The first American horror films

Two US stars

As the macabre German expressionist films paved the way for a new kind of horror film in 1920, movie makers overseas were also starting to dabble in the occult, but in a much more realistic style. Although it would take some years before the Americans would have the chutzpah to churn out as twisted movies as their European counterparts did at the time, 1920 was still a landmark year for American horror films as well.

John Barrymore (right) as Mr Hyde

First of all, it was a year that saw the release of a film that is widely regarded as the first American full length horror movie, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Second it introduced two of the most memorable American actors in history to the horror genre, John Barrymore and Lon Chaney, also known as the man with a thousand faces.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Barrymore
Inspired by the early short versions of the film, producer Adolph Zukor of the Famous Players-Lasky company took on the challenge to bring this eerie tale to life as a full length film. Like many later horror films based an works of literature, the film was adapted from a stage play rather than from Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novella. Company director John S. Robertson was hired to direct the film, which is his most memorable movie to date. The critical dual role of Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde was entrusted to budding movie star John Barrymore, considered one of the greatest American actors in history, both on stage and screen.

BELOW: Watch the creepy transformation scene

John Barrymore was at the time an aplauded stage actor, exploding onto the world of theatre with his role in Galsworthy’s Justice, following up with several successes on Braodway, including plays by Tolstoy and Shakespeare. In the year the film came out, he did one of his most hailed performances as Richard III. Like many other actors of the time, Barrymore considered film acting as merely a way to make some extra money between seasons, although Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde gave him a chance to bring to screen something quite different from the short films and light comedies he had done previously. His devotion to the production even got him to lend many of his famed potted plants as set decoration.

The film portrays a purehearted, noble doctor who becomes obsessed with the idea of separating the good and evil in him into two different personalities, as shown in a line from  movie: “Wouldn’t it be marvellous if the two natures in man could be separated – housed in different bodies? Think what it would mean to yield to every evil impulse, yet leave the soul untouched!” Thus he concocts a potion which will turn him into an evil menace, and a cure. But of course everything goes horribly wrong.

Although the film is slightly marred by a bit of over-acting, regular in early movies with stage trained actors, Barrymore churned out what is probably the most iconic portrayal of Mr Hyde to date, one that inspired the picture of the tall, slender, pointy-nosed and wild-eyed picture of the beastly man that we refer to today. As a very charismatic performer, Barrymore succeeded in making Mr Hyde more than just a monster. He created an interesting and beguiling character, in a way much more likable than the hypocritical Dr Jekyll. The genius of the acting was such that he was able to completely distort his face with the use of almost no make-up at all, although as the movie progresses and the evil becomes stronger, we begin to see a bit of dark make-up around the eyes. Fredric March, who reprised the role in the praised 1931 talkie relied on a much heavier masque to a much lesser result. The magic of Barrymore’s performance is that the viewer finds himself liking Mr Hyde a lot more than his counterpart, despite the atrocities he is guilty of. A later director would probably have left out the wierd prosthetic fingers, though.

John Barrymore - without make-up

Barrymore actually only made one more horror film, Svengali, in 1931, but instead continued to portray Shakespearean characters, as well as Sherlock Holmes, Captain Ahab and Don Juan. Throughout his career he played the lead in over 60 films, opposite beauties such as Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard. John Barrymore often appeared alongside his brother Lionel, also a noted actor. He is the grandfather of later movie star Drew Barrymore.


The Man of a Thousand Faces
The other significant film of the year was The Penalty, starring Lon Chaney. Strictly speaking the film is a psychological thriller rather than a horror movie. But you can’t help to place a movie in the horror genre in which a crippled crime lord sits as model for a bust of Lucifer. The Penalty tells the story of the sadistic crime lord Blizzard (Chaney), who mistakenly has his legs amputated as a child – resulting in fierce self-loathing and hatred for humankind, and a female police agent that infiltrates his ranks. And then we naturally have the beautiful artistic daughter of the doctor that cut off his legs, who wants him to model for her bust (and of course he wants to do a bit of modelling on her bust).

The film itself is an unusually dark and sinister tale for the time, and there is none of the classic softening that we find in many later horror films. The man is simply evil and sadistic to the bone. The absolute star is Lon Chaney, wearing extremely uncomfortable and painful prosthetics. Wikipedia describes them as such: “The apparatus worn by Chaney to simulate amputated legs was complex and incredibly painful. Consisting primarily of two wooden buckets and multiple leather straps, Chaney’s knees sat in the buckets, while his lower legs were tied back. Though studio doctors asked that Chaney not wear the device, he insisted on doing so, so his costume would be authentic”.


The character of Blizzard becomes an incredybly complex one as we see him struggle throughout the movie with his handicap, which is never covered up. Chaney must have busted his ass walking up and down stairs, jumping on and off chairs and even climbing ladders in his awkward stumps. Yet he looks as if he would have been doing it for a long time. Chaney was later known not only as a wonderful actor, but as a make-up artist. He himself made the memorable (and painful) make-up for films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera and London After Midnight.



