An Incomplete History of Horror Films Part I.

Its the month of October, so time for some Halloween celebrations.

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I love horror films, I grew up watching them. Some of my fondest movie memories are from the horror genre. I think what I enjoy most is the fact how diverse the horror genre can be with its many, many sub genres. Sci-Fi Horror, Slasher films, Gore-fests, Comedy/Horror, Psychological Horror and so on…
I honestly can’t think of a more varied and disparate genre in film.

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For this Halloween season, I’d like to take a look at some of the most important, influential and (in)famous films the horror genre has produced. Starting in the 1800’s going right through to modern day-ish. Now obviously, I’ll not be covering EVERY horror film ever made, nor will I be going into great depth of each movie as that would be a hell of a long article. This is going to be more of a quick look at horror films that I think hold great importance for one reason or another. Plus if I just gloss over the films, then I can avoid spoilers as much as possible. So here we go with my incomplete history of horror films.

I’ll start with the silent era of film and what many consider the very first horror film from the 1800s.

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Le Manoir du diable (1896): AKA; The House of the Devil, The Haunted Castle or The Devil’s Castle. Its hard to pinpoint exactly how or when the first ever horror film was made, but this film is often cited as the first. This was a short film at only three minutes (that was considered ambitious at the time), was directed by Georges Méliès. A simple enough film about a battle against the Devil.

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For its time, this film has some pretty impressive effects work. The inclusion of imagery such as bats, skeletons, ghosts and the Devil is largely why this film is thought of as being the first ever horror film as it put in place much of the symbolism that has become synonymous with horror films and Halloween today. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to see something like this in 1896. People were scared by a train coming towards the screen back then, so this must have been a revelation. If you have a spare three minutes, you can watch the film here.

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Frankenstein (1910): The first ever known film version of the Merry Shelley classic, Frankenstein. Directed by J. Searle Dawley from Edison Studios… yes THAT Edison. Everybody knows this story right? Dr. Frankenstein becomes obsessed with life & death and decides to create a human. But instead of creating a human, he creates a monster.

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Another silent film, but one with much more of a story and all told visually. This is an interesting take on the Frankenstein tale as it really delves into the psychological problems Dr. Frankenstein had. For the limitations of the time, this film really does a great job of getting its story across and in only thirteen minutes too. Check it out right here.

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The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1919): A German film directed by Robert Wiene and is held in high regard among horror fans for its surreal visuals and is considered the first ever cult film. Francis sits on a bench and tells a story about how evil spirits drove him away from his home. The film is then told in flashback as Francis tells his tale about his meeting with a mysterious man named Dr. Caligari.

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The film features some amazing set design and visuals, even for today and its quite clear that Tim Burton was a fan. Its a strange, yet beautiful film to look at and really is a feast for the eyes. Writer Siegfried Kracauer in his book; From Caligari to Hitler, suggested that the film was a premonition of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Often considered one of the main films that influenced American horror movies and one that popularised the genre. This film comes in at around an hour and ten minutes and can be seen here.

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Nosferatu (1922): If you have never heard of this film, then you are no horror fan. Quite easily the most famous horror film of the silent era and one packed with equally famous imagery. Directed by F. W. Murnau and one of the first Vampire films. Thomas Hutter is sent to a Transylvanian castle to meet with Count Orlok. Locals at a village are scared by the mention of Orlok’s name try to persuade Hutter from travelling to his castle. Unperturbed, Hutter continues on his journey and meets Orlok for the first time.

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This was originally meant to be an adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the filmmakers were not able to obtain the rights. So they changed a few details “Vampire” became “Nosferatu” and “Count Dracula” became “Count Orlok”, etc (though some prints still use the Dracula name). Bram Stoker’s heirs even successfully sued over this adaptation, and a court ruling ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed. For a while, it was believed the film was lost but thankfully a few prints survived, otherwise we wouldn’t have what is considered one of the most important horror films to ever be made. And yes, I have this film for you too here.

We end the silent era with a Vampire and start a new era with another Vampire as movies begin to make sound in the 30s. This was the time where the classic monster movies were born.

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Drácula (1931): In the early 1930s, Universal Studios started making monster movies that changed horror films forever. Their first one was the classic Dracula starring the all time great, Bela Lugosi. Lugosi’s performance of Dracula is THE definitive Vampire. You think Vampire/Dracula and that voice you have in your head is Lugosi’s, as is the look and everything that comes with it. But I don’t want to highlight that version. Interestingly enough, Universal actually made two versions of the film using the same script and even the same sets and they were also shot at the same time. But the actors and director were changed. There is the more famous American version and the other lesser known Spanish film I want to mention here. You all know the story of Dracula, so I won’t bore you with it here.

