This week marks the release of The Gallows. A found footage horror that’s been described as a new spin on I Know What You Did Last Summer with all the shaky camerawork and heavy breathing to accompany the low budget format. As that comparison implies - the story revolves around a bloodthirsty local legend. Instead of a psychopathic fisherman, this bunch of doomed teens fear the ghost of a former high school drama student.
Let’s face it; found footage movies are lucrative. Glossy high production values aren’t a concern. The primary goal is to terrify an audience through the false belief that the footage they’re watching actually happened. Films shot in this manner typically avoid conventional cinematography, meshing together their handheld style and spooky content to cause maximum dread. It’s a formula that works because it’s cheap and makes stacks of cash.
In the revolving-door spirit of the horror genre, this novelty soon wears off. Come on, The Blair Witch Project was 16 years ago - let’s move it along. To where? The next generation of scaremongers could always return to the source, the pioneers of horror, for inspiration…
The consensus on what constitutes the very first horror movie wavers between a couple. George Melies’ Le Manoir du Diable (The Devil’s Manor - also referred to as The Devil’s House/Castle/Boudoir, etc.) from 1896 is an ambitious effort. Its brevity is only matched by the volume of tropes Melies plagues his picture with. Haunted castles, bats, witches looming over cauldrons, revived skeletons, demons… the list goes on, unlike the film itself which comes to an end in three minutes.
The second film often roped into this debate hails from Thomas Edison. The same man who invented the light bulb also helped usher in the first motion picture device - the Kinetoscope. He chose to test-run his invention by producing a group of shorts. One of which is 1895’s The Execution of Mary Stuart that also doubles as the first horror based on a real-life event. The death of Mary Queen of Scots. Like Melies’ movie, it is concise - clocking in at a whopping 18 seconds - but shows the brutal beheading of the former monarch. The true first horror depends on your personal preference.
Monsters Of All Shapes
The fledgling era of horror, back in the early 1900s was nothing like today. There were no remakes, reboots, resets. Narrative moviemaking took its tentative first steps, and turned to an entire history of literature untapped by the motion picture medium. A pantheon of monsters populating novels such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula were ripe for the plucking. Bloodsuckers rose to prominence in the 1910s, along with werewolves, mummies and zombies.
The monster’s true onscreen debut predates every one of those: Thomas Edison’s production house adapted Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1910. It’s only 13 minutes long, but who needs more than that when you’ve got a beast that emanates from a chemical concoction? Yes, Edison and director J. Searle Dawley took several liberties with Shelley’s manuscript.
Bumps In The Night
In recent years, horror has taken a sharp bend back toward a traditional archetype: the haunted house. Sinister and The Conjuring are two such examples of this revival that preys on a universal fear - there’s a ghost in your house. And it’s probably pissed about something that happened centuries ago.
Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ghost Breaker first exploited that idea in 1914, with the story revolving around a ghostly presence taking command of a homestead to terrify an impressionable youngster. In a convoluted series of events, a crime reporter ends up in the suitcase of a woman headed for a Cuban mansion tied up in her inheritance. Needless to say, they are not alone.
And proof that the horror remake isn’t a modern invention, the film spawned three, released in 1922, 1940, and 1953.
Stalk ‘n’ Slash
Much blood has been spilled concerning the true definition of a slasher. The loose boundaries of the mode mean that, depending on if you believe Leatherface and his rusty chainsaw to be slasher icons, it’s tricky to nail down the bona fide slasher debut.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho introduced the knife-wielding maniac to mainstream audiences in 1960, and also perpetuated another slasher craze started in the 1950s: killing off the main star. Just as audiences weren’t expecting Janet Leigh to perish so early on, the death of Drew Barrymore in 1996’s Scream had a similar effect. Does this make Anthony Perkins the first genuine slasher villain though?
Many deem the 1974 film Black Christmas as the first of its kind. Its compliance with most of the agreed-upon slasher criteria imply that it’s a strong contender for the crown. As Friday the 13th and Halloween would later mimic, the film picks off a group of unsuspecting teens one by one by a masked killer. Filmmakers today still ransack Black Christmas for the techniques it uses to heighten tension; killer point-of-view shots and calls coming from inside the house in particular.
The post-modern horror: Its descriptor is often egregiously misused, when the inferred meaning “The film exacts its terror on the basis of your pre-existing genre knowledge” is better described as self-reflexive. But, let’s not get bogged down in the finer details of postmodernity. The self-aware horror combats the exhaustion and anxiety of the genre’s trappings through awareness of its own shortcomings: it knows things got bad in the ‘80s and wants to make up.
As a teen slasher crammed with intertextual references to other titles, Wes Craven’s Scream is credited with heralding this self-aware era of horror. But it was just pipped to the post. Without investigating the specificity of what constitutes self-reflexive horror - Peeping Tom, The Funhouse and April Fool’s Day all contribute to the debate - the first case of brazen self-awareness is Craven’s 1994 film New Nightmare.
The story follows the production of a new Freddy Krueger movie. Everyone in the film plays a fictionalised version of themselves, including Craven, the final girl Heather Langenkamp and original Freddy Robert Englund. It reappropriates the past through bloody pastiche, strengthening the weaknesses of previous Nightmare on Elm Street sequels by murdering its own villain. Now that’s how you impart irony over your own discourse - with a razor.
The pleasure in watching horror is that none of it is real. Teenagers getting hacked up. Innocent children whisked away to alternate dimensions. Backpackers suffering the most inhumane torture. One technique to heighten a sense of realism was introduced in Ruggero Deodato’s controversial Cannibal Holocaust.
The Italian director’s gore-soaked tale captures the story of a documentary crew whose investigative trip to the Amazon goes awry, when their subjects - an indigenous tribe of cannibals - butcher them. The movie follows the rescue team who discover the first team’s reels and splice them together. Voila - found footage was born.
Deodato’s influential shooting style was overshadowed by another ‘horror first’. He condoned the actual slaughter of live animals on set — including the graphic mutilation and murder of a sea turtle.
The silent German film from 1914 - The Golem - was long-considered the first creature feature. Even though we now know it’s not (see above), there is another major achievement that can be attributed to the creativity of its writer-director-actor Paul Wegener. The horror movie franchise.
Following the reasonable success of his debut, Wegener continued to conjure up low budget features inspired by the legend of the Golem. Its mythical roots stem from a belief that inanimate matter can be shaped into human form and blessed with life — perfect horror fodder. So perfect was it that the German helmer wrote and directed its two sequels, The Golem and the Dancing Girl and The Golem: How He Came Into The World.
The influence of this trilogy can be witnessed across the last century. Even the narrative development and chronology of the movies - the first establishes the world, the second expands it, and the third is a prequel - continues to be the framework for contemporary horror trilogies. Just listen to Randy.