Moviegeek5: Silent Horror Films
Horror is one of the fundational genres of cinema and during the silent era there was a plethora of horror classics that remains captivating to this day. Naturally, that entails a capacity to appreciate the magic of silent cinema, something not everyone has. But horror seems to work particularly well, at least in the hands of director who know haw to make visuals work to the right effect. Germany was the front-runner of cutting edge and visually captivating horror with the highly distinctive German Expressionism, while Hollywood would later follow suits, particularly as German directors found work across the Atlantic. It is also well to remember that with no sound effects you get the added benefit of no bloody cheap jump-scares!
If you have only dipped your toes into the world of silent horror or want to recommend some titles to someone you know, we hope you will find the list below helpful. We hope you will also take the time to let us know what your favourite silent horror films are in the comments below!
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
A theme which is never far from the horror genre is the very real horror of madness, a theme which was explored often in the German Expressionism that arose out of the ashes and disillusionment of World War I. On the of most celebrated examples of this particular style of expression with its geometrical absurdities, unrealistic scenery and external expostition of internal emotions. Werner Krauss (Paracelsus, 1943) is the titular Dr. Caligari who hypnotises the young Cesare (Conrad Veidt) to commit murders. The dream-like feel, the stark make up, and Gothic theme blends together in one of the most memorable examples of silent German horror and a silent horror movie must-see although perhaps not the best place to start.
The Golem (1920)
This German horror film about the old Jewish legend of Rabbi Loew and his Golem is notworthy for a number of reason, not least because its subject matter is unusual for a horror film. Few films in general deal with Jewish folklore, and in The Golem we get an intriguing look into the Jewish ghetto of 16th century Prague, a place which no longer exists there or anywhere. The Golem is portrayed with imposing size and presence by Paul Wegener, who also co-directed the film. The film does not really “take off” before its final sequence, but the impressive set pieces and make-up will keep you engaged throughout.
This early (and illicit) adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of the most well-known and widely watched silent horror examples of German Expressionism – and with good reason! Max Schreck’s horrifying portrayal of Count Orlok (ahem.. Dracula) is a far cry from the later romanticized versions of the vampire. Crooked angles, imposing shadows, and an ever-present sense of dread dominates throughout as Orlok makes his way from his Transylvannian castle to a German city and tightens his hold over Ellen Hutter (Minna Harker in the novel). A masterpiece from F.W. Murnau (Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage, 1926) and a great place to start for anyone interested in dipping their toes into the wonderful world of silent era horror!
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
One of the greatest stars of silent horror films was Lon Chaney, affectionately known as The Man of a Thousand Faces, who starred in a long line of early horror classics. One of his most well-known is the 1925 adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (1910), which inspired (and terrified) many who saw it during its original released, including a very young Ray Bradbury. The phantom is another character who has later been romanticized, particularly in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of the story, but here we get to see the original and repulsive phantom. Chaney’s commands every scene he is in and is never far from out minds when he is off-screen. If for nothing else, then watch The Phantom of the Opera to appreciate the work of this horror icon who passed away at the early age of 47 a few years after the talkies had won the day.
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
This classic story was originally a stage play, but has since been adapted numeral times and created a template for haunted house horror. In fact, few films has been as influential on the haunted house horror as The Cat and the Canary. It is doubtful a film like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) would be the same without the influence of this one. Unlike the other entries on this list, Cat and Canary is actually a horror comedy, and confidently mixes these two genres that compliment each other so very well when done right. With thrilling sequences and memorable characters, this is a great place to start if, for some odd reason, your not that into the visual bravado and oppresive feel of German Expressionism.