Monday, August 15, 2011

Silent Screams: The 13 Greatest Horror Films Of The Silent Era

 I've always enjoyed silent cinema, particularly the genre that I indulge in the most often, the horror film. The genre was not official in the silent era and would not gain a name and brand until 1931 and the release of Frankenstein. Silent terror films were often relegated to being known as either thrillers or mysteries. Even the more supernatural and fantasy based work of the Germans were designed and sold as "art" films, rather than horror pictures. Audiences had always shown a taste for the grotesque and the morbid curiosity of 1920s filmgoers made Lon Chaney one of the most popular actors in the world. Chaney's pioneering work may not always constitute as horror, but his use of makeup and his uncanny ability to humanize and bring sumpathy even to the most villainous of characters has made Chaney one of the greatest stars in the history of motion pictures. American audiences also loved the old dark house mysteries, several of which were to help define several horror archetypes by the nest decade. Germany ruled the cinema world in this era, daring to probe into the realm of the fantastic for some of the most unforgettable films of all time. They developed a type of cinema called "expressionism", an extension of the fine art style that emphasizes emotion with harsh light and shadows. These techniques formed the look of horror, exemplified by the suureal world of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1919) and the gothic and fairy tale landscapes of The Golem(1920) and Nosferatu(1922), reaching it's peak with the most influential science fiction film of all time, the majestic, wondrous spectacle that was Metropolis(1927).

It was difficult to try and determine what the 13 finest proto-horror films were of this wonderful era, but a fun task, being the fan that I am. Metropolis was exempt from the list for being more focused on science fiction, despite it's sometimes terrifying images. Dr. Mabuse(1922), despite being a really excellent thriller, was also less a horror film and also declined. What I attempted to represent was a list of films that are pivotal to the evolution of the genre and represent fine filmmaking that have managed to transcend the decades. Some are among the finest horror films of all time and a few are ranked among the greatest movies ever made.

1. Nosferatu(1922)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: Max Schreck, Greta Schroder, Gustav Von Wagenheim, Alaxander Grannach

In all fairness, this spot could have been taken by any number of films, but I felt inclined to nominate this as the greatest of the era. Murnau's direction is a mixture of surreal fantasy and stark nightmare, shooting on location in actual castles to lead an authenticity to the proceedings that has yet to be matched. Most contemporary German films were shot on artificial sets, and the realism utilized in this one has made it that much more eerie. Max Schreck is unforgettable as the Count, appearing both cadaverous and parasitic, sporting one of the most memorable horror makeups of all time, which had even managed to impress Lon Chaney! This was the first official vampire film and set the standard for many to follow, even inventing the destruction by sunlight motif that has become synonymous with the monsters.The film was based on Bram Stoker's Dracula and the filmmakers attempted to avoid copyright infringement by changing the character's names and locale, which did not help, because the Stoker estate still sued and all copies were ordered destroyed. Happily, the order was never fully carried out and Nosferatu is still with us today, to hold a spot on the list of horror immortals.

2. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1919)
Director: Robert Weine
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Friederich Feher

Considered ny most historians as the first horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most nightmarish film experiences you could ever imagine. Told from the perspective of a haunted man who reflects on his youth in his town, a surreal dream-like world where a passing carnival that comes through unleashes horror and madness into the community. Werner Krauss sets the standard for many a mad doctor to follow as the title character who uses a somnambulist(Conrad Veidt) to commit murder, imagining himself to be destined like the Caligari of legend who used a sleepwalker to fulfill his evil deeds. The surprise ending is one of the most disturbing ever made and has been imitated much since. The set and character designs have never been equalled and neither has this film's mood. This was the springboard for the expressionist movement, leading to an era of many fine classic films that have never been surpassed in their artistry.Absolutely unique and unforgettable and truly one of the great landmark films of history.

3.The Phantom of the Opera(1925)
Director: Rupert Julian
Cast: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry

The single greatest performance in the silent horror film and possibly the genre at large, would have to be Lon Chaney's portrayal of Eric, the Opera Ghost inspired by Gaston Leroux's classic story. This is the film that set the standard for the Universal horror film with it's gothic flavor and story of a sympathetic monster really hitting a chord with moviegoers. The unmasking scene is probably the most famous scene in silent movies and the greatest scare scene all these years later. Chaney's makeup is remarkable and is still shrouded in some mystery as to it's actual design. No other adaption would come close to this one, which was filled with several classic scenes besides the before mentioned unmasking scene, including the technicolor masque ball sequence, the falling chandelier and Chaney's last defiance against the mob at the film's conclusion. A tour de force for the actor and one of the great Hollywood films. This was the finest hour for the man of a thousand faces.

