On the last episode of horror I compared two film adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These films, released in 1912 and 1913, were 12 minutes and 26 minutes in length, respectively. The comparison was meant to demonstrate just how rapidly the medium of film was progressing towards the advent of feature-length films. If those films were examples of shadows lengthening, then on this episode darkness has now fallen. Feature-length films are finally here.
The First Feature-Length Films
Jumping right in, the first feature-length film was released in 1906, and it is an Australian movie entitled The Story of the Kelly Gang. It is one of the films credited with beginning the bushranger genre of films, a popular film type in Australia that might best be compared to the American Western. The film is said to have been 60 minutes in length, being equal to the cut off point for what is considered a feature-length film. Unfortunately, much of the film is now lost. As of 2020, only 17 minutes of the film are known to still exist.
The first feature length film released in Europe is believed to have been The Prodigal Son. This 90 minute movie was released in 1907 and is now considered lost. I’m also not sure I agree with calling The Prodigal Son the first feature-length film. Technically, it is a motion picture lasting over 60 minutes in length, but the film is described as being a recording of a three act stage play. Literally just a stationary camera set up in front of a play happening on a stage. It’s sort of like if you happened to live in Hollywood, California, and you recorded your kid’s school play on your iPhone. It would technically be true if you started telling people that your child starred in a Hollywood movie, but you and I both know that’s not really what the term means. At the very least, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the 1907 version of The Prodigal Son was not adapted to the strengths of the film medium.
The next milestone might be the 1909 adaptation of Les Miserables, which many call the first feature-length film made in America. The film was directed by James Stuart Blackton, a name that Horrid listeners may recall as Blackton was discussed in detail on episode four. Blackton is the American director that was responsible for mixing animation techniques with live action, creating for the successful short film The Haunted Hotel. Once again though, I’m not sure I agree that this adaptation of Les Miserables really qualifies as a feature-length film. Technically the film was shot as four separate short films, each of which was released months apart. While the four installments can be played back to back to create a longer, feature-length film, I can’t help but feel that this is again a truth based only on a technicality and not the spirit of the term.
It probably should also be mentioned that while Les Miserables is believed to be the first American feature-length film, this is really a very difficult title to determine with complete certainty. There were just so many movies being released in the early days of film, and so many of those have now been lost, that is difficult to know for sure that another, earlier film doesn’t really hold the rightful claim to the title.
L’Inferno (1911): The First Feature-Length Horror Film
Let’s move on to films specifically related to the horror genre. The first feature-length movie that film scholars tend to associate with horror is the L’Inferno, an Italian film released in 1911 and which is based on Dante’s epic poem the Divine Comedy. The poem is written as three parts, depicting Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, respectively. The film is based on the first part of the Divine Comedy, or what is commonly referred to as Dante’s Inferno.
The film is credited as having been directed by three individuals: Francesco Bertolini, Adologo Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro. Records don’t make it clear exactly how the directing responsibilities were shared, but the film is known to have been in production for over three years. In the leading role of Dante is Salvatore Papa, and Arturop Pirovano plays the part of Virgil. All of these individuals are best known for their participation in the making of L’Inferno.
Let’s start with a brief summary of the film:
Dante imagines that he is lost in a forest of sin, a physical metaphor for his life. He is blocked from ascending the hill of salvation by three wild beasts representing avarice, pride, and lust. Dante retreats, as he is unsure whether to attempt to overcome these obstacles when salvation is not guaranteed. Beatrice, Dante’s idea of the ideal woman, descends from Paradise and asks the poet Virgil to act as Dante’s guide through the Nine Circles of Hell. On their travels, Dante sees the river Styx and watches as the ferryman, Charon, transports the souls of the dead. The poets also encounter various mythical figures, like Cerebus, the three-headed watchdog of the underworld, the three furies, and even Lucifer himself.
I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not I think L’Inferno really counts as the first full-length horror film. On the one hand, I don’t think anyone would classify the Divine Comedy as a horror novel. However, the thematic elements of horror are inarguably present throughout the hour long film.
