ROOTS OF HORROR
The history of horror is a vast and perhaps foolhardy thing to tackle. No matter how hard you try, there are films and horror subgenres that will slide through the cracks..
But horror is somewhat unique among the film genres in that there is a recognizable pattern that happens again and again. A film will come along and terrify an audience capturing their imaginations and making bank- Filmmakers flock to the cash cow like vampires to blood which leads to sequels and imitators – sometimes better than the original. But eventually the sequels run out of steam and the subgenre created by the original smash hit fades into memory lurking in the corners of history waiting to be rediscovered and reborn- this process is commonly referred to as cycles. Although other genres behave similarly, the unique appeal of horror from its low budget requirements to broad multinational appeal, make horror especially susceptible to these boom and fade cycles.
But as we look at how the genre changes over time, we must not think of the history of horror as being a rigid one way street. New films borrow from old films all the time, a constant remix of subgenres and new techniques to make something for the contemporary culture.
So who did the first horror films borrow from? Monsters, murderers, demons and beasts have been around since antiquity, ghost stories told round camp fires since we learned how to talk. But the roots of filmed horror were an extension of a genre of literature that got it’s start in the late 1700s: Gothic Horror. Developed by writers in both Great Britain and the United States the Gothic part of the name refers to pseudo medieval buildings that these stories took place – think of a old castle on a dark and stormy night – gloomy forests, dungeons and secret passage ways.
Famous gothic writers include Mary Shelly, Bram Stoker and of course Edgar Allan Poe.
HORROR IN THE SILENT ERA
It was from Gothic literature that the first horror films found inspiration. And why not? The genre was popular in both books and theater at the time. Although the term horror did not come into use for film until the 1930s, early filmmakers and film goers certainly showed an interest in the macabre as evident In this snippet of a “Spook Tale” from 1895 created by the Lumiere brothers.
In 1896 Georges Méliès would go on to create what is considered to be the first horror film ever made: The Haunted Castle 1896.
“The Manor of the Devil” – with bats, castles, trolls, ghosts, and a demon – played by Georges Méliès himself, you can see the elements of gothic horror are already firmly entrenched by this time in the public psyche.
Silent films in the teens and 20s were still exploring the possibilities of this new filmmaking medium. Several experiments were conducted including the first Frankenstein adapted by Thomas Edison’s studios in 1910 and Dante’s Inferno by Giuseppe de Liguoro in Italy in 1911. But the heart of horror in silent films would start to beat only after conclusion of the first world war and in ashes of the tattered country of Germany.
German Expressionism was a style of cinema that emphasized expression over realistic depictions of reality. Starting off as a rising movement throughout Europe, German filmmakers and artist developed this unique style inside a cultural bubble that was the result of embargo in place during World War I. Without the influx of an already internationally powerful Hollywood, the German cottage film industry grew quite quickly and creatively. A consortium of German industries came together and convinced the German military of the importance of a German film unit – this would become the Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft – the UFA. But by the time the company was operational, Germany had lost the war, and the UFA turned it’s goals to producing films for profit.
On the slate in 1919 was a film written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz with Robert Wiene set direct. The result would be a film that would be go on to be the Great Grand Daddy of all horror films: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
In the first few years of the Wiemar Republic, electricity was still scarce and German industries were allotted power on a quota basis. UFA had used up almost all their quota that year so the filmmakers decided to paint the shadows on the set rather than try to create them naturally with electric light.
This technique combined with the sharp angles and bizarre perspective distortion created an unforgettable look that established German Expressionism both artistically and as a commercially popular style of cinema.
German filmmakers continued the tradition of Expressionist horror films with The Golem: How He Came into the World in 1920 which was lensed by Karl Freund who also shot Metropolis and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu In 1922.
The German film industry did well in the immediate post war era… much better than the rest of the German economy which was mired in runaway inflation due to the War reparations Germany was obligated to pay under the Treaty of Versailles. Fortunately for the film industry, people flocked to the movies because it was the only form of entertainment that people felt they were getting their money’s worth. Berlin became the cultural center of Europe despite the shaky economy.
To stabalize the currency, the WWI allies offered Germany the Dawes Plan in 1925 which was a system of loans and agreements aimed to try to get the economy back under control. Unfortunately the Dawes plan also curtailed German film exports – the result was many independent studios lost financing shut down for good.
Even the national studio UFA was at the brink of collapse in 1925. A good oppurtunity for Hollywood to swallow up a once powerful foreign competitor. Paramount and MGM lent $4 million in exchange for collaborative rights to UFA Studios, theater, and personnel establishing the Parufamet Distribution Company in 1926.
This agreement effectively moved German Expressionism into Hollywood as scores of artist traveled to the US to work in Hollywood studios. Many German artists decided stay permanently, some even returning as refugees from the growing German Nazi movement in the 1930s. The German Immigrant contribution would leave a lasting mark on the style of films in the coming years.
HORROR FILMS LEARN TO SCREAM
It’s hard to overstate the effect that sound had on transforming cinema in the late 1920s. It was a radical artistic leap, and probably more so for horror than any other genre except perhaps the musical – just try turning off the sound on your favorite horror film – it just wouldn’t have the same impact.
In the tightly controlled Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, there was one studio that would be responsible for the first cycle of horror films – Universal Pictures. One rung beneath the big five were the little three: Universal, Columbia and United Artists who made and distributed pictures but didn’t have any theater holdings. During the silent era, Universal was responsible for the few achievements in American horror most notably The Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame both starring Lon Chaney. But in the 30s, Universal really sunk their teeth into horror, kicking off the Universal Gothic horror cycle:
Their first hit was Dracula, directed Tod Browning and lensed by UFA cinematographer Karl Freund starring the Hungarian Bela Lugosi in 1931.
James Whale continued the cycle with Frankenstein with Boris Karloff also in 1931.. Karl Freund even got a shot at the director’s chair with The Mummy in 1932. Followed by James Whale again with the Invisible Man in 1933, Stuart Walker’s Werewolf in London 1935 and Hambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter in 1936.
But the Universal Gothic Horror Cycle began to lose steam and fall into the pit of self parody with titles like The Invisible Man Returns, The Mummy’s Hand, andFrankenstein meets the Wolf Man in 1943. Moving into 1940s, the Universal Monsters stable started to be treated like Batman villains bringing all the characters together in 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula. And by 1948 when Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in a surprising popular comedy outing, Universal would retire the first string of monsters from serious horror filmmaking.
In Macabre 1958, Castle promised every customer a $1,000 life insurance policy should they die of fright. House on Haunted Hill in 1959 was filmed in “Emergo” which triggered a skeleton that would fly around the theater suspended on wires. Once kids knew this was coming they’d bring their slingshots and see who could be the one to shoot it down. And the Tingler, also in 1959, wired up movie theater seats with joy buzzers and encouraged the audience to scream as a way of calming down the spine monster that was let loose in the theater.