Horror Films are unsettling films designed to frighten and panic, cause dread and alarm, and to invoke our hidden worst fears



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Horror Films are unsettling films designed to frighten and panic, cause dread and alarm, and to invoke our hidden worst fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale, while captivating and entertaining us at the same time in a cathartic experience. Horror films effectively center on the dark side of life, the forbidden, and strange and alarming events. They deal with our most primal nature and its fears: our nightmares, our vulnerability, our alienation, our revulsions, our terror of the unknown, our fear of death and dismemberment, loss of identity, or fear of sexuality.

Whatever dark, primitive, and revolting traits that simultaneously attract and repel us are featured in the horror genre. Horror films are often combined with science fiction when the menace or monster is related to a corruption of technology, or when Earth is threatened by aliens. The fantasy and supernatural film genres are not synonymous with the horror genre, although thriller films may have some relation when they focus on the revolting and horrible acts of the killer/madman. Horror films are also known as chillers, scary movies, spookfests, and the macabre. Also, see this site's Scariest Film Moments and Scenes collection - illustrated, including Entertainment Weekly's selections for the 20 Scariest Movies.

Horror films, when done well and with less reliance on horrifying special effects, can be extremely potent film forms, tapping into our dream states and the horror of the irrational and unknown, and the horror within man himself. (The best horror films only imply or suggest the horror in subtle ways, rather than blatantly displaying it, i.e., Val Lewton's horror films.) In horror films, the irrational forces of chaos or horror invariably need to be defeated, and often these films end with a return to normalcy and victory over the monstrous.

Of necessity, the earliest horror films were Gothic in style - meaning that they were usually set in spooky old mansions, castles, or fog-shrouded, dark and shadowy locales. Their main characters have included "unknown," human, supernatural or grotesque creatures, ranging from vampires, demented madmen, devils, unfriendly ghosts, monsters, mad scientists, "Frankensteins," "Jekyll/Hyde" dualities, demons, zombies, evil spirits, arch fiends, Satanic villains, the "possessed," werewolves and freaks to even the unseen, diabolical presence of evil.

Horror films developed out of a number of sources: folktales with devil characters, witchcraft, fables, myths, ghost stories, Grand Guignol melodramas, and Gothic or Victorian novels from Europe by way of Mary Shelley or Irish writer Bram Stoker. In many ways, the expressionistic German silent cinema led the world in films of horror and the supernatural, and established its cinematic vocabulary and style.

The Earliest Horror Films: Monsters, Vamps and More

The first horror movie, only about three minutes long, was made by imaginative French filmmaker Georges Melies, titled Le Manoir Du Diable (1896) (aka The Devil's Castle) - containing some elements of later vampire films.

One of the more memorable and influential of the early films was Germany's silent expressionistic landmark classic, Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1919) (aka The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) from director Robert Wiene, about a ghost-like hypnotist-therapist in a carnival named Dr. Caligari (Werner Kraus) who calls pale-skinned, lanky, black leotard-wearing Cesare (Conrad Veidt, later known for his portrayal as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942)), his performing somnambulist (and haunted murderer), from a state of sleep. The shadowy, disturbing, distorted, and dream-nightmarish quality of the macabre and stylistic 'Caligari,' with twisted alleyways, lopsided doors, cramped rooms, overhanging buildings, and skewed cityscapes, was shot in a studio. It was brought to Hollywood in the 1920s, and later influenced the classic period of horror films in the 1930s - introducing many standard horror film conventions. As with many classic films (i.e., Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)), the original story was altered (due to its insinuation that "authority" was questionable and insane), and a flashback framing device (composed of an epilogue and prologue) was added to soften its message. This made the film appear to be a delusional nightmare in a psychotic mental patient's (Francis) dream, thereby diluting the subversive nature of the original.

The earliest vampire film was director Arthur Robison's German silent film Nachte des Grauens (1916), aka Night of Terror, with strange, vampire-like people. The Hungarian film Drakula halala (1921), aka The Death of Dracula, was the first adaptation of Irish writer Bram Stoker's 1897 vampire novel Dracula. The first genuine vampire picture was also produced by a European filmmaker - director F. W. Murnau's feature-length Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror (1922), aka Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Shot on location, it was an unauthorized film adaptation of Stoker's Dracula with Max Schreck in the title role as the screen's first vampire - a mysterious aristocrat living in distant Bremen named Count Graf Orlok (Max Schreck). Because of copyright problems, the vampire was named Nosferatu rather than Dracula, and the action was changed from Transylvania to Bremen.

[Note: At the turn of the century, Shadow of the Vampire (2000) fancifully retold the making of the 1922 classic, with John Malkovich as obsessive director F.W. Murnau. It asked the question: "What if Max Schreck (Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe), who played the character of Count Orlok, was indeed a vampire?"]

