Chapter 1: The First Generation – Experimental
The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895) – Alfred Clark
The horror film is nearly as old as film itself. The first horror film, or at the very least the first gore film is The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895). 1895 was the year of the first public film screening by Auguste and Louis Lumière. The Execution of Mary Stuart was produced by Thomas Edison at his film studio, Black Maria, located on the Edison laboratory complex in West Orange, New Jersey. Black Maria, America’s first film studio, began its life only two years earlier.
The studio’s name was coined by employees W.K. Dickson and Jonathan Campbell, referring to the building’s resemblence to police vans – known colloquially as Black Marias.
The Execution of Mary Stuart was produced primarely to show off the ability of the film edit to change reality. As the executioner raises his blade, the actor (Mary was played by a man) is replaced by a mannequin. On the other side of the edit, the mannequin’s head is cut off in cinema’s first decapitation. The film is only eighteen seconds long.
The House of the Devil (1896) – George Méliés
Many of the early horror films are experimental in nature, and resemble magic shows. George Méliés, one of cinema’s first directors, was a magician by trade. By the age of ten, Méliés was building puppet theaters; by his teens he was creating complicated marionettes.
While he desired to study painting, Méliés was forced by his father to become a supervisor at his family’s shoe factory. While working at the factory, Méliés continued to develop his stage act. By 1885 he was performing on small stages such as Cabinet Fantastique at the Musée Grévin.
He was quite successful at his family’s company and was able to buy the well-known Theatre Robert Houdin in 1888. After the purchase, he left the shoe business to become a full-time stage illusionist.
On December 28, 1895 he was in the audience of the Lumière Brothers first public showing of their Cinématograph. He approached the brothers after the show with an offer to buy their projector. They refused. Less than a year later he built his own.
Filming one autumn day, Méliés accidentally jammed his camera. His mistake would change cinema forever. Watching his footage during processing, objects appeared out of nowhere, and other objects transformed. Méliés was awestruck. Cinema was magic.
The horror and science fiction genres (although it must be said that many of his films were comedic in nature) allowed him to experiment with many new techniques including splices that would allow a character to appear out of nowhere, dissolves, and multiple exposures.
His 1896 film The House of The Devil, ran over three minutes and included many revolutionary effects, most famously a skeleton that turns into a bat, and then into the Devil. The film has very little narrative. It tells a rather simplistic tale of a man who confronts the Devil.
Nevertheless, it has important groundbreaking visual effects. The short was thought to be lost after its debut. Luckily, a print turned up in an archive in New Zealand in 1988.
The Skeleton of Joy (1897) – The Lumière Brothers
This stop-motion short is a precursor to many familiar cartoons ranging from Warner Brothers shorts to Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride (2005). The Skeleton of Joy is a fantastic example of early visual effects – a seemingly full size skeleton dances, falls apart but keeps dancing, then reconstructs itself in the span of thirty five seconds. A simple and joyful short from cinema’s first master directors.
The Black Imp (1905) – George Méliés
The Black Imp is a simple yet effective Méliés film. He scaled back his ambition after his complex hand-colored science fiction film, A Trip to The Moon (1902), and delivered another playful comedy about a man terrorized by the Devil. Méliés, himself, plays a traveler who only wants some sleep. Chairs, a dresser, and the black imp all appear and disappear around the traveler on their own accord.
In the most famous shot, the man climbs atop the chairs and dresser, only for them to disappear, causing him to fall to the ground. Slick edits and a single theatrical framing enhance the feeling that the short is all one take, rather than the many cuts necessary to capture these apparitions. Watching this in 1905 must have seemed like witnessing magic.
The Red Scepter (1907) – Segundo de Chomón
At first blush this short looks to be nothing more than a Méliés knock-off. Nonetheless, The Red Scepter has a of couple neat tricks up its tinted sleeve. de Chomón was a Spanish director who produced most of his films in France. He was discovered by Charles Pathé, whose still extant film studio is the second oldest in the world.
The Red Scepter is yet again centered around the Devil, and constructed like a magic show, with the Devil as the central illusionist. While the costume and set design are very similar to Méliés films, this film has fantastic and original visual effects. People are shrunk down and placed into bottles, a triumph of multiple exposures.
After retiring from directing, de Chomón worked as a visual effects artist, most notably on Abel Gance’s five and a half hour silent epic Napoléon (1927), one of the earliest triptych widescreen films.