Horror Film History

Trick films and  Gothic Tales

What was the first “real” horror film ever made? Well the answer to that question, will depend on your definition of what a horror film is. The Execution of Mary Stuart, which depicts the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots was produced by American inventor Thomas Edison in 1895. Only 18 seconds in length, it is considered by some film historians to be the first horror film although it would be better defined as a “trick film”. A trick film is a short film that uses trick photography rather than plot as the driving force of the film. Trick films were quite common in the early years of film production. The Execution of Mary Stuart is the believed to be the first film in history to use trained actors as well as the first use of editing for the purpose of special effects. If you watch closely you can catch the cut where the actresses is replaced with the mannequin just before the executioner's ax goes down. 

Le Manoir de Diable (House of the Devil also titled The Haunted Castle) a French film made by Georges Melies in Francein 1896 is considered by some to be the first horror movie. Méliès an illusionist turned filmmaker is most noted for his film A Trip to the Moon (1902) which was based loosely on Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon. It is worth mentioning that A Trip to the Moon is the first known science fiction film ever produced. Although crude by today's standardsit was quite impressive inits day. You can view A Trip to the Moon using the this link:


Méliès is also credited for being one of the first filmmakers to use, time-lapse photography, multiple exposures, dissolves, and hand-painted color.
Le Manoir de Diable (House of the Devil) contains many of the elements that would later be used in other horror films which would include skeletons, ghosts, witches, and a large flying bat which flies into a medieval castle at the beginning of the movie. The bat changes into Mephistopheles (played by Georges Méliès) who then produces a colander and an assistant. Together the two then prepare a potion in a colander and from its bubbling contents a young beautiful woman emerges. They vanish from the room as to young cavaliers enter. The assistant taunts the two cavaliers by poking them in their backs with a pitchfork and then vanishing only to reappear in a different part of the room. One of the cavaliers flees and the other is bedazzled with vanishing furniture and a skeleton that suddenly appears out of thin air. As the cavalier attacks the skeleton with a sword the skeleton turns into a bat and then seconds later turns into the Mephistopheles. The Mephistopheles then conjures up four ghost who then surround and attack the lone cavalier. The cavalier manages to fight of the ghost the woman from the colander returns to the room the Mephistopheles turns the woman in to and old hag. The hag is then turned in to the four ghosts. The second cavalier returns and then suddenly retreats again. The ghost then disappears and the cavalier remove a crucifix from the wall and seeing the crucifix the Mephistopheles vanishes. The film which was just over 3 minutes in length is a short demonstration for Méliès genius and considered by some to be the first true horror film ever made.
Four Ghost attacking a cavlier in Le Manoir de Diable (House of the Devil

The link to Le Manoir de Diable (House of the Devil)

It is important to note that when The Execution of Mary Stuart and Le Manoir de Diable (House of the Devil) were produced that motion pictures were considered more of a novelty than a vehicle for telling a narrative story. Longer films with narrative storylines would not appear into the early 1900s.
The French film, Esmeralda (1905) which was directed by Alice Guy-Blaché and Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset, could be considered to be the first true narrative horror film. Esmeralda, is a short film based on the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Released in 1906 it was only 10 min. in length, Esmeralda is the oldest known film adaptation of the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Very little is known about this film, sadly, no copies of the film are known to exist at this time.
While there are many film historians do consider Esmeralda to be the first true horror narrative, it should be pointed out that there are those who do not consider The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be a horror story since it is void of any supernatural elements in the storyline, which is of course a key ingredient used in most horror stories. Of course the same can be said for Phantom of the Opera, which is also considered to be one of best horror films produced during the silent era.
Not only is Alice Guy credited with making the first horror narrative, she is also credited as being the world's first female director. While working as a secretary for Gaumont Chronophotographe she convinced the owner of the company, Leon Gaumont to let her try her hand at film production. He agreed and as a result Guy, at the age of 21, made her directorial debut in 1896. Her film, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) is believed to be the first narrative film in history. However this claim is hotly debate by film historians. The controversy seems to stem from the date involve with the production. The Gaumont Film Company was formed in 1897 after Leon Gaumont had seen Guy’sLa Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) that he decided to from the Gaumont Film Company. Since it was the La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy)that motivated Gaumont to start his production company it stands to reason the film would predate the form of the company. What is unclear is just how much time there was between the production of La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy)and the founding of Gaumont Film Company. There are historical documents that clearly prove that the Gaumont Film Company was formed in 1897 however there is not any source to indicate exactly when La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) was finished. Also adding to the confusion is the fact the Guy reshoot La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1900. Until a dated copy is found or other dccumention clearly attesting to the dates the question of who produced the first narrative film will remain a mystery.

Link to La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) :


The Birth of the Modern Horror Film

By the early 1910’s the American film industry had become the dominating force in international cinema. With the star system firmly in place, storytelling camera techniques, such as pans, dolly shots, and editing that stressed smooth transition from one scene to another, the foundations were laid for what would continue to grow into a major American industry. While most of Europe was in chaos during the first War World, the American film industry grew at an unparalleled rate. Millions across the world flocked to the theaters to view the latest Hollywood release. It was during this time that the studios strove to appease the masses and chose subject matters that would be less offensive to the huge movie going audience. This was also the height of the American Progressive Era, a period of social activism and political reform. One of the chief goals of the Progressive movement, besides political reform and prohibition, was the modernization of virtually every aspect of American life including medical, social, and family values. It was during this period that the horror genre virtually disappeared from the American movie screens. It was the belief of some film makers that the American audience had become too sophisticated for the supernatural. While the Americans may have avoided producing horror films the Germans certainly had no problem bringing Gothic tales to the silver screen. Many of these movies, though mostly forgotten would have a lasting impact on the horror genre for decades to come.

It was during the first two decades of the 20th century the German horror writers were going through the second phase of the Schauerroman Movement, which literally translated intoShudder Novel. The first wave had occurred at the end of the 18th century and directly impacted the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley. The second wave would have an even greater impact on not only the German writers but the German film industry as well. The German writers of this period offered no explanation for the supernatural events that took place in their stories and novels, whereas the English Gothic novelist would always offer some reasonable explanation for the super natural events contained within their stories.

Hanns Heinz Ewers

One of the most successful writers during the second phase Schauerroman Movement was horror writer, Hanns Heinz Ewers. Ewers was as unusual as the stories that he penned. Born in 1871 Ewers was a German actor, poet, philosopher, and author of novels and short stories particularly horror stories. He is also noted for his lectures on Nietzchean philosophy and Satanism. Ewers was a strong proponent for the concept of Autorenfilm, the idea of a movie should be considered a work of art based on the author’s work alone. This concept was quite revolutionary in 1913, when film was not thought of as an art form at all.
Ewers is regarded as a major influence on such horror writers as H. P. Lovecraft and Guy Endore. Occultists from around the world are also huge fans of his works due to his longtime friendship with world renowned Satanist Aleister Crowley. Yet in spite of his accomplishments, Ewers fell out of favor with many critics and writers due to his Nazi association. It was during the 1930’s that Ewers became enthralled with Nazi Party, drawn by its Nationalism, its alleged Nietzschean moral philosophy, and its cult worship of Teutonic culture. He did however find the Nazis party’s anti-Semitic stance disagreeable since, at that time had a Jewish mistress. This, in addition to his alleged homosexuality, soon found Ewers in disfavor with the Nazis party. In 1934 the German government banned most of his works and seized his property. Ewers would later die penniless in 1943 from tuberculosis.

