The first in a series of articles in which I select my favourite horror movie from each of the last ten decades, providing some context and history and a look at (some) of the other great horrors of each. It is in no way meant to be a comprehensive history. Some articles are expanded upon from a list I wrote last year.
Few filmmakers in the first two decades of movie-making seemed explicitly interested in frightening the audience, though perhaps the audience soon let the filmmakers know what it craved. There is the famous story of the first screening of The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1896), directed by the Lumière brothers, with reports of fleeing, terrified audience members as a train approached the screen. That this never actually happened is almost irrelevant; there is a reason some apocryphal tales persist.
One of the most often adapted horror texts of all time, Frankenstein, was first filmed by Thomas Edison’s studio in 1910, and the monster’s apparently flat head may have been an inspiration on the Boris Karloff version. To modern eyes it’s certainly not very frightening, and it is a good question how frightening a contemporary audience might have found such by-now-cliché shots as the monster’s hand reaching out from behind a door. The movie also gets credit for its image of Frankenstein looking in the mirror to see the monster, which turns back into his reflection; a visual representation of the link between the scientist and his creation has been done by almost every version since. Equally influential may be the scene of the monster’s creation, which features film of a burning skeletal figure ran backwards so it fleshes out rather than wastes away. Though its interest is primarily historic, it’s fascinating how many horror conventions can be traced right back to the silent era.
Another famous transformation, and another novel destined to be remade endlessly, came in 1912 with the first American adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. These two movies tap into something that would recur throughout the genre for the next hundred years: the idea of the mad scientist, punished for playing God. Fear of science thus became, through the inspiration of 19th century gothic literature, a horror movie staple. The way these versions chop out 90% of the novels’ narratives and use only the bare bones of their stories is significant as well, as this practice too continues to this day.
These are interesting little shorts, worth checking out. But the first real horror movies would not come until the tail end of the decade. It is almost impossible to discuss without mention of the Great War that hung over that decade; it is probably not a coincidence that the horror genre in cinema really took off after people had time to absorb the lasting horrors of the trenches, chemical warfare, mutilation and death. And so, in 1919, Robert Wiene made one of the most significant horror movies ever made, and it had a darker soul than those frivolous early shorts. Rather than thrill the audience, it expressly wanted to unsettle them, and the power of the movie has not faded.
Also unlike its predecessors, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari did not aspire towards naturalism. It is the founding movie of the German Expressionist movement (though it’s not a complete original – the movement had already started in German theatre); the sets are painted and often clearly two-dimensional, but are expressive of inner mental states rather than of the natural world. You would be hard pressed to find a horizontal or vertical line anywhere. The filmmakers wished to make a film that looked like a moving painting. This was partly a financial decision, but it is the thing the movie is now best known for, and its visual influence (though few movies took the expressionistic style to the same extremes) is massive.
The movie follows the sinister Dr. Caligari (played by Werner Krauss in a performance that still has the power to disquiet the audience) and his fairground attraction Cesare, a somnambulist under Caligari’s control. The latter role is played by Conrad Veidt, who between this role and his villain in Casablanca has gained immortality. Caligari controls Cesare and has him sneak into the night to do his evil bidding; everywhere Caligari goes, we learn, he is surrounded by murder. One scene shows Cesare sneak into a bedroom and we see him struggle with his victim in shadow on the wall, a long knife in his hand. The scene is the archetype for countless killings in horrors and thrillers.
The movie has at least one more claim to breaking new ground: its contentious ending. (Spoilers) It was the producers who pressurised Wiene into bookending the story to make it a flashback, then for us finally to learn that the person relating the story is one of Caligari’s patients, and Caligari is in fact a benevolent asylum director. The producers wanted to make the movie less grim, and in so doing may have introduced both the twist ending and the unreliable narrator into cinema: conventions still regularly employed today.
Whether this framing device is for the better or not is hard to say. It is now simply a fact of the movie, though it is easy enough to imagine the film without it. The writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer thought it completely undermined their point; they saw Caligari as a critique of authority and those who craved unlimited power. In his famous book From Caligari To Hitler, published two years after the end of the Second World War, Siegfried Kracauer linked Caligari to the German public’s struggle with the idea of authority, and suggests that the cop-out ending, though an artistic compromise, in some ways better reflects the divided, reactionary ideas about authority in Germany between the Wars:
The film reflects this double aspect of German life by coupling a reality in which Caligari’s authority triumphs with a hallucination in which the same authority is overthrown. There could be no better configuration of symbols for that uprising against the authoritarian dispositions which apparently occurred under a cover of a behaviour rejecting uprising.
The link between Caligari and Hitler is not a flippant one, nor a criticism of the movie; after all the writers intended the character, and his relationship with the somnambulist, to symbolise the manipulation of a people by a despotic leader. Since the nation was a divided one – Kracauer suggests that division was not between people, but within them – the representation of a mind split by madness worked better than it might have. The film remains a powerful reminder of the way the horror genre is shaped and influenced by the real world, which, after the War, must have seemed suddenly like a far more frightening place in which to live.
NB: I’m kind of cheating, as Caligari wasn’t released until 1920, but it was primarily made in the 1910s.
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