Horror, more than any other cinematic genre, taps into the deepest and most primal parts of the human psyche. From things that go bump in the night to the plausible terror that the quiet man that owns the motel is a psychotic serial killer, the genre has continued to evolve for every generation of cinema goers.
Yet there was a time before horror existed as a genre. The monster movie boom of the 1930s that started with Bela Lugosi's infamous lines “I am – Dracula.” [...] “I bid you welcome.” first gave Hollywood studios its biggest taste for horror. But what a bout the pioneering films and their icons of the early years of cinema that brought horror to the silver screen? For that we need to step back to a time before sound and into the world of the silent film.
Many early films have been lost or destroyed as the decades have progressed. But those that survive offer a tantalising glimpse into the move from theatrical special effects into basic camera tricks to add supernatural visuals to the stories on the screen. The interplay of light and shadow of German expressionism and the pioneering makeup techniques of the 'Man with a thousand faces' Lon Chaney.
The Early Shorts
With the invention of the cinematograph in the 1890s by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière it became inevitable that the traditions of horror fiction and theatrical plays would find a natural home in the new medium. The medium's inventors saw no future in motion pictures outside of their brief fairground attraction showing very short pieces of footage and turned their attention back to photography. But a fellow Frenchman by the name of George Méliès saw its potential and began to produce a huge variety of short films that ranged from a few minutes in length to nearly quarter of an hour and drawing on everything from fantasy, science fiction and horror.
Méliès' occupation as an illusionist allowed him to experiment with new ideas to bring his stage magic to his films. Stage effects and automata and basic editing techniques such as double exposure, superimposing images and stop tricks all became industry standards and advanced the technical wizardry of cinema. Although his most well known films are the science fiction cum fantasy adaptations of 'A Trip to the Moon' (1902) and 'The Impossible Voyage' (1904), one of his early creations was the comedic horror 'Le Manoir du diable' (1896) AKA 'The Haunted Castle'. Credited as “the first horror film” 'The Haunted Castle' follows an encounter with the Devil in a haunted house and emphasises creating wonder and astonishment in its audience with its focus on special effects rather than fear. This was something that would characterise all of Méliès' subsequent horror films such as 'Le Château Hanté' (1897), 'La Damnation De Faust' (1898), 'Le Diable Au Couvent ' (1899), 'Faust Et Marguerite' (1904), 'Le Diable Noir' (1905), and 'Les Quat' Cents Farces Du Diable' (1906). Méliès' fortunes waned, and by the time the first world war broke out he was bankrupt. Many films were melted down by the French government for the war effort and Méliès himself burned a number of his negatives. Around 200 of his films survived but his pioneering use of special effects set the tone for cinema until the advent of CGI.
Outside of Méliès' work there were other willing to dip their toes into darker waters. The Japanese market produced 'Bake Jizo' AKA 'Jizo The Ghost' and 'Shinin no Sosei' AKA 'Resurrection Of A Corpse', both made in 1898, and which are now sadly lost. While a French contemporary of George Méliès named Alice Guy Blache created 'Esmeralda' (1905), which featured the first on-screen depiction of Quasimodo from the Victor Hugo novel 'The Hunchback Of Notre Dame'. While over in the USA D.W. Grifith, who would later find success with epics such as 'The Birth Of A Nation' (1915) and 'Intolerance' (1916), looked to Honoré de Balzac and Edgar Allen Poe for his dark short 'The Sealed Room' (1909).
D.W. Grifith's countryman, the inventor and industrialist Thomas Edison, who had been the creator of the Kinetoscope peepshow machine – a favourite pre-cinema device around the world – got into the film business. Although he played no direct role in the creation of the 1,200 films produced by his company, his name was nevertheless ingrained into the annals of horror cinema as it was an Eddison film that first brought the gothic horror classic 'Fankenstein' to the silver screen in 1910.
As with the films of Méliès, the sixteen-minute long production of 'Frankenstein' downplays the horror aspect of the novel and focusses instead on the fantastic and psychological nature of the source material.
The novel by Mary Shelly never explicitly describes the creation of the monster, and while a scientific scene is universally portrayed in subsequent adaptations, the creation of the monster in the 1910 version owes a lot more to alchemy. Also rather than cast any doubt on the scientific endeavour of people such as Thomas Edison, the monster is less of a grim warning but a more allegorical suggestion of the horrors inside the human mind. As such the film lacks the true sense of shock and horror that the later films starring Boris Karloff would bring to the screen.
“To those familiar with Mrs. Shelly's story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might be any possibility shock any portion of the audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavours upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale.” - Edison Kinetogram 2. Mar 15, 1910. pp. 3–4
However the films, according to sources, wasn't well received, perhaps due to the tide of tastes moving towords more dynamic productions with a longer running time. Or perhaps due to the somewhat “blasphemous” overtones to the story. Either way, the film was withdrawn not long after circulation and its survival is owed to a private collector from Wisconsin.
In 1908 Edison had also founded the Motion Picture Patents Company AKA “The Edison Trust” as it was sometimes know, as a means of controlling copyright and standardising distribution in the industry. The company saw that the domination of foreign films in America end, but also discouraged its members from producing feature length films while collecting fees on all aspects of production and exhibition. The control of the MPPC eventually led filmakers to locate their productions in Hollywood, California away from the companies patent enforcement. One new company that set up in Hollywood was Universal. Started by Carl Laemmle, Mark Dintenfass, Charles O. Baumann, and others in 1909 the company created Universal City Studios, on a 230-acre site to become the largest studio in Hollywood and would become one of the most dominant producers in films for much of the 20th century. They would also give rise to some of the biggest names in horror.
Early cinema generally didn't credit the actors who portrayed the characters on the screen. But by the time Leonidas Frank Chaney AKA Lon Chaney donned the makeup for his portrayal of Quasimodo in Universal Pictures' 1923 version of 'The Hunchback Of Notre Dame' the practice of crediting actors was well established and his depictions of grotesque yet sympathetic characters would cement his legacy as the first icon of horror cinema. Chaney, already a skilled character actor due to his time in Vaudeville and a veteran of dozens of other films, was elevated in the eyes of the public.
'The Hunchback Of Notre Dame' like many of the films before it was not strictly a horror film in terms of plot, Chaney's Quasimodo – the half deaf and half blind hunchback bell-ringer of Notre Dame cathedral – is shocking thanks to his masterful use of stage makeup. He's the first identifiable monster of Hollywood, which set a precedent carried throughout Chaney's other forays into horror and beyond into Universal's cannon of famous monsters.
As Chaney's prototype horror films progressed we see more of the Hollywood conventions come into play that would separate them further from the dramas and comedies that preceded them. The shock reveal of the monster, murder, mystery, the supernatural, nefarious scientists all become tools to instil terror in the audience.
Chaney may have been Hollywood's biggest horror icon, but there were still more films beyond his now legendary appearances contributing to the foundations of the horror genre. In 1920, three years before Chaney's portrayal of Quasimodo, John Barrymore took on the role of horror's most famous case of split personality 'Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde'. Already a cinema favourite seeing adaptations in 1908, 1912, 1913, and another 1920 production. The 1920 Paramount Pictures adaptation featured a great initial transformation scene in which Barrymore contorts his face into a foul grimace setting a high bar for the subsequent 1931 and 1941 remakes to live up to. While 1925's 'The Lost World' implants the Dinosaur as the focus of horror sewing the seeds for films such as 'King Kong' (1933), 'Godzilla' (1954) and 'One Million Years BC' (1966).
Hollywood may have been making stars and slowly fuelling the public's taste for horror but it was the work of Europe's own masters of horror that showed Hollywood that scaring your audience is just as valid a form of entertainment as making them laugh or cry. Directors such as Paul Wegener, Robert Wiene, Friedrich Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Paul Leni with actors such as Conrad Veidt and Max Schreck.
That's it for part one. Check back next week for part two as we delve into the shadows of German expressionism and uncover the roots of Hammer and Amicus in Britain's own catalogue of silent films...