Eras in Sci-fi and Horror Film History

In working my way through classic sci-fi and horror films, I noticed trends in style and focus.  Film historians have undoubtedly done a better job of cataloging the specifics of this, but here are some eras that I noticed over the years.  There's some chronological overlap, of course (Hollywood doesn't flip a switch and make the shift overnight), but these trends really jump out at you even in straight chronological order.

Examples are provided for each entry.  There are many more examples than those, many of which would be highly recognizable.  However, I purposely stuck to what I consider "essential" viewing, so all the films listed are recommendations based on quality and cinematic influence, with titles compiled from my lists of essential horror movies and essential sci-fi movies.
The Silent Era - Due to the limitations of the medium at the time, silent movies are stylistically constrained to certain types of story-telling, and that affects their look as well, but some of these are visionary in their approaches and transcend their era.
1920    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
1922    Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens
1923    The Hunchback of Notre Dame
1925    The Phantom of the Opera
1927    Metropolis
1928    The Man Who Laughs
1931    Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Universal Monster Era - These classics usually focused on singular characters, often framed within now-iconic imagery.  These characters still resonate today and their stories are often reinterpreted, in many cases even by other names (e.g., Frankenstein = Rocky Horror, Weird Science, Short Circuit, etc.).
1931    Dracula
1931    Frankenstein
1932    Freaks
1932    The Mummy
1933    King Kong
1933    The Invisible Man
1935    Bride of Frankenstein
1936    Flash Gordon
1941    The Wolf Man

The Flowering of Science Fiction - Although there are monsters in these films, the emphasis is often directed outward rather than the subjecive/personal, presenting a view that there is a great, big universe out there with many discoveries to be made still about things at the periphery of human experience.
1950    Destination Moon
1951    The Day the Earth Stood Still
1951    The Thing from Another World
1951    When Worlds Collide
1953    Invaders from Mars
1953    War of the Worlds
1954    The Creature from the Black Lagoon
1954    Them!
1955    The Quatermass Experiment
1955    This Island Earth
1956    Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
1956    Forbidden Planet
1956    Invasion of the Body Snatchers
1957    Invasion of the Saucer Men
1957    Quatermass II
1958    The Blob
1958    The Fly
1958    The Spider (aka Earth Vs. The Spider)
1959    Plan 9 From Outer Space
1960    The Time Machine
1962    The Day of the Triffids
1966    Fantastic Voyage
1968    2001: A Space Odyssey

Haunted Castles - Many less-notable movies such as those by Hammer Films (such as retellings of Dracula and Frankenstein) fall under this heading as well, although they simply weren't memorable enough to make this list.  You could include other gothic films such as the much earlier Rebecca to this list, but this was primarily a '60s phenomenon.  By the '80s, the idea of a castle was reinvented as something the general audience could easily identify with: a suburban house, such as in Poltergeist or The Amityville Horror or even the setting for Nightmare on Elm Street.
1959    House on Haunted Hill
1960    Psycho
1961    The Innocents
1962    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
1963    The Haunting
1964    Masque of the Red Death
1979    The Amityville Horror
1980    The Changling
1980    The Shining
1982    Poltergeist

Paranoia - These films tend to have an overwhelmingly oppressive feel to them.  The enemy is so powerful that they may destroy everything (whether it's the Soviets or Satan and his minions) and you can't trust anyone.  Your friends or family or even pets may be ready to turn on you.  It is perhaps not a coincidence that this era rose proportionally with the tensions during the Cold War.
1944    Gaslight
1959    On the Beach
1960    Village of the Damned
1963    The Birds
1964    Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
1964    Fail-Safe
1965    Repulsion
1967    Wait Until Dark
1968    Night of the Living Dead
1968    Planet of the Apes
1968    Rosemary's Baby
1973    The Wicker Man
1975    The Stepford Wives
1976    The Omen
1978    Invasion of the Body Snatchers (remake)

The Slasher Era - These primarily centered on singular killers, although perhaps a small gang or family was involved.  The killer could even be a shark!  The murder weapon was never a gun though.  That wouldn't be nearly as cinematic as an up-close confrontation with a bloodied weapon, of course.  It was easy to replicate the bare-bones of this genre on a shoestring budget, so numerous imitators and sequels followed.
1971    A Clockwork Orange
1973    Don't Look Now
1973    The Exorcist
1974    The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
1975    Jaws
1976    Carrie
1977    Suspiria
1977    The Hills Have Eyes
1978    Halloween
1978    I Spit on Your Grave
1980    Friday the 13th

Alien Worlds - Science fiction first exploded in the wake of the atomic age.  Decades later the first Star Wars film had a similar effect on Hollywood, as studios green-lit all sorts of sci-fi films that previously would have been considered fare only for children instead of the block-buster spectacles we've come to expect them to be.
1977    Star Wars
1977    Close Encounters of the Third Kind
1978    Superman
1979    Alien
1979    Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
1979    Phantasm
1979    The Black Hole
1980    Flash Gordon
1980    Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
1981    Scanners
1982    Blade Runner
1982    E.T.
1982    Star Trek II
1982    The Thing
1982    Tron

The Era of the New Monsters - Monsters weren't just slashers or creeps with fangs; they were imbued with wit and usually super-natural or super-science powers.  They weren't all new, of course, but werewolves and zombies were re-invented in ways far more extreme than their previous cinematic incarnations.
1978    Dawn of the Dead
1981    An American Werewolf in London
1981    The Howling
1982    The Evil Dead
1983    Twilight Zone: The Movie
1983    Videodrome
1984    Children of the Corn
1984    Nightmare on Elm Street
1984    The Terminator
1985    Return of the Living Dead
1985    Day of the Dead
1985    Re-Animator
1986    Aliens
1986    The Fly
1987    Dead by Dawn: Evil Dead 2
1987    Hellraiser
1988    Child's Play
1988    Hellbound: Hellraiser 2
1990    It
1990    Jacob's Ladder
1990    Tremors
1991    The Silence of the Lambs
1992    Army of Darkness
1992    Braindead (aka Dead Alive)
1992    Candyman

The CGI Era - Movies that never could have been realized before were now possible.  Whether we're talking about creatures far beyond the capabilities of animatronics and prosthetics or entire environments, computer-generated imagery and tools like morphing or rapid compositing (as opposed to much more labor-intensive precursors like optical printing) had removed all limitations to what could be accomplished on the screen.
1989    The Abyss
1991    Terminator 2: Judgment Day

1993    Jurassic Park
1996    From Dusk Till Dawn
1997    Event Horizon
1998    Blade
1998    Dark City
1999    The Matrix
2000    Pitch Black
2002    The Ring
2002    28 Days Later
2004    Dawn of the Dead (remake)
2004    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2005    Serenity
2005    The Descent
2008    WALL·E
2009    Avatar
2009    District 9
2009    Star Trek
2010    Inception
2012    Prometheus

The Superhero Era - It's not that there weren't plenty of comic book/super hero movies before this period, but the emergence of CGI allowed the audience to suspend disbelief in spandex-wearing mutants, and this era is full of full-on adaptations of comic books that don't try to skirt the source material or pretend it belongs in another genre (e.g., Blade).
2000    X-Men
2002    Spider-man
2003    X2: X-Men United
2004    Hellboy
2004    Spider-man 2
2005    Batman Begins
2005    Fantastic Four
2005    Sin City
2006    300
2006    Superman Returns
2008    The Incredible Hulk
2008    Iron Man
2008    The Dark Knight
2009    Watchmen
2010    Iron Man 2
2010    Kick-Ass
2011    Thor
2011    X-Men: First Class
2012    The Avengers
2012    Chronicle
2012    The Dark Knight Rises
2013    Man of Steel
2014    Guardians of the Galaxy
2014    Captain America: The Winter Soldier
2014    X-Men: Days of Future Past
2016    Deadpool
2016    Suicide Squad
2017    Spider-Man: Homecoming

Emerging themes
The following don't represent eras so much as the focus of groups of films.

Other notable titles
For various reasons, the following movies fall outside of the trend of their contemporaneous films.  For example, Things to Come was simply ahead of its time.  Science fiction wasn't to become a huge draw for another couple decades.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Grindhouse were largely twisted homages to films from earlier eras.  And then there are movies like Twelve Monkeys or V for Vendetta (i.e., it's a comic book adaptation, but it's not a superhero story) or Donnie Darko that simply defy easy categorization.
1936    Things to Come
1955    Diabolique
1957    Night of the Demon
1974    Young Frankenstein
1975    Rocky Horror Picture Show
1985    Back to the Future
1985    Brazil
1986    The Hitcher
1988    Akira
1988    Spoorloos (The Vanishing)
1990    Misery
1993    The Nightmare Before Christmas
1994    Dellamorte Dellamore
1995    Se7en
1995    Twelve Monkeys
1998    Pi
1999    Stir of Echoes
1999    The Blair Witch Project
1999    The Sixth Sense
2000    American Psycho
2001    Donnie Darko
2001    The Others
2004    Saw
2004    Shaun of the Dead
2006    Children of Men
2006    V for Vendetta
2007    Grindhouse
2007    Paranormal Activity
2009    Zombieland
2010    Shutter Island


Copyright 2013 the Ale[x]orcist.  Updated 2016.