The emaciated, balding, undead vampire's image was unforgettable with a devil-rat face, pointy ears, elongated fingers, sunken cheeks, and long fangs, with plague rats following him wherever he went. In the film's conclusion, the grotesque, cadaverous creature is tricked by the heroine Nina (Greta Schroder) into remaining past daybreak, so Orlok meets his fate by disintegrating into smoke in the sunlight. [The film was remade by German director Werner Herzog - Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), with Klaus Kinski faithfully recreating the title role.]

In Danish director Stellan Rye's early German silent horror film Der Student von Prag (1913) (aka Student of Prague), based upon the Faust legend, a poor student made a pact with the devil in return for wealth and a beautiful woman. [The student was portrayed by actor/producer Paul Wegener in his film debut.] It was the first artistically important German production - and was later remade in 1926 and directed by Henrik Galeen. Wegener directed the first of his influential adaptations of the Golem legend by Gustav Meyrinck - Der Golem (1914) (aka The Monster of Fate), and then remade it a few years later as Der Golem Und Die Tanzerin (1917) (aka The Golem and the Dancer) - notably the first horror film sequel. He remade the film a third time, with Karl Freund as cinematographer, again titling it Der Golem (1920) (aka The Golem: or How He Came Into the World). The expressionistic film was based upon Central European myths and influenced later 'Frankenstein' monster films in the early 1930s with themes of a creator losing control of his creation. The Golem, played by Wegener, was an ancient clay figure from Hebrew mythology that was brought to life by Rabbi Loew's magic amulet to defend and save the Jews from a pogrom threatened by Rudolf II of Habsburg. The man-made, clay creature roamed through the Jewish ghetto of medieval Prague in the fifteenth century.

The earliest horror pictures, now-forgotten "vamp" pictures (films featuring devilish captivating ladies) in one-reel or full length features, were produced in the US from 1909 to the early 1920s, making the horror genre one of the oldest and most basic. The first Frankenstein monster film in the US was Edison Frankenstein (1910), a 16-minute (one-reel) version made by the Edison Studios and starring Charles Ogle as the monster. In this early version, the Monster was created in a cauldron of chemicals. Two other silent precursors to later Frankenstein films were Life Without a Soul (1915) and the expressionistic German film Homunculus (1916), a serial about an artificially-created man. Before the 1930s, Hollywood was reluctant to experiment with the themes of true horror films. Instead, the studios took popular stage plays and emphasized their mystery genre features, providing rational explanations for all the supernatural and occult elements.



Man of a Thousand Faces - Lon Chaney: The First American Horror Film Star

One actor who helped pave the way for the change in outlook and acceptance of the horror genre was Lon (Alonso) Chaney, Sr., known as "the man of a thousand faces" because of his transformative, grotesque makeup and acting genuis. He was the first American horror-film star. He appeared in numerous silent horror films beginning in 1913 at Universal Studios in collaboration with director Tod Browning (in films including Outside the Law (1921), The Unholy Three (1925) with Chaney as a criminal ventriloquist, and West of Zanzibar (1928)). In the first of Chaney's two horror masterpieces, he appeared in the earliest version of Victor Hugo's novel about the hunchbacked Quasimodo - a tortured bellringer in a cathedral in director Wallace Worsley's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) - the second film version of the classic tale. [The first version was The Darling of Paris (1917) starring vamp Theda Bara as Esmeralda.]



Chaney's most memorable portrayal was in the ground-breaking, vividly-frightening, Beauty-and-the-Beast silent film, Rupert Julian's costume horror classic The Phantom of the Opera (1925), as Devil's Island escapee Erik - a disfigured, deranged, bitter and vengeful composer/ghost of the Paris Opera (based on the character in Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel). This film was a technical achievement, with a two-color Technicolor 'Bal Masque' sequence, the falling chandelier and underground lake scenes. Its dark expressionistic tones helped set the tone for horror films in the 30s. Its most famous scene was ingenue Christine's (Mary Philbin) unmasking of Lon Chaney's mask - revealing a hideous skull-face, lipless mouth, rotten teeth, snouty nose, and bulging eyes. [Other versions over the years are wide-ranging, as both horror films and theatrical musicals:

  • The Phantom of the Opera (1943), d. Arthur Lubin, Universal's Technicolored version with Claude Rains as the title character - a disfigured violinist, and also Nelson Eddy as Raoul, the Phantom's rival for Christine's (Susanna Foster) love

  • The Phantom of the Opera (1962), d. Terence Fisher, with Herbert Lom (of Pink Panther fame) in a UK Hammer Films production as Professor Petrie/the Phantom and Heather Sears as Christine Charles

  • The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), d. Brian DePalma, a rock-opera musical version (and cult favorite) starring Paul Williams as a Svengali impresario named the Swan

