By Ryan Fleming
Though horror literature took off in a form we recognise today during the 19th century, the art of horror storytelling has antecedents going back almost as early as when human stories were able to be recorded in any form. A long history of oral storytelling and even literature preceded the marriage of horror and Gothic by Victorian authors. It stood to reason that as new forms of media developed that would allow new avenues of storytelling that horror stories would soon find a new home to scare more people than ever before.
In the 1880s, the introduction of celluloid photographic film in lengths along with the invention of camera that could rapture a rapid sequence of images – a picture in motion – combined to allow the first motion pictures to be made. After a decade of being screened to one individual at a time through “peep show” machines these motion pictures began screening to multiple members of the public at once.
Prior to and during the First World War there were several pictures that could be described as “horror films”, but like all genres in film they were not recognised as such. Even during the 1920s as more and more films began to be made that the press would refer to as “horror” the borders between genres were still very porous. Separate strands in both Germany and the United States would develop their own horror traditions throughout the 1920s but still the horror label was not something that could be applied with any consistency and pictures now considered horror were described varyingly as dramas or mysteries.
As the 1920s turned into the 1930s, events beyond filmmaking led to the development of a combined strand of filmmaking, and horror began to be recognised as a discrete genre within film. The label was retroactively applied to earlier films going back to Thomas Edison’s attempted monopoly of the film industry, which also returns us to Mary Shelley’s genre-creating work.
In 1910, Thomas Edison produced, through his Edison Manufacturing Company, what is recognised as the first screen adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1918 novel. At just sixteen minutes runtime, it is as truncated an adaptation as one might expect. Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) discovers the secret of life at university and creates a monster (Charles Ogle) by mixing different chemicals. The Monster follows Victor back to Victor’s parents’ house and his fiancée (Mary Fuller) but disappears after catching sight of its own reflection.
Reception to the film was negative from some New York newspapers, though the monster creation scene was praised the overall subject matter was bemoaned as unsuitable for film. If only they knew what the next century would bring in terms of horror films.
The earliest efforts at putting horror fiction on screen were not just confined to Edison’s company. Adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe were made in both France and the United States before the outbreak of the First World War. In France arguably they had been making horror films since before the turn of the century, when Georges Méliès – most famous for 1902’s A Trip to the Moon – released The House of the Devil in 1896. Those very early experimental works showcased tricks used in the theatre to have seemingly impossible goings on and were intended to amaze and amuse their audience rather than scare them.
It was from the German Empire that the first filmmaker devoted to what we now call horror films would emerge. Paul Wegener would produce and star in The Student of Prague in 1913, adapted for the screen from Poe’s short story “William Wilson”, as well as Faust, by Hanns Heinz Ewers (himself a writer of horror novels and short stories). The use of shadow and light would prove influential on post-War developments in German cinema. It was during marketing for the film that Wegener would first hear an old Jewish legend that came to inspire his most famous works.
As the First World War raged across the globe in 1915 German audiences became the first in the world to see The Golem. Wegener again starred, but this time co-wrote and co-directed the picture with Henrik Galeen, who would go on to write several more influential German horror films. The Golem told the story of a clay statue that had been brought to life in the 16th century by a rabbi to protect the Jewish people from persecution. In the modern day, an antiques dealer accidentally resurrects the creature to do his bidding but finds more than he bargained for when it falls in love with his daughter and goes on a rampage following her rejection.
It owed little to the 1915 novel of the same name by Austrian novelist Gustav Meyrink, despite Wegener’s claims to have based the film on the novel. It bears even less resemblance to Jewish traditions, instead being a chimera of different pieces of European folklore. Almost a Frankenstein like effort, one might say.
Wegener would make two further pictures involving The Golem, the first is a short comedic horror film released in 1917 and titled The Golem and the Dancing Girl. This is now considered a lost film, and since The Golem itself is partially lost leaves only one film in Wegener’s Golem trilogy available for viewing by modern audiences. The Golem: How He Came into the World turns the action back to medieval Prague and the original creation of the title character by Rabbi Loew. Released in 1920, it is the earliest known example of a prequel film.
