Critical Essays The American Horror Film and the Influence of German Expressionism


What exactly is a "horror film," or, more specifically, what exactly is horror? In what ways are our expectations different when we go to see a horror film than when we go to see a "western film" or a "science fiction film"? What is it that we hope to experience when we go to see a "horror film"?

Certainly, we expect to be "terrified," whatever that may be, or at least we are prepared to be "frightened" in some way; we expect the hair to rise on the back of our necks. But what is it that terrifies us, or "frightens" us, or, essentially, incites in us a sense of horror? Is it the presence of "horrible creatures" — however we may imagine them? Or is it the presence of ghosts, or other kinds of supernatural creatures, that frightens us? Certainly, the supernatural is present in all these experiences, and human beings generally fear the supernatural because things supernatural are considered hostile to human life. The fact that human beings fear the supernatural can be observed every Sunday; priests and ministers, for example, often exhort us to fear God. Yet God, ideally, is not hostile to human life.

Thus, some consideration of what horror is may help us to arrive at some tentative conclusion about the nature of horror. Tentatively, perhaps we can consider what horror does: Horror reaffirms the sacred, or Holy, through a formulaic plot in which human beings encounter the demonic, or Un-Holy. If there are Un-Holy beings, by implication, there are Holy beings. To test this tentative hypothesis, perhaps an application of it to classic horror stories would be helpful.

This hypothesis is certainly applicable to Dracula. The Count has a terrifying sense of the demonic about him, suggested superficially by his appearance. Yet religious artifacts such as the cross affect the Count (in fact, it has become a popular cultural cliché that to ward off a vampire, all one has to do is brandish a cross — even if the "cross" is no more than crossed forefingers).

Horror has an interesting history. Essentially, the Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft posits the existence of a race of supernatural beings which are hostile to human life, eagerly awaiting their chance to reclaim the earth and rid it of human beings. Lovecraft, especially in such stories as "The Colour Out of Space," "The Shadow over Innsmouth," and "The Rats in the Walls," was perhaps the first Western author to write exclusively in the horror genre, and he quickly learned how to manipulate the intuitive revulsion that human beings have towards tentacled and clawed creatures. And, in addition, Lovecraft's creatures, besides being hideously and abnormally ugly, reek horribly.

Of course, there are other works of horror which do not precisely conform to the tentative definition of horror, such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Yet what these works posit is that if there is anything demonic or Un-Holy that exists, it consists of those obscure motivations and desires which lurk within the human mind. These works conform to what we can label "modern horror," as opposed to "classic horror."

Concerning "classic horror," one of the first great horror films, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), certainly subscribes to the "modern horror" genre also. What is ostensibly a tale of insane authority becomes the musings of a madman. In fact, the influence of German Expressionism on Hollywood films of the Thirties and Forties was tremendous. As an art form, Expressionism is generally considered to be best represented by the works of Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Edward Munch. In painting, Expressionistic art is characterized by a sense of imbalance in the pictorial arrangements in order to achieve distortion; the use of oblique angles and sharp curves; a distortion of line and color, where primary colors are generally used in violent contrast; and a subjective vision of the exterior world. Expressionism also usually incorporates the style of grisaille, painting in grey monotone in which objects are often seen only with a suggestion of form and outline without attention to precise detail. The content of Expressionistic art is characterized by its grotesqueness and implausibility. It is a revolt against both Naturalism and Impressionism and has similar counterparts in literature and sculpture.

The enormously creative German cinema in the 1920s was influenced, on the one hand, by the theater of Max Reinhardt, an innovative stage director, and, on the other, it was influenced by Expressionistic art. The advances in lighting techniques, pioneered by Reinhardt, coupled with the rise of Expressionism, was of supreme importance to the experimental film-makers in post World War I Germany. Most of the actors in the early Expressionistic films were members of Reinhardt's acting company; later, some of them became film directors themselves.

The first great Expressionistic masterpiece in film is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, and directed by Robert Wiene. Janowitz was deeply impressed by the work of Paul Wegener, a member of Reinhardt's acting troupe, who had directed the influential Student of Prague (1913), in collaboration with the Dane Stellan Rye, and The Golem (1915), remade in 1920.

Many of the Expressionistic film-makers in Germany during the Twenties eventually came to the United States. Caligari screenwriter Carl Mayer did, as well as Conrad Veidt, the actor who played the somnambulist Cesare in Caligari. (Veidt, interestingly enough, was also a member of Reinhardt's acting company.) In addition to these men, the great German film director F. W. Murnau, who directed the first "vampire" film, Nosferatu (1922), also went to Hollywood and directed several important films. The innovative Expressionistic cinematographer Karl Freund, who had photographed Wegener's 1920 version of The Golem and Fritz Lang's science-fiction classic, Metropolis (1927), became one of the most in demand cinematographers in Hollywood. Freund was the cinematographer of Dracula (1931), and he also became an accomplished film director. He directed such horror film masterpieces as The Mummy (1932, the first of the series) and Mad Love (1934). Mad Love starred the now famous, late actor Peter Lorre, who achieved stardom with his powerful portrayal of the child murderer in Fritz Lang's M (1931). Fritz Lang, director of Metropolis (1927), was the first scheduled director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but he was committed to finish an earlier project. The Expressionist Paul Leni, a set designer for Max Reinhardt, came to the United States in 1927 and directed Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (1928), a silent film produced by Universal Pictures. Leni is important because he singlehandedly developed a new genre of the horror film, juxtaposing scenes which utilized carefully designed and lighted sets and uniquely focused cameras against scenes intended as comic interludes. Leni's unique approach was certainly an influence on James Whale, the director of the first two Frankenstein films. Leni's influence can also be found in the work of Whale's art director for the first two Universal Frankenstein pictures — Charles D. Hall, who was the art director for Leni's The Man Who Laughs (1928), The Cat and the Canary (1927), and The Last Warning (1929). Although Leni's output was slight (he died in Hollywood in 1929), he was an important link between the German and American cinemas.

Thus, the influence of German Expressionism on early Hollywood films is profound and readily evident. Most directors truly concerned about film art knew of the German Expressionistic films and learned from them. Upon close examination of the classic horror films of the Thirties, it is discovered that these films are not simply idle "crowdpleasers," but serious attempts by concerned individuals at producing art.

Back to Top