Cinematic Firsts: The First Horror Movie - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Cinematic Firsts: The First Horror Movie

Freddy? Jason? Pinhead? Nope...

The first depictions of the supernatural on screen appeared in several of the short silent films created by the French pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès in the late 1890s. Méliès was a French illusionist and film director who had his own theatre in Paris (Thêatre Robert-Houdin) and led many technical and narrative developments in the earliest days of cinema.

Méliès was well-known for this use of special effects, popularizing such techniques as substitution splices, multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted colour. He was also one of the first filmmakers to use storyboards. You very likely know of his short 1902 science fiction/fantasy film A Trip to the Moon, but six years before that he was turning his hand to a different genre...

Le Manoir du Diable (The Devil's Castle) is a 3 minute long movie from 1896, an astonishing length for the time. The film tells the story of an encounter with the Devil and various phantoms. Although it was intended to evoke amusement and wonder from its audiences, rather than fear, because of its themes and characters Le Manoir du Diable is considered to technically be the first horror film. It also contains a depiction of a human transforming into a bat, a plot element which has led to it arguably being the first vampire film too. It was presumed lost until 1988, when a copy was found in the New Zealand Film Archive.

Méliès' created other popular 'horror' films including 1898's La Caverne Maudite, which translates literally as "the accursed cave". The film, also known by its English title The Cave of the Demons, tells the story of a man discovering a cave that is populated by the spirits and skeletons of people who died there.

Other short films of Méliès' that historians consider now as horror-actions include Une nuit terrible (1896), which translates to A Terrible Night, tells a story of a man who tries to get a good night's sleep but ends up wrestling a giant spider, and L'auberge ensorcelée (1897), or The Bewitched Inn, which features a story of a hotel guest being pranked and tormented by an unseen presence.

Much of his work during this era was filmed in, around or outside in the garden of Méliès's property in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis, with painted scenery. It was very common at this time for film actors to perform anonymously and no credits were provided, however, it is known that Jehanne d'Alcy, a successful stage actress who appeared in many of Méliès's films and later became his second wife, plays the woman who comes out of the cauldron in Le Manoir du Diable, and that the Devil in the film was played by Jules-Eugène Legris, a magician who performed at Méliès's Thêatre Robert-Houdin in Paris and who later made an appearance in Méliès's in that famous 1902 film A Trip to the Moon...

View all our Cinematic Firsts articles here.

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