The Rise of the Horror Genre

         Horror films have been around nearly as long as the cinema itself has been. This is probably the case because horror itself is a genre of story telling that is just as old and popular as other common forms like comedy or tragedy. One of the first credited horror films is only two minutes long and comes from one of the world’s first film makers, Georges Méliès. It is called Le Manoir du diable (The Devil’s Castle). It is about a devil-vampire creature called Mephistopheles, who appears in a castle and summons various supernatural creatures.

         So not only is it possibly the first horror film, but also it is the first film to present a vampire to the screen. Vampires are very popular in the horror genre. The first most famous vampire was Count Orlok, portrayed by Max Schreck in F. W. Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu. This was an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that was unauthorized but nevertheless survived and is still very popular today. Of course Orlok was not the first movie monster placed on the screen, but he is more famous than his predecessors, The Golem or Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, who appeared in four films in five years (1906-1911).

         While horror films were more popular in foreign countries in their infancy, they eventually came to the United States with our own adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by Wallace Worsley in 1923. This, along with other films, made Lon Chaney the first movie monster in America and the first horror star. It required extensive makeup for some of his roles, and that is a process that continues today with actors transforming into horror movie monsters, such as Robert Englund changing into burn victim Freddy Krueger. Lon Chaney really set the standard for the genre as far as makeup goes back in the 1920’s. His most famous role would be 1925’s Phantom of the Opera, directed by Rupert Julian, in which he plays the title character, a disfigured Phantom living in the bowels of a theatre.

         While Chaney was the first horror movie star, and his movies were popular, horror itself did not become overly successful until the classic Universal monsters were created. In the 1930’s and 40’s, Universal film makers created their own Dracula, in the 1931 film of the same name, directed by Tod Browning, which gave Bela Lugosi his start and soon made him very famous within the genre. Another popular horror actor created another popular horror monster in the same year with James Whale’s Frankenstein. Universal would then create more monsters with James Whale’s The Invisible Man(1933), Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932), and George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1944), which was played by another Lon Chaney; only it was the son of the previous one.

         Universal would not only continue to create more monsters, but it would take their popular characters over the years and either re-tell their stories or give them many sequels, another popular theme in horror that still occurs today. There will often be jokes made about what new Friday the 13th sequel is out now, but Jason should give his thanks to the early days when it was shown that horror sequels are money-makers because Universal kept the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and their monster friends in movies throughout the early years of the horror genre

         There will always be a need for horror because people love to be scared. It is a very old form of story telling, and it is still just as popular today as it was when it was born in the very late 1800’s. The genre itself would evolve and change over the years, whether it was the Universal films, which relied on suspense and had a gothic feel, or the larger-than-life monsters of the fifties, which included Japan’s own Godzilla (called Gojira over there) or the slasher sub-genre that gave people in my generation our very own monsters to be scared of, such as Jason, Freddy or Michael Myers. Even know there is supernatural ghost stories and very violent, gory films like 2004’s Saw that will make money showing that even if the genre changes, the basic elements are the same. Horror will always have a place in the annals of film history.

Joseph Stone

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