I enjoy educating others about film history and the early years of cinema.
1. House of the Devil (1896)
Directed by Georges Méliès, House of the Devil (1896) is considered the first horror film ever made and was deemed lost until a copy turned up at the New Zealand Film Archive in 1988. Its title has also been translated to Manor of the Devil, The Haunted Castle, The Devil's Manor, and The Devil’s Castle.
This series of sketches begins with a bat transforming into Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil. With the help of his assistant, he conjures demonic entities from a cauldron, which then go on to prank two men who enter the castle. In the end, one of the men uses a crucifix to make Mephistopheles disappear.
House of the Devil was filmed in Méliès's garden outside his home in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis. Actress Jehanne d'Alcy, who appeared in several of his films and eventually married him, played the role of a woman who emerges from the cauldron.
Some historians believe Mephistopheles was played by magician Jules-Eugène Legris, who later appeared in Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902). Others believe Méliès himself played the role.
2. A Terrible Night (1896)
In this horror-comedy by Georges Méliès, a man tries to get a good night’s sleep at an inn, but ends up wrestling a giant spider in an over-the-top, comedic manner.
The man, seeing a giant spider climbing the wall, picks up a broom, swats it down, and stomps on it. Then he dumps the dead spider in his chamber pot and goes back to bed, but finds he is unable to fall asleep now. Méliès himself played the man, and the spider was a pasteboard prop controlled by a wire, rather than a product of the special effects he was known for.
At the time, the premise of a person in a hotel bed trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep was popular among variety shows on stage. This film may have marked the first time the scenario was depicted on screen.
3. A Nightmare (1896)
Directed by Georges Méliès, A Nightmare (1896) could be considered the first dream sequence in film history, and the first use of psychological horror. Back when it was released by Méliès's Star Film Company, it was advertised as a scène fantastique, referring to the French term for a genre that encompasses science fiction, horror, and fantasy.
The film depicts a man in bed on a stage, trying to fall asleep. A beautiful woman appears at the edge of his bed, but as he eagerly sits up and tries to kiss her, she transforms into a minstrel, dances on the bed, and then transforms into a clown.
The background changes and the man finds himself on a balcony, where an enormous moon with a creepy face smiles down ominously. The moon expands in size and bites the man's arm, then laughs as the man flails about in pain.
The woman, the minstrel, and the clown all reappear and dance around the man, laughing and jeering at him. The terrified man hides under his blankets, then emerges to find that the scary trio has vanished and the room is back to normal.
4. The X-Ray Fiend (1897)
The work of accomplished photographer-turned-director George Albert Smith, The X-Ray Fiend (1897) was a horror-comedy that came out a mere two years after x-rays were invented. An audience full of people unaccustomed to the idea would have found it frightening and otherworldly.
The film begins with a man and a woman flirting while being observed by a professor. The professor turns on an x-ray and watches them flirting as skeletons, an effect that was achieved with glowing black bodysuits. After he turns the x-ray off, the pair have an argument and break up.
Prior to becoming a photographer and filmmaker, Smith worked as a stage hypnotist, psychic, inventor, and lecturer. He was also a key member of an informal group of British film pioneers called Brighton School, and a close friend and collaborator of Georges Méliès. Throughout his career he contributed to advances in film editing and the color film process.
5. The Bewitched Inn (1897)
The Bewitched Inn (1897) was another horror-comedy from Georges Méliès. It was the first time the director used his well-known trope of inanimate objects coming to life.
The plot was likely inspired by the Hanlon-Lees, a popular British acrobat group that performed comedy acts where they leapt through hidden trapdoors. In one particular skit, a guest at a candlelit hotel is pranked and tormented by an unseen presence.
In The Bewitched Inn, a traveler arrives at a small hotel, where he puts his luggage on the bed. His luggage disappears. Then he sets down his pith helmet, and it jumps and moves around on its own before disappearing as well. The traveler tries to light a candle, but it jumps across the room and explodes. As he undresses, his coat flies through the wall, his trousers fly through the ceiling, and his boots walk away.
Finally, the traveler jumps into bed, which disappears and reappears. This is the final straw that prompts him to leave the hotel.
6. Photographing a Ghost (1898)
Photographing a Ghost (1898), another one of George Albert Smith's films, could be considered a precursor to the paranormal investigation subgenre.
This lost film portrays three men who attempt to photograph a ghost, only to fail time and again as the ghost eludes them and throws chairs. In the end, the photographers are overcome by despair and give up trying.
The year before releasing Photographing a Ghost, Smith patented a method to make double exposures, having been influenced by photographer William Turner. Afterward, he then went on to co-develop and patent Kinemacolor, the first commercial cinema color system, in 1906.
7. The Cave of the Demons (1898)
The Cave of the Demons (1898) is about a woman who stumbles across a haunted cave, where she encounters the ghosts of people who died there.
This was the first film in which director Georges Méliès used multiple exposure, a camera technique in which two or more exposures are superimposed to create one image. Though the technique was used in photography as far back as 1890, this is its first recorded use in a moving picture.
As the film is currently lost, there are no records of its cast or crew. All that’s known for sure is that it was released by Star Film Company in 1898.
8. Resurrection of a Corpse (1898) / 9. Jizo the Spook (1898)
In 1898, Japanese film company Konishi Honten released two horror films: Shinin No Sosei, which translates to Resurrection of a Corpse, and Bake Jizo, which translates to Jizo the Spook, both written by Eijiro Hatta.
Shinin No Sosei told the story of a dead man who comes back to life, having fallen from a coffin that two men were carrying. Hatta himself played the dead man, while the coffin-bearers were played by Konishi employees Kobayashi and Soujiro Sugiura.
Though there are no records of the cast, crew, or plot of Bake Jizo, it was likely based on the Japanese legend of Jizo statues, believed to provide safety and protection. The presence of the word bake—which can be translated to “spook,” “ghost,” or “phantom”—may imply a haunted or possessed statue.
10. The Miser’s Doom (1899)
Walter R. Booth made his directorial debut with The Miser’s Doom (1899), a film about a miser who is haunted by the ghost of a poor woman he took money from. The trauma of this encounter makes him die of shock.
Booth started out as a magician before working on trick films, a genre designed for the sole purpose of featuring special effects. He went on to direct the first British animated film, The Hand of the Artist (1906).
Over the course of 20 years, Booth would direct over 160 short films. Afterward he specialized in producing advertisements, including a commercial for Cadbury’s cocoa and chocolate.
Honorable Mention: The Joyous Skeleton (1898)
In 1898, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière directed a one-minute film of a dancing stop-motion skeleton, who keeps falling apart and putting his bones back together again. The title, Le Squelette Joyeux, can be translated as The Joyous Skeleton, The Dancing Skeleton, The Cheerful Skeleton, or The Skeleton of Joy.
This was more of an experimental film than an attempt at horror. But it deserves credit for being the first to portray a skeleton, even if its portrayal was more comedic than scary. Skeletons would later appear in several of Georges Méliès’s films, so this may have been an influence on his work.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Niraj Vishwakarma from Kolkata, India on October 21, 2017:
Surendra Mohan P from India on October 17, 2017: