We explore three influential early horror films that changed the face of the genre and gave rise to our favorite subgenres.
Many current genre films (and genre-adjacent films) explore dark themes without the intent to terrify audiences. These films emphasize tension and atmosphere rather than shocks and scares.
However, now there is a huge industry around films with the singular purpose of simulating fear. They are designed to cause distress and trigger the feeling of perceived danger. This has also given rise to the significant discourse around the science and potential negative or positive effects of subjecting ourselves to this kind of adrenaline-inducing stimulation.
You can argue the merits, but you can’t argue the fact that many of us crave being scared. We crave it in our movies, books, and even video and mobile games.
And it’s not just traditional horror media. Anything that elevates our heart rate and creates a sense of risk can induce fear. For instance, gambling in a PlayAmo casino can induce fear. It’s the same reason we love roller coasters, haunted houses, driving fast, skydiving, or any other activity that includes a sense of danger — real or perceived.
Because of our desire to be titillated and even terrified, Horror movies have existed almost as long as the art of cinema itself has been in existence.
Fans of Jordan Peel’s Nope may recall that the origin of moving pictures is often attributed to a short clip called The Horse in Motion (1878). This groundbreaking motion photography was accomplished using multiple cameras and assembling the individual pictures into a single motion picture.
The world’s earliest surviving motion-picture film, showing actual consecutive action, is called Roundhay Garden Scene (1888). It’s a short film directed by French inventor Louis Le Prince. While it’s just 2.11 seconds long, it is technically a movie. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is the oldest surviving film in existence.
The earliest known supernatural-based genre film from Georges Méliès is the three-minute short film Le Manoir du Diable (1896), known in English as both The Haunted Castle or The House of the Devil. In fact, the current indie horror “it” director Ti West (X, Pearl), borrowed the latter title, The House of the Devil, for his slow-burn chiller about a college girl who ignores the advice of her best friend by taking a questionable housesitting gig on the night of a lunar eclipse deep in the woods at the Victorian home.
In the film, a bat transforms into Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil. With the help of his assistant, he conjures demonic entities from a cauldron. In the end, one of the men uses a crucifix to make Mephistopheles disappear.
Ambitious in length at the time, this brief film was not actually meant to scare audiences but rather amuse them. However, because of its dark themes and characters, the film is widely heralded as the first horror film, with many crediting it as the first vampire film due to the human-bat transformation plot.
It wasn’t until the Golden Age of Horror — the two decades between the 1920s and 1930s — that filmmakers created stories designed to truly unsettle and frighten their audiences.
This is when we get monumental silent film titles such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922).
Once the silent era gave way to the technological process, we got the rise of the classic monster movie and a flood of films whose seismic influence on the genre is still felt today. This includes Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and the first color adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).
The 30s is also the first time the word “horror” was used to describe the genre.
If you want to dig into the roots of horror in film, you can watch Méliès’ short in its entirety on YouTube right here.
While we’re unearthing horror history, here are three more groundbreaking films responsible for giving rise to our favorite horror sub-genres.
FOUND FOOTAGE: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980)
As a plot device found footage finds its earliest origins in literature, particularly in what is known as the epistolary novel. This work of fiction consists of either correspondence (letters) or diary entries, purportedly written by a character central to the events. Both Dracula and Frankenstein are examples of epistolary novels, which are just as influential in cinematic history as in literary history.
Found footage was popularised by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and has since become a genre staple. It’s been utilized in many successful film franchises, including Paranormal Activity, REC, Cloverfield, and V/H/S (with a new film coming to Shudder on October 20th).
The 1980 controversial cult horror film Cannibal Holocaust is often credited as the first example of found footage. However, an experimental satirical drama film shot in the early 1970s by none other than Orson Welles, The Other Side of the Wind, actually predates Cannibal. But the film wasn’t actually released until 2018 after more than 40 years in development. It’s also not a horror film but was intended by Welles to be his Hollywood comeback.
The story utilizes a film-within-a-film narrative that follows the last day in the life of an aging Hollywood film director (John Huston) as he hosts a screening party for his unfinished latest project. It was shot in an unconventional — now hugely popular — mockumentary style featuring a rapid cutting approach with both color and black-and-white footage.
After Welles died in 1985, filming was finally completed, and several attempts were made to reconstruct the unfinished film. In 2014, the rights were acquired by Royal Road, who helped finally give the film its long overdue