The Father of Horror Films

Ze Germans

Adequatly crowning the “father of horror films” is quite a tricky business. Of course, credit must be given to the mind-bending trickery of film pioneer Georges Méliès, but since his films were in fact little more than vaudeville magic adapted to the screen, and because of the fact that the films he made seldom ranged more than 10 or 15 minutes, it wouldn’t seem right to lend him such a fancy title. And although some very adequate interpretations of classic horror themes sprung from the pencils of the likes of Poe, Shelley, Hugo and Burroughs were made during the first 15 years of the fledgling genre, no-one really had such an impact that they could today be called the father of horror movies.
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But one thing is utterly clear; the honour should to to a German. And although his name is now largely forgotten among a wider audience, the one who seems most fitted is a man who was called Paul Wegener. Wegener starred in what has been cited as both the first full length expressionist film and the first full length horror film, Der Student von Prag, or The Student of Prague. The film portrays a young student who is unhappily in love with a young girl, but not rich enough to ask for her hand. He makes a Faustian deal with a sorcerer who gives him gold in return for his reflection in the mirror (aka his soul). His mirror image then takes on a life of his own to do gruesome deeds.

The film was directed by Wegener and Stellan Rye and was released in 1913. Although Wegener was hardly a student (close to 40 years of age), he also played the titular character. It was his first motion picture, but it firmly cemented his vision of the motion picture as the medium for expressing new ideas and ideals. The film was a way of mirroring political and social changes in society and provided technical and scenographical opportunities that the theatre stage lacked. I shall later further discuss some of the ideas behind the German expressionist cinema, but in short it might be described as a genre that often disregarded realism in favour of mood and symbolism. One of the reasons for symblolic rather than realistic sets and a minimum of lighting was that the German film industry at the time was extremely vibrant, but horribly poor.

After the success of Der Student, Wegener got together with a friend called Henrik Galeen (who later remade The Student of Prague) to work on a film inspired by an old Jewish myth about The Golem, a magical creatured summoned out of clay who would help the Jews in times of dire need. Unsurprisingly the project backfires and the creature turns on its creator (doesn’t that sound rather like another chap we know?). In this case it featured an antique salesman who finds a Golem. Wegener, who was a large and imposing man was perfect for the title role – a performance that heavily influenced Boris Karloff’s performance of Frankenstein’s monster.

Der Golem was released in 1915 and was a huge success. Following the success he made a film about The Yeti (1916) and a parody of The Golem, The Golem and the Dancer (1917) and an origin story, The Golem – How He Came to the World (1920). The original Der Golem is today lost, save for a few fragments, and when disussing The Golem, people today mostly refer to the immensely successful third film in the series.

Although very realistic compared to later expressionist films, The Golem had a feel of “heightened reality” and a very dark, gothic feel to it, that strongly influenced later masterpieces such as Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula.

So without further ado, I hereby pronounce Paul Wegener The Father of Horror Films.

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For more early horror films, please check out my Playlist

A genre takes form

A fledgling start of trickery

Through the first 15 years of horror films, much was made in the same vein as the French pioneer Georges Méliès’ procuctions. Movie makers used simple tricks of time-lapse photography and multiple exposures combined with the same kind of theatrical settings one would expect at a vaudeville show or even a theatre stage. Most films were not much more than 10 or 15 minutes long and were predominantly screened at cafes or sideshows. Films were rather meant to amuse the crowds or shock them with new effects. Along 1910 more and more film makers chose to try and tell a coherent story rather than just some new trickery.

A pretty elaborate film from 1909 by the later famous movie maker D.W. Grifftith called The Sealed Room depicted a jealous king, who seals his queen and her lover in a room by bricking up the door while the queen cheats on her husband, leaving the lovers to die a painful death by starvation in each other’s arms. This was based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and featured, among others, a young Mary Pickford. Griffith would later go on to win acclaim with films such as Birth of a Nation and Intolerance (which among other things has been quoted as one of the early inspirations for splatter-movies).

The Sealed Room part 1

The Sealed Room part 2

The birth of Frankenstein

The next year saw the birth of one of cinema’s most legendary monsters, that of Frankenstein’s creation. This adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel takes a slightly more philosophical approach to the matter than many other adaptations. The final battle here takes place within the doctor’s mind. This text is retrieved from the original plot description:

“Here comes the point which we have endeavored to bring out, namely: That when Frankenstein’s love for his bride shall have attained full strength and freedom from impurity it will have such an effect upon his mind that the monster cannot exist. This theory is clearly demonstrated in the next and closing scene, which has probably never been surpassed in anything shown on the moving picture screen. The monster, broken down by his unsuccessful attempts to be with his creator, enters the room, stands before a large mirror and holds out his arms entreatingly. Gradually, the real monster fades away, leaving only the image in the mirror. A moment later Frankenstein himself enters. As he stands directly before the mirror we are amazed to see the image of the monster reflected instead of Frankenstein’s own. Gradually, however, under the effect of love and his better nature, the monster’s image fades and Frankenstein sees himself in his young manhood in the mirror. His bride joins him, and the film ends with their embrace, Frankenstein’s mind now being relieved of the awful horror and weight it has been laboring under for so long.”

This was the first cinematic take on the legendary monster, although it was not captured as such from the book, but, as with many early horror films, adapted from a stage play. The remarkable cinematic journey of Frankenstein’s monster is one I shall return to later. The film itself was 16 minutes long and filmed in Edison Studios, in the United States. It featured two of early cinemas most prominent stars, Charles Ogle as the monster and Mary Fuller as Frankenstein’s love interest.

Below you can watch another classic in its early form, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Lucius Henderson, starring James Cruze from 1912. It is a short and rather crude version, but seems to have had a profound impact on the hailed version with John Barrymore from the 1920’s. In fact, if you look at the laboratory scenes, for example, they are almost identically filmed in both versions. The film also contains some crude versions of time-lapse photography for the change between Jekyll and Hyde, but nowhere near as effective as Méliès at his best.

Between 1900 and 1915 numerous short adaptations of stories were made, that would later go on to win acclaim as full length movies, of which the most popular were The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Hound of Baskerville. At this time most of the inspiration came from the gothic, fantastic or romantic literature of the 19th century. One of the most impressive films that has survived to this day is a short adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, which for instance features a pretty cool size change scene.

The First full lenth horror film

1913 the first full length horror movie saw the light of day, when Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener directed The Student of Prague. The films was not overly long, 85 minutes including the title cards, but nonetheless by most standards the first full horror film. The film launched the triumph of German horror cinema, with Wegener as its first star. He would later rise to fame with the Golem-trilogy, which has had a huge impact on the genre, that is still seen today. The film was later remade by another German director.

For more early horror films, please check out my Playlist.