  • The Phantom of the Opera (1983), d. Robert Markowitz, a made-for-TV movie starring a miscast Jane Seymour and Maximilian Schell as the Phantom, set in Budapest

  • The Phantom of the Opera (1986), the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber theatrical musical show, featuring Sarah Brightman

  • The Phantom of the Opera (1989), d. Dwight H. Little, with Robert Englund (horror movie villain Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series) as the Phantom and Jill Schoelen as Christine

  • The Phantom of the Opera (1990), d. Tony Richardson, a two-part NBC-TV mini-series, with Burt Lancaster starring as the Baron - the Phantom's father (in one of his final film appearances), Teri Polo as Christine, and Charles Dance as the Phantom

  • The Phantom of the Opera (1991), d. Darwin Knight, a theatrical musical created by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopil and filmed before a live audience, starring David Staller and Elizabeth Walsh

  • Il Fantasma Dell'Opera (1998, It.) (aka The Phantom of the Opera), d. Dario Argento, a loose adaptation with daughter Asia Argento as Christine and Julian Sands as the nameless Phantom (without a mask); with great production values including more sex, graphically-bloody gore, and a musical score by Ennio Morricone

  • The Phantom of the Opera (2004), d. Joel Schumacher, with Gerard Butler as the lead character, and starlet Emmy Rossum (a trained opera singer) as Christine; also with Minnie Driver and Miranda Richardson]

Lon Chaney also starred as a sunken and dark-eyed, vampirish character in a lost film by Tod Browning titled London After Midnight (1927), the first Hollywood vampire film. [James Cagney played the role of Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) and recreated the star's roles as the Phantom and Quasimodo in two of horror's greatest achievements.] Many of these early silent classics would be remade during the talkies era.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Films:

John Barrymore starred in the first version of the Jekyll/Hyde story, a silent film titled Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), taken from Robert Louis Stevenson's story about a doctor/scientist whose evil side was brought out by a magic formula. It was later re-made in many versions, but the two most noteworthy versions were: Fredric March's Oscar-winning portrayal of the transformed, villainous scientist in director Rouben Mamoulian's first sound version Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), starring Fredric March in the title role and Miriam Hopkins as the slutty Cockney barmaid Ivy, and Victor Fleming's MGM production (which won the Academy Award for black and white cinematography) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), starring Spencer Tracy in the title role and Ingrid Bergman as the "wicked" prostitute. [In the psycho-sexual thriller Mary Reilly (1995), Julia Roberts starred as the innocent maid of the infamous Dr. Jekyll to provide a new perspective.]



The Advent of Classic Horror Films of the 30s: Universal Studios

Actor Conrad Veidt and German expressionistic director Paul Leni were recruited by Universal's boss Carl Laemmle in the mid-1920s. Paul Leni was already known in his homeland for the spooky horror classics Backstairs (1921) and Waxworks (1924). After moving to Hollywood, Leni directed The Cat and the Canary (1927), a derivative from a stage-bound 1922 melodrama. The influential film is considered the first Gothic 'haunted house' horror film. Veidt was cast as an ever-smiling, grotesque carnival freak named Gwynplaine in Leni's next film for Universal, The Man Who Laughs (1927), a superb romantic melodrama.

By the early 1930s, horror entered into its classic phase in Hollywood - the true Dracula and Frankenstein Eras, with films that borrowed from their German expressionism roots. The studios took morbid tales of European vampires and undead aristocrats, mad scientists, and invisible men and created some of the most archetypal creatures and monsters ever known for the screen. Universal Studios was best-known for its pure horror films in the 30s and 40s, horror-dom's characters (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Wolf Man) and its classic horror stars, Hungarian matinee idol Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

The Dracula Films:

According to Guinness World Records, the character most frequently portrayed in horror films is Dracula, with over 160 representations (at the present count). With Tod Browning's direction, Universal Studios produced a film version of Lugosi's 1927 Broadway stage success about a blood-sucking, menacing vampire named Dracula (1931), released early in the year. [Lon Chaney, Sr. was one of many actors considered to play the title character, but he died in 1930.] The atmospheric, commercially-successful film adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel played upon fears of sexuality, blood, and the nebulous period between life and death. The heavily-accented voice and acting of Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in his most famous portrayal as the 500 year old vampire was elegant, suave, exotic and stylish - and frightening to early audiences - while the undead villain hypnotically charmed his victims with a predatory gaze.



  • [An impressive-looking Spanish version, with director George Melford in place of Browning, was shot simultaneously on the same sets at night, but with a different cast and crew (Carlos Villarías replaced Lugosi, and Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing, along with provocatively-dressed actresses Lupita Tovar as Eva (Mina) and Carmen Guerrero as Lucia (Lucy)).]

  • [In director Tim Burton's horror/comedy Ed Wood (1994), Martin Landau won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as the aging, morphine-addicted horror star Bela Lugosi, a friend of one of Hollywood's worst directors.]

