In Ingmar Bergman’s drama The Seventh Seal (1956), squire Jons enters a church and finds a painter producing a fresco featuring the Dance of Death. Jons asks why the painter must dwell on such an unhappy subject. The painter responds that it may not be such a bad idea to frighten people now and then. When Jons predicts that people will refuse to look, the painter knowingly replies, "Oh, they’ll look. A skull is almost more interesting than a naked woman."
It seems as if the painter was on to something. Looking back to the creepy Gothic fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries, German filmmakers of the 1920s created surreal, disorienting sets and used shadowy cinematography to bring to life tales of madness, magic and mayhem, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), The Golem (1920) and Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors (1922). The darkly expressionistic look of these German films jumped the Atlantic and found its way into Universal Studios’ classic horror films of the ’30s, like Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), with the aristocratic Bela Lugosi as the bloodthirsty count, and James Whale’s iconic Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), with the essential humanity of the monster so sympathetically portrayed by Boris Karloff.
The 1950s saw the heyday of the sci-fi thriller, with themes of interplanetary invasion and radiation-induced mutations, while Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is the precursor of the slasher film.
Horror has proven to be an extremely plastic, fertile genre, its primary tributary of fright branching off into subgenres, which give rise to subgenres of their own.
One such subgenre is medical horror, which plays off the feelings of powerlessness and bodily vulnerability experienced by most people who come in contact with the medical system. This subgenre was inaugurated by Coma (1977), in which patients at a hospital are purposely rendered brain-dead, the still-living bodies placed in cold storage so the organs can be harvested as needed.
A further subcategory of medical horror is the germ genre, where the dangerous monster lurking about is a microscopic organism or some sort of plague. One such film is the aforementioned Bergman masterpiece, The Seventh Seal, which refers back to the visual vocabulary of German expressionism to tell the tale of a knight and his squire who return from a crusade, only to find the European countryside overrun by a plague.
Horror for Bergman is the ever-present threat of spiritual emptiness and emotional sterility, and his ever-questioning knight seeks unshakable knowledge upon which to base his faith and his being, while his squire, believing in nothing, nevertheless acts with integrity, honesty, compassion and loyalty. Comic relief is delivered by a cuckolded blacksmith and a trio of itinerant actors.
When death, in the form of a black-robed, white-faced character, comes to claim the knight, he challenges the shade to a game of chess, which buys him more time. The nearness of death, in the form of this character and the relentless plague, serves only to highlight the sacred preciousness of life. Balancing darkness and light, horror and redemption, this visually stunning, deeply philosophical film proves to be a profoundly life-affirming experience.
In The Andromeda Strain (1971), based on a novel by Michael Crichton, a deadly extraterrestrial organism that turns blood into powder is brought back to earth via a returning satellite. Four scientists — including Dr. Ruth Leavitt, a middle-aged, testy, chain-smoking microbiologist — are assembled to deal with this crisis. When they’re sent to a five-story, cylindrical underground laboratory that is supposedly "biologically secure," the real nightmare begins with endless bureaucratic memos, directives, top secret passwords and numerical code designations, along with the human impossibility of foreseeing every contingency. As it turns out, the very mechanism that is supposed to make the facility fail-safe is exactly what the organism needs to disseminate throughout the world.
Outbreak (1995) concerns an epidemic of hemorrhagic fever (similar to but worse than Ebola) in a small town in California. As army virologist Dr. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and his team embark on an investigation, we’re treated to a disgusting litany of symptoms — mushy lesions, bleeding from the nose, ears and eyes, and liquefaction of the internal organs.
When Army brass get wind of the outbreak, they are reluctant to let Daniels do his job, instead preferring drastic, unconstitutional measures due to their sinister hidden agenda. A subplot regarding Daniels’ troubled marriage to a fellow virologist portrayed by Rene Russo provides the requisite love angle in this taut, well-made medical action thriller.
If all this doesn’t already have you running to the medicine cabinet in search of the nearest thermometer, check out other plague-ridden films like Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1980), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) with Vincent Price, or the six-hour Stephen King epic, The Stand (1994).
In this day of flesh-eating bacteria, antibiotic-resistant organisms, recalls of contaminated foods and the rising incidence of AIDS, the microbe will remain an avatar of horror.