The term “horror film” really wasn’t in popular usage until 1931, when Variety described Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein as part of a “horror cycle.” But, the roots of the horror genre go much deeper, all the way to the first years of projected moving pictures. The pre-history of horror is fascinating and filled with various uses of ghosts, witches, and things that creep around in the night. There are dozens of early horrific films still available for viewing and I encourage everyone to go find some of the more obscure films. Below are my pick of some of the most interesting and influential films of the silent era that are still available for viewing.
Le Manoir du Diable
(1896, dir. Georges Méliès)
The first public projection of a motion picture was in December of 1895. Less than a year later, the first wizard of filmmaking, Georges Méliès, was crafting fantastic visual marvels including this early blueprint of what horror could look like on screen. Complete with devils, ghosts, and a menacing bat, Le Manoir du Diable is a short primer on Gothic motifs and early special effects.
La Maison Hantée
(1906, dir. Segundo Chomón)
This fun and fanciful short film plays for laughs more than screams, but does showcase how far special effects had come in the decade since Méliès’s Le Manoir de Diable. A trio of travellers find themselves seeking shelter in a strange inn and mystical mayhem ensues, including disappearing furniture and food that serves itself. Great examples of stop-action animation and the way ghosts and spirits filled the early film screens.
(1910, dir. J. Searles Dawley)
While not quite as imaginative as some of the other ‘trick films’ that were popular at the time, Dawley’s Frankenstein gets credit for being the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. For me, it is fascinating to see a very different vision of the “Monster” and the creation sequence. This film has circulated for years in fragments but a newly restored version is available through the U.S. Library of Congress.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
(1912, dir. Lucius Henderson)
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde made a big impression on early filmmakers and there were several versions produced beginning as early as 1908. Sadly, the earliest efforts are lost but the 1912 version made by the Thanhouser studio is available. Starring James Cruz, this early short film sees the evil Hyde menacing Jekyll’s beloved before Jekyll takes his own life in a fit of despair.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
(1920, dir. Robert Wiene)
Arguably the most well-known use of the horrific in the silent era, Caligari was a controversial and hugely influential film. Its use of Expressionism violated almost all of Hollywood’s standards for realistic filmmaking and its macabre and gloomy story were shocking to audiences of the era. Still, in spite of the condemnation Hollywood executives heaped on Caligari, its style would almost immediately become integrated into American films. Indeed, Caligari’s success inspired Universal to film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923, dir. Wallace Worsley) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925, dir. Rupert Julian). For me, Caligari, along with Nosferatu (1922, dir. F.W. Murnau), are among the silent films that can still provoke nightmares in audiences today.
The Cat and the Canary
(1927, dir. Paul Leni)
Paul Leni was touted as the director who could integrate the gloomy aesthetics of Caligari with mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and the incredible success of his first American film, The Cat and the Canary, suggests he pulled it off. This is the prototypical “old dark house” mystery with a group of relatives gathered to hear the reading of a will while a mysterious monstrous figure lurks in the shadows. The film’s mix of horror and humour would help prepare audiences for horrific creatures that would fill their screens in the 1930s.
Seven Footprints to Satan
(1929, dir. Benjamin Christensen)
With a title like that, what could go wrong? This visually stunning film sees our protagonist, Jim (played by Creighton Hale), trying to rescue his beloved from a strange Satanic cult. A weird assortment of monstrous characters confront him on his journey until the twist ending brings the film to resolution.
For horror fans wanting to learn more about the place of horror in early films, there have been several outstanding recent books on the topic, including: Gary Rhodes’ The Birth of the American Horror Film (2018, Edinburgh University Press), Scott Poole’s Wasteland: The Great War and The Origins of Modern Horror (2018, Counterpoint), and my own little volume, A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema (2018, University of Texas Press).
Kendall R. Phillips is a professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. His latest book is “A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema” and is available to buy here.