The First Horror Film

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In horror film plots, evil forces, events, or characters, sometimes of supernatural origin, intrude into the everyday world. Early horror films often drew inspiration from characters and stories from classic literature, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera and Dr. Later horror films, in contrast, often drew inspiration from the insecurities of life since World War Two, giving rise to the three distinct, but related subgenres of the horror-of-personality film, the horror-of-Armageddon film, and the horror-of-the-demonic film. The last subgenre may be seen as a modernized transition from the earlier horror films, expanding on the earlier emphasis on supernatural agents that bring horror to the world.

Nonetheless, some major studios and respected directors have made forays into the genre, and more serious critics have analyzed horror films through the prisms of genre theory and the auteur theory. Some horror films incorporate elements of other genres such as science fiction, fantasy, black comedy, and thrillers. The horror genre is nearly as old as film itself. The first depictions of supernatural events appear in several of the silent shorts created by film pioneers such as Georges Méliès in the late 1890s, the most notable being his 1896 Le Manoir du diable (aka “The House of the Devil”) which is sometimes credited as being the first horror film. Another of his horror projects was the 1898 La Caverne maudite (aka “The Cave of the Demons”). The early 20th century brought more milestones for the horror genre including the first monster to appear in a full-length horror film, Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre-Dame who had appeared in Victor Hugo’s book, “Notre-Dame de Paris” (published in 1831). Many of the earliest feature length ‘horror films’ were created by German film makers in 1910s and 1920s, many of which were a significant influence on later Hollywood films.

Caligari was both controversial with American audiences, due to postwar sentiments, and influential in its Expressionistic style; the most enduring horror film of that era was probably the first vampire-themed feature, F. His most famous role, however, was in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), perhaps the true predecessor of Universal’s famous horror series. , popularized the horror film, bringing to the screen a series of successful Gothic features including Dracula (1931), and The Mummy (1932), some of which blended science fiction films with Gothic horror, such as James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933).

Universal’s horror films continued into the 1940s with The Wolf Man 1941, not the first werewolf film, but certainly the most influential. With the dramatic changes in technology that occurred in the 1950s, the tone of horror films shifted away from the gothic towards science fiction. The classier horror films of this period, including The Thing from Another World (1951; attributed on screen to Christian Nyby but widely considered to be the work of Howard Hawks) and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) managed to channel the paranoia of the Cold War into atmospheric creepiness without resorting to direct exploitation of the events of the day.