Thursday, May 6, 2010

Horror Explorer (Sneak Peek): The First Horror Film

The films of Georges Méliès, as discussed previously, were certainly amongst the first to contain fantastical elements and with them a plethora of imagery that can be related to the horror genre. But to call them horror films is perhaps pushing the envelope a bit, as they were obviously made to simultaneously impress the viewer with his trick photography and amuse them with the onscreen comedic antics, but rarely, if ever, to horrify.

Similarly, 1907's Le Spectre Rouge (The Red Spectre) was a 9-minute short film from France that hearkens back to some of Georges Méliès films.  In it, a demonic magician performs his tricks until a good spirit arrives to thwart him.  Although not particularly frightening, and really just another example of a director showcasing their special effects, it is quite interesting and entertaining and well worth a look.  (Watch here.) 

Casting aside the plentiful instances of horror imagery used in these 'Trick Films'--which also include the work of George Albert Smith (1897's The Haunted Castle, 1898's Photographing a Ghost, not to be confused with the unrelated 1903 film Photographing a Goose, etc.) and Edwin S. Porter (1898's The Cavalier's Dream, the Uncle Josh series from 1900-1902) among countless others--that still begs the question, what, then, qualifies as the the first horror movie? An internet search for that question will pull up a plethora of answers, certainly all but one of them wrong. It's easy to weed out many of these answers as false--one only needs to compare the release dates.

Assuming that a true horror movie has to tell a story, then the first true horror film probably could not have been released any time before 1899, the year that Méliès released his film Cendrillon (Cinderella), which is said to not only be the first adaptation of the fairy tale, but, according to Tim Dirks at AMC's Filmsite, also the first film used to "tell a narrative story."  But it was still years before that became the standard.

My research has lead me to believe that the first horror film to meet these requirements, debuting in 1908, was the William Selig produced silent adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

More accurately, the movie was based on a stage play (scripted by George F. Fish) that was based on the Stephenson novel. Fish also wrote the script for the film version, that was directed by Otis Turner and starred Hobart Bosworth as the titular leads. It ran only 16 minutes, and is said to have followed the book quite closely, especially considering that it was boiled down to a mere four acts--each act opening and closing with a stage curtain, just as if you were watching it be performed live.

There are those rare people who insist that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde doesn't qualify as horror, but all of the elements of the genre are there: Mad Science, murder, and a terrifying, almost-supernatural villain to name a few. And, beneath it all, this is a tale of the werewolf, only this wolf doesn't wear fur. And none can deny that the werewolf is a staple of the horror film, so fuzzy coat or not, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde IS a horror story.

Sadly, there are no known copies of Selig's film left in existence, so any intrinsic value that this film may have once held is a moot point.  Unless, against all odds, it happens to resurface at some point in the future (which has happened more often than one would expect), it no longer exists, meaning that, for our purposes, it never did.

On an interesting side note, the Selig-Polyscope company released A Modern Dr. Jekyll towards the end of 1909.  Because very little information on the film was forthcoming, and because the company had released a version of the story just a year previous, it was for years believed that A Modern Dr. Jekyll was simply a re-issue title of their 1908 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  However, according to Mark Griep at the Chemistry Movies Blog of Oxford University, he has found proof that the 1909 film was a separate entity.  Beyond that, it was the first version of the story to be filmed as a comedy, and the first version to portray a male-into-female transformation (read here).  This version, sadly, is also lost, and his information comes from secondary sources and reviews from the era.

So perhaps we must amend out original question: what is the first horror film still in existence?

There was a 1908 film entitled Sherlock Holmes In The Great Murder Mystery, which was based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", while strangely transposing Arthur Conan Doyle's detective character into the lead. That film is presumed loss, and regardless, its source material from Poe is considered the birth of the detective genre, not horror, although that is the genre that the author is predominately known for.

Speaking of Poe, the very next year, the Biograph Company released a biopic of the author entitled, Edgar Allen Poe (Sic).  He lingers at his beloved Elizabeth's deathbed, trying desperately to give her some comfort.  As she fades from this world, a raven flies through the open window and lands upon a bust of Pallas, inspiring him to write his most famous poem.  Although this may be of interest to fans of the genre, it hardly qualifies as horror.  (click here to read more about it.)

Another Poe-inspired film, 1909's Le puits et le pendule (The Pit and the Pendulum), would definitely have been considered horror, but this French import has gone the way of too many other films and is presumed lost.  The same is true of the 1912 French film Une Vengeance d'Edgar Poe (The Vengeance of Edgard Poe [sic]), which was apparently a non-horror film that depicted the author taking hallucinogens and going insane.

Also in 1909, what is widely thought to be the first vampire film debuted.  It was called Vampires of the Coast, and aside from the fact that it was said to have premiered on March 15th, there seems to be little to no information about the movie available.  In actuality, though, the titular vampires were more than likely not of the undead bloodsucking variety (which would qualify it as a genuine member of the horror canon), but rather vamps in the manner of the sexual and seductive femme fatale, such as in 1912's Vampyrdanserinden (The Vampire Dancer), Mauritz Stiller's 1913 Vampyren (Vampire: A Woman's Slave), 1913's Vampire of the Desert, William Selig's 1910 The Vampire and 1915's A Fool There Was--the latter three all being inspired by Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Vampire" (read here), which, in turn, was inspired by the Philip Burne-Jones painting of the same name (view here).  So, Vampires of the Coast may be an interesting aside, but does not qualify as horror.  Besides, with so little information about this film available, one can only assume that it is lost, if it ever truly existed at all.

In September of that same year, however, the Biograph Company released an eleven minute short entitled The Sealed Room.  It is about a jealous man of power and stature who entombs his cheating wife and her love alive within the walls of his castle.  A fair share of sources claim this to be based on Poe's short story "The Cask of Amontillado", but closer scrutiny reveals that it was actually based on portions of the novel  La Grande Breteche by Honoré de Balzac, which shares a similar plot device.  This film predates even Edison's Frankenstein (often cited as the first horror film), and it is still in existence so modern audiences can continue to see the expressions of terror on the faces of the wife and lover as the last of the bricks are set into place.  If the notion of being entombed alive doesn't qualify as horror, I don't know what does.  (click here to watch part 1, and here for part 2)

So it seems that we may have found not only the first horror film, but also the first filmed biography of a horror author, as well as the first horror film that can still be enjoyed today.  Where does the Horror Explorer go from here?

Deeper into the abyss.



  1. Loving this feature sir! Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks, Mr. Wilson! You've got 3 more installments in this Horror Explorer "Sneak Peek"...and then I'm afraid you're going to have to wait to see more. Unless, of course, there's enough demand...then I may offer up another 5 samples or so.

    Thanks for reading!


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