It was during the height of Ewers popularity (1910’s) that intellectuals in Germany began to discuss the artistic possibilities of film, many of them agreed that the film medium offered the ability to mix real and unnatural events in new and exciting ways. One such proponent of this school of thought was Paul Wegener, a law student turned actor. Wegener, who had worked as a stage actor with the Max Reinhardt's acting troupe, turned his attention to the motion picture media in 1912. Wegener was convinced that cinema could communicate, completely independent from literature and the stage, with imagery alone.
Paul Wegener
“The real creator of the film must be the camera. Getting the spectator to change his point of view, using special effect to double the actor on the divided screen, superimposing other images , all this technique, form, gives the content its real meaning”
Paul Wegener

It was Ewers’ The Student of Prague also known as A Bargain with Satan that would rocket Paul Wegener to stardom making him the world’s first horror star. Wegener not only starred in this 1913 silent film he also co-directed it with Stellan Rye. The Student of Prague was a classy retelling of the tried but true “deal with the Devil” theme. In this case a young poor student falls in love with a beautiful countess after rescuing her. The student then make a deal with a sorcerer named Scapanelli, (who is none other than Satan himself) who in exchange for the student’s reflection gives him anything he wants. As the student pursues his heart’s desire he finds that his doppelganger (an exact double) is following him. The doppelganger frightens the countess and then kills her fiance' in a duel. In the climatic ending the student takes a gun and shots the doppelganger but it is the student who is wounded by the gun shots and dies. The devil reappears, tears up the contact and then scatters the pieces over the student’s body.
The Student of Prague 1913 the first feature lenght horror film
With a run time of 1 hour 25 minutes, The Student of Prague, which is hailed as the first true feature length film in history, premiered on August 22, 1913. It is reported the some of the audience members actually screamed when the student’s image steps out of the mirror. Although this effect was achieved with the ever so common double exposure technique that effect had never been seen by the movie going audience at that time and it did make quite an impression.

For his next project Wegener found inspiration from an ancient Jewish legend. While the Student of Prague is hailed as the first feature length horror film, The Golem (1915) is considered to be the first feature length monster film. The Golem (1915) is set in contemporary times and in this retelling of the legend an antique dealer who finds a golem, a Jewish rabbi restores it to life and uses the creature as a servant. The golem falls in love with the antique dealer's daughter. The daughter finds the golem repulsive and has not returned his love, the creature being begins to commits a series of murders.
, The Golem (1915) the first feature length monster film.

Wegener was a natural for the role of the golem with his large stature and sharp features. Not only did he star in this film he also co-wrote and co-directed with Henrik Galeen. And he would again reprise the roles as star, writer and co-director with along with Rochus Gilese in the 1917 The Golem and the Dancing Girl (Der Golem und die Tänzerin). The prequel unlike the original had more of a comic twist. It was and still is for that matter considered a comedy /horror. The Golem and The Golem and the Dancing Girl are both lost films.
Paul Wegener as The Golem

However Wegener’s final installment into the Golem trilogy does survive. It is reported that Wegener was unhappy with The Golem (1915) due to budget restraints. Wegener decided to retell the story of the Golem this time using the legend he had been told while filming The Student of Prague. The result was The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920).

According to a 16th century legend the century chief rabbi of Prague, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, fashioned a golem to protect the Jewish citizens of Prague who were being persecuted under the rule of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. The rabbi constructed the golem out of clay he found on the banks of the Vltava River. The golem was brought to life when the rabbi performed a series of rituals and Hebrew incantations. As this golem grew larger and more powerful, it’s violence increased. In some versions of the story the golem not only kills gentiles but Jews as well and eventually turns on its creator.

The Emperor promised to stop the persecution of the Jews if the Rabbi would agree to destroy the golem. The rabbi agreed and then rubbed out the first letter of the word "emet" meaning truth or“reality” from the creature's forehead leaving the Hebrew word "met", meaning “dead”. The golem according to the legend is stored in the attic of a Synagogue, where it can be restored to life again if ever needed.

The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) a prequel to The Golem which was directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese. Written by Wegener and Henrik Galeen, the script was adapted from the 1915 novel The Golem by Gustav Meyrink and once again Wegener reprised his role as the golem. The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920) is considered to be of the most excellent examples of German Expressionism in film.

Although nearly forgotten, Paul Wegener has unquestionably made the largest and longest lasting impact on the horror genre than any other single artist. His influence can be found in films, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Frankenstein (1931), Metropolis (1927) and many more films through the proceeding decades.

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