Want to hear the very first horror movie scream? That’s a bit of a tall order. May McAvoy, who was Al Jolson’s love interest in THE JAZZ SINGER, belted out this outcry of fright in THE TERROR, the first talking horror film, produced and released in 1928.
Watching THE JAZZ SINGER, you’ll see that it’s a part-talkie - a silent film with title cards and sound intervals. Warner Brothers followed THE JAZZ SINGER with more sound feature films such as THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK, the first all-talking feature. It’s a stagey gangster drama that uses numerous silent film title cards to forward the plot. For their second all-talking film, Warners turned to celebrated crime writer Edgar Wallace to film his mystery-thriller play THE TERROR. According to Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project, which preserves and makes available treasures of the early sound era, "Warner Bros boasted that THE TERROR was the first film without a single title card. Even the opening credits were spoken. The irony, 90 years later is that no picture portion of the film survives. Only the Vitaphone soundtrack disks for reels 1, 2 and 5 are known to exist. Sadly, this is the fate of a number of Warner features of 1928.” Hutchinson added that Fanny Brice's MY MAN, Sophie Tucker's HONKY TONK, and TENDERLOIN among others, are lost as well.
Warner Brothers’ records state the negative of THE TERROR was junked in 1948, along with numerous other early sound films, including one of the most sought after lost films, CONVENTION CITY. This “junking” was due to the fact that the negatives were on flammable and dangerous nitrate film. Even though, in 1948, these films were only twenty years old, the studios felt they were old fashioned and not worth re-printing and re-releasing. Upon it’s initial release, THE TERROR did not have “strong men in the audience fainting” as was the claim for FRANKENSTEIN. John MacCormac, a film critic for The New York Times’ London edition said “THE TERROR is so bad that it is almost suicidal, ..... it is monotonous, slow, dragging, fatiguing and boring.”
THE TERROR fits the bill for many 1920’s horror films where the “supernatural monster” is usually a hideous looking beast lurking around a haunted house filled with frightened mortals. It usually winds up being a criminal dressing up as a monster, a la SCOOBY-DOO. In the case of THE TERROR, it’s a creepy killer moving in and out of an old mansion wearing a full head-to-foot executioner’s robe, face hidden, picking off terrified house guests. During THE TERROR’s title sequence, then popular screen idol Conrad Nagel dons this robe and recites the film’s title and credits. Along with Nagel, and May McAvoy, the cast of THE TERROR includes comic actor Edward Everett Horton, and character actors John Miljan, Holmes Herbert and Matthew Betz. Part of the popular lure of horror films made after DRACULA in 1931, is that we were finally looking at “real” monsters.
MacCormac of The Times may have been right, but it is unfortunate that THE TERROR, and the majority of early talkie horror films that pre-date Universal’s DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN are missing. Among the missing include the sound version of Warners’ SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (the silent version survives), Warners’ STARK MAD, a safari adventure shocker with horror elements, and Universal’s 1930 shocker THE CAT CREEPS. A couple of minutes of CAT CREEPS survives in Universal’s horror/comedy 1932 short, BOO!