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Horror Films are unsettling films designed to frighten and panic, cause dread and alarm, and to invoke our hidden worst fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale, while captivating and entertaining us at the same time in a cathartic experience. Horror films effectively center on the dark side of life, the forbidden, and strange and alarming events. They deal with our most primal nature and its fears: our nightmares, our vulnerability, our alienation, our revulsions, our terror of the unknown, our fear of death and dismemberment, loss of identity, or fear of sexuality.
Whatever dark, primitive, and revolting traits that simultaneously attract and repel us are featured in the horror genre. Horror films are often combined with science fiction when the menace or monster is related to a corruption of technology, or when Earth is threatened by aliens. The fantasy and supernatural film genres are not synonymous with the horror genre, although thriller films may have some relation when they focus on the revolting and horrible acts of the killer/madman. Horror films are also known as chillers, scary movies, spookfests, and the macabre. See also Scariest Film Moments and Scenes (illustrated) - from many of the Greatest Horror Films ever made, Best Film Death Scenes (illustrated), and Three Great Horror Film Franchises.
Introduction to Horror Films Genre:
Horror films go back as far as the onset of films themselves, over a 100 years ago. From our earliest days, we use our vivid imaginations to see ghosts in shadowy shapes, to be emotionally connected to the unknown and to fear things that are improbable. Watching a horror film gives an opening into that scary world, into an outlet for the essence of fear itself, without actually being in danger. Weird as it sounds, there's a very real thrill and fun factor in being scared or watching disturbing, horrific images.
Horror films, when done well and with less reliance on horrifying special effects, can be extremely potent film forms, tapping into our dream states and the horror of the irrational and unknown, and the horror within man himself. (The best horror films only imply or suggest the horror in subtle ways, rather than blatantly displaying it, i.e., Val Lewton's horror films.) In horror films, the irrational forces of chaos or horror invariably need to be defeated, and often these films end with a return to normalcy and victory over the monstrous.
Of necessity, the earliest horror films were Gothic in style - meaning that they were usually set in spooky old mansions, castles, or fog-shrouded, dark and shadowy locales. Their main characters have included "unknown," human, supernatural or grotesque creatures, ranging from vampires, demented madmen, devils, unfriendly ghosts, monsters, mad scientists, "Frankensteins," "Jekyll/Hyde" dualities (good against evil), demons, zombies, evil spirits, arch fiends, Satanic villains, the "possessed," werewolves and freaks to even the unseen, diabolical presence of evil.
Horror films developed out of a number of sources: folktales with devil characters, witchcraft, fables, myths, ghost stories, Grand Guignol melodramas, and Gothic or Victorian novels from Europe by way of Mary Shelley, Victor Hugo or Irish writer Bram Stoker, and American writers Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. Oscar Wilde's 1890 Faustian tale The Picture of Dorian Gray and H.G. Wells' 1896 story of The Island of Dr. Moreau were adapted into early film versions. In many ways, the expressionistic German silent cinema led the world in films of horror and the supernatural, and established its cinematic vocabulary and style. Many of the early silent classics would be remade during the talkies era.
The Earliest Horror Films: Vampires (Vamps), Monsters, and More
Bloodsuckers (leeches) and vampire bats have always intrigued and frightened people from cultures around the world. Demonic or supernatural possession was often juxtaposed with blood-drinking, sex, and corpses. Many religions, myths, folk-tales and cults espoused the idea of obtaining the life-essence from blood – in its extreme was the practice of cannibalism. Vampires began to emerge in popular fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries, during which time Anglo-Irish writer Bram Stoker's 1897 vampire novel Dracula was written. It has become the most popular, influential and preeminent source material for many vampire films. Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 lesbian vampire tale Carmilla came a close second to Stoker's writings. Stoker's seminal book hatched all the elements of future vampire films -- predatory female vamps who kissed the neck of male victims for their human blood, an elderly Count who vied for their prey, and a vampire hunter with garlic to ward off the "Prince of Darkness" and with a wooden stake to drive through Dracula's heart.
