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Legendary monster movies rise from the grave: Revisiting lost classics

Forgotten flicks from long ago continue to influence the big screen today.

In the chilling depths of winter 1920, a Hungarian film crew made its way across Budapest and Vienna to shoot a silent horror film featuring a vampire who haunts the dreams of a woman trapped in an asylum. Drakula Halála was the first on-screen appearance of the world's most infamous bloodsucker. Though the film is long gone, the monster haunts us still.

The first wave of monster movies from the silent era have all but vanished. We know they existed, but no known copies survive. Some were destroyed in fires, others were simply discarded to make room in film vaults owned by studios. The most famous of these lost films, London After Midnight, is still remembered today, largely due to the iconic movie stills of the great Lon Chaney in his gruesome makeup. 

The echoes of these early monsters in cinema can be found in our modern creature features. This Halloween, we cordially invite you to journey through dark tombs of celluloid terror to uncover the sinister remains of forgotten films no longer seen by living souls.

The Werewolf (1913) 

Bloodthirsty werebeasts are a perennial favorite with monster fans. Early werewolf films include Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolfman (1941), but the first werewolf on film wasn't a wolfman -- it was a wolfwoman. The Werewolf, a silent-era, two-reel short film released in 1913 features silent film actress Phyllis Gordon as the lead lycanthrope. 

The 18-minute film follows a Navajo woman named Kee-On-Ee who's abandoned by her husband and sends her daughter, Watuma, to avenge her. Watuma is able to shift from woman to wolf, and she carries out her mother's revenge. It's notable that the first werewolf on the silver screen was a product of witchcraft, not wolf bite. 

Horror experts believe the film was based on The Werewolves, a story by Canadian author Henry Beaugrand that appeared in the August 1898 edition of Century Magazine. So the origins of the first werewolf film are likely Canadian. It's unclear exactly when it was lost, but a 1924 fire destroyed many negatives of Universal pictures housed in the studio's East Coast film vault. If any copies of The Werewolf survived that fire, they might've been lost in 1948 when Universal executives destroyed the negatives for most of their silent pictures -- flammable film stock was expensive to store and could be lucratively recycled, as the old movies themselves weren't considered valuable.

The First Men in the Moon (1919) 

Lost monster movies

'They carried him into darkness...' The inhabitants of the Moon in an illustration from HG Wells story The First Men in the Moon, published in 1913.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The first screen adaptation of an H.G. Wells novel was 1919's The First Men on the Moon. Based on Wells' 1901 book of the same name, it wasn't the first sci-fi film -- that distinction belongs to 1902's Le Voyage dans la Lune, which survives today -- but new iterations of Wells' early tale of moon travel continue to capture moviegoers' imaginations. 

The British-made silent film follows a scientist named Cavor and a curious spectator, Bedford, who ascend to the moon in a sphere coated with a gravity-defying substance called cavorite. Once the explorers reach the alien surface, they meet the Selenites, a band of strange humanoid moon natives, and adventures ensue. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea author Jules Verne wasn't a fan, criticizing the lack of any scientific basis in the "mythical" nature of cavorite.

Updated adaptations of The First Men in the Moon appeared over the decades. Feature films with the same name and story arrived in 1964 and 2010, and Star Trek fans will get a kick out of the audio version released in 1997 starring Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner and John de Lancie. It's unclear when the last copy of the 1919 British film vanished. In 2003 a writer named Robert Godwin discovered movie stills and documents relating to the silent film, illuminating more details.

Drakula Halála (1921) 

Dracula is one of the most-filmed stories in monster cinema, but the vampire's first appearance on the silver screen is little more than a footnote in movie history. A year before Max Schreck terrified moviegoers as Count Orlok in Nosferatu, a 1921 Hungarian film fleshed out the first screen appearance of the world's most famous vampire: Count Dracula. Drakula Halála translates to "Dracula's Death" or "The Death of Dracula." Though the film's antagonist is named after Bram Stoker's character, the story has little else in common with the novel. The film follows a woman who checks into an insane asylum, where she's gripped by dark visions of a malevolent being who claims to be Count Drakula. 

Produced against a backdrop of chaotic political violence under Hungary's authoritarian regime, this silent horror film is believed to have been co-written by Michael Curtiz, later the director of White Christmas and Casablanca. It had theater runs in Hungary and Austria, but the last known record of the film was in spring 1923.

Completing the cycle from page to screen and back, a Hungarian novelization of the film written around the time of release turned up in recent years. A 2010 essay from Gary D. Rhodes of The Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland, included the first English translation of the novelization, and in February 2021, the prose adaptation of Drakula Halála was published in paperback

King Kong Appears in Edo (1938) 

Twenty years before the mighty Godzilla wowed audiences around the globe for the first time, another giant monster romped through Japan's theaters: the one and only King Kong. The first Japanese-produced King Kong film, titled Wasei King Kong, arrived in 1933. Very little is known about this lost monster movie. Five years later, a new King Kong film was released, with a title that translated as King Kong Appears in Edo or The King Kong That Appeared in Edo.

The giant ape suit for this film was created by special effects master Fuminori Ohashi. Ohashi would go on to work as a consultant for the original Godzilla costume used in the 1954 feature Godzilla, which kicked off the kaiju (giant monster) genre that continues today. From the very beginning, the origins of King Kong and Godzilla have been intertwined. 

London After Midnight (1927)

The holy grail of lost monster films is London After Midnight. For decades, cinephiles and horror fans have pined for the chance to watch this film from horror pioneers Tod Browning (who helmed Universal's classic 1931 Dracula, as well as the following year's Freaks) and Lon Chaney (star of the 1925 Phantom of the Opera). Browning directed while Chaney donned unsettling makeup he'd designed himself to play a dual role as hypnotist Professor Edward Burke and a mysterious monstrous villain whose look inspired the bogeyman in the 2014 Sundance Film Fest fave The Babadook. The bizarre plot revolves around a murder, hidden identities and, of course, vampires. If your interest is piqued, the full script for the film is available to read online. 

Not long after the movie was originally released in the 1920s, a chilling crime became associated with the film -- a young Irish housemaid was murdered in London's Hyde Park by her lover, who claimed he was driven insane by Chaney's chilling performance in London After Midnight. The man was found guilty and sentenced to death for his crime.

The last copy of the film was likely destroyed in an MGM vault fire during the late 1960s. Though the film is considered lost, movie stills survive, and a reconstruction of the story was created around the still images. Like many silent movie monster flicks, it may be lost but its legacy lingers.