4.The Student of Prague(1926)
Director: Henrik Galeen
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Agnes Esterhazy

One of the more forgotten horror films of the silent era and for no discernible reason, outside of poor circulation within North America, The Student of Prague marked the close of Germany's romantic period and represented the zenith of that movement. A remake of the Paul Wegener 1913 original, the production and camera techniques have progressed greatly over the past decade and end up creating one of horror's best gothic romances. Conrad Veidt gives one of his finest performances as the tortured title character, who after a period of poverty and despondency, makes a baragin with an unscrupulous character named Scapinelli(Werner Krauss) in exchange for his soul, which begins to stalk the student in the form of a maligant doppelganger. The direction is pitch perfect in the hands of Galeen, who had also written Nosferatu. The moment where Scapinelli conjures up the wind to and spirits a young countess to Veidt has to be one of the most striking images of the silent era. Alternately touching and very intense towards it's tragic conclusion, this ranks as one of the most underrated films in the genre.

5. Faust(1926)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: Emil Jannings, Gosta Ekman, Camille Horn

Murnau's final expressionist film is one of the finest fantasy films ever made. How does this constitute as horror? The sheer amount of demonic images and the sinister portrayal of Mephistopholes by the brilliant Emil Jannings, make this an epic horror masterpiece unlike anything else. That image of Mephistopholes overlooking a town, ready to spread plague and death is one of the most unsettling images in horror. The plot is timeless, as Faust, an ancient philosopher, sells his soul to the devil for eternal knowledge and love, only to lose his identity and happiness in the process. Murnau cements his reputation as one of cinema's great auteurs with this film, which is one of the most visually impressive silent movies ever made.

6. The Man Who Laughs(1928)
Director: Paul Leni
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova

Originally designed as a Lon Chaney and Tod Browning collaboration, The Man Who Laughs instead went to director Paul Leni, one of the greatest filmamkers of the time and the finest expressionist actor, Conrad Veidt. With a makeup design created by future monster creator, Jack Pierce, Veidt's death's head grin reminds one of future comic villain, The Joker. Veidt is immensely sympathetic as a man named Gwynplaine, whose mouth was twisted and deformed by renegade surgeons who performed such surgeries on children to sell them to circuses. The plot is about a  romance between Veidt and his blind lover, played by Mary Philbin as they travel together in a circus, as Gwynplaine learns of a lost inheritance and the scheming of a spiled duchess, who is played by future Freaks(1932) villaness, Olga Baclanova, providing some racy sensuality for the period. The story was based on a novel by Victor Hugo, who also wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both novels which had two of the most depressing endings you are likley to read. There's a happy ending in this one and thank goodness for that. This is a film deserving of far more praise than it recieves as it is on par with more celebrated classics of the period, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1923).

7. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame(1923)
Director: Wallace Worsley
Cast: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry

One of the most impressive silent films, though not the definitive version of the Victor Hugo classic, that would have to be it's 1939 remake. This is still a dazzling screen adaption with amazing sets, several which dominated the Universal backlot for decades and a cast of thousands. The familiar plot of the deformed bellringer and his affection for a beautiful gypsy dancer is one of cinema's most timeless beauty and the beast themes. Lon Chaney delivers another unforgettable performance as Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame. His athletic ability and alarming makeup are still incredible and it may be the most accurate portrayal of Hugo's character. Chaney's sympathetic monster, reveals the humanity behind his grotesque visage and would influence scores of films to follow.This is well regarded as one of the most beloved of all silent films and second only to The Phantom of the Opera, as Chaney's finest star vehicle.

8. The Cat And The Canary(1927)
Director: Paul Leni
Cast: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Stanley

One of the most imitated horror films ever made, The Cat and the Canary's combination of humor and terror would influence scores of other films, leading to a handful of remakes and many imitations. This is the  best version of the classic play, including the 1939 Bob Hope film. The plot is a well remembered one, about the reading of a millionaire's well on a dark and stormy night and strange murders that occur in an old dark house. Paul Leni's direction is fantastic, utilizing a visual style that would be seen again in the next decade's horror pictures. It has wonderful atmosphere and at least one truly well done scare scene, that involving the murder of the lawyer(Tully Marshall) who gets strangled by a hairy hand that sneaks out of a secret passage! A wonderful mixture of comedy and terror.

9. The Golem(1920)
Director: Paul Wegener
Cast: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinruck, Lyda Salmonova

This was actually the third adaption made by Paul Wegener of the legendary story, the other two unfortuinately lost to time, though fragments exist of the 1915 version, which this is actually a prequel to. The plot revolves around a jewish ghetto which is threatened by a king. A rabbi creates a Golem(Paul Wegener) who protects the city, but ultimately runs amok. Similarities exist between this and some later horror films, notably Frankenstein(1931), especially concerning the story of a man made monster wrecking havoc. One lovely scene, depicting a little girl offering the Golem an apple, evokes images of that later film. Wegener is perfect as the Golem, able to provide elements of sympathy and brute terror. His direction is also well handled, particularly during the marvelous creation scene. One of the least analyzed of the classic horror films and bizarrely, one of the few made about this most interesting of monsters.

10. Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde(1920)
Director: John S. Robertson
Cast: John Barrymore, Charles Lane, Brandon Hurst

The best of the several silent screen adaptions of the classic novel, containing the most over the top performance of John Barrymore's career, and that's really saying something! Barrymore delights in portraying the insidious character and really brings a level of perversity and sadism that makes him one of the most unforgettable monsters of the silent era. Barrymore actually performed the initial transformation scenes without the aid of makeup, which is rather remarkable. Some really brutal scenes exist in this one, including Barrymore breaking a cane over the back of Brandon Hurst and Barrymore's trampling of a child of the streets. I also have always been fond of the dream sequence where Barrymore is haunted by a gruesome spider with Hyde's face(!) that creeps into his bed and turns him into Hyde! Barrymore himself donned the spider outfit for this scene.Not quite as strong as the brilliant 1931 masterpiece by Rouben Mamoulian, this is still a terrific version of the classic and is essential viewing.

11. The Unknown(1927)
Director: Tod Browning
Cast: Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Norman Kerry

A truly disturbing motion picture, as were several of these Browning/Chaney collaborations, this has to be they're most bizarre effort and one of the most unsettling filmgoing experiences i've ever had. Chaney stars as Alonzo the armless, who performs tricks with his feet at a circus, posing as an armless man, when in reality he's hiding his arms because he hopes to win the love of a girl(Joan Crawford) who can't bear to be touched. Alonzo has a strange birth defect, which are double thumbs, and after he strangles the girl's father, he decides to get his arms amputated to hide his identity and run off with the girl. When he returns, she is already in love with the strong man(Norman Kerry) and has foregone her phobia. All hell is about to break loose! Chaney's portrayal is about as disturbing as it gets, especially when he realizes he has cut his arms off for nothing. You can practically hear the scream, despite being a silent film. A pick for my list of the top 100 greatest horror films, this is truly creepy and strong stuff, even now.

12. Waxworks(1924)
Director: Paul Leni
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Emil Jannings, Werner Krauss

Significant, not just because of the immense talent of the director in his first film and the one that would gain him status in Hollywood, but also as one of the first anthology films. Waxworks is a fun and creepy good time about a writer hired to write stories about a carnival's waxworks, which all happen to be some unsavory characters from history! The first segment is humorous and features a hammy Jannings as Harun al Raschid who is ruling Bagdad, and searching for a wife, having an affair with a baker's wife. It's an impressive segment with a middle eastern flavor reminiscent of The Thief of Bagdad(1924). The second story concerns Ivan the Terrible and his descent into madness, which is brilliantly conveyed by Conrad Veidt, who seemed to be incapable of delivering a performance that was anything less than indelible. The final segment is also the most terrifying and most surreal, probably representing the most nightmarish moments of German expressionism as the writer and his girlfriend are stalked by Jack the Ripper through a twisted maze of distortion, right out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which is appropiate since it is Caligari himself, Werner Krauss, that is on their trail! This is a delightful and entertaining film that has been largely forgotten, but like so many of the silent era, is ready for reappraisal.

13. Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages(1922)
Director: Benjamin Christensen

Cast: Benjamin Christensen, Elizabeth Christensen, Maren Pedersen
Bizarre documentary that examines all manners of witchcraft and demonology from the middle ages to the present. Oftentimes as disturbing, as it is funny, Christensen creates a truly one of a kind movie that contains images that would not even be attempted for decades. Scenes involving possession, demons and several instances of sex and nudity, were very racy for the time and far ahead of so much produced. The film was unseen for a great number of decades, but would be destined to become a cult classic in the ensuing decades and has since become part of the Criterion collection, hailed as an artistic masterpiece! It's certainly not for all tastes, but is such a unique and surreal experience that it's a must see for students of the genre.

It was a difficult task to assemble such a list, but hopefully, this will serve it's purpose of persuading readers to seek out and view these classic films. The silent era of film was an imaginative and exciting period for film, unlike any other in the history of film. This was a new frontier, waiting to be explored and conquered and by the end of the 1920s, the silent film had certainly reached it's peak of creativity as the sound era was approaching by decade's close. The silent horror films helped forge a genre of motion pictures that would create some of cinema's most memorable and terrifying moments. A new decade loomed in the horizon, spawned by the pioneers from the previous two decades. It would begin in a castle in Transylvania and a lonely watchtower in a small village named Ignolstadt. The 1930s would see the dawn of a whole new world of Gods and Monsters...

1 comment:

  1. I loved this list. Do you have any further suggestions for early horrors/beautiful early films? I have just ordered quite a few of these on this list.