The History of Horror Movies: The Beginning

Horror is a genre of speculative fiction which is intended to frighten, scare, or disgust.

I love a good horror movie. One of my favorites is the 1931 “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi. I try to watch Svengoolie, on MeTV, every Saturday night and I used to watch Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. The movies started back in the silent era and continue today.

The horror genre includes ghosts, demons, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, the Devil, witches, monsters, extraterrestrials, dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds, serial killers, cannibalism, psychopaths, cults, dark magic, satanism, the macabre, gore, and torture.

Georges Méliès “Le Manoir du diable” may have been the first horror film. It was released in 1896, was from France, and lasted 3 minutes. The name means “House of the Devil” and was released in the United States as “The Haunted Castle” and in the UK as “The Devil’s Castle”. The silent film shows an encounter with the Devil and various attendant phantoms. This film was lost until 1988 when a copy was located in the New Zealand Film Archive[1].

In 1909 a couple of Edgar Allen Poe stories were created, in France “Le Puits dett le Pendule” and in America with “The Sealed Room”. 1910 would see the debut of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”, a 16-minute silent film by J. Searle Dawley and produced by Thomas Edison and advertised in his Edison Kinetogram[2]. Young Dr. Frankenstein leaves home and creates life, the monster, by mixing chemicals. In this version, the monster follows Frankenstein to his parent’s home and after seeing himself in the mirror is horrified and runs away without killing anyone.

An early adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was in 1908 by William Selig. There were several other early versions like “The Duality of Man” the 5-minute British film. In 1912, another Poe story, “The Raven” was released, followed by “The Pit and the Pendulum” in 1913.

This year also saw “The Student of Prague”, a film loosely based on “William Wilson”, a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, the poem “The December Night” by Alfred de Musset, and Faust. This silent movie is 85 minutes and was directed by Stellan Rye, made in Germany, and is considered to be the first German art film, it helped lift cinema from its low-class, fairground origins to a viable art form. The star Balduin sells his soul for 100,000 pieces of gold and ends up with no reflection and a double. When he tries to shoot his double he kills himself.

The silent 1920s brought “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” opening in the US on March 19, 1921. Directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, the story is told in a flashback, a surrealistic story of murder and mind control that ends with an unexpected twist. “The Golem: Or How He Came into the World” is a German film based on Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 novel, and features a titular creature, a being in Jewish folklore created from clay.

A 1920 “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde[3]” is a Paramount silent film starring John Barrymore. The movie runs for 79 minutes and was made in the United States. “Haxan” is a 1922 film released as “Witchcraft Through the Ages” in the US, filmed in Sweden and running 105 minutes. The story is of documentary-style storytelling as well as dramatized narrative sequences that chart the superstitions around witches.

The unauthorized and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, “Nosferatu” was released in 1922. Another silent German Expressionist horror film, it was directed by F. W. Murnau and starred Max Schreck as Count Orlok, a vampire who preys on the wife of his estate agent and brings the plague to their town. It keeps some of Bram Stoker’s intact but some things, like how Dracula can create other vampires by biting them are omitted, he just kills them in this version. Rotten Tomatoes gives this film 97%.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a 1923 Universal silent film running 102 minutes and filmed in the United States. It stars Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, the deaf, half-blind, hunchbacked bell-ringer of the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. “The Hands of Orlac” was released May 6, 1924, and was a 90-minute silent film from Austria. Concert pianist Paul Orlac played by Conrad Veidt loses his hands in a railway accident. They are replaced with the hands of a recently executed murderer named Vasseur. It was first shown in the US in 1928 and Rotten Tomatoes gives it 91%.

“Waxworks” is a 1924 German silent anthology film directed by Paul Leni. The film brings together several genres, including a fantasy adventure, a historical film, and a horror film through its various episodes. Its stories are linked by a plot thread about a writer who accepts a job from a waxworks proprietor to write a series of stories about the exhibits of the Caliph of Baghdad, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss) in order to boost business. The film runs 84 minutes and was released in the US, as well, in 1924.

The Metro-Goldwyn Pictures 1925 silent horror-comedy film “The Monster” starred Lon Chaney as Dr. Gustave Ziska, who is performing unorthodox operations in a closed asylum. The same year brought “The Phantom of the Opera”, an American silent horror film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, directed by Rupert Julian and starring Lon Chaney. Rotten Tomatoes gives this one 90%.

“Faust – A German Folktale” is a 1926 silent film is a story where a demon Mephisto has a bet with an Archangel that he can corrupt a righteous man’s soul and destroy in him what is divine. If he succeeds, the Devil will win dominion over the earth. It was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the US the same year. “The Cat and the Canary” is a 1927 American silent horror film adaptation of John Willard’s 1922 black comedy. It stars Laura La Plante as Annabelle West.

The reading of her uncle’s will, 20 years after his death leaves everything to her but when she spends the night in his haunted mansion she is stalked by a mysterious figure. Meanwhile, “The Cat” escapes an asylum and is hiding in the mansion.

Lon Chaney is in “London After Midnight” (1927), the last known copy was destroyed in the 1965 MGM vault fire but there is a reconstruction. Chaney plays a Scotland Yard inspector who investigates ghoulish figures that could be vampires at the mansion of a dead Londoner. In 1992, Bob Kane recalled that the Penguin, for “Batman Returns”, bore a striking resemblance to Lon Chaney in “London After Midnight”. Next time I will start talking, or at least write about horror films where they talk.

  1. The New Zealand Film Archive was established in 1981. On 1 August 2014, the archive was amalgamated with Sound Archives Ngā Taonga Kōrero and the Television New Zealand Archive to form Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. In early 2009, a collection of 75 previously thought to be lost American silent films, was discovered there. The films dated from 1898 to 1929 and were previously thought to be lost films.
  2. The Edison Kinetogram was a semi-monthly bulletin of moving pictures and news with an emphasis on Edison films and Kinetoscopes.
  3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an 1886 gothic novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The novella’s impact is such that it has become a part of the language, with the vernacular phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” referring to people with an unpredictably dual nature: outwardly good, but sometimes shockingly evil.


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Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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