The 15th century film that invented horror

In 1896, a famed film director began experimenting with a wacky, hallucinatory, fanciful tale about a demon called Siamese twins. The film was a sensation, getting millions of viewers. It was such a big…

The 15th century film that invented horror

In 1896, a famed film director began experimenting with a wacky, hallucinatory, fanciful tale about a demon called Siamese twins. The film was a sensation, getting millions of viewers. It was such a big hit that the film studio’s owners removed all of the audience footage and stored it away in a vault, where it remained until recently.

The film, which the New York Times called “a powerful film noir horror tale,” was called The Dream Of Siamese Twins. It was made for around $1,500, and it went on to sell tens of thousands of copies, becoming the fastest selling film of all time, before short-lived producer Alvin Tyas explained that despite a barrage of screams that sparked the public’s imagination, no demons were actually lurking in the bushes. The director was a big proponent of “outrageous special effects” and wanted the production to present something fun and surreal. The film, which marked the first collaboration between Jean Cocteau and French director Hector Guimard, received much praise from theater critics and was featured in a magazine before it had even been released. At the time, the genre had become popular in Europe, where it was played by French director Mander de la Ciotat.

Grenier La Fleur, shown above, was the sequel to The Dream Of Siamese Twins, as well as an indictment of European immigrant labor exploitation. The fact that the horrors weren’t actually there didn’t stop the film from provoking audiences’ imaginations. The premise is deeply rooted in a real event from 1897, when four Chinese women were set afire, killed, and abandoned by the government as a “punishment.” According to The New York Times, many stories of the four alleged “sisters” were circulated, and when one small-time Romanian detective traveled to China to investigate, he discovered that the four women actually existed, only to be dismembered and used in subsequent story lines.

Two decades after The Dream Of Siamese Twins, one of the women’s kidneys was transplanted into another woman who was left badly disfigured, a bizarre, traumatic chain of events that gave the film its key character.

In the much later film, The Hornblower, which took place on a ghost ship during World War I, the young lovers on board were savagely stabbed, and one of the girls fell from the ship and was incinerated.

The effects of the original film were such that some observers compared it to modern technology, calling it “wickedly charming” and saying that they “found their own catharsis in this testament of horror and laughter.” This was also the year the popularity of the film began to wane, with rare editions showing up in the late 1930s and early ’40s. The symbolism in the film has influenced many Halloween costumes in recent years, and the title of the movie is still regularly referenced in horror films, and before that in horror literature.

See the work of this cinematic pioneer here.

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