Where did horror films originate: the formation of a genre in 5 key films
Make no mistake, horror is a very complicated genre. It may have been boiled down to a ‘teens in the wood’ cliche these days, but horror is perhaps the genre that is most misunderstood. At it’s best, horror can be allegorical, symbolic, and culturally significant - even the bad ones. But what films shaped what horror would become the most in the early days?
Let’s be clear from the get-go, horror comfortably predates cinema. Plays and literature had audiences screaming in terror long before the first Lumiere brothers picture. As such, when horror did first appear on the big screen, it had a rich and long-established catalogue to guide it’s path. With that in mind though, these 5 films are perhaps the most significant early films to shape what horror would become.
Le Manoir du Diable (1896)
If you look into early horror films you’ll stumble across the name Georges Méliès an awful lot. Méliès is perhaps best known for his surrealist film of 1902, Le Voyage dans la Lun - the moon with a face is perhaps one of the most iconic images of early cinema. Méliès is widely credited with making the first ever horror film Le Manoir du Diable (1896). The three minute long film features what some call a ‘vampire’, but is supposedly the Devil. It features conjuration, as well as several phantoms. Suffice it to say, the film isn’t particularly scary by today's standards, but what is important about it is that it’s inception - horror had emerged onto the scene. Méliès was to make several films in this era that could be considered early, but it was Le Manoir du Diable which first cemented his place in horror film legend.
One of the most well known, well loved, and well respected works of horror fiction is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley apparently created the story whilst staying with her husband at Lord Byron’s house, when the three allegedly decided to have a scary story telling competition. It was in part Shelley’s witnessing of galvanism, electrocuting dead things to make their muscles move - to reanimate them - that influenced the story. It’s perhaps an interesting development then that Frankenstein would transform into one of the earliest horror films. Frankenstein films are amongst the most allegorical throughout history, they reflect what - at the time - is defined as ‘science going too far’. Perhaps the 2015 film Victor Frankenstein should have taken heed of this and had McAvoy’s Frankenstein splicing a Shiba Inu onto a Twinkie, as the meme suggests.
In 1910, Frankenstein first rolled onto the big screen with J Searle Dawley’s Edison Pictures film Frankenstein. This film represented the first time that the monster would appear on the screen, to which a long legacy of films owes a lot. The 13 minute long film was largely a short retelling of Shelley’s novel, including the “who’s the real monster?” subplot. The film was lost for a long time, before it’s rediscovery and restoration.
Der Student von Prag (1913)
By 1913, horror was combining with ‘art film’ to form a bloody, symbolic cocktail. The German film Der Student von Prag by Stellen Rye, and Paul Wegener. It’s loosely based on the Edgar Allen Poe Story William Wilson, and tells the story of a student who unwittingly sells his soul to the Devil. Stories of Faustian pacts had been around for a while, indeed Georges Méliès, that beloved founder of horror cinema, made several films about Faustian pacts in the early 1900’s. What is most significant about Der Student von Prag is - perhaps unfortunately for the films itself - what it would inspire.
The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1920)
How does a horror film look? It’s all about the interplay of light and dark, which was the main contribution of the German Expressionist Movement to the world of film. Indeed, it wasn’t only horror which would be influenced by this behemoth of a movement. Early Disney films pay a respectful nod to the art movement and its film iterations. Of such films, there are perhaps two which are particularly famous, Nosferatu (1922), and Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1920). Both are of huge significance to how horror would develop, but as the Dr came first, it’s the film to consider. Directed by Robert Weine, the film rode the wave set out by Der Student von Prag, which itself allowed a natural fusion of horror and art. It’s a story about sleepwalking, murder, and lunatic asylums.
The films largest contribution to horror may be largely aesthetic, but the story is still very compelling, and even has a cheeky cinematic twist at the end.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
This may not be the first film you think of when you hear Laemmle brothers age Universal Horror, but Wallace Worsely’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the film that started an age of monster-driven horror which would further contribute to the horror cinema as we know it today. Based on Victor Hugo’s classic, the film is not strictly speaking a horror, but it certainly includes horror elements, which would help steer Universal during the studio era of Hollywood. The legacy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is films such as James Whales’ Frankenstein (1931), and Ted Browning’s Dracula (1931), both of which firmly cemented their leading monsters, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi respectively, into the pages of cinematic history. Perhaps the greatest legacy of this era of Universal horror though was the increasing focus on the monster as the main draw for the film, rather than the heroes trying to escape it’s crasps. Perhaps without The Hunchback of Notre Dame, we wouldn’t have Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees today.
Certainly there are films up until the present day which will help further develop horror into something increasingly different, but these five pre-1930’s films set a solid foundation that made horror the genre we all know and love today.
What do you think? Which films do you think were most important to shaping horror as we know it today? Let me know!