Stretching all the way back to the silent era of film, horror movies have always held a special spooky place in the audience’s heart.
“When you see a great film, the genre aspect of it melts away.”
The technical aspects of how they’re made can be just as terrifying as a monster on the screen, says Detroit Film Theatre director Elliot Wilhelm.
“The process of editing film is an inherently violent one,” says Wilhelm, who has been leading the theatre inside of the Detroit Institute of Arts since 1974. “Audiences who are watching the original ‘Halloween’ or Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ understood inherently when to be scared because of the way the film was edited.”
Wilhelm says American cinema was actually late to the game when it came to spooky features.
“It was really the German cinema in the late silent era that mastered a kind of horror of ordinary everyday life, a kind of creepiness, that the Germans managed to instill in films,” says Wilhelm. “When a lot of these people got to America, they started making movies here. And many of them ended up at Universal Pictures, where the great horror monsters were originally born in the 1930s.”
Over time, Wilhelm says audiences evolved and acquired a more sophisticated taste of what frightened them, creating a challenge for a new generation of filmmakers.
“The sophistication of audiences to film turned those monsters into the butt of jokes after a while. Every generation subsequently would say, ‘scare me — I bet you can’t,’” says Wilhelm.
And there’s always a limit to what audiences will tolerate.
“We love being truly scared but, at the same time, we want to maintain some kind of control,” says Wilhelm. “We don’t want to be scared absolutely out of our minds or out of our seats. It’s a delicate balance.”
Listen: Detroit Film Theatre’s Elliot Wilhelm on his favorite horror movies.
“Rear Window”: A Hitchcock Masterpiece
“Horror movies have a personal impact on you,” says Wilhelm of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller “Rear Window” starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly.
“Hitchcock was so strong as a storyteller that you could visually follow the storytelling wordlessly,” says Wilhelm.
“The Sweet Smell of Success” as a Terrifying Warning
“It shows New York as this kind of engine where you need to be vicious to survive,” says Wilhelm of the 1957 film noir drama “The Sweet Smell of Success” starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.
“You have to constantly be after others and take what they have,” says Wilhelm. “That whole dog-eat-dog thing was much more scary to me than any other kind of invasion from another world. This was an invasion from within.”
“Night of the Living Dead” Rises Out Of Pittsburgh
Considered regional cinema at the time because it was made in Pittsburgh, “The Night of the Living Dead” is a “seminal moviegoing experience,” says Wilhelm of the 1968 independent horror film directed by George A. Romero.
“I don’t know how it plays for an audience now that has seen remake after remake of it,” says Wilhelm, who notes that the decade it arrived in was the source of a lot of its staying power.
“Who knew that a zombie movie would be that successful at putting their finger on the pulse of the fear and the anxiety and the despair that so many felt going on politically and morally in this country in the 1960s?” says Wilhelm.
Wilhelm says that “Night of the Living Dead” manages to defy genre and bring audiences together.
“When you see a great film, the genre aspect of it melts away,” says Wilhelm. “We become attached emotionally and intellectually to something that reaches us. That can be in just about any form. It’s always surprising when people get moved by a film like ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and come out a little differently than when they went in.