The Wrangler

The Origins of Horror Films

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By Vince Little, Staff Writer

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Before the heaps of special effects usage, jump-scares, and horror movie action figures, there were spook tales. Spook tales are what audiences and filmmakers called–until the 1930s–what we would refer to as horror films today. These disturbing films didn’t just appear out of nowhere, though. The atmosphere of many were influenced by the spirit photography of the 1860s, in which photographers would use double exposure techniques, rendering ghostly figures within a frame of film. From the 1860s onwards, spirit photography interested many audiences, including Spiritualists who believed the ghostly figures could be real. With technology evolving in the nineteenth century, of course, these foreboding images were then translated into films and a spooky legacy began.

Le Manoir du Diable (1896), created by Georges Méliès, is the first horror film recorded. “The Manor of the Devil” showcases some of the first things that come to mind when hearing “horror”, skeletons, bats, witches, ghouls, and even trolls appearing in smoke. The graininess (what would you expect from a 1896 film?) adds extra eeriness to the primitive motion picture.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) was directed by Robert Wiene, and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Both Janowitz and Mayer developed the script after their military experiences in World War I, they were pacifists and became distrustful of authority. There is a great deal of symbolism in this film regarding war and the German government, and from a cinema perspective, it was groundbreaking. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari follows the experiences of a sleepwalking asylum patient, a mysterious doctor, and the narrator, who’s vision of the Northern German town they all reside in is distorted. The twisted reality of the film is shown throughout, with the landscape taking on surreal shapes and textures as the screenplay menacingly fluctuates. The imagery in this film is nightmarish. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari impacted the European film scene by refusing to conform to the documentary film style that was common in the early 1900’s, it proved that a film could be stylish and surreal while also being reflective.

Nosferatu (1922) is known as the first vampire film. Director F.W. Murnau plagiarized Bram Stoker’s famous stage play Dracula and only changed the names of characters, so the film never saw commercial success, but it was anything but a failure. Murnau’s inventive camera work and shadow play set an eerie mood untouched by any other directors at the time. Max Shreck, who plays the deformed, horrifying Count Orlok, terrorizes the characters on set as well as any of those viewing the film.

These movies just serve as a foundation and inspiration to those that were yet to come, new techniques, props, effects and all. Looking back, it’s evident how much horror films alone have changed, but many of the primitive elements of these are still present in the films of today.

 

 

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The Origins of Horror Films