The prequel was an effort by Wegener to tell the story more closely to the original legends he had heard in 1913. Henrik Galeen returned to collaborate on the script. Amongst the others involved in production was a cinematographer named Karl Freund, who would go on to have a lasting influence and stories career in multiple countries and across multiple mediums.
Though Wegener continued to act in horror and science fiction films, including an adaption of Ewers’s Alraune in 1928, directed by Galeen, he would not continue making horror films in the same way he had prior to 1920. After a brief stint in Hollywood, Wegener returned to Germany where he would eventually wind up a state actor under the Nazi Government, appearing in propaganda films. This was unlike many of his colleagues from the 1910s and 20s, who were either arrested, persecuted, or exiled. More like Ewers, who found himself very comfortable with the Nazi regime until his books were banned and his assets and property seized.
Many of those figures had carried the torch for horror filmmaking during the 1920s after Wegener had dropped it. Though the creative movement that became known as German Expressionism had its origins before the First World War, including The Student of Prague, it was in Berlin during the 1920s that it would reach a peak. And on the coattails of this movement, the horror genre in film would truly take shape.
Months before The Golem: How He Came Into the World was released in October of 1920, director Robert Wiene had unleashed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari upon German audiences. Caligari comes at the intersection of perhaps being the first bona fide horror film, the first cult film, and perhaps the first arthouse film. Undeniably, it is the quintessential example of German Expressionism in film. It’s twisted visual style, frame narrative and twist ending remain influential in film all the way to the modern day.
Caligari was scripted by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. The latter had served as an officer during the War but had returned to civilian life as an avowed pacifist. Mayer’s pacifism predated the war effort, and he tried to escape conscription by feigning mental illness. His intense examinations from the military establishment to disprove this providing ample inspiration for the villain of Caligari. Critics and have debated the influence of the First World War on the work, with some seeing the title character as representative of German government during the War, leaving his somnambulist to do his lethal bidding like the average German had for four long years.
Along with The Golem, Caligari was released as restrictions against the import of German films and became the first German films to find any success internationally. The breakout star of the film was Conrad Veidt, playing Cesare the somnambulist. He appeared in further German horror films like The Hands of Orlac and Waxworks. Success was also to be found in the US, where he appeared for Paul Leni, a fellow German and director of Waxworks, in The Man Who Laughs. The title role in that film saw Veidt under heavy makeup sporting a rictus grin with dark lips. It would be a photograph of Veidt in this role that would inspire the creation of The Joker in 1940, archnemesis to DC Comics’s Batman.
Despite being one of the top German stars of the 1920s, Veidt fled Germany with his Jewish wife for first the United Kingdom and then the United States. He ironically found himself typecast in both countries as a Nazi, given his country of birth. This included his most famous role in Casablanca, his last performance released during his lifetime, and Veidt himself remarked upon the irony of receiving plaudits for playing the sort of man that had forced him to abandon his country. Veidt stood in stark contrast to the other star of Caligari, Werner Krauss. An avowed antisemite, Krauss supported the Nazi Party since at least their seizure of power and starred in several antisemitic propaganda films.
Aside from Caligari, perhaps the most famous horror film to come from the German Expressionist movement was one adapted from a well-known piece of horror literature. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, was the first film from Prana Film. Founded by Enrico Dieckmann and occultist Albin Grau, their intention was to produce films with occult and supernatural elements. In this respect, they could be said to have founded the first film studio dedicated to horror. They tasked Henrik Galeen, formerly a collaborator of Ewers and Wegener, with adapting Bram Stoker’s Dracula for German cinema audiences. They ran afoul of the still muddy copyright laws around film, finding themselves sued by the heirs of the Stoker estate. The studio went bankrupt, and it was decreed by the court that all copies of the film be destroyed.
Fortunately for film audiences down the years, some copies of the film survived and the masterpiece of director F. W. Murnau was preserved for future enjoyment. As far as the contributions to vampire lore, it was the first film to show a vampire dying from exposure to sunlight, and the look of its Count Dracula equivalent – Count Orlock, played by Max Schreck – bald and clawed with rodent-like features, has become as iconic a look as the handsome aristocrat favoured by later adaptations. It was this look that led several critics and scholars to draw an antisemitic undertone to the character and the script, with the grotesque Other, Orlock, invading a German town intending accompanied by a mischief of rats spreading the Plague.
