1890's to 1900's
The first depictions of the supernatural on screen appeared in several of the short silent films created by the French pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès in the late 1890s. The best known of these early supernatural-based works is the 3-minute short film Le Manoir du Diable (1896), known in English as both "The Haunted Castle" or "The House of the Devil". The film is sometimes credited as being the first ever horror film. In The Haunted Castle, a mischievous devil appears inside a medieval castle where he harasses the visitors. Méliès' other popular horror film is La Caverne maudite (1898), which translates literally as "the accursed cave". The film, also known by its English title The Cave of the Demons, tells the story of a woman stumbling over a cave that is populated by the spirits and skeletons of people who died there. Méliès would also make other short films that historians consider now as horror-comedies. Une nuit terrible (1896), which translates to A Terrible Night, tells a story of a man who tries to get a good night's sleep but ends up wrestling a giant spider. His other film, L'auberge ensorcelée (1897), or The Bewitched Inn, features a story of a hotel guest being pranked and tormented by an unseen presence.
Colorized scene from Georges Méliès 1897 short film Le Manoir du diable, or The Haunted Castle In 1897, the American photographer-turned director George Albert Smith created The X-Ray Fiend (1897), a horror-comedy trick film that came out a mere two years after x-rays were invented. The film shows a couple of skeletons courting each other. An audience full of people unaccustomed to seeing moving skeletons on screen would have found it frightening and otherworldly. The next year, Smith created the short film Photographing a Ghost (1898), considered a precursor to the paranormal investigation subgenre. The film portrays three men attempting to photograph a ghost, only to fail time and again as the ghost eludes the men and throws chairs at them.
Satán se divierte, or Satan at Play (1907) Japan also made early forays into the horror genre. In 1898, a Japanese film company called Konishi Honten released two horror films both written by Ejiro Hatta. These were Shinin No Sosei (Resurrection of a Corpse), and Bake Jizo (Jizo the Spook) The film Shinin No Sosei told the story of a dead man who comes back to life after having fallen from a coffin that two men were carrying. The writer Hatta played the dead man, while the coffin-bearers were played by Konishi Honten employees. Though there are no records of the cast, crew, or plot of Bake Jizo, it was likely based on the Japanese legend of Jizo statues, believed to provide safety and protection to children. In Japan, Jizō is a deity who is seen as the guardian of children, particularly children who have died before their parents. Jizō has been worshiped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, namely stillborn, miscarried, or aborted fetuses. The presence of the word bake—which can be translated to "spook," "ghost," or "phantom"—may imply a haunted or possessed statue.
Segundo de Chomón produced a handful of impressive trick films, including this one; La casa hechizada, or The House of Ghosts made in 1908. Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón is also one of the most significant silent film directors in early filmmaking. He was popular for his frequent camera tricks and optical illusions, an innovation that contributed heavily to the popularity of trick films in the period. His famous works include Satán se divierte (1907), which translates to Satan Having Fun, or Satan at Play; La casa hechizada (1908), or The House of Ghosts, considered to be one of the earliest cinematic depictions of a haunted house premise; and Le spectre rouge (1907) or The Red Spectre, a collaboration film with French director Ferdinand Zecca about a demonic magician who attempts to perform his act in a mysterious grotto.
The Selig Polyscope Company in the United States produced one of the first film adaptations of a horror-based novel. In 1908, the company produced the film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Otis Turner and starring Hobart Bosworth in the lead role. The film is, however, now considered a lost film. The story was based on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic gothic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published 15 years prior, about a man who transforms his personality between two contrasting personas. (The book tells the classic story of a man with an unpredictably dual nature: usually very good, but sometimes shockingly evil as well.)
Georges Méliès also liked adapting the Faust legend into his films. In fact, the French filmmaker produced at least six variations of the German legend of the man who made a pact with the devil. Among his notable Faust films include Faust aux enfers (1903), known primarily for its English title The Damnation of Faust, or Faust in Hell. It is the filmmaker's third film adaptation of the Faust legend. In it, Méliès took inspiration from Hector Berlioz's Faust opera, but it pays less attention to the story and more to the special effects that represent a tour of hell. The film takes advantage of stage machinery techniques and features special effects such as pyrotechnics, substitution splices, superimpositions on black backgrounds, and dissolves. Méliès then made a sequel to that film called Damnation du docteur Faust (1904), released in the U.S. as Faust and Marguerite. This time, the film was based on the opera by Charles Gounod. Méliès' other devil-inspired films in this period include Les quat'cents farces du diable (1906), known in English as The Merry Frolics of Satan or The 400 Tricks of the Devil, a tale about an engineer who barters with the Devil for superhuman powers and is forced to face the consequences. Méliès would also make other horror-based short films that aren't inspired by Faust, most notably the fantastical and unsettling Le papillon fantastique (1909), where a magician turns a butterfly woman into a spider beast.
