The horror film genre has existed since the dawn of cinema, always adapting and evolving along with the medium itself, and always seeking to entertain, thrill, and scare the pants off of moviegoers. The first horror films were inventive yet modest, and they bear little resemblance to the horror films of today, but knowledge of their existence and influence is essential to understanding why the horror genre has remained so popular for over a century.
The oldest known horror film was a three-minute short titled Le Manoir du diable (The House of the Devil), directed by French filmmaker Georges Méliès in 1896. Méliès was a pioneer of early cinema, famous for his fancifully ambitious production designs, impressive special effects, and innovative editing. The Haunted Castle is very characteristic of his work: through trick editing, the main character witnesses the conjuring of skeletons, bats, and the Devil himself. These spooky images probably weren’t meant to scare contemporary audiences, but the film laid the groundwork for what was to come, introducing imagery and tropes that, for decades, have defined what a horror film looks like. If you have a few minutes, I highly recommend checking it out below.
Other filmmakers soon began copying Méliès’ editing techniques, producing short horror films of their own, though none of these early experiments can be considered scary by modern standards. Nevertheless, film historians and horror enthusiasts have identified a few of these early films as worthy of particular attention, including Segundo de Chomón’s La casa hechizada (The House of Ghosts, 1908) and Walter R. Booth’s The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901). In the 1910s, several filmmakers began adapting popular horror (or horror-adjacent) literature, often with bigger budgets, bigger sets, and more impressive special effects. Examples include a Thomas Edison-produced adaptation of Frankenstein (1910) and the very ambitious Italian film L’Inferno (1911), based on the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. L’Inferno, which cost over 100,000 Lire and was almost 70 minutes long, forced theater owners to raise their ticket prices. All of the films mentioned above are available to watch on YouTube.
In the early 1920s, horror cinema took a giant leap forward with the premiere of two iconic German films, both influenced by the German Expressionist artistic movement. The first, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), tells a weird story about a mad doctor who hypnotizes a sleepwalker (played by Conrad Veidt) to commit murder. It is famous for its production design, utilizing sharp or twisting lines, high-contrast lighting, and distorted perspective to achieve an unusually eerie effect. According to legend, audience members screamed and fainted during the premiere. The film was an immediate box office success, but its most last impact was due to its visual style, which continues to influence films to this day. The Babadook (2014), for example, is just one of the many films that owe a debt to Dr. Caligari’s off-kilter imagery. The entire film is available to watch below:
If I could recommend just one film from this early era of horror cinema, however, it would be another iconic German Expressionist horror movie: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror, 1922). An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, Nosferatu was almost lost forever when Stoker’s heirs sued for all copies of the film to be destroyed, but a single print survived, smuggled out of Germany and duplicated so that it could be distributed all over the world. Almost one hundred years later, its public domain status has ensured that its popularity continues to grow.
Nosferatu, like Dr. Caligari, was strongly influenced by the German Expressionist movement. It is a cinematic fever dream, a nightmare constructed of menacing shadows, stylized settings, and an unsettling villain. Before Bela Lugosi donned Count Dracula’s cape, German actor Max Schreck portrayed a very different version of the character. His Dracula (renamed Count Orlok in an attempt to avoid copyright issues) is very different from Lugosi’s portrayal, eschewing the feigned hospitality and slow, strangely magnetic personality for something more animalistic, weirder, and more visually terrifying.
Schreck’s Count Orlok is, in some ways, much closer to Stoker’s original characterization of Dracula than many of the actors who played the character in the decades to come. His image has become iconic in its own way, influencing the visual design of the character Kurt Barlow in the 1979 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot, inspiring a remake by filmmaker Werner Herzog and a fictionalized making-of film starring Willem Dafoe, and famously popping up in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants! Nosferatu is, without a doubt, the greatest horror film of the silent era, and one of the most influential horror films ever made. If you can find the time this October, I highly recommend watching the entire film in the YouTube video linked below: