful independent horror director.
Swamp Women was one of the first films directed by Corman and proved he was a film visionary with his independent approach to the project that also led to a successful partnership between the director and the independent studio American International Pictures. The studio teamed with Corman on various projects including several of his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations as well as the cult classic The Little Shop of Horrors.
In 1970, Corman went on to found his own independent production studio called New World Pictures that was responsible for creating some of our genre’s most beloved cult classics and launched the careers of countless industry heavyweights like Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovich just to name a few. In the 55 plus years Corman has been active in Hollywood, he has produced over 300 movies and directed over 50, ensuring that his legacy as the King of B-Movies will stand for generations to come.
1955- Ed Wood Creates Bride of the Monster:
There’s no doubt that director Ed Wood, Jr. created quite a unique legacy in Hollywood, and what started it all in the horror genre was his 1955 movie Bride of the Monster (or Bride of the Atom), which became a landmark in the classic horror/sci-fi film realm. This indie gem is most famous for being the last speaking role for the iconic Béla Lugosi (his last actual appearance on film was in Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space) and was produced, directed and co-written by Wood, who was famous for getting his projects finished regardless of any challenges that he may have faced along the way.
Wood first attempted to make Bride of the Monster in 1953 under the title The Atomic Monster, but his lack of securing financing prevented any production. Later he revived the project as The Monster of the Marshes and began production in October 1954 at the Ted Allan Studios, but once again, money problems arose and Wood had to end production. The third time was a charm for Wood, and he secured the required funds via a rancher named Donald McCoy, who became the film’s producer and in return landed a starring role for his son in the flick. The film finally premiered at Hollywood’s Paramount theater in May, 1955, under the title Bride of the Atom.
And even though Plan 9 may be the movie that fans remember best from Wood’s career, it was Bride of the Monster that not only demonstrated his resolve for making independent horror but also gave audiences their final opportunity of hearing the beloved Lugosi’s voice on camera, forever cementing its place in history.
1959- Welcome to The House on Haunted Hill: Unsuspecting moviegoers in 1959 has no idea what kind of tricks filmmaker William Castle had up his sleeve when he first released the classic film The House on Haunted Hill in theaters. Not simply satisfied with scaring the hell out of audiences on the big screen, he pioneered the “Emergo” movement in film when he decided to install an elaborate pulley system in various theaters showing the film which allowed a plastic skeleton to be flown over the audience at the appropriate time, giving them even more scares than they imagined when they took their seats.
Thanks to Castle’s gimmickry, The House on Haunted Hill was a huge success and inspired another independent filmmaker named Alfred Hitchcock who took notice of the low-budget film’s performance at the box office and set out to make his own low-budget success story, a psychological thriller called Psycho.
From that point on, Castle solidified his place as the King of the Gimmicks and went on to shock and terrify horror fans for years to come with other classic films like Thirteen Ghosts, The Tingler, and Mr. Sardonicus as well as going on to act as producer on projects like Bug and Rosemary’s Baby. Castle himself inspired legendary producer Joel Silver, who created Dark Castle Entertainment in 1999. The production stable’s main goal initially was to handle production on all the Castle remakes (it produced both remakes of House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts), but it soon branched out and has produced many other modern horror favorites including The Hills Run Red, Gothika, and Orphan.
1960- Alfred Hitchcock Creates Psycho:
As just mentioned, our beloved Master of Suspense found the inspiration to create his ultimate slasher classic, Psycho, based on the success of William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill. Alfred Hitchcock, who was particular about whom he trusted for source material, was introduced to the Robert Bloch novel by the same name by his production assistant, Peggy Robertson, and found the story to be the perfect fit for the new direction he wanted to take in his career.
Hitchcock then hired Joseph Stefano to create the screenplay adaptation of the novel and pitched Psycho as part of a deal with Paramount Picture to recoup losses from two other aborted projects with the studio. Paramount shot him down twice, but then Hitchcock wisely counter offered to finance the film personally and to film it at Universal-International if Paramount would agree to distribute the finished film. Hitchcock made another bold move by deferring his director’s fee of $250,000 for a 60% ownership of the film negative, giving him more control.
Psycho was independently produced by Hitchcock and shot on a lean budget of $807,000. In June, 1960, the director’s gamble seemed to have paid off right out of the gate. The film opened sensationally due to Hitchcock’s inventive “No Late Admission Policy”, which had audiences buzzing about the movie’s surprises and twists; and at the end of its initial run, Psycho ended up making $11.2 million. The film spawned several sequels, a television series and cemented Anthony Perkins’ place as one of the most iconic slashers in the history of film, and its influence continues to resonate with filmmakers to this very day.
We’ll see you fiends Tuesday for our next five milestones!
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