10 great silent horror films

With the rerelease of the original Dracula film, Nosferatu, we cast our minds back to the early years of cinema to prove that some of the medium’s greatest chills came in silent form. 

Pamela Hutchinson
Updated:

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922)

Though horror movies really gathered pace in the sound era, there is no denying that films of the silent age set many of the genre’s essential stylistic tics. Even today, it’s a very rare horror film that ignores the legacy of German Expressionism, which writes psychological unease large in shadowy contrasts and queasy perspectives.

Silent horror terrifies through its sheer rawness – made at the beginning of cinema, they were unconstrained by horror movie convention, and can hit us hardest for their undiluted depiction of terror.

There is no greater example of this than F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), which is rereleased nationwide this week in a Masters of Cinema restoration as part the BFI Gothic project.

Murnau’s film is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on the sly: the names have been changed to protect the studio pockets. There’s so much here that has been adopted by later horror: the slinking, spreading shadows cast by the toothy Count Orlok; his hunched and loomed silhouette painted on a bare wall; his uncanny rise from his coffin.

But there’s much also in Nosferatu that defies our expectations of a scary movie. If you’re looking for the classic gothic colour palette of black, white, red and royal purple you’ll be sorely disappointed. Nosferatu is shot in natural light, and tinted delicate hues of amber, violet and rose pink. There is no blood and gore either: Orlok’s victims are engulfed by shadows, and our imaginations are left to flesh out their fate.

In tribute to Nosferatu, here are 10 more great silent horror films, all of which have more in common with their modern successors than you may expect.

Infernal Cauldron (1903)

Director Georges Méliès

Pioneer Georges Méliès made countless devil movies, including his The Haunted Castle (1896), which may well be the first horror film ever shot, although if we are being pernickety it is also a comedy. The Infernal Cauldron, a hand-painted jewel from 1903, makes this list because it remains breathtaking in its brutal economy and mastery of early special effects.

A dancing green demon bundles a woman in white into his cauldron. His reptilian henchman drags in two more victims and stirs the pot of fire with his pitchfork. There is an explosion, and the spirits of the murdered people emerge from the flames and hover in the air briefly, only to transform into fireballs. Under bombardment, the devil runs mad and does what can only be described as the decent thing.

Méliès was a genius of the cinema, and this 110-year-old portrait of inexplicable, psychotic sadism is compelling, cruel and strangely attractive.

Frankenstein (1910)

Director J. Searle Dawley

A crash-course in literary adaptation for the big screen, this gothic miniature is another gem of the early period. Entirely composed of interior scenes, this unexpectedly domestic, small-scale version of Mary Shelley’s novel is more than a match for more overblown big-screen Frankensteins. The filmmakers intended to emphasise “the mystic and psychological problems in this weird tale” rather than the scares, but the creation scene is gruesome enough for most ghouls. As the screen is washed in a red tint, a skeleton emerges slowly from a crucible, gathers scraps of flesh to its bones and begins to wave. All the while, we keep cutting back to the horrified doctor peeking through the door at his grim achievement. A neat mirror-trick transposes the novel’s finale from the Arctic tundra to a cosy parlour, too. And it works.

Long thought to be a casualty of silent film loss, Frankenstein was rediscovered in the early 1970s, and thanks partly to a popular ‘reboot’ in 2010, is a latter-day online sensation.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Director Robert Wiene

Inspired by a trip to the funfair, the mindbending narrative of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which concerns a sleepwalking murderer controlled by a sinister showman, finds its ideal visual incarnation in high German Expressionism. Every frame of this movie screams madness, instability and fear: from the impossibly tilted and twisted painted backdrops to the deathmask makeup of somnambulist Cesare.

Enduringly popular, and massively influential, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari turns terror into an artform, and holds the audience in its sweaty palm right until the infamous surprise ending.
In a now-disputed theory, Siegfried Kracauer described the film as an allegory for Weimar Germany, in disarray after the First World War, and susceptible to a new tyrannical leadership. Of course, Robert Wiene’s film is all the more terrifying because it resists any such neat explanation.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Director John S. Robertson

The famous Shakespearean John Barrymore shoulders the dual roles of man and monster in this hugely popular adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella. Fellow stage thespian Brandon Hurst plays Jekyll’s leering colleague Dr Carew, while vamp Nita Naldi is the dance-hall darling who brings out his inner Hyde. And all the while the intertitles ramp up the tension, they are also casting a moral burden out to the audience: “In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose.”

Barrymore’s own hands, extended by gruesome, gnarled fingers, are a tribute to Famous Players-Lasky’s makeup department, but there’s far more to this than gore and shocks. The final scenes capitalise on a new character inserted by a previous stage adaptation, Jekyll’s fiancée Millicent, to add a little heartbreak to the horror.

The Golem, How He Came into the World (1920)

Director Paul Wegener and Carl Boese

Paul Wegener made, and starred in, three Golem films, but this is the only one that remains. It’s a prequel to the other two, a retelling of the Golem legend in which a rabbi in 16th-century Prague sculpts a plus-size monster from clay to defend the Jewish community. In this movie, the Golem, after initially fulfilling its duty, falls under the influence of a demon and embarks on a violent rampage through the ghetto. The ending, when it comes, is an absolute classic, and surprisingly heartwarming for such an out-and-out experiment in fear.

