[Horror History] Beastly Beginnings (1896-1929)


This is Part 2 of a series posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. You can find Part 1 here.

A bat flies into a haunted castle and transforms into the Devil. He is represented, as often on stage, as a nattily dressed gentleman with a beard. From a giant, black cauldron this Mephistopheles proceeds to conjure up and dispel imps, demons, ghosts, witches, and skeletons. A cavalier then bursts in and brandishes a crucifix and the Devil vanishes in a puff of smoke. All of this occurs in just about three minutes. It is, officially, the first horror film ever made, The Devil’s Castle (1896).

Playing off of centuries of imagery from books, legends, and stage plays (among those figures conjured up by the Devil is is an old man with a grimoire, presumably Faustus himself), The Devil’s Castle has been noted for the bat transformation and the power of the crucifix, leading the vignette to not only be labeled as the first horror film in history, but the first vampire film as well. It should be noted, however, that the trope of evil being associated with bats and shrinking from religious icons were not exclusively associated with vampires until the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula the following year.

The director and star of The Devil’s Castle, Georges Méliès, is a man familiar to most film students and movie buffs. He is regarded as the father of the cinema fantastiqué, the successor to Auguste and Louis Lumière, the fathers of documentary realism cinema. Where the brothers thought there was little future in film beyond a passing experimental fad, Méliès was showman by nature, a trickster in an age where illusionists were top-of-the-bill attractions. He viewed trick photography as an aid to magic. As such, his films feature multiple exposures, dissolves, perspective tricks, elaborate props, and stage makeup to accomplish what were basically vaudeville acts on film. There is no grand story to The Devil’s Castle, it is simply a parade of tricks culminating in a flourishing exit.

Can’t you feel the flourishing?

Between 1896 and 1914, Méliès directed over five hundred movies. He did not confine himself to the fantastical, either, taking stabs at the animated “French postcard” genre with After the Ball (1897), historical epics with Joan of Arc (1899), religious spectacle with Christ Walking on Water (1899), topical political drama with The Dreyfus Affair (1899), literary adaptations with The Queen’s Musketeers (1903), and even parodist newsreels, like the one about the coronation of King Edward VII that even the monarch himself thought genuine. Before his own distinct style caught on, Méliès was among cinema’s first rip-off artists, capitalizing on the success of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896) by filming other trains at other stations.

But it is for the magic that we remember Méliès. After The Devil’s Castle, Méliès produced a number of films of the same dark persona, often building whole movies around a demonic figure and a single great illusion, as in The Man with the Indiarubber Head (1902), wherein Méliès inflates his own head to giant size until it bursts like a balloon. He took his act from stage to screen and lived up to the title of one of his many 1899 films, A Turn-of-the-Century Illusionist.

Over time, Méliès’s films grew longer and more ambitious. Among his literary adaptations–where were often highlights rather than the whole story–were the screen debuts of Rider Haggard’s She: The Pillar of Fire (1899), the charlatan of Cogliostro’s Mirror (1899), Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (1901), the grizzled pirate Bluebeard in Barbe-Bleu (1901), and the Wandering Jew in the eponymous film of 1904. Méliès often returned to Faust and Mephistopheles, but his filmography is littered with titles that suggest horror sub-genres in the making: The Bewitched Inn (1897), Cave of Demons (1898), Murder Will Out (1899), Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899), The Doctor and the Monkey (1900), The Dangerous Lunatic (1900), Beelzebub’s Daughters (1903), and The Witch (1906).

Georges, you tricksy little minx, you

His greatest success, and his most often seen/parodied work, was A Trip to the Moon (1901), whose loose plot concern a lunar trip of the type made popular by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells novels. Méliès was encouraged to make more of these “impossible voyage” films to locations such as the sun, under the sea and to the North Pole. He set out to amaze and chuckled as nervous patrons gasped in terror at dancing skeletons, phantoms, and devils. But Méliès was, at the end of the day, a trickster. He was not interested in cinema as a medium for telling stories, but for showcasing special effects. Despite not considering himself part of the “horror business,” Méliès’s scares and frightening imagery would come to define the genre and recur again and again in the coming decades.

By the beginning of the 20th century, movies had gripped people the world over, and there was already healthy international competition. In America, pioneers like Edwin S. Porter paved the way for cinema’s first iconoclasts, like D.W. Griffith, and in Italy there were regular feature-length epic spectacles by the second decade, like the tale of ancient muscle hero Maciste in Cabiria (1914). Meanwhile, in Germany the heirs of E.T.A. Hoffman began to play with shadows, and in Britain one-and-two-reel melodramas began to proliferate and become commercially successful. Activity was so hectic in this new field that oft-told tales would make their screen debuts and be done over again within a few months. William Selig’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908), a film of the stage play that had been touring during Robert Louis Stevenson’s lifetime, is largely considered the first American horror movie. It was rapidly followed by a British remake, The Duality of Man (1910), a Danish version starring Alwin Neuss, Den Skaebnesvangre Opfindelse (1910), and another American version starring James Cruze and Harry Benham in the title roles, an interesting approach that has been rarely reused. In 1913, a German version vied with two more American versions, one a primitive colorized version and the other produced by Carl Laemmle, who would later become the patriarch of Universal Pictures, where the horror film found its first true home.

Things went quiet until 1920, when three new versions of the Jekyll/Hyde story arrived simultaneously: John S. Robertson’s lavish star vehicle for John Barrymore (whose steeple-headed, spider-fingered Hyde pre-empts Max Shreck’s similar looking vampire by two years), a quickie imitation with Sheldon Lewis, and F.W. Murnau’s Dr. Jekyll, a tragically lost version with Conrad Veidt as the doctor who, in this version, transforms under the magical influence of a two-faced bust rather than mad science. Bela Lugosi also had an early role in this version as the doctor’s butler. Even the first parodies of Stevenson’s novel surfaced at this time, Horrible Hyde (1915) and Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (1925), starring Stan Laurel.

The peak of hilarity, clearly

Though Jekyll and Hyde was the most frequently adapted story of the silent film era, other famous monsters also made their debut during this time. Edison’s Frankenstein (1910), with Charles Ogle as the wild-haired creature whipped up in a vat like instant soup, was followed by Life Without Soul (1915), in which Dr. Frankenstein becomes “William Frawley” and the Monster is “the Brute Man.” The Frankenstein Monster (1920), possibly the first Italian horror film, also tackled the story, while The Picture of Dorian Gray enjoyed great success in Denmark as Dorian Gray’s Portrait (1910), with other versions following in 1915 from Russia, 1916 from America (this version starred Henry Victor, future strongman from Tod Browning’s 1932 classic Freaks), 1917 from Germany, and 1918 from Hungary (Lugosi played Dorian’s mentor, Sir Henry, in this version). Sherlock Holmes, who made his screen debut battling an invisible man in 1900 with Sherlock Holmes Baffled, was part of one of the earliest crossover events in Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery (1908), solving Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The sleuth’s creepiest adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) was first filmed in Denmark as The Grey Lady (1903) with a spectral woman instead of a Hound of Hell. Germany turned out a more faithful adaption of Baskervilles in 1914, followed by six sequels in which Holmes pursues the novel’s dog-training villain. This period also saw multiple early adaptations of genre staples like She, Trilby, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sweeney Todd, Maria Marten, Faust or Dr. Faustus, “The Monkey’s Paw,” and Fu-Manchu.

Poe was a popular source in both France and America and it was D.W. Griffith who first took a frequently reused tactic by combining several Poe stories into one episodic narrative for The Avenging Conscience (1914). Meanwhile, the first feature-length British horror film, The Avenging Hand (1915), was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903) with a revived ancient Egyptian princess and a severed hand. It was among a run of mummy-themed films popular at the time: The Mummy (1911), The Dust of Egypt (1915), The Eyes of the Mummy (1919). Other popular films included The Vampire (1913), about an East Indian snake woman and The Werewolf (1913), concerning a Native American shapeshifter. There were also a number of films about monkey gland transplants (a medical fad of the day) and Darwinian evolutionary theory best epitomized by the 1913 French adaption of Gaston Leroux’s novel Balaoo (1912) about a humanized gorilla. It was remade as The Wizard in 1927 and Dr. Renault’s Secret in 1942.

