To begin with, define "horror" in a way that makes everybody happy; then solve the intractable mysteries of cinema history prior to 1920. And once you have done these two things, you can authoritatively state, "this is the first American horror film". But until we reach that point of pure intellectual fulfillment, the best we can do is to make our best approximation. So it's more a matter of convenience than rock-solid history that leads me to anoint as that first American horror film a certain adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's frequently strip-mined Frankenstein, produced in 1910 by the Edison Company. And here's what we do know: we do know that this was the very first American Frankenstein. So close enough for government work, is what I'm saying.

It holds another distinction, too: it was the first screen Frankenstein that adapted Shelley to the screen primarily by means of ignoring her completely. Part of that is the inevitability of condensing even a novel as moderate in its size as Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus to the duration of a one-reel motion picture - that duration being a bit difficult to pin down. Online sources all land on 16 minutes, but the version I have seen (which does not seem to be projected at too high a framerate) is less than 13. Either way, that leaves time for only a very harried version of Shelley's story, or a rebuild of the whole thing using only the basic ingredient common to all movie Frankensteins: a medical student named Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) decides to take it on himself to create life, and the thing he gives life to (Charles Ogle) proves to be a ghastly perversion. Though even in the most reduced form, writer-director J. Searle Dawley's adaptation plays loose with the material: while Shelley famously kept the details fuzzy, the basic notion of all versions of the story is that Frankenstein desired to bring dead flesh to life; this Frankenstein of 1910 is actually creating life out of nothing, more explicitly in the fashion of God even than usual.

In fact, this film's embrace of the "Frankenstein wants to be God" metaphor is so extreme that the monster turns out to be, literally, an extension of the creator's thought. The basic description of events - which you can easily follow for yourself, the public domain film is easily found on the internet (though on YouTube, at least, you can have either good resolution or properly tinted colors, but not both) - finds Frankenstein leaving for school, becoming consumed with thoughts of life and death, forming his creature, realising too late that his evil, unholy impulses had imprinted upon the being, turning it into a wrathful monster. It follows him as he returns home and to the arms of his fiancée (Mary Fuller), harassing them both, and causing Frankenstein to admit to the wickedness of his deeds. And this is where things get openly metaphysical, as the monster apparently ceases to exist except as an incorporeal projection of Frankenstein's mind, which even then dissolves into nothingness as he redeems himself from his impure ways.

It sure as hell ain't Shelley, though most of the film is derived from the book (Frankenstein in school, Frankenstein making the monster, and the monster assaulting Frankenstein's wife on her wedding night, all the significant plot points in the movie, are all Shelley's). But even if it deviates from the source material, it's still an enormously gratifying adaptation, intelligently grappling with its basic themes in a form that better suits the scale and palette available to a filmmaker of 1910, when scenes were still all but universally communicated in theatrical wide shots with limited cutting, and what we'd now call feature-length films only barely existed. Dawley, who liked to (overweeningly) call himself the first motion picture director, was more concerned than anyone else working at that time with dramatic cohesion, character reality, and the function of acting in films, so it fits that his Frankenstein would be a primarily psychological one; and his treatment of the monster as closer to an Edward Hyde-esque manifestation of Frankenstein's broken soul than a rampaging corpse is impressively achieved, all the more for being in such an unfamiliar idiom, both in terms of the stagey framing and the extravagantly broad acting.

But I brought us all together for a very specific reason, and I haven't even touched on it: how is Frankenstein '10 as horror, anyway? Astonishingly great, in fact, especially since horror as a codified genre in American cinema was still 20 years away from finally coalescing (thanks, in part, to that other and better-known Frankenstein). Like most adaptations of the novel, its most striking scene is the creation of the monster, and I will frankly declare that, adjusting for the steep technological curve of the years following, this particular movie has one of the very best versions of that scene ever. It's more of an alchemical process than the biological one favored by most later movies: Frankenstein tosses some stuff into a vat locked into a metal chamber, and the monster forms, almost of its own will. The technique is obvious and simple: Dawley set a model on fire, and burned it into ashes, while waggling one of its arms, and then he ran the footage backwards. It's as primitive as any trick in the cinematic toolkit, but it works enormously well here: watching a humanoid form extrude from the very air is uncanny as hell even without the distressing floppiness of that dead arm, no matter how much the smoke moving downward gives away the game. It's a terrific scene in every detail: the cuts back to an increasingly nervous Frankenstein, the refusal to show the fully-realised monster at first, even the skeleton hanging out in the corner of one frame, implying a chamber of horrrors just off camera that we can only imagine.

As for the monster itself, it's a freaky bit of make-up, designed by Ogle himself, and looking more like a wild man-ape than a grotesque animated corpse. Ogle certainly gives the most interesting performance, too, slinking around erratically and using his big grand gestures as ways of stressing his alien nature, while Phillips and Fuller make those same gestures simply because that's how you do, in 1910. Watching him lope and shuffle around the sets is horror of the most genuine sort: an intrusion of something incomprehensible and wrong into a sedate, even boringly normal space. It's too much to ask that a 105-year-old movie should still be even marginally "scary", but with this monster creeping around these places, Frankenstein is still impressively able to be unsettling and creepy. The film is a relic of an almost unrecognisably earlier period in the medium's development, but it's as broadly accessible as anything from the same filmmaking style that I can name. It's kind of the perfect "my first early narrative cinema" experience, with the comforting familiarity of genre helping to bridge the archaic presentation with the far more immediate emotions it evokes. American horror couldn't ask for a sturdier, more confident opening act than this.

Body Count: 0 or 1, depending on exactly how metaphysical you want the monster to end up being.