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Firsts: the first film appearances of 10 classic monsters

Contributed by
Jan 28, 2018

The classic monsters of our time: They've been with us seemingly forever, embedded into our minds, our dreams and nightmares, and our popular culture. Most of our experience of them has been through the visual medium -- primarily movies -- and we know the iconic representations as we know our own faces: Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera.

But in almost every case, those archetypal performances and images were not the first embodiment of these legendary characters on the screen. The monsters have been with us almost as long as cinema itself, and it's a tribute to their undeniable power that some of the earliest stories set to celluloid focused on beings and creatures who went on to become some of the most beloved and recognizable creations of the past century or more.

So let's take a look back at the beginnings of cinema history and find out when and where the monsters we love to this day were first conjured up in the flickering light of a movie projector ...

Frankenstein's Monster

The most recognizable screen version of Mary Shelley's classic creation arrived on movie screens in 1931, in the form of Boris Karloff, and made film history. But there were three silent film versions before that. The earliest was shot in 1910 by director J. Searle Sawley for Edison Studios, owned by Thomas Edison. 13 minutes in length, the film starred Charles Ogle as the monster in what was actually a pretty close approximation of how Shelley described him in the novel. The first screen version of the story, the film was thought lost for decades until a print was discovered in 1980 (now in the public domain, it can be viewed above). 

Two more silent versions followed: the 70-minute Life Without Soul in 1915 and The Monster of Frankenstein, made in Italy in 1921. Both are now considered lost. Of course, the idea of making a man out of dead or inanimate matter was popular throughout the silent era most notably in films like the German classic The Golem (1920). But James Whale's adaptation of Shelley's horror/sci-fi hybrid (itself a pioneering work) truly immortalized the concept for all time and made Karloff into a legend.


The most famous and first fully authorized film based on Bram Stoker's novel was the 1931 Universal production starring Bela Lugosi, but before that was the 1922 German version directed by F.W. Murnau, which is now considered one of the great and most influential silent horror films of all time. Of course, since the Stoker estate threatened legal action against the filmmakers, that movie is called Nosferatu instead of Dracula, and all the names in the story are changed although many of the book's major plot points are followed. However, another movie predated even the Murnau masterpiece: a 1921 film called Dracula's Death, now lost, represented the first known screen appearance of the Count, although the movie did not follow the book's plot. There are also reports of a 1920 film made in Russia, called Drakula, but nothing remains from the film -- not even a single still -- and its existence has been called into question. 

As for the first screen vampire in general -- Georges Melies' The Haunted Castle (1896) featured a bat transforming into a human figure, so some have claimed it to be the first vampire movie. Other early silent films used the word "vampire" in their titles but did not necessarily mean the supernatural, blood-sucking kind ("vamp" was another word for "femme fatale" at the time). The 1916 German film A Night of Horror is now considered to be the first to portray vampires as we commonly think of them.

The Wolf Man

It was Universal's The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr., that gave popular culture its most enduring image of the werewolf, but the concept of a human being transforming into a wolf was around in film long before that 1941 horror touchstone. Interestingly, it was Universal that produced what is considered the first such movie, simply called The Werewolf. The 1913 silent movie, 18 minutes in length, followed a Navajo woman who becomes a witch and then passes her skills along to her daughter, who uses them to change into a wolf and attack white settlers. Sadly all prints of the movie were reportedly destroyed in a fire at Universal in 1924. 

Other attempts included The White Wolf (1914), the French film Le Loup Garou (1923) and Wolf Blood: A Tale of the Forest (1925), which is the only one of these early films that survives (see above). It wasn't until 1935, however, that the first Hollywood movie about a werewolf - and the first to use makeup to give a man wolf-like features, as opposed to just dissolving from an actor to a real wolf -- was produced: Werewolf of London, starring Henry Hull. Although a flop, it paved the way for The Wolf Man just six years later.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has remained a favorite for filmmakers throughout the decades -- there are reportedly at least 123 film versions of the story alone, not including adaptations for the stage, TV and other media like radio. The most iconic remains the 1931 version starring Fredric March, who won the Oscar for Best Actor -- the first performer in a horror movie to ever do so. Other well-known versions include the 1920 silent adaptation starring John Barrymore, the 1941 remake with Spencer Tracy, and even a 1968 TV movie featuring Jack Palance.

But the earliest film version of Stevenson's allegory was produced in 1908 and starred Hobart Bosworth, a filmmaker who helped bring the movie business to California. No known copies of the movie exist today. Other versions cropped up between the Bosworth and Barrymore films, including a Danish take in 1910, a 1912 American film starring James Cruze that still survives, and another American version produced by Universal in 1913 that is also still around. 1920 saw two more adaptations crop up in addition to the Barrymore film: a 40-minute American version and a now-lost German production directed by F.W. Murnau of Nosferatu fame, who changed all the names to avoid copyright issues like he did with his unauthorized Dracula adaptation.

The Invisible Man

James Whale's visually groundbreaking 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel, starring Claude Rains as the deranged scientist Griffin, remains a genuine classic of sci-fi cinema. It was also the first film to use the notion of invisibility in a somewhat serious story about amorality, the limits of scientific knowledge and man's thirst for power. For its themes, approach and visuals, The Invisible Man remains the best treatment of the material to date, even decades and many other movies later.