Already, some filmmakers were specializing in the macabre, and several actors were building reputations on the strength of their horror roles. Paul Wegener, a German actor/director, cut a hefty figure as Balduin in The Student of Prague (1913), adapted from H.H. Ewers’s Poe-like novel about a deal with the Devil and a deadly doppelgänger. He achieved massive fame, however, under a clay wig and built-up costume in and as The Golem (1915), the legendary living statue of the Prague ghetto, revived to rampage in modern times. The film was so successful it spawned both a parodic sequel, The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), and an elaborate prequel, The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920). Wegener also took on several bizarre roles in his career, as when he played a warlock modeled after Aleister Crowley in Rex Ingram’s French-American film The Magician (1926), or the title role in Svengali (1927). Wegener’s last bow in horror was in the multi-episode The Living Dead (1932), written and directed by his rival Richard Oswald, who had first come to the genre with a number of Hound of the Baskervilles sequels and stuck around to deliver adaptations of Hoffman, including a talkie version of Alraune (1930) with Brigitte Holm recreating her silent role as the artificially fashioned femme fatale.

Alluring Alraune, alright?

Wegener and Oswald were principally adaptors of others’ work. Their films have pictorial virtues and an obvious feel for the material, but little sense of the developing potential for cinema. Others came at horror from a different direction, not just hoping to trade on well-known material but expanding the boundaries of film as art. Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is the most influential and famous example. Weine’s direction, in conjunction with the sets of scenarists Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, the art direction of Walter Rohrig and Hermann Warm (who devised the stylized sets, painted shadows, and designed other visual tricks for the film), and the input of Fritz Lang, who was signed up to direct but moved on to something else after devising the frame story that reveals the whole action to be taking place inside the mind of a lunatic, created lightning in a bottle. Lang’s narrative input turned what might have been a confounding arthouse picture into a gimmick picture. The revelation meant that patrons disturbed by the imagery could leave the theater thinking they now “understood” what they had seen, i.e. the visualized ravings of a distorted mind. Mayer and Janowitz despised this angle, having intended to depict a world that was cruel and insane rather than a protagonist having bad dreams.

Nevertheless, the film was a hit, especially for breakout performers Werner Krauss as the top-hatted mountebank and mesmerist Caligari, and Conrad Veidt as the leotard-clad, hollow-cheeked somnambulist/murderer Cesare. Both would join Wegener among the emerging group of proto-horror stars. Veidt, whom Universal considered casting as Dracula in 1930, played The Count of Cogliostro (1921), the rumored diabolist-violinist Paganini (1923), the pianist with a murderer’s hands in Hands of Orlac (1924), Ivan the Terrible in Waxworks (1924), and the titular characters in Rasputin (1930) and The Wandering Jew (1933). Krauss would later play Iago in Othello (1922), Jack the Ripper in Waxworks, and the Devil in The Student of Prague (1926).

F.W. Murnau also cast Veidt in The Head of Janus (1920), a rip-off Jekyll & Hyde film scripted by Caligari‘s Janowitz (this was the strange case of Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor). Murnau assumed that Bram Stoker’s widow would be as negligent as the Stevenson estate and so attempted another literary adaptation with a few plot alternations, turning Count Dracula in Count Orlok for Nosferatu (1922). Whereas The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s expressionist style was created entirely in-studio, Murnau took his vampire out on location, filming in Slovakian mountains and ruins. Nosferatu still stands as the only screen adaptation of Dracula to be primarily interested in terror. Max Shreck’s rat-faced, corseted, stick-insect of a monster possesses no undead glamor, nor even the melancholy brought to the character by Klaus Kinski and Willem Defoe in Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Just as Dracula can serve as the template for the horror novel, Nosferatu serves as the template for the horror film. Murnau added wrinkles to the Stoker story that have persisted, notably the vampire vanquished by the first light of day.

