Matt here… introducing a new series of articles from OWF’s Scottish based Adam Whyte! Over the next two weeks, expect a daily decade article looking at how the horror genre developed as the history of cinema evolved from the silent era, to the Universal Monsters period, through Hammer Horror, the slasher movies – all the way up to the torture porn decade that hopefully has ended.
Adam’s first article looks at the beginnings of horror with the first decade of the last century!
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, if probably apocryphal, 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.
One of the most-adapted horror texts of all time, ‘Frankenstein‘, was first adapted 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 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.
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 and all through the 20th century: the idea of the mad scientist, punished for playing God. The way they chop out 90% of the novels’ narratives and use only the bare bones of the story is significant as well, as this practice too continues to this day.
These are interesting little shorts, worth checking out (they are in public domain and available online). However it was the real horror of the Great War that haunted the decade, and it is probably not a coincidence that the horror genre in cinema really took off after people had time to absorb the lasting horrors. 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; the sets are painted and clearly two-dimensional, but are expressive of inner mental states rather than of the natural world. 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 and the villain of ‘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.
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; the final twist of “Caligari” is still used today, and the movie’s influence stretches across all genres.
NB: I’m kind of cheating, as ‘Caligari’ wasn’t released until 1920, but it was primarily made in the 1910s.
CHECK BACK TOMORROW as the German Expressionist movement enters the turbulent 1920′s and gets even more sinister with ‘Nosferatu‘.