As the poets move through the various circles of hell, all sorts of otherworldly horror are presented to the audience. Headless and limbless souls are seen wandering through Hell, and others are seen burning in pits of fire. At one point the Muslim prophet Muhammad is depicted in a sequence in which his chest tears open to expose his entrail. Finally, at the climax of the film, a giant depiction of Lucifer is seen literally devouring the bodies of the damned. Over all, it’s a fairly gorey depiction of Hell, one that seems much more modern than I would have thought to be depicted back in 1911 when the film was released.
Contrary to my thoughts on the George Melies film The House of Devil, I think it is clear that these grotesque visuals in L’Inferno are intended to horrify the audience. From a narrative standpoint, the punishments in Hell are meant to scare Dante to lead a pious and righteous life and, by proxy, the audience as well.
This point of view is supported by a letter written by Nancy Mitford after she saw L’Inferno in a theater in England when she was seventeen years old. Mitford went on to be an English novelist, best known for two semi-autobiographical novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. In a letter dated April 18, 1922, she writes:
Dante last night was most bloodthirsty and exciting. Eleven murders close to with details, a man’s hands chopped off very close to and full of detail, and [a] man dying of starvation and eating another man […] I never saw anything like it before, it was enough to make you dream for nights […] Every time a person was murdered you saw him being taken down there with dire results.
Ultimately, I think her letter reads with the same thrill and excitement that one feels after watching a good horror movie. With this in mind, I think it is fair to say that L’Inferno can be classified as the first feature-length horror film. While the original work might not be classified as horror, I do think there is something to be said for how the nature of visually representing a work can change how that work is interpreted by an audience.
Nudity in Horror Movies
Over time, the horror movie genre has become known for certain tropes. Violence and gory special effects are among these, and L’Inferno is certainly not lacking in either of these areas. Another stereotype of the horror genre is excessive and largely unnecessary nudity. The slasher films of the 1980s were especially guilty of this, although I’ve found the genre has largely moved away from this, beginning with Scream in 1996, and continuing with the I Know What You Did Last Summer Films, all the way into the 21st century. I’m certainly not saying that nudity has gone away completely, but I do find it is far less common in genre films than it once was.
But, I digress.
I bring up the topic at all, because I was surprised to find that the very first feature-length horror film was also the first movie to feature both male and female nudity. Through the various depictions of Hell in L’Inferno, we see several groups of damned souls in various states of undress. Most are wearing loincloths, but others are not. The quality of the surviving film is admittedly poor, so it can be difficult to make out the full details, if you know what I mean. Further, the directors never linger on any of the nudity in the titillating or exploitive manner of later films; the nudity that is there is presented in a passing, matter-of-fact way. It would seem that some tropes of the genre were established early, which is to say immediately.
While erotic films were being made right along ever since the invention of the moving picture, L’Inferno can claim to be the first mainstream film to feature nudity. One more fun fact, according to AMC’s Filmsite.org, full-frontal male nudity would not appear in a mainstream movie again until Women in Love, a film from the UK released in 1969.
The Avenging Conscience (1914)
I was also curious as to the identity of the first full-length horror movie produced in America. As it turns out, this credit belongs to D.W. Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience; or, Thou Shalt Not Kill. The movie was released in 1914 and has a 78-minute runtime, clearly qualifying for status as a full-length film. Note that there were several other American-made feature-length films released before The Avenging Conscience, but this is clearly the first horror movie among them.
Oddly enough, you will find a lot of sources online that refer to Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of A Nation, as the first American feature-length film. More than one film scholar has suggested that this is due to the controversy surrounding the film, the story of which paints a sympathetic picture of the Ku Klux Klan. The idea that the first American-made film would be one so embroiled in racism makes for a good story, but it is demonstrably not true.
The Birth of A Nation is also often cited as the first film shown in the White House, having been shown to the pro-segregation President Woodrow Wilson on Feb 18, 1915. Both NPR and The Washington Post have claimed this to be true, but this again is just a sensationalized story. The first film shown at the White House was an Italian epic entitled Cabiria, and was shown 8 months beforehand in June of 1914.
