You’re asking for an argument with a question like, “What was the first horror film?” Other questions automatically follow. What is a horror film? What is a film? Who are you?
Rich Drees took a strong position at FilmBuffOnline in Edison’s Frankenstein: Cinema’s First Horror Film. (Can you guess which film he thinks it is?) Frankenstein was made by Edison Motion Picture Studios in 1910 and the studio was proactive in removing anything from the story they thought was too intense for the public.
To those familiar with Mrs. Shelly’s story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might by any possibility shock any portion of the audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.
Frankenstein (1910) is out of copyright, and it’s worth watching if you’ve never seen it. And there’s no doubt that Frankenstein (1910) is a horror film. It features a monster who is deployed by the script to tap into the oldest parts of the viewer’s brain, the bits that cause screaming or laughing or tiny episodes of involuntary peeing. It’s not wrong to point at Frankenstein (1910) and say it is… noteworthy. But was the first horror film not until 1910?
Unfortunately for Team Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde came earlier, in 1908. Produced by “Colonel” William Selig, this simple and moralistic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908) showed good guy Dr. Jekyll getting addicted to the elixir that releases the murderous ogre inside him. (Don’t do drugs, kids!) Selig Polyscope made hundreds of motion pictures, and in retrospect it would have been odd if they never dabbled in a “weird tale” or two.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908) is lost now, like most films from early cinema, so here is a little dancing skeleton courtesy of the Lumière brothers from 1897-1898.
Louis and Auguste Lumière were pioneers of the technology of filmmaking, and they were obviously about more than babies eating breakfast and trains pulling into stations. From the day it was born, cinema was as much about fooling the eye as it was about informing the mind. But is this little fella the star of our first horror film? No, but it was a close race.
Georges Méliès was a stage magician who tried to buy the tools of filmmaking from the Lumière boys and was firmly told to talk to the hand(s). But the Lumières were hardly the only name in the early-film patent wars, and Méliès was still able to set himself up a production company of his own. Méliès is revered now for his fantastical productions and special effects, including the iconic Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), the first science fiction film. (There’s less arguing about that one.)
In 1896, Méliès made a film called Le manoir du diable, translated variously as The House of the Devil, The Haunted Castle, and The Devil’s Castle. It’s a classic boy-meets-demon, demon-nearly-defeats-boy, boy-defeats-demon-with-a-crucifix story. (19th-century spoiler alert!) A medieval story it may be, but the presentation of it was cutting edge. And this, fine people, is our first horror film. Enjoy!❤