The first commercially screened movie was Workers Leaving the Factory, and it was… workers leaving a factory. With competition like that, and in the notoriously repressive nature of Elizabethan times, you probably expect the early movies to all be dull and predictable. Don’t you believe it. In the days before censors, focus groups, or rules in general, the potential for weird movies would never be stronger.
10. The First Special Effect
In 1895, Thomas Edison’s movie studio decided to do a scene from history: the Execution of Mary Queen of Scots. So they shot the fourteen second scene, doing what was literally the oldest movie trick in the book. Mary (played by a man in drag, of course) bends down over a block. The camera is turned off and she is switched out with a dummy, and they chop the dummy’s head off. Infamously, audiences totally bought this, and the first movie also became the first suspected snuff movie. Edison was allegedly delighted by the hubbub (cheap publicity) and subsequent Edison movies include such things as boxing matches and even cock fights. Truly, an American tradition is born.
9. The First Sex Movie
Don’t get your hopes up. It’s another Edison movie called The Widow Jones. A rather portly lady is embarrassed by the affections of her male counterpart. The two then engage in a chaste, really quite sweet kiss. And when it is screened, there are public protests and police are called over this shocking, libidinous behavior, even though it‘s a scene from a play and it would have been fine perform publicly. On the other end of the spectrum, jerkwad critics complained that neither of the two leads were attractive and that the act was disgusting to watch. This only boosted the movie’s popularity to a point where, only four years later, it was remade. But the remake lacks the spirit of the original, the performers are obviously trying to hard and are too self-conscious. Still better than Ghostbusters 2…
8. The First Religious Movie
Across the pond, French George Melies (who you’ll remember from the Toptenz article about Short Films Online as the maker of A Trip To The Moon) was making a movie called The Temptation of St. Anthony(1898), one full minute of pure religious bizarreness. The religious myth it refers to is one where St. Anthony of Egypt basically going on a hermitage, and Satan sends a lot of demons to tempt and torment him. So in the movie, St. Anthony is praying to a giant crucifix. Then succubi appear and jostle him, but they vanish and he goes back to praying. Then Christ on the crucifix turns into a succubus, climbs down, and goes to molest him some more. But it’s alright because in the end, an angle interchangeable with the succubi appears overhead. Presumably the only reason Melies got away with this was the fact France is and always has been a godless wasteland.
7. The First Zombie Movie
“The first zombie movie?! But I already know about Shaun of the Dead! What do you think you have to teach ME about it?” Yeah, turns out you need to go a bit further back than that for the first zombie movie. Farther even than Night of the Living Dead in 1969.
Like 1919, to be precise.
In 1917, with World War One still raging, French director Abel Gance was making an anti-war film called J‘Accuse. He had contacted the French military for soldiers and permission to film the front. He got both, possibly the only time a director has gone that far for a zombie movie.
In the movie, two men in a love triangle with a woman go to the front. One dies, the other comes home shell-shocked. He talks of visions of the dead soldiers of the world getting off the ground or digging their way out of graves to march to their homes and dare the people back home to show they appreciate the sacrifice or tell them it was worth it. This vision comes literally true when dead soldiers begin marching into his village. The director later learned that the majority of these soldiers were killed or wounded in the Battle of Verdun less than two weeks after shooting. While it’s true that no one breaks out the shotguns or chainsaws, it’s still a shocking enough movie of this era to be worth a look.
6. The First Cartoon
Have you ever wondered why the early cartoons were so trippy? Why pretty much anything on screen from a chair to a bubble would be alive, or why everyone was basically made of rubber? Turns out that seems to be largely just rip offs of the first animated movie ever: 1908’s Fantasmagorie by Emile Cohl. Part of a now defunct, long forgotten art trend called the “Incoherent Movement,” (which included such highlights as someone doing the Mona Lisa with a pipe, if you want to know why it died off) the film features clown who literally rushes through just about every cartoon slapstick gag in less than minute. Stuff turns into random other stuff connected only by a shape, the clown tears a hole in space/time, etc…
5. The First Vampire Movie
Nosferatu, F. W. Murnau’s 1922 film, is often pointed at by fans as a welcome antidote to these Twilight/True Blood trends. Considering that it’s hard to deny that vampire star Count Orlock of this movie was a lot scarier than Dracula would be, you might wonder why Nosferatu didn’t become the model for future vampires. The answer is that it turns out it was ruled a completely criminal rip off of Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel after a lawsuit against the filmmakers by his widow. Weirdly, instead of demanding all the box office money from the film, the Widow Stoker demanded that all copies of the movie be burned. And while many of them were, the movie wasn’t staked, and so some copies of it survived.
4. The First Frankenstein Movie
Some of you may be familiar with the version of Frankenstein that starred Boris Karloff where his scariest features are he is tall, has a square forehead, neck bolts, and he mumbles. In fact, Thomas Edison and company made a Frankenstein movie in 1910, and it’s much weirder. For starters, in this version, the monster starts out as a skeleton in a vat, and through reversing film, it looks like it catches fire and then grows a body around itself. Rather than going on a rampage, this version of the monster is just abandoned by Doctor Victor Frankenstein because he’s ugly. On what is to be Dr. Frankenstein’s wedding night, the monster shows up, but looks at itself in the mirror, and sort of fades from existence in embarrassment.
Despite the fact no one is killed in the movie’s fifteen minutes (heck, considering that someone is brought to life, this may well be the only horror movie that for most of the running time has a negative body count) this movie scared the pants off audiences. And back in 1910, that actually was a bad thing for a horror movie to do. It was immediately pulled from theaters or censored (despite ads that, hilariously, claimed, “we have carefully omitted anything which might possibly shock any audience member”). Now that’s salesmanship!
3. The First Color Movie
Even back in 1895 color movies existed, but it was kind of done the hard way. Artists were brought in to color frame by frame, and so they took the opportunity to go nuts, and so the images always seemed to start shifting with greatly variable degrees of success. However, as you might notice has become a bit of a motif for this list, the first movie this was done for (Serpentine Dance) was banned. It was banned on the suspicion that you could see some of the dancer’s undergarments. Which of course ensures that future generations perversely look very closely at the dancer, curious how anything could be visible from under those pounds and pounds of clothes. Ah, the corrupting nature of censorship.
2. The First Christmas Movie
You know, it may very well be the best Santa Claus movie ever made and it came out in 1898. That’s because it keeps it down to the very basics and actually improves the mythology a bit. In this brief little story, a maid tucks the little tykes in for Christmas, turns off the light, and then Santa shows up. He’s not fat and has no sack of presents, but that’s cool, because he brought a little Christmas tree, and stuffs the kid’s stockings. Then he disappears. No sleigh, no reindeer, and if they’d kept Santa like this, there would have been no nagging questions from kids about how Santa does all his Christmas stuff in one night. Plus, how much collective money would have been saved on cookies, milk, and carrot sticks?
1. The First Sherlock Holmes Movie
So, looking forward to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows? Well, if you’re one of those spoilsports who didn’t like the first one, perhaps learning about the very first Sherlock Holmes story will put that in perspective. It was called Sherlock Holmes Baffled. Here’s the whole plot: Holmes is in a room. A man teleports in, takes a bag, Holmes retrieves the bag. He sits down. The other man appears again; Holmes shoots at him, and misses. The guy reappears, steals the bag for good, and Holmes shrugs in defeat. The end.
Holmes, you’ve come a long way.
Top 10 Weird Movie Firsts Playlist