Arts & Events

Kingdom of Shadows: The Origins of the Horror Film

By Justin DeFreitas
Tuesday October 30, 2007

As long as we've had motion pictures, we've used them to scare ourselves. The medium is perfectly suited for it. Even the earliest filmmakers saw the potential, employing double exposures, trick shots, spooky sets and dramatic lighting to illuminate the darker side of the imagination, to bring to life the ethereal netherworlds and distorted figures of the collective unconscious. 

A string of new DVD releases presents some of the greatest examples of early horror, films from the 1920s, when the genre reached its first full blossoming in both the United States and in Europe.  

In the 1920s Universal was at the bottom of the heap of Hollywood studios, an also-ran amid the likes of MGM, Paramount and United Artists. Whereas MGM may have turned out a film per week, including many big-budget blockbusters per year, Universal produced a steady diet of low-budget programmers.  

Universal chief Carl Laemmle, in an effort to stake his claim to some of the prestige and influence of his rivals, outlined a plan to produce a few big-budget films per year, spectacles with melodramatic plots, vast sets, and casts of thousands, or at least hundreds. He called them "Super Jewels." One of the first was Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives, a film that Laemmle relentlessly promoted as the first million-dollar film, even going so far as to mount a large ticking display outside the studio that tallied the rising cost of the production minute by minute.  

The most spectacular of Laemmle's Super Jewels, however, were the Lon Chaney vehicles. Image Entertainment has just released the first, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), in a definitive new DVD edition, following their previous excellent edition of the second, The Phantom of the Opera (1925). 

Chaney, known as "the man of a thousand faces," is the key factor in these films, transforming himself into the most hideous of creatures in each, yet maintaining the humanity of the character, and thus the sympathy of the audience, in the creation of what would be the prototype for the long line of horror film monsters to follow.  

The Hunchback disc includes a new score, commentary track, photo galleries (some in 3-D—glasses provided), and behind-the-scenes footage of Chaney, sans makeup, on the set.  

Chaney also figures prominently in another new DVD release, Kino's American Silent Horror box set. The set serves as a companion to the company's previous collection, German Horror Classics, which featured such seminal horror film masterpieces as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu (1922), a film Kino will soon re-release in a definitive two-disc edition.  

The American horror set features four more classics of the genre: Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), The Penalty (1920), The Cat and the Canary (1927), and The Man Who Laughs (1928).  

The Penalty shows Chaney in yet another painful contortion, this time as a double amputee. Chaney's self-designed costume involved him strapping his legs back and walking on his knees throughout the film as a brutal gangster out for revenge on the quack who wrongly deformed him as a child. It is not one of Chaney's better-known films, yet it is certainly one of his finest performances, for unlike the previous films mentioned here, he is not forced to compete with the grandiosity of the production itself. Extra features include excerpts from other Chaney films and a video tour of the actor's famed makeup kit.  

Dr. Jeckyll stars the great John Barrymore in what many consider the first great American horror film. It is one of most frequently adapted stories, especially in the early years of cinema. In fact, the disc includes an excerpt from a rival version made the same year, as well as an essay on the novel's various incarnations. The original score for the film was composed and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a superb quintet that appeared at this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  

The American horror film really took off once Hollywood began recruiting talent from Europe, most notably from Germany. The German Expressionists had been exploring and exploiting the full visual potential of film for years, using unusual camera angles, fantastic sets and the elaborate interplay of light and shadow to create dramatic effects that gave rise to the modern horror film. Paul Leni, director of the classic German film Waxworks (1924), was hired by Laemmle and made his American debut with The Cat and the Canary, a comedy-horror film that essentially defined the haunted house thriller. The tale had already been a huge success on Broadway, but Leni brought a distinctly Germanic touch to the film version; his use of camera movement, evocative set design and other expressionistic techniques helped bring a new level of artistry to American film.  

He followed up a couple of years later with perhaps the highlight of the Kino collection, The Man Who Laughs, starring another German émigré, Conrad Veidt. The story, based on a novel by Victor Hugo, concerns the son of a politician who is kidnapped by a rival and has his face carved into a hideous smile by a gypsy surgeon. Eventually he finds refuge in a traveling freak show before finding himself drawn back into a world of political intrigue. The film was hugely influential in the horror genre, and even beyond it, the hero providing the inspiration for the character of the Joker in the Batman comic books.  

The set also includes a 1998 documentary on the origins and development of the horror film. Kingdom of Shadows, narrated by Rod Steiger, traces the themes and techniques of the genre from the earliest days of cinema through the beginning of the sound era, using excerpts from dozens of classic films.  

Another Kino release, though not quite a horror film, adds another dimension to the genre. A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), a British production, is more of a suspense film perhaps, or a psychological thriller with noirish overtones. Directed by Anthony Asquith, the film rivals Hitchcock for its use of suspense and the subjective camera in the delineation of a mind on the verge of collapse. The film is full of virtuoso techniques, from its flashback structure and shadowy photography to a heart-pounding scene set in a movie theater, where the mounting tension is created by dramatic close-ups and rapid-fire editing as a man's jealousy and rage build inside him until, finally, Asquith releases the tension with a satiric jab at the new phenomenon sweeping motion pictures: the talkies. And later, during the film's climax, there's a striking and innovative use of color to depict a moment of sudden violence. 

Also included on the set is Silent Britain, a new documentary celebrating the rediscovery of long-neglected silent film classics from the UK. 




Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) 

Image Entertainment. 



American Silent Horror (1920-1928) 




A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)