In 1910, Edison Studios in the United States produced the first filmed version of Mary Shelley's 1818 classic Gothic novel Frankenstein, the popular story of a scientist creating a hideous, sapient creature through a scientific experiment. Adapted to the screen for the first time by director J. Searle Dawley, his movie Frankenstein (1910) was deliberately designed to de-emphasize the horrific aspects of the story and focus on the story's mystical and psychological elements. Yet, the macabre nature of its source material made the film synonymous with the horror film genre.
The United States continued producing films based on the 1886 Gothic novella the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a classic tale about a doctor or scientist whose evil persona emerges after getting in contact with a magical formula. New York City's Thanhouser Film Corporation's one-reel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912) was directed by Lucius Henderson and stars future director James Cruze in the title role. A year later, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913) came out. This time it was independently produced by IMP (the future Universal Studios) and stars King Baggot as the doctor.
Italian silent epic film L'Inferno (1911), based on Inferno, the first canticle of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. In March 1911, the hour-long Italian silent film epic L'Inferno was screened in the Teatro Mercadante in Naples. The film was adapted from the first part of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy and took visual inspiration from Gustave Doré's haunting illustrations. It remains the best adaptation of The Inferno and is regarded by many scholars as the finest film adaptation of any of Dante's works to date. The film became an international success and is arguably the first true blockbuster in all of cinema. L'Inferno was directed by three artists; Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro. Their film is well-remembered for its stunning visualization of the nine circles of Hell and special effects that convey haunting visuals. The film presents a massive Lucifer with wings that stretch out behind him in front of a black void. He is seen devouring the Roman figures Brutus and Cassius in a display of double exposure and scale manipulation. According to critics, L'Inferno is able to capture some of the manic, tortuous, and bizarre imagery and themes of Dante's complex masterwork.
In the 1910s Georges Méliès would continue producing his Faustian films, the most significant of this period was 1912's Le Chevalier des Neiges (The Knight of the Snows). It was Méliès' last film with Faustian themes and the last of many films in which the filmmaker appeared as the Devil. The film tells a story of a princess kidnapped by Satan and thrown into a dungeon. Her lover, the brave Knight of the Snows, must then go on a journey to rescue her. Special effects in the film were created with stage machinery, pyrotechnics, substitution splices, superimpositions, and dissolves. It is among a few of the best examples of trick films that Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón helped popularized.
Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska) dancing as a vampire bat in the second episode of Les Vampires entitled "The Ring That Kills" In 1912, French director Abel Gance released his short film Le masque d'horreur (The Mask of Horror). The film tells a story of a mad sculptor who searches for the perfect realization of "the mask of horror". He places himself in front of a mirror after smearing blood over himself with the glass of an oil lamp. He then swallows a virulent poison to observe the effects of pain.
br>In 1913, German directors Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener made the silent horror film Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) loosely based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The film tells a story of a student who inadvertently makes a Faustian bargain. In the film, a student asks a stranger to turn him into a rich man. The stranger visits the student later in his dorm room and conjures up pieces of gold and a contract for him to sign. In return, the stranger is granted to take anything he wants from the room. He chooses to take the student's mirror. Upon moving it from the wall, a doppelgänger steps out and causes trouble. (In Western culture, a doppelgänger is a supernatural or ghostly double or look-alike of a specific person. It is usually seen as a harbinger of bad luck.) Cinematographer Guido Seeber utilized groundbreaking camera tricks to create the effect of the doppelgänger by using a mirror double which produces a seamless double exposure. The film was written by Hanns Heinz Ewers, a noted writer of horror and fantasy stories. His involvement with the screenplay lent a much needed air of respectability to the fledgling art form of horror film and German Expressionism
On November 1915 until June 1916, French writer/director Louis Feuillade released a weekly serial entitled Les Vampires where he exploited the power of horror imagery to great effect. Consisting of 10 parts or episodes and roughly 7 hours long if combined, Les Vampires is considered to be one of the longest films ever made. The series tells a story of a criminal gang called the Vampires, who play upon their supernatural name and style to instill fear in the public and the police who desperately want to put a stop to them. Marked as Feuillade's legendary opus, Les Vampires is considered a precursor to movie thrillers. The series is also a close cousin to the surrealist movement.
Paul Wegener (as the Golem) and Lyda Salmonova (as Jessica), in the 1915 German, partially lost horror film Der Golem. Paul Wegener followed up the success of The Student of Prague by adapting a story inspired by the ancient Jewish legend of the golem, an anthropomorphic being magically created entirely from clay or mud. Wegener teamed up with Henrik Galeen to create Der Golem (1915). The film, which is still partially lost, tells a story of an antiques dealer who finds a golem, a clay statue, brought to life centuries before. The dealer resurrects the golem as a servant, but the golem falls in love with the antiques dealer's wife. As she does not return his love, the golem commits a series of murders. Wegener made a sequel to the film two years later.This time he teamed up with co-director Rochus Gliese and made Der Golem und die Tänzerin (1917), or The Golem and the Dancing Girl as it is known in English. It is now considered a lost film. Wegener would make a third golem film another three years later to conclude his Der Golem trilogy.
In 1919, Austrian director Richard Oswald released a German silent anthology horror film called Unheimliche Geschichten, also known as Eerie Tales or Uncanny Tales. In the film, a bookshop closes and the portraits of the Strumpet, Death, and the Devil come to life and amuse themselves by reading stories—about themselves, of course, in various guises and eras. The film is split into five stories: The Apparition, The Hand, The Black Cat (based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story), The Suicide Club (based on the Robert Louis Stevenson short story collection) and Der Spuk (which translates to The Spectre in English). The film is described as the "critical link between the more conventional German mystery and detective films of the mid 1910s and the groundbreaking fantastic cinema of the early 1920s."
Though the word horror to describe the film genre would not be used until the 1930s (when Universal Pictures began releasing their initial monster films), earlier American productions often relied on horror and gothic themes. Many of these early films were considered dark melodramas because of their stock characters and emotion-heavy plots that focused on romance, violence, suspense, and sentimentality.
In 1923, Universal Pictures started producing films with horror and mostly gothic elements. This would retroactively become the first phase of the studio's Universal Classic Monsters series that would continue for three more decades. Universal Pictures' classic monsters of the 1920s featured hideously deformed characters like Quasimodo, The Phantom, and Gwynplaine.
The first film of the series was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) starring Lon Chaney as the hunchback Quasimodo. The film was adapted from the classic French gothic novel of the same name written by Victor Hugo in 1833, about a horribly deformed bell ringer in the cathedral of Notre-Dame. The film elevated Chaney, already a well-known character actor, to full star status in Hollywood, and also helped set a standard for many later horror films.
Two years later, Chaney stars as The Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House in 1925's silent horror film, The Phantom of the Opera, based on the mystery novel by Gaston Leroux published 15 years earlier. Roger Ebert said the film "creates beneath the opera one of the most grotesque places in the cinema, and Chaney's performance transforms an absurd character into a haunting one." Adrian Warren of PopMatters called the film "terrific: unsettling, beautifully shot and imbued with a dense and shadowy Gothic atmosphere". Included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 1925's The Phantom of the Opera is lauded for Lon Chaney's masterful acting, Universal Pictures' incredible set design, and its many masterly moments including the unmasking of the tragic villain's disfigured skullface, so shocking that even the camera is terrified, going briefly out of focus.
In 1927, German director Paul Leni directed his first of two films for Universal Pictures. His silent horror film The Cat and the Canary is the third film in the Universal Classic Monsters series and is considered "the cornerstone of Universal's school of horror." The Cat and the Canary is adapted from John Willard's black comedy play of the same name. The plot revolves around the death of a man and the reading of his will 20 years later. His family inherits his fortunes, but when they spend the night in his haunted mansion they are stalked by a mysterious figure. Meanwhile, a lunatic known as "the Cat" escapes from an asylum and hides in the mansion. The film is part of a genre of comedy horror films inspired by 1920s Broadway stage plays. Paul Leni's adaptation of Willard's play blended expressionism with humor, a style Leni was notable for and critics recognized as unique. Alfred Hitchcock cited this film as one of his influences and Tony Rayns called it the "definitive haunted house movie."
Paul Leni's second film for Universal Pictures was The Man Who Laughs (1928), an adaptation of another Victor Hugo novel. The film, starring Conrad Veidt is known for the bleak carnival freak-like grin on the character Gwynplaine's face. His exaggerated smile was the inspiration for DC Comics' The Joker. (A graphic novel in 2005 exploring the origins of the Joker was also titled Batman: The Man Who Laughs in homage to this film). Film critic Roger Ebert stated, "The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film".
The fifth and last film of the Universal Classic Monsters series in the 1920s is The Last Performance (1929). It was directed by Paul Fejos and stars Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin.Veidt plays a middle-aged magician who is in love with his beautiful young assistant. She, on the other hand, is in love with the magician's young protege, who turns out to be a bum and a thief. The film received mixed reviews and a 1929 New York Times article even said that "Dr. Fejos has handled his scenes with no small degree of imagination." A Letterboxd reviewer called it a "backstage melodrama with eerie intimations of horror.