The first horror movie, only about two minutes long, was made by imaginative French filmmaker Georges Melies, titled Le Manoir Du Diable (1896, Fr.) (aka The Devil's Castle/The Haunted Castle) - containing familiar elements of later horror and vampire films: a flying bat, a medieval castle, a cauldron, a demon figure (Mephistopheles), and skeletons, ghosts, and witches - and a crucifix to dispatch with evil. It appeared that Quasimodo, from Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris 1831 novel, became the first horror figure in the 10-minute short by female director Alice Guy titled Esmeralda (1905, Fr.), and soon after was seen in the full-length horror film Notre-Dame De Paris (1911, Fr.) (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame).
In the French silent film serial (with ten chapters) Les Vampires (1915, Fr.) (aka The Vampires) by director/writer Louis Feuillade, subversive vampire thieves sucked the blood out of sleeping bourgeois Parisian society, and stole their jewels. The villainous leader of the vamps was Irma Vep (Musidora), an anagram for VAMPIRE. The partly scripted, partly-improvised episodes (with eye-catching titles like "The Severed Head" and "The Ring That Kills") followed investigative journalist Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) and his comic sidekick Oscar Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) in their continued attempts to foil The Vampire Gang's elaborate schemes and gadgets.
One of the more memorable and influential of the early films was Germany's silent expressionistic landmark classic, Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1919/1920, Ger.) (aka The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) from director Robert Wiene, about a ghost-like hypnotist-therapist in a carnival named Dr. Caligari (Werner Kraus) who calls pale-skinned, lanky, black leotard-wearing Cesare (Conrad Veidt, later known for his portrayal as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942)), his performing somnambulist (and haunted murderer), from a state of sleep. The shadowy, disturbing, distorted, and dream-nightmarish quality of the macabre and stylistic 'Caligari,' with twisted alleyways, lopsided doors, cramped rooms, overhanging buildings, and skewed cityscapes, was shot in a studio. It was brought to Hollywood in the 1920s, and later influenced the classic period of horror films in the 1930s - introducing many standard horror film conventions. As with many classic films (i.e., Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)), the original story was altered (due to its insinuation that "authority" was questionable and insane), and a flashback framing device (composed of an epilogue and prologue) was added to soften its message. This made the film appear to be a delusional nightmare in a psychotic mental patient's (Francis) dream, thereby diluting the subversive nature of the original.
Early Vampire Films:
Female vamps made an appearance in Robert Vignola's melodramatic The Vampire (1913), although they were femme fatales who seductively 'sucked' the life-blood from 'foolish' men -- also exemplified by popular vamp actress Theda Bara in A Fool There Was (1915). The earliest significant vampire film was director Arthur Robison's German silent film Nachte des Grauens (1916, Ger.) (aka Night of Horror) with strange, vampire-like people. Until recently, the lost Hungarian film Drakula halala (1921, Hung.) (aka The Death of Dracula), was widely assumed to be the first adaptation of Anglo-Irish writer Bram Stoker's 1897 vampire novel Dracula, and featured cinema's first Drakula.
The first genuine vampire picture was also produced by a European filmmaker - director F. W. Murnau's feature-length Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (1922, Ger.) (aka Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens). Shot on location, it was an unauthorized film adaptation of Stoker's Dracula with Max Schreck in the title role as the screen's first vampire - a mysterious aristocrat named Count Graf Orlok living in the late 1830s in the German town of Bremen. Because of copyright problems, the vampire was named Nosferatu rather than Dracula, and the action was moved from Transylvania to Bremen. The emaciated, balding, undead vampire's image was unforgettable with a devil-rat face, pointy ears, elongated fingers, sunken cheeks, and long fangs, with plague rats following him wherever he went. In the film's conclusion, the grotesque, cadaverous creature was tricked by the heroine Nina (Greta Schroder) into remaining past daybreak, so Orlok met his fate by disintegrating into smoke in the sunlight.