Vast sets designed by architect Hans Poelzig and cinematography by the legendary Karl Freund give The Golem an appropriately majestic sense of scale, and sharp, expressionist style. The lumbering Golem with an unexpected tender side, as played shiftily by Wegener, is the forerunner of many a cinematic Frankenstein’s monster. That the shem in the Golem’s chest that awakens him will also remind 2013 viewers of the Marvel Iron Man franchise can’t be denied.

The Haunted House (1921)

Director Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline

A cheeky inclusion for a slapstick two-reeler here, albeit one stuffed to the gills with ghouls, devils and animated skeletons. Our casually elegant hero is a bank clerk who finds himself lured to a tricked-out house, haunted by Scooby-Doo-style fake spooks. It’s impossible to resist reading Buster Keaton’s antics in the fake haunted house as a tribute to the stagey antics of Georges Méliès and his dancing devils. Not least a set piece in which two perky skeletons assemble a man limb by limb from inanimate body parts. And the dedication of half the running time to the twin thrills of frightening our hero and watching his entertainingly spooked reactions speaks to a healthy understanding of an audience’s desire to have their adrenaline levels tweaked.

But perhaps it is also worth considering slapstick as an ancestor to body horror. Watch what Buster gets up to here with glue, a hammer and a kettle of boiling water and ask yourself where the gruesome appetites of torture porn aficionados were first sharpened.

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Director Victor Sjöström

A personal favourite of Ingmar Bergman’s, who claimed to watch it at least once a year, The Phantom Carriage is a horror film that places the soul, not just the body, in peril. In the vein of The Exorcist (1973), The Phantom Carriage dramatises the battle for one human soul as boozer David Holm (played by director Victor Sjöström) is apprenticed to drive Death’s carriage, collecting the souls of the departed as they fall. As he fulfils his grisly duty, the demarcation between the world of the dead and the living is shown via ghostly multiple exposures. The film begins, and ends, with a young Salvation Army volunteer on her deathbed, who has been praying for David’s redemption.

The ethereal beauty of The Phantom Carriage is still arresting, and those multiple exposures are all the more impressive when you remember that they were achieved in situ, on hand-cranked cameras, rather than in the lab.

Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922)

Director Benjamin Christensen

The horror-documentary genre is a rare hybrid, but consider this Swedish film the silent forerunner to modish found-footage chillers such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) or Cloverfield (2012).

In a faux-scholarly attempt to have its cake and eat it, Häxan is divided into four parts. The first three tell creepy tales of witchcraft and the devil’s works, the last attempts to explain away the audience’s nightmares by arguing that cases of demonic possession would now be diagnosed as mental illness, and the therapies of modern medicine have replaced medieval tortures. It’s a valid conclusion, of course, but does little to dilute the impact of the preceding sections, including director Benjamin Christensen himself as a hideously priapic Satan, creeping into a woman’s bedroom as she sleeps…

Destined to be a cult classic, Häxan was rereleased in 1968, with a jazz score and narration by none other than William S Burroughs, under the name Witchcraft through the Ages.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Director Rupert Julian

Lon Chaney was known as the man of a thousand faces, most of which were grotesques. Here he uses his makeup skills to transform himself into the deformed ‘Phantom’ skulking around the lower quarters of the Paris Opera.

Contemporary reports said that audience members fainted and screamed when the Phantom was unmasked, revealing a corpse-like face with deep eye sockets, receding lips and gaping nostrils. For Chaney, playing such terrifying roles had a social purpose. “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice,” he wrote in the year this film was released. “The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals.” And it is a hard-hearted viewer who fails to sympathise with the malevolent Phantom, just a little.

Rupert Julian’s movie was troubled during production and shot and reshot following poor reviews. As such, it’s a movie made by Hollywood committee, but nevertheless enjoyable in its garish gothic excesses. One of the most memorable sequences is the two-strip Technicolor ‘bal masqué’, in which the Phantom makes a glorious appearance wearing a skull mask and red velvet cloak.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

Director Jean Epstein

The screenplay for this flesh-crawlingly creepy film was written by Luis Buñuel, layering Spanish surrealism over Edgar Allan Poe’s American gothic. Polish-born director Jean Epstein was heavily influenced by French Impressionism, as well as the conventions of German Expressionism. The Fall of the House of Usher is a heady mix of all these ingredients: a disorienting and disturbing tale of love, loss and decay. The wide floors of the almost-empty sets conjure the deepest darkness, punctuated by a candle flame, or a glimpse of a bridal veil trailing from a coffin. The pained faces of Jean Debucourt as the artist Roderick and Marguerite Gance as his tortured bride convey melancholy more than fear.

Roger Ebert wrote, hauntingly, that the film is “less a fiction than the realization of some phantasmagoric alternative reality”. It remains the most beautiful, and truly chilling, of horror movies.

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