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Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Silent Dead: A History of Horror Movies, Part 1

For as long as humans have been sophisticated enough to desire entertainment, we've had an innate fascination with being horrified. Perhaps the last vestigal remants of the "fight or flight" instinct give us this visceral thrill, which we can enjoy freely with the knowledge that what we are seeing is not real.
As ingrained as the love of being scared is in the human psyche, it's suprising that horror took a while to establish itself as a major genre in the motion picture business. In the earliest days of the movies, they were not very common, particularly in America, where religious groups still held great sway over public opinion.
At the beginning of the industry, it was in Europe that horror films first took root. Pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies (best known for 1902's A Trip to the Moon) is credited with creating the earliest examples with his two short films, The House of the Devil (1896) and The Cave of the Demons (1898).
At the start of the 20th century, the epicenter of the motion picture biz was in Germany, and horror pictures were no different. A wave of Expressionistic films emerged there in the '10s and '20s, the impact of which continues to be felt to this day. Chief among them were Paul Wegener's The Golem (1920), Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and of course, F.W. Murnau's 1922 masterpiece, Nosferatu--the first of countless Dracula adaptations.
Meanwhile, in the States, it was actually Thomas Edison, who had invented motion picture technology in the first place, whose production company put out what may be America's first horror movie and the first in another long tradition, 1910's short film Frankenstein.
In Hollywood, the 1920s produced the first horror movie megastar, the one and only Lon Chaney. Known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces," Chaney achieved notoriety in large part due to his uncanny ability to transform himself through make-up. Chief among his notable roles are The Monster (1925), lost film London After Midnight (1927) and his iconic turn in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which gave rise to Universal's classic monster movie series the following decade.
The end of the 1920s saw the rise of a revolution in filmmaking thanks to arguably the greatest innovation the industry has ever seen: sound. The effects would be profound, and horror movies would lead the way.
Other major releases:Soon to come: Part 2 - Gods and Monsters


Jo said...

I love silent films, even more I love silent horror films. I need to watch more of them. Have any recommendations aside from the ones you've mentioned?

B-Sol said...

Beyond horror, there's the classic Russian picture Potemkin. If you're into silent comedy, you can't go wrong with anything done by Chaplin. I'd recommend The Kid, it'll make you laugh and cry at the same time. Also, City Lights. And Metropolis is probably the best sci-fi movie of the first half of the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

I've seen The Golem once before a couple of years ago. Gonna have to grab a copy of it now. After reading that and seeing the picture, I want to watch it (and some other films you mentioned) immediately.

B-Sol said...

Glad you enjoyed it, CG! Keep on the lookout for part two, which will focus on the 1930s and '40s. I'll be posting that one next time there's a slow news day!

Garg Unzola said...

Most of those films can be downloaded legally and free of charge at the internet movie archive:

I would recommend Metropolis too!

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