Horror films can trace their cinematic roots to the silent era. The earliest horror segment on record is the 1895 dancing skeleton from the Lumiere Brothers, although it was billed as a “spook tale” at the time. Georges Melies is credited with the first film, Le Manoir du Diable (1896). In just over 3 minutes, Melies offers us everything from witches and black cats to ghosts and devils. Years later, in 1914, D.W. Griffith directed what is referred to as the first great American horror film, The Avenging Conscience.
The movie is greatly inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. In the original artwork, it states it was “founded” on The Tell-Tale Heart and Poems of the Affections. I would think there is a little bit of Cask of the Amontillado in it as well. The story plays out as a woman dies in childbirth and her baby boy is taken in by his uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken, Birth of a Nation). As the child grows into manhood, it is clear that the uncle has plans for his future. However, the young man’s eye is caught by a lovely young woman (Blanche Sweet, The Lonedale Operator). The nephew (Henry B. Walthall, The Scarlet Letter) begins to follow a path that will lead him to murdering his uncle and burying him within the walls of the fireplace. However, the ghost of the uncle returns to torture his nephew. What follows is a wild tale involving images of Jesus Christ, Moses and demons. Before it’s all said and done, we even get a montage with Pan playing his flute, luring out a group of forest fairies. And no, I have no idea what that scene had to do with anything. Its meaning was lost on me.
The movie will turn 100 years old next year, so the very fact we still have it to enjoy is amazing. Director D.W. Griffith offers up an interesting tale with some groundbreaking visuals. Interesting that just one year later, Griffith would direct what is still one of the most controversial films ever made, The Birth of a Nation. The Avenging Conscience is highly recommended if you’ve tired of the same silent horror classics Halloween season. It’s available on DVD for less than $20 and, as is to be expected, Kino presents a great looking print, especially considering its age. It also comes with a nice bonus presentation of a 1909 short entitled Edgar Allen Poe (yes, it’s misspelled). The print is available on archive.org and YouTube but it is not the complete film (by some 30 minutes) nor is the print as good as the Kino DVD, so watcher beware.