Slash… er… Class is in session!
Welcome students, to Horror Movies 101: The History of Horror Cinema. I am Professor Abe Horrence and each month this class will explore the many frightening faces within the history of horror films, from the early European shorts right through to today’s multi-million dollar blockbusters. We’ll cover it all in disgusting detail- be it barbarous black & white or vivid, visceral Technicolor.
I strongly advise that you pay close attention to each lecture as there will be a killer Final Exam. The last person to fail one of my exams now resides in a faulty military-grade barrel of toxic waste sitting in the basement of a Uneeda Medical Supply depot. So zip it and open your textbooks to page one and let this be your first lesson in horror history…
1890s – 1900 The Birth of Horror Cinema
While this point can be largely be argued, most people tend to give the credit of horror movie origins to film pioneer Georges Méliès (1861 -1938). A French filmmaker whose short supernatural-themed films arrived in newly built cinemas of the late 1890s, Méliès is most well known for his film Le Manoir du Diable (The Haunted Castle/The House of the Devil, 1896). The film tells the story of a bothersome devil who haunts a medieval castle and pesters guests. Another of Méliès’ films is La Caverne maudite (1898) (Cave of the Demons) a film that follows a woman who comes across a cave that haunted by the spooks and skeletons of people who died there.
Méliès also inadvertently made the first horror/comedy as well. Une nuit terrible (1896) (A Terrible Night) tells the story of a man just wants a good night’s sleep but ends up in a wrestling match against a giant spider instead while L’auberge ensorcelée (1897) (The Bewitched Inn) tells the comical tale of a hotel guest getting pranked by a pesky presence.
Meet the Competition
While Méliès is largely considered the great-grandfather of horror cinema he wasn’t the only game in town. Other filmmakers started to jump on the horror bandwagon once they saw the response to Méliès’ films. One such man was English photographer-turned director George Albert Smith (1864-1959) who crafted The X-Ray Fiend (1897), a horror-comedy featured a couple of skeletons trying to date each other.
His next film, Photographing a Ghost (1898), is considered a forerunner to the paranormal investigation subgenre. The film’s plot outlines three men attempting to photograph a ghost, only to fail repeatedly as the ghost eludes them, throwing chairs to avoid being photographed.
Europe wasn’t the only place on Earth that was bitten by the horror bug. Japan also made its foray into the world of macabre films with the likes of the Konishi Honten film company that released two scary flicks written by Ejiro Hatta. Shinin No Sosei (Resurrection of a Corpse) the story of a dead man (Hatta) who comes back to life after having fallen from a coffin being carried by two men. Bake Jizō (Jizō the Spook), the second film, centers on the Japanese legend of Jizō statues. Jizō statues, usually depicted as a Buddhist Monk are essentially the gatekeepers to hell protecting the souls of all children who have died in the mortal world, keeping their innocent souls away from eternal damnation. The word Bake, which translates to Spook, suggests the title may imply a haunted statue. Sadly, these films and many other countless pieces of Japanese art were lost in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the firebombings of WWII.
Ay, Caramba! Yo Quiero Horror Movies Tambien!
One of Spain’s most momentous filmmakers, Segundo de Chomón also delved into the world of horror. The internationally known director was popular for his camera tricks and optical illusions, which we would later see perfected in the films of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. Satán se divierte (Satan Having Fun/Satan at Play, 1907); La casa hechizada (The House of Ghosts, 1908) one of the first haunted house movies; and Le spectre rouge (The Red Spectre, 1907), a collaboration film with French director Ferdinand Zecca about a demonic magician who attempts to perform his act in a mysterious grotto, round out de Chomón’s horror filmography.
In a time when there weren’t any previous films to remake, filmmakers drew from the plethora of written fiction. It was only natural that when the moving pictures hit the scene, many written properties would be adapted to be told cinematically. Authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and Dante Alighieri among others were ripe for source material.
The first of these adaptations was Selig Polyscope Company’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908). This film, which is sadly lost now, was an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic gothic novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Fun fact: The novella was published only fifteen years prior to the film’s production.
Georges Méliès also drew from these novels with the Faust legends being one of his favorites. He adapted approximately six of these stories with Faust aux enfers (The Damnation of Faust/Faust in Hell, 1903) as the most notable. Méliès may have also been the first to create a sequel to a movie with the follow up to Faust in Hell titled Damnation du docteur Faust (1904), released in the U.S. as Faust and Marguerite.
As you can see that even though both filmmaking and horror filmmaking were both deep in their infancy, the glimpses of sub-genres were there. Paranormal, gothic horror, horror comedies, monsters, demons, devils, heck even rumblings of sequels and franchises were in the mix. Perhaps these were built into the stories to begin with. Perhaps everything we’ve become accustomed to today is really just old news in different packaging? Before I get too profound and end up in an existential coma, I’ll digress.
That’s our time, boys and ghouls. Please close your textbooks and gather your things. This draws to a conclusion our inaugural class in Horror 101: The History of Horror Cinema 1890s-1900. We will convene next month where we will cover the next chapter in our horror handbook. Please be on time as any late comers with not be admitted into class, you will be marked absent and taken to the school’s boiler room for a swift and brutal flogging from our janitor, Mr. Krueger. Until next time, straighten up and fly right!
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