A Brief History of 3-D Horror Movies

1950s: The Golden Era

House of Wax 3-D horror movie poster
© Warner Bros.

Although three-dimensional motion pictures were featured in theaters as early as the 1920s, it wasn't until the '50s that the larger-than-life format became a bona fide Hollywood phenomenon. At the forefront of the movement were horror movies, an early adopter whose success in the 3-D realm has helped to ensure that the technology would remain a viable draw to this day.

The explosion in popularity of television during the 1940s cut movie theater admissions by nearly 50%, leaving studios scrambling to find a way to lure viewers away from their TV screens. One way of differentiating the theater experience from "home theaters" was 3-D technology.

The "golden era" of 3-D began in 1952 with the release of the first color feature broadcast in 3-D, the independently produced African adventure film Bwana Devil. The major studios took note of its success and rushed their own 3-D films into production, many of which were horror movies and other modestly budgeted genre fare that was deemed appropriate for the 3-D gimmick. (Although future horror legend William Castle directed several 3-D films in the '50s, none of them were horror.)

The first 3-D horror film, House of Wax, was also the first 3-D color feature of any genre from a major American studio (Warner Brothers). Star Vincent Price, who later emerged as a horror icon, became known as "King of 3-D" because of his starring roles in several 3-D movies during the decade, including the horror films House of Wax and The Mad Magician.

Other notable 3-D horror movies of the era included Robot Monster, now infamously remembered as one of the worst movies ever made, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, which introduced the last great Universal monster of the 20th century, the Gill-man. Its sequel, 1955's Revenge of the Creature, was the last 3-D feature to be released during the "golden era."

By the mid-'50s, the public's love affair with 3-D films had died down due to a decline in their novelty, the increased labor required to project two prints simultaneously (as the format operated at the time), the tendency of the delicate process to malfunction, and competition from widescreen formats like CinemaScope. By the early part of 1955, the "golden era" was dead.

Notable 3-D Horror Movies:

  • House of Wax (1953)
  • It Came from Outer Space (1953)
  • The Maze (1953)
  • Robot Monster (1953)
  • Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
  • Gorilla at Large (1954)
  • The Mad Magician (1954)
  • Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954)
  • Revenge of the Creature (1955)

1960s-70s: Marginalization

Frankenstein 3-D (Flesh for Frankenstein) horror movie poster
© Landmark

Just as quickly as it had captured the American public's imagination during the early '50s, 3-D film was pushed into the margins during the mid-'50s and pretty much stayed there for the next three decades or so. Advances in technology that eliminated the labor-intensive step of projecting two prints simultaneously helped lead to a mild revival of the format in the '60s -- almost exclusively relegated to low-budget exploitation fare like horror and sex films.

One of the only major studio efforts to incorporate 3-D during this era was the 1961 Warner Brothers horror film The Mask, which shot four of its scenes in 3-D to enhance the psychedelic visions that the main character experienced when putting on a mystical mask.

But as the '70s dawned and pornographic cinema became increasingly chic, 3-D filmmaking largely abandoned even horror in favor of an array of hardcore and soft-core adult fare. One notable movie, 1974's Flesh for Frankenstein (AKA Andy Warhol's Frankenstein AKA Frankenstein 3-D), managed to combine the sexual content with graphic horror, gaining an X-rated cult following in the process.

But in America, such 3-D horror movies were few and far between, and the format's domestic marginalization proved to be something of a boon for foreign 3-D horror. Films like Japan's sexually-inclined ("pink film") thriller Perverted Criminal (the country's first 3-D effort), Spain's Frankenstein's Bloody Terror (starring the iconic Paul Naschy), Great Britain's The Flesh and Blood Show (which featured only one sequence in 3-D) and South Korea's infamously awful King Kong ripoff A*P*E were imported to the US, keeping the 3-D horror tradition alive until its '80s domestic revival.

Notable 3-D Horror Movies:

  • The Mask (1961)
  • Perverted Criminal (1967)
  • Frankenstein's Bloody Terror (1969)
  • The Flesh and Blood Show (1972)
  • Flesh for Frankenstein (1974)
  • A*P*E (1976)

1980s: Theatrical Revival

Friday the 13th Part 3 3-D horror movie
© Paramount

The 3-D format seemed dead in Hollywood until 1981, when a 3-D Italian "spaghetti western" called Comin' at Ya! became a surprise hit in the US, earning nearly $7 million in limited release. Nostalgia brought several films from the golden era, including House of Wax, back for theatrical runs, and original American productions -- particularly horror movies riding the slasher boom of the early '80s -- soon followed.

First were low-budget independent productions like the killer dog movie Dogs of Hell and Parasite, directed by Charles Band of Puppet Master fame and starring a young Demi Moore. However, the major Hollywood studios caught on to the potential of 3-D and took advantage of a succession of high-profile horror franchise "part 3s" to tie in the 3-D tag with the titles: Friday the 13th Part 3, Jaws 3-D and Amityville 3-D.

While all three performed well enough commercially to justify further sequels, the cheesy quality of the effects (along with the still-present eye strain) and the un-subtle "shove-objects-in-viewers'-faces" approach to their integration didn't help people see 3-D as anything more than a fad. The critical bashing of Jaws 3-D (which featured the biggest budget of the three by far) in particular helped ensure that the technology would continue to be associated with low-budget, low-brow fare. Indeed, the format again receded into the margins by the mid-'80s.

Notable 3-D Horror Movies:

  • Dogs of Hell (1982)
  • Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982)
  • Parasite (1982)
  • Amityville 3-D (1983)
  • Jaws 3-D (1983)
  • Silent Madness (1984)
  • Tales of the Third Dimension (1984)

1990s: Specialization and Video Revival

Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare 3-D horror movie
© Innovation

In the late '80s, while 3-D was fading as a viable option for mainstream theatrical cinema, the format was finding a home in the specialty markets of theme parks and IMAX productions. Unlike most previous 3-D films, this new wave utilized high production values (including advanced 3-D rendering that reduced eye fatigue) and focused on family-friendly, often nonfiction subject matter. Epcot's Captain EO, starring Michael Jackson and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, was a high-profile example; at the time, the 17-minute short was the most expensive film ever produced on a per-minute basis.

So, what place did horror have in the newly big-budget, squeaky clean world of 3-D? Not much of one, it turns out. When the 1991 Nightmare on Elm Street sequel Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare dusted off the 3-D format for its final 10 minutes (to enhance viewers' entry into the "dream world"), it felt to fans more like a desperate gimmick by a fading franchise than a revitalization of the technology. The film wasn't received well by either fans or critics.

With IMAX growing in both popularity and technical proficiency during the '90s (during which it began expanding into fiction), 3-D became more and more mainstream, and 3-D horror decreased in viability. However, small, independent direct-to-video productions like The Creeps (from Charles Band, who previously directed the 1982 3-D film Parasite) and Camp Bood maintained the cheesy 3-D horror tradition into the start of the 21st century, when the format would expand beyond anyone's expectations.

Notable 3-D Horror Movies:

  • Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
  • The Creeps (1997)
  • Camp Blood (1999)

2000s: Innovation and Mainstream Explosion

My Bloody Valentine 3D horror movie
© Lionsgate

The early 21st century witnessed the continued expansion of IMAX as both a commercial endeavor and a showcase for 3-D technology, inspiring rival technologies from companies like RealD Cinema. James Cameron's much-anticipated follow-up to Titanic, the 2003 IMAX documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, marked a shift towards crisp, clean digital 3-D as opposed to film. By 2004, more than half of the IMAX theaters were 3D-capable, and the company released its first feature-length animated film, the blockbuster The Polar Express. When the 3-D version of the movie earned about 14 times as much per screen as the 2-D version, Hollywood took notice, and the 21st century 3-D revolution began.

Initially, animated kids' films like The Polar Express, Chicken Little and Monster House dominated the new 3-D playing field, taking advantage of high-quality computer animation and video capture technology to showcase the visual nature of those films. However, a couple of small independent horror productions became early adopters of the technology, reminding the world that horror had been an integral part of 3-D for 50 years: namely, a 2006 direct-to-video update of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and a 2007 "torture porn" film called Scar 3-D that was released internationally but has yet to find distribution in the US. Scar 3-D earned the distinction of being the first feature filmed in high-definition (HD) 3-D.

In 2009, major studios began to see the viability of expanding 3-D beyond family-friendly fare. The slasher remake was the first horror film and first R-rated film to use RealD, which had become the most popular 3-D technology. My Bloody Valentine was released on a then-record number of 3-D screens and was followed later that year by , which expanded the number of 3-D screens even further. (Although the earlier sequel, 2006's Final Destination 3, was initially scheduled to be filmed in 3-D, those plans were scrapped.)

The Final Destination in particular was a surprise hit -- thanks in part to the higher-priced 3-D tickets -- earning over $180 million worldwide and prompting producers to abandon thoughts of ending the series. Another entry was soon announced for a 2011 release. The Final Destination's success didn't go unnoticed by other established horror franchises, as 2010 saw , , and The Ring all announced plans for new 3-D additions. Meanwhile, standalone horror releases like and opted for significant production delays so that the films could be converted to 3-D. The risk, it seems, was deemed worth the reward in this new golden era of 3-D movies.

The success of the new wave of 3-D horror movies was inconsistent at best, with entries like Shark Night failing to scare up an audience. As such, 3-D has since been reserved more for blockbuster-scale projects like World War Z, and I, Frankenstein; hybrid horror offerings with mainstream appeal or works with built-in fan bases, such as sequels like and Texas Chainsaw or remakes like Poltergeist.

Notable 3-D Horror Movies:

  • Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006)
  • Scar 3-D (2007)
  • The Final Destination (2009)
  • My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009)
  • The Hole (2010)
  • My Soul to Take (2010)
  • Piranha 3D (2010)
  • Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)
  • Saw VII 3D (2010)
  • The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
  • The Darkest Hour (2011)
  • Final Destination 5 (2011)
  • Fright Night (2011)
  • Priest (2011)
  • Shark Night 3D (2011)
  • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)
  • Prometheus (2012)
  • Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)
  • Silent Hill: Revelation (2012)
  • Underworld: Awakening (2012)
  • Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
  • Pacific Rim (2013)
  • R.I.P.D. (2013)
  • Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)
  • World War Z (2013)
  • Godzilla (2014)
  • I, Frankenstein (2014)
  • Ouija (2014)
  • Jurassic World (2015)
  • The Last Witch Hunter (2015)
  • Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015)
  • Poltergeist (2015)