Every October, film fans gather into theaters and around their televisions for horror movies with a good scare. We know the classics (The Exorcist, Halloween, The Shining and The Fly) and we know about the Universal Monster movies, but there is another era of horror that is largely ignored by most modern filmgoers — the silent era. Sometimes it is difficult for modern filmgoers to step back into a vastly different era of movies, while some won't watch them at all. In doing that, they are missing out on some truly great movies.
Silent horror films are arguably the best gateway into the silent era because they maintain their air of creepiness — no dialogue or sound, just haunting music and unsettling imagery. These factors will always be frightening.
But still, it's difficult to know where to start. This list of movies will be fairly obvious picks to those well-versed in film history, but this is primarily a list for those horror fans who have yet to make the jump into silent horror. Here are four silent horror films that beginners should watch.
4. 'The Hunchback Of Notre Dame' (1923)
Long before Disney was turning this Victor Hugo classic into a family-friendly affair (which, to be fair, is still quite dark), Universal produced an epic horror film adaptation. Starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, this film turned the rising actor into a superstar. He would become known as one of the greatest of silent movie stars of all time.
While this adaptation maintains some of the gothic pieces of the novel, it was turned into a horror film with the chilling and unforgettable performance of Chaney. Chaney created his own makeup that included 20 pounds of plaster on his back. The production quality of the movie is still impressive, but this isn't a traditional horror film in the modern sense. The horror comes from the treatment of a monster (a monster only by appearance) and the repercussions of that. This is perhaps the least frightening film on this list, but make no mistake, this isn't an easy watch either.
3. 'The Phantom Of The Opera' (1925)
Only two years after Universal released The Hunchback Back of Notre Dame, they would release another grand epic horror film: The Phantom of the Opera. Hunchback may have started Lon Chaney's rise to fame, but The Phantom of the Opera cemented Chaney's status as a horror icon.
Once again, the film was a period piece and Chaney created his own makeup while playing the Phantom. He kept the facial makeup secret from the promotional material in order to maintain the surprise for audiences, who screamed in terror when his face was finally revealed. While the surprise is no longer there for modern audiences, (spoiler alert: that's the Phantom's face pictured above) what is intact is Lon Chaney’s chilling performance and his grotesque makeup work.
Like Hunchback, Phantom is a type of horror film that just isn’t made today. With the impact of the Broadway play and subsequent movie adaption, it is unlikely to see another version like this anytime soon. This version maintains the atmosphere of dread. Not only that, but the production value of this film is incredible for the era —there is even a scene shot in color!
Before you check out the classic Universal Monsters lineup of Dracula and Frankenstein this Halloween, check out this Lon Chaney classic that paved the way for those monsters.
2. 'The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari' (1920)
Stepping away from Universal for this next pick is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (original title Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari). This german film is often considered the first true horror film and establishes many of the tropes that so many horror films would follow for the following decades. Cabinet also introduced audiences to the German Expressionist aesthetic that later Universal Monster movies would emulate. The use of shadows in this movie was particularly influential.
While this movie is a bit unfocused and weird, this is essential viewing for not just horror fans, but film history. This is a movie that would influence countless modern filmmakers including Tim Burton and has been described by film scholar Lewis Jacobs as “the most widely discussed film of all time.”
Much of this is due to the fact that the film has deep themes about authority and conformity (among other things). The art direction is unique even almost a century later, with its jagged edges and two-dimensional spaces. Legendary movie reviewer Roger Ebert said this about the film:
A case can be made that 'Caligari' was the first true horror film. There had been earlier ghost stories and the eerie serial 'Fantomas' made in 1913-14, but their characters were inhabiting a recognizable world. 'Caligari' creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy. In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible.
Any horror fan be doing themselves a disservice by skipping this important film.
1. 'Nosferatu' (1922)
This is the crown jewel of silent horror films and perhaps one that holds up better than any other movie from the silent era. Nosferatu was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stroker’s Dracula, which led to a court case that ordered all copies of the film to be destroyed. Luckily, a few prints survived. The fact that this movie can even viewed today is nothing short of miracle.
The movie took much of the groundwork done by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and refined it. The story is more focused than Caligari and is one of most chilling films of all time. The dark heavy shadows, the German Expressionist art design and the terrifying makeup design of Count Oarlock make this one of the greatest horror films of any era.
It doesn’t have have the jump scares or any of the modern horror techniques, but it still maintains its ability to haunt you. The shadowy images and visual depictions of Oarlock are simply unforgettable. This film even laid the groundwork for much of the modern Vampire lore (this was the first film to introduce the idea that vampires die in the sunlight).
With the news that The Witch director, Robert Eggers, is attached to remake this film, there is no better time to check out this classic.
Putting A Lid On It
This is just a small sample of the many great silent horror films of the 1920s. For beginner horror fans and film fans alike, these are perhaps the best four silent films to view before expanding your catalog into other films like the 1910 Frankenstein, The Man Who Laughs and so many more.
So perhaps if you’re new to this era of films or looking for something else other than a marathon of Friday the 13th, these are four films worth a look and worth your time.
Do you think I've left any great silent horror movies off of this list? Let me know in the comments below.