In the same year, Danish writer/director Carl Theodor Dreyer's dreamlike, atmospheric, seminal horror film Vampyr (1931) was released. The unsettling film, Dreyer's first sound feature, was loosely based on a collection of horror stories (In a Glass Darkly (1972) written by Sheridan Le Fanu). It was alternatively titled The Strange Adventure of David Gray - the story of a man (Baron Nicholas de Gunsberg, aka Julian West) in a remote country inn who slowly believes he is surrounded by vampires - and who dreams of his own death and coffin burial. And Fritz Lang's M (1931) introduced a terrorized criminal, child-murdering deviant character (portrayed by Peter Lorre in his mesmerizing film debut) who was based on the real-life, notorious serial killer Peter Kurten - the 'Vampire of Dusseldorf.'

The Original Frankenstein Film:

The first Dracula film was followed closely by the definitive, quintessential combination of science fiction and Gothic horror in a 'mad doctor' thriller. This classic monster/horror film - Frankenstein (1931) - was James Whale's adaptation from Mary Shelley's novel about Dr. Henry Frankenstein with a virtually unknown actor - Boris Karloff. With a boxy forehead and neck electrodes (and other features created from Whale's sketches by make-up artist Jack Pierce), Karloff's poignant portrayal of the pathetic created Monster's plight gave a personality to the outcast, uncomprehending character with a lumbering and lurching gait.



The Wolf Man Cycle of Films:

Without resorting to an existing literary horror figure, such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or The Invisible Man, Universal also created a new and 'original' creature in two films - the werewolf - the last of its great original horror characters. The first US werewolf film was Stuart Walker's well-made The Werewolf of London (1935) with Henry Hull as Dr. Glendon - the scientist who brings the 'wolf' curse upon himself. The second, most famous and definitive Wolf Man character was in director George Waggner's excellent B-grade film, The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney, Jr. in his first appearance as the accursed Larry Talbot - his portrayal came to be his best-known role. The "transformation" scene from man-to-wolf, involving complicated cosmetic/makeup artistry, was remarkably realistic. [The makeup artist used yak hair and a rubber snout.]

Unfortunately, the Wolf Man role hopelessly typecast Chaney, Jr. for life. He was forced to star in a series of very poor sequels, teamed up with other Universal horror stars in B-grade films including Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), and in two films adding Dracula to the mix:


  • House of Frankenstein (1944) (the first all-star get-together with Glenn Strange as Frankenstein, John Carradine as Count Dracula, Boris Karloff as a mad scientist, and Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man)

  • House of Dracula (1945) - an immediate sequel to the House of Frankenstein (1944) film, with Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man and John Carradine as Dracula - again

The worst ignominy suffered by Chaney, Jr. was in Universal-International's comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) with the two screen comedians. Here was evidence that classic horror films in the genre were beginning to go out of style after the real 'horrors' of World War II, and Universal was attempting to crank out more and more sequels. Another unrelated 'wolf-man' film was She-Wolf of London (1946), with June Lockart as Phyllis Allenby, an innocent young girl in London - and the alleged perpetrator of gruesome murders.
Other Early Classic Horror Films:

Other classic horror films of the 1930s and early 1940s included one of the best adventure/horror films of all time - it was the "beauty and the beast" classic King Kong (1933). Special effects expert Willis O'Brien created many of the models for the film. After his success with Dracula (1931), Tod Browning directed the unusual, gothic Freaks (1932) with real-life "freaks" - one of his best works. This cult film redefined the concepts of beauty, love, and abnormality, but was so disturbingly ahead of its time that audiences stayed away in huge numbers, and it was even banned for 30 years in England. After this film, Browning's career would never be the same - he directed only a few more films through 1939 before retiring.

British director James Whale directed the spooky, dark comedy/ghost story The Old Dark House (1932) with Karloff in the ensemble cast (in his first starring role) as Morgan the butler and female lead Gloria Stuart (later revived by Titanic (1997)). Charles Laughton was H. G. Wells' mad scientist Dr. Moreau in The Island of Lost Souls (1932) (re-made in 1977 with Burt Lancaster and 1996 as The Island of Dr. Moreau).

When Karloff refused the title role, Claude Rains starred as The Invisible Man (1933) in James Whale's second hit and Universal's critically-acclaimed film version of H. G. Wells' novel. (When the title character strips naked in one scene to avoid the police, the trail of footprints in the snow reveals a pair of feet wearing shoes!) Laughton took the role of the horribly deformed bellringer who saves Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara) in the excellent The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Claude Rains appeared in the semi-musical remake of Phantom of the Opera (1943) as disfigured composer Erik. In the post-war years, George Sanders starred in classic adaptation of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) about a man whose portrait shows physical aging while he remains youthful.



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