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.



Georges Méliès, a pioneer of moving horror pictures

The House of the Devil and other tricksters

To determine the origin of the horror film, it may be useful to first have a look at what a horror film is. Wikipedia gives us this description, “Horror films are movies that strive to elicit the emotions of fear, horror and terror from viewers. Their plots frequently involve themes of death, the supernatural or mental illness . Many horror movies also include a central villain”.

This is of course quite a broad discription and one could, if one were so inclined, discuss the differences between suspension dramas, psychological thrillers, fantasy films, science fiction films and horror films. Can the classic Dracula still be considered a horror film, although it really doesn’t frighten anyone these days? How do we know what was and what wasn’t frightening in the 1890’s?

Well, all this is of course up to judgement, speculation and opinion. Some of the films I include here, such as a few Lon Chaney-flicks or melodramatic costume shows, might not be considered horror movies in certain circles, whereas someone else might have included Méliès’ A Voyage to the Moon or the sci-fi classic Metropolis. I have made my choices after studying numerous lists of horror movies and then using my own judgement and taste. Comments are welcome!
Nonetheless, there is one thing that most observers do agree on. That is that the first ever horror movie is the short film Le Manoir du Diable (The House of the Devil) by frenchman Georges Méliès. Still, others mean that the film cannot be considered a horror film, since it was intended to amuse rather than frighten. Others again would say that the first horror film was Une nuit terrible, by the same director/actor/magician.

Below:  Méliès’ Le Manoir du Diable

Regradless of whether Méliès’ films should be considered pure horror films or horror comedy or just plain trick films, no one can deny the impact that his production had on early cinema in general and horror movies in particular.

Méliès was a stage magician who got intrigued with the possibilities of film after he saw a demonstration of the Lumiere Brothers’ camera. Between 1896 and 1914 he produced over 500 films, ranging in length from just one to forty minutes. In 1913 his company went bankrupt. Most of his films were lost forever when the French army melted them for boot heels during WWI. But some of them have survived, including The House of the Devil, A Night of Terror and his epic and hilarious A Voyage to the Moon (famed for the scene where a spacecraft crashes into the eye of the Man in the Moon).

Méliès pictures were usually devoid of any deeper plot, and mostly depicted short scetches in which things seemed to disappear and reappear, change size, multiply or transform. This he did by clever stop trick technique, multiple exposures and dissolves. In his films though, the tricks were always contributed to a devil, Mephistopheles, spirits or witches. In his 1896 film Le Manoir du Diable, Satan conjures up demons and witches from a cauldron before being banished by a cavalier. Compared to many of his later masterpieces, the film is quite crude and clumsy, but nevertheless has been hailed as the first horror movie.

For mor movies by Méliès, see the first 6 films in the Playlist of the corresponding YouTube link: