Almost from the very first, there were monsters stalking the silver screen. In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers invented the experience of seeing a movie with an audience, and a man at that first performance, Georges Méliès, decided to buy a camera of his own. But the Lumieres were documentarians; Méliès was a magician, and he was astounded by the tricks he could commit to film. His Le Voyage Dans La Lune, with its Wellsian Selenites (acrobats Méliès recruited from a Parisian theater), is a classic; its famous shot of the man in the moon remains instantly recognizable. But Méliès went beyond whimsy and charm; he wanted to shock, to thrill, to put the audience in his theater’s seats, even if they’d only need the edge. He played the devil twenty-four times, made movies about walking skeletons and mad scientists, and crept up towards the first vampire film. Goerges Méliès was interested in making magic on the screen; the horror movie was simply an intersection between commerce and his love of special effects. Monster movies blossomed in pre-war Germany, with F. W. Murnau‘s Nosferatu (an adaption of Dracula somewhat complicated by Murnau’s refusal to pay Bram Stoker’s widow for the rights to the name) being perhaps the most famous. But before Nosferatu, there was Der Golem. Fritz Lang had been unavailable, so Paul Wegener was tapped to direct; Wegener had previously done both a version of the Faust myth, The Student of Prague, and not one but two previous golem movies (one straight and one, amazingly enough, a sex comedy). Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World) is not just a wonderful piece of silent moviemaking and an glimpse at how a reasonably open-minded German’s conceived of Judaic life; it’s a mad scientist movie. Der Golem (and a later Wegener occult mad scientist movie, Rex Ingram’s The Magician, in which Wegener starred as a character loosely based on Aleister Crowley) are direct anscestors of the great James Whale‘s Frankenstein.
His portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster made Boris Karloff a star and, with Tod Browning‘s Dracula — Florence Stoker’s legal battle with Murnau over Nosferatu having resulted in torrents of free publicity and making the name worth legally licensing — ushered in a series of Universal monster movies. They were cheap, they were popular, and they were by and large not nearly as good as Browning’s and Whale’s original creations. Nor were they particularly scary; a few short years later, Abbott and Costello would be good buddies with the Monster, Dracula, and the Wolfman, and it wouldn’t seem out of place at all.
You don’t need to be a deep thinker like Julie Kristeva or Sigmund Freud to think about horror, although the connections are clear. Freud saw horror as arising the unheimlich, the "uncanny" (although the word is literally "unhomely", and perhaps that conveys the meaning better). The unheimlich, says Freud, is that which was once heimlich, familiar, but which has been changed. Freud said the "un" was the token of repression and thus veered off into the ideas about wombs, toilet training, and cigars that made him so popular with rich Viennese at the turn of the century, but the idea that horror ideally draws from defamiliarization — at least in the context of movies — seems sound. George Romero singlehandedly invented the zombie movie in 1968, with his low-budget (and shockingly intelligent) Night of the Living Dead. He didn’t have the budget for special effects; he just asked his extras to shamble, and the technique was successful enough to spawn an entire subgenre (and eventually a fast zombie versus slow zombie dustup). The great French B-movie Eyes Without a Face gets in a magnificently gross face transplant and a lyrically beautiful Cocteau-esque final scene, but the horror comes from the mad scientist’s daughter, eyes looking out from behind a mask that conceals… who knows what? (The barely controlled insanity Alida Valli projects as the mad scientist’s devoted assistant is impressive, as well; when she walked away from Joseph Cotton at the end of The Third Man, did she know what she was in for?) The horror of The Shining, Repulsion (a movie that left me feeling unclean), and The Exorcist is the horror of madness, of watching people transform before our eyes into something else.
In the end, without the magnetism of a Christopher Lee, a Boris Karloff, or a Paul Wegener, without something of the human ape within Dr. X’s creature, a monster movie is just a movie about a man in a rubber suit. These can be wonderful fun anyway, and they can induce other emotions, as the continuing popularity of the cat scare and the success of nausea-inducing Japanese horror films indicate. But surely when that lover of special effects Georges Méliès invented the horror movie, he never imagined three separate movies in which the monster of the week is the northern snakehead, nor one imagines, did he ever think that he would be the great-great-grandfather of a movie called Monsturd. The horror, the horror.