As mentioned, David Wark Griffith was the director of both The Avenging Conscience and The Birth of A Nation. He ultimately directed nearly 500 films before making his final film in 1931. Griffith is now widely regarded as the most important film director of his generation, and is often credited with creating the language of modern motion pictures. More on that in a bit. Among his industry achievements, Griffith was a found member of the Motion Picture Academy, and he co-founded the United Artists production company alongside Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickworth, and Douglas Fairbanks. United Artists was another important step forward for the film industry, as the studio’s founding premise was to allow actors and directors more control over their own interests.
The story of The Avenging Conscience is inspired primarily by two works by Edgar Allen Poe. Poe himself is a towering figure in the world of horror literature, credited with creating the detective story, and famous for many of his twisted and terrifying tales, among them classics like The Raven, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Fall of the House of Usher.
The first Poe work upon which The Avenging Conscience is based is Annabel Lee, a haunting poem telling of the premature death of a young man’s love. The poem suggests that the seraphs in Heaven were jealous of their perfect love, and sent a chill across the night sky to kill the young girl. The poem is believed to be semi-autobiographical, based on Poe’s wife, Virginia Clemm, who died from tuberculosis when she was 24 years old.
The second Poe work is The Tell-Tale Heart, a first-person horror short story, which tells the tale of a paranoid narrator that is living in a small apartment with an older man. The narrator is increasingly fixated and disturbed by the blind eye of the old man, becoming convinced that the eye is evil and that it’s gaze is fixed upon him. Eventually, the narrator is driven to madness and murders the old man, hiding the body beneath the floorboards of the apartment. The police eventually come to ask the narrator about the missing old man, and over the course of the interrogation the narrator begins to hear the incessant beating of the old man’s heart where it lays beneath the wooden floor. Eventually, the beating heart and the overbearing guilt drive the man to confess to the murder.
The Avenging Conscience is not a straightforward adaptation or either Annabel Lee or The Tell-Tale Heart. Griffith, who also wrote the script, takes the essences of these works and blends them into an original tale. The story is that of a character named The Nephew, who is raised by The Uncle from birth after his mother dies while birthing him. The whereabouts of the Father are never addressed. The Uncle raises the Nephew to be a man of words, hoping that the boy will grow up to be an author. Here lies or first hints of the inspirations taken by Griffith, as the Nephew is seen reading several works by Edgar Allen Poe early in the film.
Now grown up, the Nephew has fallen in love with a Woman who signs a love letter to him as “She whom you have chosen to name Annabel.” The Uncle is frustrated by the blooming relationship, as he believes that the Woman is distracting the Nephew from realizing his potential as a writer. Annabel comes to the house to try to make peace with the Uncle, but in a tense scene, the Uncle insults her and forbids the Nephew from seeing her.
As a result, the couple break up, and the Nephew begins to spiral. He visits a local park to clear his head, but becomes transfixed by the cycle of violence he sees in nature. He watches as a spider kills a fly caught in its web, and then as the spider is overcome and killed by a group of ants. It’s an interesting sequence, and speaks towards D.W. Griffith’s contributions to the so-called language of film. This is the first time in any of the films that I’ve watched for Horrid where the picture being presented contains meaning beyond that which is being visually represented. The nephew watches the natural cycle of violence, and even without any dialog the audience can sense the internal conflict that has been sparked.
Beforelong, the Nephew murders the Uncle, choking him to death, and sealing up the body behind the brick wall of the fireplace. The Nephew’s fragile state of mind begins to unravel further, as he starts to see the Uncle’s ghost manifest in the house and when he tries to reconcile with Annabel. The special effects are good, the translucent visage of the Uncle appearing through the use of double exposure techniques. In this type of effect, two different images are laid on top of each other, with one being less than full opacity so that both images can be seen. It’s a great effect to use for a ghostly apparition.
