Fear. It is one of mankind’s base instincts. For centuries, many people have crafted tales to evoke and awaken this feeling in all of us, whether it was a mortality tale told around a campfire, a cleverly crafted novella, or photographic trickery. Yes, one cannot think about Halloween without calling to mind the visages of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff or even Werner Krauss.
Ever since Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers first invented the motion picture camera, people from George Méliès to John Carpenter have sought to terrify and mystify audiences with tales of the macabre and experiences of true horror. While many of these films seem laughable to today’s jaded society, in the days in which they were released, they filled thousands of people with enough fear to result in weeks of lost sleep.
The aforementioned magician-turned-filmmaker George Méliès is credited with making the first horror film. “Le Manoir du Diable,” meaning “The House of the Devil” in French, was also his directorial debut. While the film is only a three minute showcase of the powers of Satan being banished by God, it is one of the earliest examples in which we see a story featuring the occult. Other early examples of horror films include two, now lost, horror films made in Japan, “Bake Jizo” and “Shinin no Sosei,” meaning “Jizo the Spook” and “Resurrection of a Corpse” in Japanese, respectively.
As filmmaking technologies developed, we began to see more ambitious projects come to fruition, such as the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstien,” made by Edison Studios in 1910. We also see the first “movie monster” in a series of short films based on a novel by Victor Hugo, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.
However, many of the earliest innovations in the horror genre can be attributed to the movement known as German Expressionism. Here we find the works of F.W. Murnau, known for films such as “Nosferatu,” an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, and “Metropolis.” We also find the film that inspired filmmakers like Tim Burton, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” one of the first horror films to introduce the “twist” ending.
It wasn’t long before Hollywood began producing its own horror films, such as a feature length version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the first adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel, “The Phantom of the Opera”, both films starring Lon Chaney Sr., the first American horror film star.
It’s here in the 30’s and 40’s where we begin to get some of the classic movie monsters and the rise and fall of many notable film stars. The strongest example of this being the Hungarian-born actor, Bela Lugosi, who’s now iconic portrayal of Dracula both launched and doomed his career while stars such as Boris Karloff would go on to have successful careers well into the late 60’s. Universal Pictures dominated the genre in this era, with a large list of successful releases that include “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy”.
As we march into the 50’s and 60’s, the genre falls into two sub-genres, fear of the occult and fear of Armageddon. The former demonstrated in films such as “The Haunting” and “Rosemary’s Baby” and the latter demonstrated with films such as Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.”
We also see the rise of Universal’s spiritual successor, the England-based Hammer Film Productions, which produced newer versions of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” the series of Hammer films often starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, both actors that would later appear in the “Star Wars” films, for better or worse.
Towards the end of the decade, there was also a string of low budget gore films, the financial success of which would contribute to the death of the Production Code of America in 1964. As a result, we see more horror films that feature not only intensified gore and violence, but also increased sexual overtones. Here we get films such as “The Exorcist” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
During this same period of time, we also see a string of “B-movies” that are now considered cult classics, primarily due to the original plotlines that would later be praised by critics. The most notable examples of these films include Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy and the recently remade “Fright Night.”
While this isn’t the end of our look at the history of horror, the next period we look at will be the focus of our analysis as we take a look at the present trends of the genre and the cultural impact many of these films had on our culture as a whole, for better and for worse. Look forward to it next time on The Weekly Reel.