Welcome back… to your Nightmare!
Good day, students. I sincerely hope you are all well rested and ready to buckle down to do some of that real good learnin’. I would like to reiterate that in this course we will dig deep into the annals of horror film history and it will test your mettle beyond your current comprehension. This is not a course for the faint of heart and will require courage that you may not even know you have. Failure is not an option… especially since the last person to fail my course found themselves tied to a slab with a giant swinging pendulum blade slowly lowering towards their torso.
A Decade of Diabolical Dissertation
Like their predecessors from the latter half of the 19th century, the films from the first decade of the 20th century drew their inspiration from the literary greats of the time. Edison Studios produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1910), for the very first time adapted for the screen by scribe, J. Searle Dawley. This adaptation wasn’t really a horror film per se with a deliberate plan to remove the more horrific elements of the monster and focus on the mystical side of the story to appeal to a wider audience. But it is the horrific nature of the source material that ultimately lumps this into the horror category.
In March of 1911, an adaptation of the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy was produced as L’Inferno. This version of Dante’s classic is renowned the world over for a breathtaking representation of the novel’s haunting visuals earning the film the distinction of the very first blockbuster. The film had three directors, Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro all of which gave life in stunning moving pictures to the seven circles of hell complete with a giant Lucifer with wings outstretched to a black void beyond him.
Georges Méliès, whom we discussed in our last lesson, continued producing his Faustian films with Le Chevalier des Neiges (1912) (The Last Knight of Snows). This would be Méliès last Faustian film and the last where the filmmaker made a cameo as The Devil. This was another great example of Méliès’ “trick film” style where the director would rely on primitive special effects to achieve fantastical moments within his pictures.
The Eerie Eldritch Expressions of Europe
Despite making its way across the pond to the Americas, filmmaking was still largely a European phenomenon. Germany, France, Italy and Austria were all making horror pictures throughout the decade.
1913 saw German directors Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener unleash the silent horror film Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) which was loosely based on a short Edgar Allan Poe story. The film tells the tale of a student who inadvertently makes a deal with a stranger to make him a rich man. The student signs a contract granting the stranger anything from his dorm room. The stranger chooses the student’s mirror. Upon moving it from the wall, a doppelgänger steps out and all hell breaks loose for the student. Fun Fact: Cinematographer Guido Seeber used a mirror double to produce a seamless double exposure which created the effect of the doppelgänger.
Director Paul Wegener followed up his success with The Student of Prague (1913) with Der Golem (1915), a story of an antique dealer who finds a clay statue called a golem, which had been brought to life centuries before. After the dealer resurrects the golem as a servant, the ancient being falls in love with the dealer’s wife. But Mrs. Dealer isn’t into the little clay fella and this, in turn, sends the golem into a rage where he commits a series of murders. Wegener made a sequel two years later in 1917 titled Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancing Girl). Wegener wasn’t finished with the golem just yet as he would make the third film in 1920 to finish his Der Golem trilogy.
In the winter of 1915 to the early summer 1916, French director Louis Feuillade released a weekly serial entitled Les Vampires (The Vampires). The series had ten parts or episodes if you will, and if played back to back they would have a runtime of seven hours. This is considered to be one of the longest films ever made. The series tells a story of a criminal gang called the Vampires, who pose as the mythical creatures striking the fear of God into the public and the authorities who desperately try stopping them.
1919 saw Austrian director Richard Oswald release a silent anthology horror film called Unheimliche Geschichten (Eerie Tales or Uncanny Tales). The film features a bookshop that has closed for the night. The portraits of the Strumpet, Death, and the Devil come to life and reading stories about themselves. Split into five stories, the film showcases short stories The Apparition, The Hand, The Black Cat (a short story by Edgar Allan Poe), The Suicide Club (from Robert Louis Stevenson short story collection) and Der Spuk (The Spectre).
With films or “moving pictures” as they were called, still in its childhood, the films of this time are often seen as links between what were merely stand-alone pictures of the time and the sub-genres we have come to know and love today. The beginnings of film franchises could be seen in Wegener’s Golem trilogy, glimpses of remakes and reboots were evident in the Frankenstein and Dracula adaptations and the love affair between film and literature was there from the very beginning. It’s no wonder we have Stephen King, William Peter Blatty and Anne Rice movies coming out the wazoo. It’s built into the very fiber of the medium.
The modern monster movies like Cloverfield (2008) and The Host (2006) owe a lot to the likes of Italy’s Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro. Horror thrillers such as Funny Games (2007) and Bird Box (2018) wouldn’t exist is not for France’s Louis Feuillade. Famed franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th would be unheard of if Paul Wegener, Henrik Galeen, and Rochus Gliese didn’t bring us their Jewish folklore trilogy.
“Everything we enjoy about sci/fi, action, fantasy, comedy, and dramas owe everything to the early horror filmmakers.”
The fact of the matter is the film world as a whole would be null and void without these visionaries that created and their imaginative works of art. It was the horror genre that catapulted the “movies” into the booming business it is today. While largely considered a black sheep of sorts within the trade, the horror genre is the true pioneer of the entire industry. Everything we enjoy about sci/fi, action, fantasy, comedy, and dramas owe everything to the early horror filmmakers.
This concludes this session. Please review the last two chapters before the next class as there will be a quiz at the conclusion of the class. All of those unprepared will be thrown into a pit, slathered in skin lotion and forced to watch me dance in front of a mirror wearing only a kimono and a bad mullet.
Until next time, ladies and gentlemen, straighten up and fly right. Oh, and before you go, extra credit will be given to those that visit the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook, the official NOFS Subreddit, and of course Twitter. Brownnosing is completely acceptable in this course. Expected actually. Goodbye.