Early Monster (Frankenstein) Films:
In Danish director Stellan Rye's and Paul Wegener's early German silent horror film Der Student von Prag (1913, Ger.) (aka The Student of Prague/A Bargain With Satan), based loosely upon the Faust legend, a poor student made a pact with the devil in return for wealth and a beautiful woman. [The student was portrayed by actor/producer/director Paul Wegener in his film debut.] It was the first artistically important German production - and was later remade in 1926 and directed by Henrik Galeen. Wegener directed the first of his influential adaptations of the Golem legend by Gustav Meyrinck - Der Golem (1914, Ger.) (aka The Monster of Fate), and then remade it a few years later as Der Golem Und Die Tanzerin (1917, Ger.) (aka The Golem and the Dancer) - notably the first horror film sequel. He remade the film a third time, with Karl Freund as cinematographer, again titling it Der Golem (1920, Ger.) (aka The Golem: or How He Came Into the World). The expressionistic film was based upon Central European myths and influenced later 'Frankenstein' monster films in the early 1930s with themes of a creator losing control of his creation. The Golem, played by Wegener, was an ancient clay figure from Hebrew mythology that was brought to life by Rabbi Loew's magic amulet to defend and save the Jews from a pogrom in the 16th century threatened by Rudolf II of Habsburg. The man-made, clay creature roamed through the Jewish ghetto of medieval Prague to protect it from persecution.
The earliest horror pictures were one-reel or full length features, many of which were produced in the US from 1909 to the early 1920s, making the horror genre one of the oldest and most basic. Many of them are now-forgotten "vamp" pictures (featuring devilish, captivating ladies). The first Frankenstein monster film in the US was Frankenstein (1910) by director J. Searle Dawley, a 16-minute (one-reel) version made by the Edison Studios and starring Charles Ogle as the monster. In this early version, the Monster was created in a cauldron of chemicals rather than by a bolt of lightning. Two other silent precursors to later Frankenstein films were Joseph W. Smiley's Life Without Soul (1915) and the expressionistic German film Homunculus (1916), a six-hour epic serial about an artificially-created man. Before the 1930s, Hollywood was reluctant to experiment with the themes of true horror films. Instead, the studios took popular stage plays and emphasized their mystery genre features, providing rational explanations for all the supernatural and occult elements.
The Miser's Conversion (1914) (aka The Miser's Reversion) was the first film to depict a screen transformation by using a series of dissolves with footage of the character's different stages of makeup, rather than a single jump-cut. This was later used to great effect in many films including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941). In the film, the title character miser (Sidney Bracey), 75 year-old John Grisley, obsessed with the idea of evolution, acquired a rejuvenation serum that transformed him into a 40 year-old man with just a few drops. To intensify the effect, he drank the entire bottle of serum and reverted into an ape.
Man of a Thousand Faces - Lon Chaney: The First American Horror Film Star
One actor who helped pave the way for the change in outlook and acceptance of the horror genre was Lon (Alonso) Chaney, Sr., known as "the man of a thousand faces" because of his transformative, grotesque makeup and acting genius as a pantomime artist. He appeared in numerous silent horror films beginning in 1913 at Universal Studios. He was soon to become the first American horror-film star and Hollywood's first great character actor. His first grotesque character role as a fake cripple (a contorted figure named the Frog), his breakthrough role, was in The Miracle Man (1919) (a film that only partially survives). Chaney's films, collaborating with director Tod Browning on ten feature films over a decade, included these examples of lurid melodrama (and horror) and crime:
In the first of Chaney's two other horror masterpieces, he appeared in one of the earliest versions of Victor Hugo's novel about the hunchbacked Quasimodo - a tortured bellringer living in a cathedral tower in love with gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) in director Wallace Worsley's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) - it was another silent film version of the classic tale. [An earlier version was The Darling of Paris (1917), a lost film starring vamp Theda Bara as Esmeralda.]
Chaney's most memorable portrayal was in the ground-breaking, vividly-frightening, Beauty-and-the-Beast silent film, Rupert Julian's costume horror classic The Phantom of the Opera (1925), as Devil's Island escapee Erik - a disfigured, deranged, bitter and vengeful composer/ghost of the Paris Opera (based on the character in Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel). This film was a technical achievement, with a two-color Technicolor 'Bal Masque' sequence, the falling chandelier and underground lake scenes. Its dark expressionistic tones helped set the tone for horror films in the 30s. Its most famous scene was ingenue Christine's (Mary Philbin) unmasking of Lon Chaney's mask - revealing a hideous skull-face, lipless mouth, rotten teeth, snouty nose, and bulging eyes.