At the climax of the film, the Nephew is interrogated by a local detective at the behest of one of the Uncle’s friends. The interrogation proceeds much as you might expect for a story based on Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Recall, however, that this is a silent film, and the filmmakers are unable to use audio to portray the maddening beating of the dead man’s heart. Instead, Griffith makes impressive use of active visuals to simulate the heartbeat. Just over the Nephew shoulder, the pendulum of a clock is seen swinging back and forth. Before long, the Nephew is fixated on the detective’s tapping foot, and then the tapping of his pencil against the desk. An owl appears in the window, and its hooting matches the metronome like pulse of all the other visual elements throughout the scene. It’s really an amazing use of visuals, and you can feel the Nephew’s tension grow. Finally, the Nephew snaps. The Nephew, in his madness, watches as an apparition of himself murders his Uncle as he manically confesses everything to the detective.
The film continues from there, but honestly would have been better off ending closer to the climatic confession scene. There’s a prolonged chase sequence in which the Nephew tries to escape from the detective, but is unsuccessful. Finally, the Nephew hangs himself and, seeing his body, Annabell throws herself off of a cliff. It’s all very sad as the police finish wrapping up the scene when, suddenly, the film fades back to the Nephew sleeping in a chair in the living room. It was all just a dream! The Uncle is still alive, he apologizes to Annabel, and the Nephew and Annabel wed. They enjoy each other’s company on a wonderful beach, reading from the Nephew’s completed and successfully published writings, as forest cherubs dance and sing. I’m not kidding, that’s really how the movie ends. Forest cherubs.
Despite the lackluster happy ending, The Avenging Conscience is a really enjoyable horror movie. That it also has the distinction of being the first full-length horror film made in the United States, is only a further feather in its metaphorical cap. Griffith uses his skills to build a film that, for the first time, has the atmosphere of a modern horror movie.
The Beginnings of Film Criticism
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one that was impressed by The Avenging Conscience. The practice of film criticism was in its infancy during the early 1910’s, and the very first book on film theory is widely regarded to be The Art of the Moving Picture, written by Vachel Lindsay and published in 1915.
Lindsay was an American poet, known for bringing back a style of singing poetry and was highly regarded by W. B. Yeats. In his early career he also took great pleasure in motion pictures, championing the medium at a time when it was considered low class as compared other arts that were longer established. Again, Lindsay’s book The Art of the Moving Picture is widely regarded as the first book on film criticism, and Lindsay dedicates 12 pages to the discussion of Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience. A quote from the text:
There is one outstanding photoplay that I always have in mind when I think of film magic.[…] It is Griffith’s production of The Avenging Conscience. It is also an example of that rare thing, a use of old material that is so inspired that it has the dignity of a new creation.
[…] The Avenging Conscience is no dilution of Poe, but an adequate interpretation, a story he might have written.
I find it funny that horror films are so often maligned in the view of mainstream film critics. And yet, here we have an example of a horror film being part of the founding theses that would become the basis of film studies for years to come.
The full versions of both L’Inferno and The Avenging Conscience can be viewed on the transcript page for this episode on horridpodcast.com. There are also links to the OpenLibrary, where you can borrow a copy of Vachel Lindsay’s book, The Art of the Moving Picture.
If you’ve noted any factual errors in this episode, please send a message to [email protected]. That email address is working now, I promise. You can follow Horrid on Twitter and Instagram, @HorridPodcast, and you can follow me, @DocManson.
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Until next time, stay scared.
References & Further Reading
- “The Story of the Kelly Gang.” Wikipedia, 11 Nov. 2020. Wikipedia.
- “L’Inferno.” Wikipedia, 16 Nov. 2020. Wikipedia.
- Mitford, Nancy. Love from Nancy : The Letters of Nancy Mitford. London : Sceptre, 1994. Internet Archive.
- “Nudity in Film.” Wikipedia, 17 Nov. 2020. Wikipedia.
- Silently, Movies. “Silent Movie Myth: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Was the First Feature and the First Film Shown at the White House.” Movies Silently, 7 Sept. 2015.
- Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Wiley, 2006.
- Petrić, Vlada. “Griffith’s ‘The Avenging Conscience’: An Early Dream Film.” Film Criticism, vol. 6, no. 2, Allegheny College, 1982, pp. 5–27. Journal Storage (JSTOR).
- Lindsay, Vachel. The Art of the Moving Picture. New York : Macmillan, 1915. Internet Archive.