The First Horror Movie And The Evolution of The Genre

The trajectory of horror cinema spans a century, marked by peaks and valleys that have led to the complex landscape we navigate today. The genesis of horror as a cinematic genre can be traced back to the pioneering works of George Mellies, a pivotal figure in the history of film.

In the mid-1890s, shortly after the emergence of early filmmakers, Mellies crafted ‘Le Manoir du Diable’ in 1896, also known as ‘The Haunted Castle’ or ‘The House of the Devil’. This seminal three-minute film is often regarded as the first-ever horror movie.

Despite being rediscovered only in 1977, Mellies’ pioneering work paved the way for the evolution of horror cinema.

Also Read: The Pinocchio Horror Movie Unveils R-Rated Details: “Lots of Practical Gore”

The Pinnacle Period of Horror Films

The 1920s and 1930s are hailed as the golden age of horror cinema, characterised by a rich tapestry of iconic films that defined the genre. This period can be divided into two halves: the silent era and the advent of talkies. During the silent era, groundbreaking classics like ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1920) and ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) emerged, setting new standards for unsettling storytelling.

These films were pioneers in their attempts to captivate and disturb audiences without the aid of spoken dialogue, relying instead on atmospheric visuals and haunting imagery.

The 1930s witnessed a pivotal shift with the emergence of sound in cinema, leading to the birth of horror stars and the formal recognition of the genre. This era also marked the first official use of the term “horror” to categorise these dark, often macabre narratives. Overall, the 1920s and 1930s stand as a testament to the enduring legacy of horror cinema, showcasing a period of innovation, artistic daring, and cultural impact that continues to influence filmmakers and audiences to this day.

The Atomic Era of Horror Films

The film ‘Freaks’ was banned for thirty years in the country that really came into its own during this period: Great Britain. The Hammer horror company, though founded in 1934, only started to become prolific during the fifties. When it did, it achieved near global dominance thanks to a lucrative distribution deal with Warner and a few other U.S. studios. Adaptations of classics like ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘Dracula,’ and ‘The Mummy’ put the company squarely on the map, followed by a slew of psychological thrillers and TV shows.

Another hallmark of the 40s-50s era of horror was influenced by the times. With war ravaging Europe and fears of nuclear fallout running rampant, horror began to feature antagonists that were less supernatural in nature. Radioactive mutation became a common theme, as seen in ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ and ‘Godzilla’. The fear of invasion was also prevalent with ‘The War of the Worlds’ and ‘When Worlds Collide’,’ both big hits in 1953. These films marked the earliest rumblings of the “disaster” movie genre, which would take a couple more decades to get into full swing.

The Era of Gimmicks

First Horror Movie
Image Courtesy: Screen Rant

In the 1950s and 60s, theatres experimented with 3D glasses, electric buzzers in seats, and even paid stooges to scare audiences. This trend of interactive gimmicks spilled into other genres but eventually faded due to high costs. For horror, this era saw a shift toward low-budget productions.

The period’s fascination with religious evil brought about horror milestones like ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) and ‘The Omen’ (1976), marking the resurgence of supernatural themes. Literature once again became a prominent source for cinematic horror, echoing the genre’s origins.

The Dawn of Horror Movie Slashers

First Horror Movie
Image Courtesy: Tubi

If there’s one trope that typifies the 80s, it’s the slasher format – a relentless antagonist hunting down and killing a group of kids in increasingly inventive ways, one by one. This trend arguably kicked off with ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ in 1974, leading to a prolific output over the next decade. While many of these films were generic, a few stood out and became cult classics, despite mixed critical reception at the time.

Prominent examples include Halloween, ‘Friday the 13th’, and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, which achieved such success that they spawned long-running franchises. This marked the first time in the history of the genre that multiple sequels became commonplace, solidifying the slasher format as a defining element of 80s horror cinema.

The Modern Era

The state of the horror industry is a topic of heated debate. Critics argue that the genre is stagnating, overly reliant on remakes, reboots, and endless sequels with little originality. The resurgence of ‘torture porn’ as a subgenre, revitalized by franchises like ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ in the 2000s, has also faced backlash, with some feeling it offers nothing new or meaningful to modern audiences.

However, there are bright spots that suggest a promising future for horror. Films like ‘Cabin in the Woods’ (2012) have been praised as this decade’s Scream, while ‘The Babadook’ and ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ (both 2014) have injected fresh perspectives into the genre. Jordan Peele has emerged as a new horror maestro, with original films such as ‘Get Out’ (2017), ‘Us’ (2019), and ‘Nope’ (2022) topping Rotten Tomatoes’ best horror movie lists and showcasing his unique approach to storytelling and social commentary.

-Sushmita Sarkar