Expressionist explosion

Two icons: Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau take the stage

The early 1920’s saw the rise of German expressionist horror movies’ great masters. Although Paul Wegener had already made forays into the horrific and expressionist genres, it wasn’t until 1919 that it found its definitive form with a film that would forever change the history of cinema, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

The man behind this film was Robert Wiene (27 April 1873–16 June 1938), son of succesful theatre actor Carl Wiene. After studies in law and and acting on stage he began to work on films.

The birth of Dr Caligari
After WWI writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer looked for a new medium to use as a vessel for a new type of artistic expression – visual storytelling that necessitated collaboration between writers and painters, cameramen, actors, directors. They felt that film was the ideal medium through which to both call attention to the emerging pacifism in postwar Germany and exhibit radical anti-bourgeois art.

As both of them were impressed with Paul Wegener’s work, they decided to write a horror film. The story revolvs around a sideshow hypnotist called Caligari and his frightening somnambulist Cesare, who commits terrible murders by his master’s will. It is later discovered that Dr Caligari is in fact the same man as the director of an insane asylum. The good doctor is obsessed with a story about a man called Caligari and his somnambulist Cesare in late 18th century Italy. In the end he proves his insanity and is himself put in the insane asylum.

The plot here seems to be in line with a very deep distrust of authorities that flourished in Germany after WWI – the director of the asylum is actually the one who is insane. This statement was not lost on the producers who nevertheless thought it to be a bit too bold. So they insisted that the script be changed. In the finished film the ending reveals that everything is actually the fantasy of a madman in an asylum – who believes his doctor to be a murderer. This change also altered the way the movie was told. The movie now begins with the leading man Francis telling the beginning of the story, and the whole plot is actually a flashback – until we return to Francis in the end and it is revealed that he is actually the one sitting in the yard of a mental asylum. In a sense it makes the film even more creepy, since the audience discovers it has been looking at the antics of a madman, as if it were true reality. The writers, nevertheless, might have felt that their social statement got a bit watered.

The producer initially wanted master director Fritz Lang (Metropolis, M, The Big Heat, Dr Mabuse, etc) to make the movie, but since he was otherwise occupied, Wiene got the job.

Introducing Mr Veidt

Although the story is an utterly creepy one, the reason why the film made such an impact was its visual style. Wiene and the writers had it in their minds to make a completely unrealistic set design, much like one would on a theatre stage. In addition to this, everthing was to be tilted, twisted and out of proportion. Lights and shadows were painted directly on the sets, the actors rarely moved about in realistic scenes and the viewer felt as if they had stepped directly into a surrealistic painting. The credit for this work goes to designer Hermann Warm and painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig.

The other reason to the film’s success was the incredible acting by Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt who played Caligari and Cesare. The image of the crazy Dr Caligari with his unkempt hair and wild eyes has been reproduced hundreds of times. The most startling performance is given by Veidt as Cesare, his chilling and slightly sad interpretation of the somnambulist had a scary sex appeal that has later been made into their own by millions of goth and emo crowds all over the world – Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands and Brandon Lee in The Crow are direct descandants.


Father of a Vampire
Writers Janowitz and Mayer collaborated yet another time in 1920 with Conrad Veidt, this time with the later-to-be icon F.W. Murnau (of Nosferatu and Sunrise fame) in a movie called Der Januskopf (The Head of Janus). This was a rewrite of the popular Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-story. The film is now a so called “lost film”, although scripts and production notes have survived. On the international market the film was bogged by the fact that another Jekyll/Hyde film was released in USA, with movie star John Barrymore in one of his most memorable roles. The story, however, differs greatly from the original novel, although it was released as “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” in the UK.

Robert Wiene made another film in 1920 called Genuine (also Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire and Genuine, the tragedy of a strange house). Vampire here refers to Vamp or Femme Fatale, not bloodsucker. It follows the bizarre story of a man who buys a former occult priestess from a slave market and locks her into his basement, where she enchants men. The film was widely seen as an attempt to re-use the ideas of Caligari, but with lesser result. The film is available only in a 43 minutes long compressed version, the whole film is being kept behind locks in Germany.

Wiene still made two very influential films in the expressionistic field, Raskolnikov (based on Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment) and the eerie Hands of Orlac.

The impact of the expressionistic movement on films, and the impact of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is unsurpassable. The dark, gothic buidlings and the striking contrasts between light and shadow would influence the whole horror genre forever. It is peculiar that very few modern films, despite the astronomic advances in special effects, have stretched the envelope in the set designs as far as Caligari. If we talk mainstream movies, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton seem to be among the few directors with the guts to push the audience as far as Wiene and his crew did.

Without films such as Caligari and Der Januskopf, there would have been no Nosferatu, no Faust and no Metropolis. And without them, no Dracula or Frankenstein. Certainly no vampire novels or goth rock, either.

1920 was a significant year for horror films in Germany, since it also saw the release of Paul Wegener’s third Golem film, the only one that is available today. But as mentioned earlier, things were also stirring in the US of A, where two of the great actors in American cinema, John Barrymore and Lon Chaney, were doing their first horror films that same year. In Russia an expressionist sci-fi film called Aelita was made and film makers in Sweden, Austria, Italy and France were waking up to the new genre. But more of that in my next update!



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.
aa student
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.

ac golem4


For more early horror films, please check out my Playlist