Or a competent dentist

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu might be the most cited examples of Expressionism, but they’re not the whole story. Throughout the 1920’s, as German society spiraled out of control, German cinema became shadowed with figures as sinister as Cesare, Caligari, and Orlok. Fritz Lang turned out the epic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) in which Rudolf Klein-Rogge incarnates superhuman evil as a master criminal in the mold of Fu-Manchu and Professor Moriarty. Mabuse is a founding text for all manner of far-fetched thrillers, including the Hitchcock japes of the 1930’s, the film noir of the 1940’s, the super-spy pictures of the 1960’s, and the paranoid conspiracy dramas of the 1970’s. Lang brought Mabuse back to exact malign influence from an asylum cell and beyond the grave in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), but his most influential early talkie is the layered and haunting M (1931), the first great serial-murder film. Peter Lorre stars as a pedophile killer stalked by cops (including Mabuse’s nemesis, Inspector Lohmann) and criminals. Paul Keni, another German director, put Jack the Ripper on the screen in 1924 in Waxworks, but his presence was muted. The missing link between Werner Krauss’s tubby, trench-coated Ripper and Lorre’s whistling, whining Franz Beckert is the mild-mannered, pathetic Jack the Ripper as played by Gustav Diessl in G.W. Pabst’s masterful Pandora’s Box (1928), who kills the innocent heroine Lulu (Louise Brooks) under the mistletoe. Alfred Hitchcock, who served an apprenticeship in Germany, took note of what was going on both in politics and filmmaking and used this for his own British Expressionist Ripper story with The Lodger (1927).

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, horror as a solidified film genre was still somewhat murky, but the first true horror star was on the rise in the form of Lon Chaney. A master character actor and makeup artist, Chaney played full-on monster roles as the ape-man in A Blind Bargain (1921), Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and the skull-faced Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), plus a comedic mad scientist in The Monster (1925) and a fake vampire in London After Midnight (1927). His most distinct work, however, is found in melodramas, usually those directed by Tod Browning. Their joint masterpiece is The Unknown (1927), in which Chaney plays a murderer hiding his giveaway double-thumbs by binding his arms and posing as an amputee, performing a knife-throwing act with his feet. The heroine (a young Joan Crawford) affects to abhor a man’s embrace, so “Alonzo the Armless” has his arms surgically removed to become her ideal lover–only to learn she’s changed her position on hugging and is now canoodling with the circus strong-man, prompting Alonzo to plot bloody revenge. The difference between Chaney’s grotesques and the creatures of German expressionism is that most of Chaney’s brilliantly mimed, remarkably made-up freaks are just grump guys who don’t get the girl (a theme that Chaney raised to obsessive levels), rather than the incarnation of evil or insanity in semi-human form. Perhaps this is why his most horrific films, though illuminated by moments of masterful acting, wear less well. Arguably his best work, in Browning’s The Unholy Three (1925) and Victor Sjostrom’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924) fall on the outskirts of the genre.

When Universal Pictures, the backers behind Hunchback and Phantom, lost Chaney to MGM they replaced him with Conrad Veidt as the Joker-grinning freak of The Man Who Laughs (1928), directed by Paul Leni, who also helmed perhaps the most important American horror film of the 20’s, The Cat and the Canary (1927). Based on John Willard’s 1922 Broadway play, the film was a semi-spoof of already well-established Old Dark House mystery in which a group of people gather for a reading of a will in an isolated, spooky locale and are menaced by a monstrous figure who turns out to be the most cheerful, helpful suspect. Think lots of clutching hands, secret passageways, and bodies tumbling from wardrobes. Similar titles included The Bat (1925), directed by Roland West and remade as a talkie, The Bat Whispers (1929); Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), directed by Benjamin Christensen, who also helmed the striking Danish semi-documentary Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1921); multiple versions of Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917, 1925, 1929), a property rehashed as late as House of the Long Shadows (1983). Others in this arena included The Ghost Breaker (1922), The Gorilla (1927), The Thirteenth Hour (1927), The Haunted House (1928), and the first all-talkie, The Terror (1928).

The Man Who Laughs…his way into your nightmares

As talking pictures caught on, Murnau and Leni were perfectly positioned within Hollywood to direct horror films. Dracula had been running on stage in Britain and the U.S. since the mid-1920’s, and the rights had been legitimately bought by Universal Pictures in the hope that Chaney would star. However, within a few years, Murnau, Chaney, and Leni were all dead through freak accidents or illnesses. The future of Dracula, and by extension the entire horror genre, was up for grabs…

Read on for Part 3, which will tackle fear of the “exotic” throughout the 1930’s

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

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