Friday, May 7, 2010

Horror Explorer (Sneak Peek): 1910-1912

Following close on the tail of 1909's The Sealed Room was the silent version of Frankenstein produced by Edison Studios. This film, running approximately 15 minutes, was the first film adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel and was released on March 18, 1910.  It was once thought to be lost, but a print resurfaced in a private collection sometime in the early 1970s. The most startling change from what we are used to is the creation of the Monster. Here, there is no patchwork corpse strapped to a table, no lightning rod with which to give life. Instead, he is grown in a vat in a rather lengthy sequence. The monster that emerges is not familiar to us, as he does not appear similar to any of his other famous film incarnations, but rather like a misshapen cro-magnon with stringy hair and spindly legs.

Edison's Frankenstein has since been released on DVD (purchase here), and can even be viewed for free at the Internet Archive.

Later that year, two more adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde made their way into theaters. The 17-minute Den skæbnesvangre opfindelse (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; or, A Strange Case), an import from Denmark, was written and directed by August Blom and premiered on September 24, 1910. Close behind that was the five-minute (or ten-minute, depending on which source you believe) The Duality of Man from the UK.  The survival status of both of these films is sadly unknown, and presumed lost.

In March 1911, an Italian film entitled L'inferno was released.  Deemed the first full-length Italian motion picture, it is also noteworthy for being loosely based on Dante Alighieri epic poem "The Divine Comedy".   In the poem, Dante travels through the three aspects of the Christian afterlife: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise, or Heaven).  Many artists have used this poem as inspiration for their illustrations, perhaps most notable among them Gustave Doré, whose etchings graced the 1857 edition of the poem.  It was this edition which inspired the film. (view the etchings here)

Understandably, the first segment of the poem offers the most horrific concepts and it grows less so from there.  But the time spent in hell is truly what horror is all about, and so I'm including L'inferno here for your consideration, as it is concerned only with the Inferno cantos of "The Divine Comedy".  In recent times, this movie has been restored and released on DVD, complete with a controversial new soundtrack composed by Tangerine Dream.  (More info here)

October 21, 1911 saw the release of Der Müller und sein Kind (The Miller and his Child), currently believed to be the oldest surviving Austrian film. Although it was based on a romantic melodrama written by the dramatist Ernst Raupach, it contains enough supernatural elements to be included here. The plot concerns a poor miller's son who wants to wed a rich miller's daughter, but her father is vocally against the romance. A dramatic turn of events sees the death of the girl and her father, both of which are foreshadowed by the appearances of the bird of death and a ghost appearing in a gothic graveyard. Interestingly, the same production company (Kolm/Fleck) had made the same movie the previous year, but none of that footage is believed to have survived.

By early 1912, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was adapted yet again by director Lucius Henderson, starring James Cruze in the dual lead. Sources say that it ran approximately 12 minutes, but only a partial print remains today (watch here). Although this was at least the fourth time this particular tale had been adapted, it remains notable for being the earliest version of which any footage is known to still exist.

May 21, 1912 saw the release of a French horror film by writer-director Abel Gance entitled Le masque d'horreur (The Mask of Horror). The synopsis sounds intriguing as given at the Turner Classic Movies Film Database (see here):
"A mad sculptor, searching for the perfect realization of "the mask of horror", places himself in front of a mirror after smearing blood over himself with the glass of an oil lamp. He then swallows a virulent poison to observe the effects of pain."
This is perhaps the first of the curious 'mad-artist' sub-genre of films which would go on to include Vernon Sewell's Latin Quarter (1945), Roger Corman's Bucket of Blood (1959), Herschell Gordon Lewis' Color Me Blood Red (1965), and other lesser-known fare.  Unfortunately, beyond the synopsis, no other information could be found, and the survival status of the film remains unknown.

July 15th, 1912 saw the release of the Vitagraph short entitled Conscience (alternate title: The Chamber of Horrors).  The movie follows a woman in financially dire straits who steals a bottle of milk to feed her hungry child.  She hides from the police in a wax museum's Chamber of Horrors exhibit, unknowing that her estranged husband has also decided to take refuge there, and her presence causes him to drop dead with fright.  While the premise may not seem terribly horrifying, this is an early example of a wax museum setting that would become a bit of a staple for the genre.

Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) was released in Germany on August 22, 1913.  The story follows a young student who becomes obsessed with a beautiful and wealthy woman.  In order to gain her affection, he signs a contract with a powerful sorcerer who promises him infinite wealth.  It is, in essence, a version of the Faust story (only here the student's soul is represented as his reflection) and seems to have been inspired by the 1839 Edgar Allan Poe story "William Wilson" (read here).  Originally running approximately 85 minutes (an epic at the time), only a portion of that footage remains.  The surviving fragments of the film, roughly half, were released on DVD in 2004 by Alpha Video (purchase here).  

This film has curious ties to Adolf Hitler, beyond it being from Germany.  Screenwriter Hanns Heinz Ewers--who was more well known for his horror-tinged literature--would later have a brief association with the Nazi party and was commissioned by Hitler himself to write a biography (Einer von vielen) of Horst Wessel, Nazi martyr and author of their anthem "Die Fahne Hoch" ("Raise the Flag").  It should be noted, however, that Ewers did not agree with the party's anti-Semitism, and that this, coupled with his latent homosexuality, would lead to a falling out with the Nazis and the eventual banning of the majority of his work within Germany.  Still, this association has lead to his works being shunned and avoided by most circles today, but The Student of Prague continues to command some respect as being the forefather of the German expressionist film, the likes of which would be best represented by 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  This movie was remade at least three times--in 1925, 1935 and as late as 2004.

Incidentally, some sources state that 1912's The Student of Prague was the first horror film.  If nothing else, hopefully this series of articles has proven that notion wrong.



  1. Sarah: I assume you're referring to the stills from L'Inferno. If you think THOSE are awesome, you should see the rest of the movie. Talk about some crazy visuals! Thanks for stopping by...even if you are just looking at the pretty pictures. :-)



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