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I have already covered how Bela Lugosi’s Dracula has become immortalised/well remembered and rightly so too. For me, Lugosi’s Dracula is the better of the two here. But everything else about the Spanish version is far superior. Carlos Villarías as Dracula in this version may not be as famous or as influential as Lugosi, but he’s still pretty damn good. The camera work is also much more interesting in this version with sweeping movements and it all feels much more kinetic, while the American version is much more static and stiff. The supporting cast in the Spanish version are great to watch as well. Check this one out, its overlooked and not as famous as the Bela Lugosi version, but I personally think the Spanish film is the superior of the two.

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Frankenstein (1931): Universal carried on the success of their monster films with this take on the classic Mary Shelley story. Directed by James Whale and starring the legend that is Boris Karloff as the monster. Quite possibly the most famous version of this tale and while I’m going to be talking about the original here, I also have to mention its sequel; Bride of Frankenstein (1935) which for me is the better film of the two.

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Its interesting to note that originally it was actually Bela Lugosi who was cast to play the monster, but he pulled out after (supposedly) finding the make up difficult and uncomfortable to work with. Desperate for a replacement, Boris Karloff was found in the studio canteen and offered the part instead. It was also reported that the studio executives felt that Karloff was so unimportant to the film that he wasn’t even invited to the film’s premiere. Yet just as with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula before, it was Karloff’s monster that made this film what it is and cemented a true classic monster of film both figuratively and literally. Universal Studios made some great monster movies in the 1930s such as The Mummy, Werewolf of London, The Invisible Man as well as others. But I want to move on from the Universal pictures but still recommend checking out some of their others.

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King Kong (1933): This really is the grandfather of monster movies, I mean, its King fucking Kong. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (both uncredited), this film changed film making forever. You know this one, a group of people reach the mysterious Skull Island where they find the giant ape, King Kong. Kong takes a liking to one of the female members of the group. Long story short, Kong is captured and brought to New York where he is put on display, breaks free and famously runs amok wreaking havoc.

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I have to make a confession here… I don’t like King Kong as a film. I find it drawn out and boring with bland and annoying characters. I enjoy the plot, that ‘Beauty and the Beast’ style story is just fine. But I don’t think its put together very well (I much prefer the Peter Jackson remake). Yet even with my not liking this picture, I will always defend it for its sheer brilliance in terms of effects work. This film pioneered and created revolutionary effects work that are still being used today in one form or another. Yeah the effects look a little ropey today, but back then, people hadn’t seen anything quite like this before and it terrified audiences. I don’t like this film, but it has every right to be regarded as one of the most celebrated films ever made.

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Mark of the Vampire (1935): One of the long lost horror films is; London After Midnight (1927) directed by Tod Browning. It is believed that the last ever print of that film was destroyed in a fire at MGM Studios in 1967. London After Midnight is the holy grail of horror films and enthusiasts still believe that somebody somewhere must own a print (hey, Nosferatu was also lost for many decades…). Anyway Tod Browning remade his own film and this is the result. After Sir Karell Borotyn is found murdered in his home, it is believed he was killed by a vampire and Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) is the number one suspect.

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Yes, Bela Lugosi is back playing a very Dracula looking non Dracula vampire. As I said before, this film is thought of as a remake of the long lost London After Midnight and about as close as we are ever likely to get to seeing that film. This is an eerily atmospheric film and one with an interesting twist at the end that I won’t spoil here. The film originally ran at 80 minutes, but it had 20 minutes removed. In the film Count Mora is seen with a bullet wound in his head which is never explained in the cut down version. It has been reported that there was a scene where Count Mora had an incestuous relationship with his daughter Luna and he committed suicide through guilt and this is what turned him into a vampire… but this was all removed so the bullet wound makes no sense in the final cut. I really like this film though the ending caused quite a bit of backlash then, Lugosi hated it. The film is well worth checking out.

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The Man They Could Not Hang (1939): Directed by Nick Grinde and starring the the horror icon, Boris Karloff playing Dr. Henryk Savaard. Dr. Savaard has an obsession about bringing the dead back to life through his science and he’s sure he had made an important breakthrough in his research. A medical student offers himself to be killed and brought back to life, but the police arrest Dr. Savaard before he can complete the experiment, he is sentenced to hang for his crimes and he vows revenge on the judge and jury. After being hung to death, Dr. Savaard’s assistant retrieves his body and brings it back to live, proving the Doctor’s research was working. Savaard then extracts his revenge via a killing spree.

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This film is a low budget effort, but a great ‘last hurrah’ of the 1930s. It also foreshadows where the future of horror films lie in 1950s with the rise of Sci-Fi. There is a bit of Frankenstein here mixed with the revenge motif that slasher horror films of the 80s would adapt with the likes of Freddy Krueger, etc. A wonderful and engrossing horror film with Boris Karloff giving an amazing and scary performance.

Well, I’ll end part I here at the end of the 1930s. Part II will cover the last of the monster classics in the 40s and the rise of the sci-fi horror films of the 1950s.

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