The theme of invasion by the Other is present in the source material, indeed owing much to the invasion literature popular in the United Kingdom during that era. Ironically, the Other in those works was often German invaders, in contrast to the Germans being invaded by the vampire in Nosferatu. Murnau’s partner has been Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, himself the son of a wealthy Jewish banker, until Ehrenbaum-Degele died during the War. Galeen himself was Jewish along with several actors who like Murnau fled to the United States following the Nazi takeover. Albin Grau compared their cinematic vampire to the Great War, describing the conflict as a great vampire that feasted upon the blood of millions.
Another 1922 German film that some have interpreted as having antisemitic undertones is Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Oddly, those that saw this the most did not view it as a criticism, since those calling Mabuse a Jewish figure were themselves Nazi sympathisers. Others saw Mabuse as representative and even prescient of the Nazis themselves, something Lang made more over in its 1933 sequel The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Lang had seen the supervillain from the works of Luxembourgish author Norbert Jacques as a Nietzschean Übermensch, which he saw as an evil figure. If any Nazis had liked the 1922 film, they may have been amongst the first fandom to reject a follow-up work for ruining the original and making it too political. Lang inserted several Nazis slogans into the title character’s mouth. The film was banned by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, citing it as a threat to public health and safety.
Per Lang’s accounts, Goebbels actually apologised for banning the film and praised his abilities as a director, offering him the role of head of UFA, perhaps foremost amongst German film studios. This was despite Lang’s Jewish heritage, but in this and perhaps only this instance there was no denying the Goebbels artistic appreciation. The Mabuse films were perhaps better described as crime dramas, but Lang had also made a name for himself in both science fiction and horror.
Metropolis stands as another pillar in the canon of German Expressionism, and the futuristic dystopia proved influential in film and wider art with its Futurist design with Gothic touches. The look was informed by Lang’s visit to New York City with its towering Art Deco skyscrapers. It reunited Murnau with Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who had previously played Mabuse and played the archetypical cinematic mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis. Outside of science fiction, Rotwang’s laboratory design had its influences on later adaptations of Frankenstein in Hollywood.
The works of Lang specifically and German Expressionism more generally proved very influential on two strands of films in the United States, where many of the artistic driving forces of those films fled following the Nazi takeover. The first was horror, both in look and content, and the second was film noir. Film noir was a specific strand of crime and thriller films who had their heyday during the 1940s and 1950s. Expressionist cinema gave them their look and conflicting morality, Fritz Lang even made some himself following his emigration to the United States. Foremost amongst Lang’s work that influenced that genre was M, released in 1931 and concerning the hunt for a serial killer of children. The killer was played by Peter Lorre, himself another exile from the Nazi takeover. It also gave the bones to many later films, both horror and thriller, about serial killers.
Horror cinema, and much of Hollywood for that matter, owes a lot to immigrant filmmakers that left Germany during the dying days of the Weimar Republic or later after the Nazi takeover. As far as cultural impacts of no Nazi takeover are concerned, Hollywood would not see that influx of talent that changed the output of the centre of film production in the United States if the 1930s had been more akin to the 1920s. When film critic Siegfried Kracauer published his psychological history of German cinema in 1947, he titled it after the two bookending horrors of the Weimar era. One was fictional, the other was unfortunately very real. The title was From Caligari to Hitler.
Waves of exiles, immigrants and refugees from Germany may have been a boon to Hollywood in general and the horror output of that industry in particular but home-grown horror films were not exactly unknown in the United States before their arrival. However, none of them were precisely defined as horror films at the time and whenever it was used it was open to interpretation. For instance, a bill from US Senator Thomas Gore that would have banned transportation between states of films featuring criminals was interpreted by the Washington Evening Star as banning transit of horror films.
The most popular work of horror fiction for adaptation in the United States during the early decades of the 20th century was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It was adapted in 1908, then again in 1912, and then twice in 1920. That was just the United States, there was also two adaptations in 1910, one British and one Danish, as well as a third 1920 production, this time German from F. W. Murnau. Of the two 1920 US adaptations, the one from Paramount Pictures would be the most remembered of all these adaptations.