[Other versions over the years are wide-ranging, as both horror films and theatrical musicals]:
[James Cagney played the role of Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) and recreated the star's roles as the Phantom and Quasimodo in two of horror's greatest achievements.]
The Cycle of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Films:
There were a few very early renditions in the 1900s of the classic tale taken from Robert Louis Stevenson's story "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (and Thomas Russell Sullivan's 1887 stage play "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde") about a doctor/scientist whose evil side was brought out by a magic formula. The first filmed version was also the first American horror film - director Otis Turner's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908) with Hobart Bosworth in the lead role - by the Selig Polyscope Corporation. The next was Thanhouser Film Corporation's (New York) one-reel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912) with future director James Cruze starring as the title character. And then superstar King Baggot appeared in independent IMP's (the future Universal Studios) two-reeler Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913). Broadway idol John Barrymore also starred in one of the earliest versions of the Jekyll/Hyde story, a silent film from Famous Players-Lasky Corporation titled Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). [Another almost forgotten version in 1920 from the Pioneer Film Corporation starred Sheldon Lewis.] The familiar story was later re-made in many versions, but the two most noteworthy versions were:
[In the psycho-sexual thriller Mary Reilly (1995), Julia Roberts starred as the innocent maid of the infamous Dr. Jekyll to provide a new perspective.]
The Advent of Classic Horror Films of the 30s: The End of Silent Horror Films, The Rise of Universal Studios
Actor Conrad Veidt and German expressionistic director Paul Leni were recruited by Universal's boss Carl Laemmle in the mid-1920s. Paul Leni was already known in his homeland for the spooky horror classics Backstairs (1921, Ger.) (aka Hintertreppe) and the expressionistic anthology Waxworks (1924, Ger.) (aka Das Wachsfigurenkabinett). After moving to Hollywood, Leni directed The Cat and the Canary (1927), a derivative from a stage-bound 1922 melodrama. The influential film is considered the first Gothic 'haunted house' horror film. Veidt was cast as an ever-smiling, grotesque carnival freak named Gwynplaine in Leni's next film for Universal, The Man Who Laughs (1927), a superb romantic melodrama.
The first talkie horror film was also the second 'all-talking' motion picture from Warner Bros -- director Roy Del Ruth's The Terror (1928), a stage-bound adaptation of Edgar Wallace's play regarding a haunted house terrorized by a homicidal asylum escapee. The film's many ads capitalized on the new feature of sound (creaking doors, howling wind, organ music), heard with the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process: "It will thrill you! Grip you! Set you into tremors of awe. HEAR this creepy tale of mystery - the baffling story of a detective's great triumph. With voices and shadows that will rack your nerves and make you like it. Come, hear them talk in this Vitaphone production of the play that has gripped London for over 3 years."
By the early 1930s, horror entered into its classic phase in Hollywood - the true Dracula and Frankenstein Eras, with films that borrowed from their German expressionism roots. The studios took morbid tales of European vampires and undead aristocrats, mad scientists, and invisible men and created some of the most archetypal creatures and monsters ever known for the screen. Universal Studios, with many groundbreaking silent horror films, continued its tradition by providing talkie horror films derived from literature and other mythic-legendary sources. It was best-known for its pure horror films in the 30s and 40s, horror-dom's characters (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Wolf Man) and its classic horror stars, Hungarian matinee idol Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.
The First of the Dracula Films:
According to Guinness World Records, the character most frequently portrayed in horror films is Dracula, with nearly 200 representations (at the present count). With Tod Browning's direction, Universal Studios produced a film version of Lugosi's 1927 Broadway stage success about a blood-sucking, menacing vampire named Dracula (1931), released early in the year. [Lon Chaney, Sr. was one of many actors considered to play the title character, but he died in 1930.] The atmospheric, commercially-successful film adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel played upon fears of sexuality, blood, and the nebulous period between life and death. The heavily-accented voice and acting of Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in his most famous portrayal as the 500 year old vampire was elegant, suave, exotic and stylish - and frightening to early audiences - while the undead villain hypnotically charmed his victims with a predatory gaze.
In the same year, Danish writer/director Carl Theodor Dreyer's dreamlike, atmospheric, seminal horror film Vampyr (1931, Ger./Fr.) (aka Not Against the Flesh/Castle of Doom) was released. The unsettling film, Dreyer's first sound feature, was loosely based on the 1872 lesbian vampire short story Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. It was alternatively titled The Strange Adventure of David Grey - and it told the story of an occult researcher named Allan/David Grey (Baron Nicolas de Gunsburg, played by Julian West) in a remote country inn in the village of Courtempierre who was given a vampire combat book. He slowly believed he was surrounded by vampires - and dreamt of his own death and glass-lidded coffin burial (filmed with a double-exposure) during a blood-loss induced fever dream.
And Fritz Lang's M (1931, Ger.) introduced a terrorized criminal, child-murdering deviant character (portrayed by German-born Peter Lorre in his mesmerizing film debut) who was based on the real-life, notorious serial killer Peter Kurten - the 'Vampire of Dusseldorf.' In his defining performance, Lorre cried out that he couldn't help his compulsion. [Peter Lorre's first American role was in cinematographer/director Karl Freund's melodramatic horror film Mad Love (1935), an adaptation of Maurice Renard's 1920 novel Les Mains d'Orlac about an obsessed and twisted surgeon named Dr. Gogol who schemed to win the love of Parisian Grand Guignol theatre actress Yvonne Orlac (Francis Drake) by transplanting the hands of a knife-murderer onto her injured concert pianist husband Stephen (Colin Clive).]
The Original Frankenstein Film:
The first Dracula film was followed closely by the definitive, quintessential combination of science fiction and Gothic horror in a 'mad doctor' thriller. This classic monster/horror film - Frankenstein (1931) - was James Whale's adaptation from Mary Shelley's novel about Dr. Henry Frankenstein with a virtually unknown actor - Boris Karloff. With a boxy forehead and neck electrodes (and other features created from Whale's sketches by make-up artist Jack Pierce), Karloff's poignant portrayal of the pathetic created Monster's plight gave a personality to the outcast, uncomprehending character with a lumbering and lurching gait. The next three films in the series (see later) were:
The Wolf Man Cycle of Films:
Without resorting to an existing literary horror figure, such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or The Invisible Man, Universal also created a new and 'original' creature in two films - the werewolf - the last of its great original horror characters. The first US werewolf film was Stuart Walker's well-made The Werewolf of London (1935) with Henry Hull as Dr. Glendon - the scientist who brought the 'wolf' curse upon himself. The second, most famous and definitive Wolf Man character was in director George Waggner's excellent B-grade film, The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney, Jr. in his first appearance as the accursed Larry Talbot - his portrayal came to be his best-known role. The "transformation" scene from man-to-wolf, involving complicated cosmetic/makeup artistry, was remarkably realistic. [The makeup artist used yak hair and a rubber snout.]
Unfortunately, the Wolf Man role hopelessly typecast Chaney, Jr. for life. In fact, he was the only actor to play all four classic movie monsters: the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein monster (in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)), Kharis (the Mummy) (in The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Ghost (1944) and The Mummy's Curse (1944)), and Count Dracula (in Son of Dracula (1943)).
He was forced to star in a series of very poor sequels, teamed up with other Universal horror stars in B-grade films including Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) (in which Chaney, Jr. portrayed the Wolf Man and Lugosi was the Frankenstein Monster), and in two films adding Dracula to the mix:
The worst ignominy suffered by Chaney, Jr. was in Universal-International's hybrid horror-comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) with the two screen comedians. Here was evidence that classic horror films in the genre were beginning to go out of style after the real 'horrors' of World War II, and Universal was attempting to crank out more and more sequels for younger audiences.
Another unrelated 'wolf-man' film was She-Wolf of London (1946), with June Lockart as Phyllis Allenby, an innocent young girl in London - and the alleged perpetrator of gruesome murders.