The First Ever Horror Film

October 5, 2011 by Joseph Chandler Cain

I was flipping through late-night programming when I stumbled upon Turner Classic Movies (one of my favorites), and was transported to a reality that had me rolling in thought and imagery as I tried to fall asleep. I had the pleasure of watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I had seen this movie years ago, when I was much younger and much less appreciative of nuanced horror. I am going to agree with the prevailing thought on this movie, it truly is the first horror movie ever made. The horror genre did not have a “label” when this movie was made in 1920. No, that’s not a typo, this movie was made in 1920 and it is pretty darn scary even today.

I would even touch the third rail of zombidom by saying this could be the first pseudo-zombie movie made as well. Yes, White Zombie (1932) is widely considered the first zombie movie, but the underpinnings of the genre are found in Caligari.

From the opening title card, a crude looking wacky-font piece of work, through the rich stark contrasts and surreal scenery, to the end credits this movie is really a mind trip if there ever was one. The zombie conceptualization is seen within the story, the caveat being the monster (for lack of a better term) is not really dead. It is mindless, lumbering, and frightening, but not dead. I won’t get into a plot synopsis or spoilers, but this movie has as creative and twisted an ending as The Sixth Sense, or any number of Hitchcock movies. Did I mention this was made in 1920!

With the calendar changing to October the constant flow of “greatest horror movies” and “scariest movie” lists will abound. But my recommendation to you is to find this movie wherever you can. If you love terror, style, expressionist style, surrealism, and a hint of film noir, and you appreciate films, turn out the lights and watch. In my opinion it will stay with you long after the tinny soundtrack has bounced its final echoes in your room…and for all the right reasons.

Enjoy the descent into madness…hope you make it back.

Graviora Manent,


1 Comment »

  1. Like you, I haven’t seen Caligari since I was young, prep school to be specific. I started the film studies at my school, because I was a cinephile from almost my inception. Even though it’s been decades since, I still can vividly recall the flick, and considering how many movies I’ve seen since then, that’s saying a lot. Thank you for calling attention to this classic piece of film history.

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