As was common in the early days of film, the screenplay for the film was in fact adapted from an earlier stage play adaptation of the novel. The same 1887 stage adaptation by Thomas Russell Sullivan that starred Richard Mansfield in the title roles and was pulled from its successful London run in 1888 after certain newspapers mentioned Mansfield as a Jack the Ripper suspect based on his performance on the stage. The title roles in the Paramount film version were played by John Barrymore, who proved just as memorable in the role though not to the extent of being accused of very real serial killings as a result.
Critics for the most part praised the film upon its release, especially Barrymore’s performance, though Variety did note that by the modern standards of 1920 the 1886 story was ludicrous. Notably, critics did not treat it as a horror film but rather just as a piece of screencraft like any other film. This was despite the grotesquery of Barrymore’s makeup or the contortions of his face during transformations. That trend would continue for another actor who employed makeup artistry in his performances, so much that he earned the nickname “The Man of a Thousand Faces”.
Lon Chaney has been acting since 1912 in roles of varying importance, but it would not be until 1919 with The Miracle Man that he would have a breakthrough performance displaying both his acting ability and his mastery of makeup. Similar roles followed such as a gangster with both legs amputated in The Penalty (1920), as well less palatable turns such as a performance in yellowface in Shadows (1922). In those early years of film production make-up departments were non-existent and most of the experience from theatrical makeup did not translate to the film screen. This made Chaney stand out amongst other actors.
The two roles for which he would be most well remembered came in 1923 and 1925. The first of them was the Universal Pictures adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Chaney had wanted to play the title role before the film even entered production. He even obtained the film rights to the book in 1921. The arrival of Irving Thalberg at Universal gave Chaney the opportunity, the producer nicknamed “The Boy Wonder” pitched the film to studio boss Carl Laemmle and only convinced him to formally approve the production when he pitched it as a romance story. Crucially, none of those involved in the production considered the film a horror picture.
Chaney had a hand in selecting the director, eventually settling on Wallace Worsley, and though both Chaney and Thalberg put in the lion’s share of the work in producing the film sole producer credit went to Carl Laemmle himself. Thus were the vagaries of Hollywood credits during the era. The make-up efforts of Chaney were also the most extensive he had ever done, changing not only his face but also wearing prosthetics to show Quasimodo’s titular affliction. During the film, Quasimodo is to be lashed and his clothes therefore torn from his torso, Chaney had makeup applied to show the naked torso of the pitiable bellringer. The presentation was that of a living gargoyle.
Thalberg’s desire to make the picture suitably epic meant that they received permission for sets more grandiose than might have been allowed if they simply said they were doing a picture intended to frighten audiences. Between the recreation of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral and Chaney’s make-up Hunchback proved to be Universal’s most successful film to that point. Like every film studio head honcho in history, Carl Laemmle wanted more. Thalberg would not be there to deliver it, having been poached to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer where he would remain for twelve years until his death in 1936 at the age of 37. He had been born with a congenital heart disease that doctors claimed would kill him before he reached the age of thirty. During his fifteen years in the industry, he oversaw production of over five hundred films, co-authored the infamous Production Code, and introduced cinema audiences to the horror film via a Trojan horse.
For the follow-up to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, another classic of French literature was chosen – Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. Leroux himself had actually given Laemmle a copy of his book in 1922, leading to the producer buying the film rights as a vehicle for Chaney. The Paris Opera House set would dwarf even the Notre Dame one created for Hunchback. It remains in storage at the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles to this day. Since the set had to be created with steel girders in concrete to support the hundreds of extras it remained standing in Soundstage 28 for almost ninety years, only being dismantled in 2014 shortly before Stage 28 itself was completely demolished.
The production as not a happy one, and it went through several revisions during production. The one constant was Chaney’s performance and make-up, which was the material completed the earliest. Unlike Quasimodo, his turn as the title character, Erik, was far more villainous albeit still a tragic figure. It also remains one of the closest portrayals of the character to how he is described in the novel. So impactful was Chaney’s death’s-head makeup that, when the famous unmasking scene came in the film, people were alleged to have fainted in theatres.