But invisibility itself stretched back to the earliest days of film. Most of these are now lost, but they include a 1906 French picture called Les Invisibles/The Invisible Man (its unclear whether it was adapted from Wells' book), a 1908 American production known as The Invisible Fluid (involving a kind of spray or paint that is used to render one invisible), and a 1909 British movie called Invisibility, this time involving a powder that a man swallows. That same year yielded The Invisible Thief from France, while 1917's The Fatal Ring and 1923's The Unknown Purple both dealt with purple rays that made anyone who was bathed in them turn transparent. Only fragments or a few minutes of footage remain from most of these, but it's clear that filmmakers had invisibility on their minds almost as far back as they were able to make movies.

The Mummy

No horror fan will ever forget Boris Karloff's decaying Im-Ho-Tep shuffling out of his sarcophagus -- driving a man insane by just the sight -- in 1932's The Mummy. That film brought the concept of the doomed Egyptian coming back to life after thousands of years fully into the public consciousness, spawning franchises in two separate eras as well as plenty of one-off horror movies. But the notion of a mummy rising from the dead extended back into the pulp fiction of the 19th century and found its way onto movie screens long before Karloff's wrinkled visage did.

Perhaps the earliest known mummy movie was Cleopatra's Tomb, also known as Robbing Cleopatra's Tomb. The 1899 production was directed by early film wizard George Melies, who pioneered both the sci-fi film with A Trip to the Moon and, arguably, the horror genre with many of his eerie shorts -- including this one. In the film, now lost, Cleopatra herself is resurrected after her mummy is chopped into pieces. That was followed in 1911 by The Mummy, in which the title character is revived by a live electrical wire, mummifies the man who purchased her corpse, and ends up marrying an Egyptologist! It's safe to say that the mummy has shambled a long way since then.

The Phantom of the Opera

That masked figure slinking around the Paris Opera House and causing mayhem got his definitive film treatment in 1925, when Lon Chaney starred in the title role in a big budget (for the time) Universal blockbuster based on the novel written just 15 years earlier by Gaston Leroux. But a 1916 film made in Germany, Das Phantom der Oper, was the first real version and is known to have been produced, but no copies or stills or any other materials remain from it. Swedish actor Nils Olaf Krisander played Erik, the Phantom, beating Chaney to the punch by nine years.

Nevertheless, the Chaney version is an authentically great film, and remains one of the landmarks of silent cinema as well as the horror genre (amazingly enough, the bulk of the film was reshot after a couple of poor preview screenings -- yes, they did reshoots even back then!). While there have been many film and TV versions since, as well as the acclaimed and long-running stage musical, the shot in which Christine (Mary Philbin) unmasks Chaney's Phantom from behind remains one of the singular moments in the history of film, horror or otherwise.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Lon Chaney not only created the definitive Phantom of the Opera, but also the most revered version of the hunchbacked bell-ringer Quasimodo in the 1923 silent version of Victor Hugo's novel. His stunning makeup and empathetic performance made him a star. But believe it or not, this spectacular Universal production (very much the summer tentpole of its time) was not the first screen adaptation of the book. There were four before this one, starting with a 1905 short from France called Esmeralda, which is the oldest known adaptation (only stills remain, as seen above). A second French version, around 36 minutes long, surfaced in 1911, followed by the Fox Film Corporation's The Darling of Paris in 1917 and a second Esmeralda in 1922, this time from England. 

Following the 1923 Chaney film, four more followed in 1939, 1956, 1986 and 1996. The latter two were animated and the 1996 version was a Disney production, so the more Gothic aspects of the story were sanded down. That remains the last theatrical adaptation to date, so perhaps a remake is in order. Yet it is Chaney's Quasimodo who set the template for all the misunderstood monsters who came in his wake.

Giant Monsters (King Kong, Godzilla, etc.)

King Kong (1933) remains the benchmark and turning point for the modern giant monster movie, combining dazzling special effects with a mythic power and epic storyline. It paved the way for everything from Gojira (1954) to Jurassic Park (1993) and beyond. But King Kong had its antecedents as well: the most notable one was The Lost World (1925), based on Arthur Conan Doyle's novel about an ancient, hidden plateau where dinosaurs still exist. The film featured stop-motion special effects by Willis O'Brien, who would refine his techniques even further on King Kong just eight years later.

King Kong was the byproduct of both O'Brien's fascination with dinosaurs and Hollywood's own predilection for gorilla, jungle and "lost world" tales. Films like 1929's The Mysterious Island and Stark Mad (the latter of which featured a giant ape) were, along with The Lost World, the most direct predecessors to the milestone that King Kong turned out to be.

The Devil

The personification of evil as viewed by the world's major religions has since cropped up in way too many movies to list (indeed, there are books on the subject), but perhaps the definitive early interpretation of the archetypal demon shows up in the classic 1926 film Faust, directed by our old pal F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu). Based on the legend of the alchemist who sells his soul to the Devil, the film featured a standout performance by Emil Jannings as Mephisto, an image that remains ingrained in pop culture to this day. 

But the Devil (and his assorted companions like witches and demons) has been lurking around the movies almost since the first cameras rolled. Perhaps his first known appearance on celluloid was in George Melies' 1896 silent fantasia, The Haunted Castle, which as noted above was also considered by some as the first vampire movie and the first horror film. It almost surely marked the cinematic debut of old Beelzebub, who would crop up in other Melies movies like The Devil in a Convent (1900), The Infernal Cauldron (1903) and The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906), with Melies himself playing Satan in several of them. It's perhaps only fitting that the original monster of modern human culture was there at the birth of film itself.

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