The Phantom of the Opera remained just as melodramatic, just as grandiose, just as romantic as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Unlike the earlier picture, however, there was no denying it was a horror film. Chaney would find himself revisiting horror after he began to work exclusively for MGM, joining Thalberg and another former collaborator, Tod Browning. Browning had directed Chaney in pictures before the MGM exclusivity, and indeed had been Chaney’s choice for director on Hunchback.
They would finally collaborate on a picture designed to frighten audiences in 1927 with London After Midnight. Adapted from “The Hypnotist” a short story by Browning himself, Chaney would do another famous make-up job for the film, wearing sharpened teeth and hypnotic eyes achieved by wire fittings worn as monocles. Critics would be less enamoured with this film than they were with Hunchback and Phantom. Modern audiences are unfortunately not able to judge for themselves as the film has been feared lost since the 1965 MGM vault fire.
Though it has acquired a legend of its own since it has been lost, most reports from those that saw film indicate it would fail to live up to that legend if it was ever uncovered. Regardless, that a film from a major studio, featuring one of the biggest stars of the age and directed by a notable may be lost forever is a tragic notion. Browning remade the film in 1935 as a talkie under the name Mark of the Vampire. It was a common practice to remake silent films in talkie versions following the innovation of sound, though if subsequent decades are anything to go by Hollywood never needs much of a reason to remake a film. Unfortunately, by the time it came to adapt London After Midnight, a change in lead actor was needed.
Chaney and Browning had other collaborations lined up when Chaney passed away in 1930 at the age of 47. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1929, and in 1930 developed an infection when some artificial snow lodged in his throat during filming. A resulting throat haemorrhage ended the life of The Man with a Thousand Faces. He was survived by his wife, Hazel, and his son, Creighton, who would later enter acting himself, changing his name to Lon Chaney Jr. and becoming similarly legendary as a horror actor. Browning pressed ahead with his planned next collaboration with Chaney for Universal. The lead role in that film, intended for Chaney, would go to the man that would end up playing Chaney’s role in the talkie remake of London After Midnight. Browning and he would produce the first outright supernatural horror film in Hollywood.
Supernatural elements in horror films were nothing new by the 1930s, but they were always revealed to have been faked in a ruse for some nefarious activity. What modern audiences would recognise from a hundred or more episodes of various Scooby-Doo incarnations. This included London After Midnight and similar horror mysteries such as The Bat in 1926 and The Cat and The Canary in 1927. Both the latter films were adapted from successful Broadway comedy horror plays and ushered in the Old Dark House subgenre of horror films.
If Universal had found success with horror films in the 1920s, they were determined to continue that success in the 1930s. They would not have known of the marketability of such pictures had Lon Chaney and Irving Thalberg not convinced Carl Laemmle that they could make The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a romantic picture. Another studio might have stumbled on the fact that horror films made money, perhaps Paramount, who already had Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under their belts, or MGM, where Chaney and Thalberg might find a better reception to their ideas.
The development of the horror film into the familiar form that emerged in the 1930s came at the end of several trends in early cinema that coalesced in Hollywood at the start of that decade. From the early days of motion picture technology filmmakers would produce films featuring effects that would amaze and even frighten audiences. The artistic movement of German Expressionism, based on some pre-First World War influences but riddled with themes arising from that conflict, allowed horror themes to act as metaphors for the fears, whether rational or irrational, of that country.
The rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, and the subsequent exile or emigration by many filmmakers to the United States brought those talents to Hollywood. Expressionism would find a new home in the developing genres of American film. This included horror, which had been snuck into the popular appreciation via a Trojan (or Parisian) horse and was there to stay.
A boom was approaching, and since original ideas have never plagued Hollywood too much, they began to look to existing sources for screen material. They looked to novels, they looked to plays, they looked to radio, they even looked at those lurid magazines full of tawdry, sensation, weird tales. It is to these sources that our attention shall turn to next, the steppingstones between the penny dreadfuls of the 19th century and the films and television of the 20th century.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP