Best Silent Horror Films…where the silence screams!

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…Their materialisation was inevitable! The “Horror Movie” as we recognise it today was bound to come crawling out of the dark recesses of the imagination and onto the silent screen.

 

 

Lon Chaney-Phantom of the Opera

“Man Of A Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney-The Phantom of the Opera 1925

 

 

 

 

Early filmmakers experimented with a myriad of different themes and ideas and had an ample amount of material to put to the new medium of film. The following are the best silent horror films of that time.

 

 

“Moving Pictures”

 

Early Cinema

Early advertisement for the Cinematographe

The actual beginning of the “moving picture” began in the 1890’s when Auguste and Louise Lumière premiered their ‘Cinématographe’ in Paris,1895. For the first few years the first features were looked at as “novelties”…fascinating curiosities shown by travelling exhibitors or at carnivals, sideshows etc. 

The majority were under a minute in length, consisted of one staged or real life scene (such as a public or sporting event), and were basically designed to either intrigue or humour.

The motion picture industry blossomed though of coarse and became an extremely exciting new form of entertainment.As crowds turned up to witness this new spectacle in increasing numbers, further experimentation and artistic and technical advances were made which led in turn to an increase in audience.

Within a relatively short time, whole films were being made with continuous scenes and camera movement! It wasn’t until around 1927 though that a way was discovered to add sound.

 

 

 

Horror Begins to Materialise

 

During the period before sound, different themes or genre’s had begun to be established. One such theme which began to develop, would come to be known as a ‘spook tale’. Certain filmmakers began experimenting with camera tricks and stage gimmicks to produce on- screen ghosts, moving skeletons, flying bats and the like. 

Much of the influence for this direction of film making came from the ‘Grand Guignol’, a theatre company in Paris which specialised in naturalised horror plays considered graphic and amoral at the time.

These plays were distinctly bleak and featured rather gory special effects. Exploring the potential horror which could manifest under altered states of insanity, hypnosis, panic etc. Curiously, the horror and crimes presented had very little reason behind them and villains were rarely punished or defeated (Wikipedia). Horror for horror’s sake in other words.

 

Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe

Along with this influence of unorthodox French theatre was the open borrowing of style from classic Gothic literature of days gone by. Writers such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker all deserve enormous credit. 

European legends of the supernatural were also of coarse a main source of material and inspiration.

 

 

 

Very First Horror Film

 

The first recognized, true ‘horror movie’ was French film; ‘Le Manoir Du Diable’ (The Haunted Castle) from 1896 by pioneering director George Méliès. It feature a number of different elements which became permanently associated with the horror film. A flying bat transforming into a man, beings appearing and disappearing through puffs of smoke, skeletons, cauldrons and, most notably, the use of a large crucifix to banish evil.

 

 

 

Another work by this brilliant technical inventor and ‘Cinemagician’ was; La Caverne maudite (The Accursed Cave a.k.a, Cave of the Unholy One).

 

A Jekyll and Hyde/Jack the Ripper Connection?

 

1908 saw the first screen adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Well received upon release, critics said of it’s lead character; “The change is displayed with a dramatic ability almost beyond comprehension”.

The movie was first shown seven months after the death of Richard Mansfield who had brought the character of Jekyll/Hyde to life onstage in 1887. So convincing was his performance that Mansfield was actually considered a suspect for the infamous Whitechapel Murders by unknown assailant Jack the Ripper.

 

Edison Frankenstein

How Frankenstein was first envisioned – An early handbill for the Edison Kinetogram

First Frankenstein Film

 

In 1910, Edison Studios (Owned by inventor Thomas Edison), produced the first motion picture version of Frankenstein which ran for sixteen minutes.

 

‘The Student of Prague’ (1913) Remade in 1926, 1935 and 2004, is loosely based on the legend of Faust whereupon a struggling student makes a pact with the devil in return for riches and the love of a beautiful countess whom he has rescued.

 

Another version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde made in 1920 starred John Barrymore and is for many, the essential version. Barrymore’s extraordinary job of transforming from Jekyll to Hyde is mesmerising. He distorts his face and entire body so convincingly it’s hard to accept he’s the same actor. 

Pretty creepy still to this day…

 

 

Paul Wegener’s ‘The Golem: How He Came into the World’ of 1920 is based on ancient Jewish legend. A rabbi makes a giant creature from clay and brings him to life in order to protect the Jewish people from persecution. A strong influence, this film has been made numerous times.

 

The Iconic Caligari

 

‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ by Robert Wiene also from 1920, is considered the quintessential work of German Expressionistic cinema. Extraordinarily dreamlike and surreal in it’s style, it’s remembered primarily for it’s awkward, geometric sets such as, crooked doors, walls and staircases, misshapen windows, twisted landscapes and painted backgrounds.

The film was groundbreaking in it’s time and has left an indelible influence on audiences and filmmakers alike. It relates the story of a mad hypnotist who awakens a somnambulist who’s been asleep for twenty years. Through him the hypnotist (Caligari) begins to commit several murders.The film keeps the viewer guessing throughout.

 

 

 

Conjuring Dracula

 

The next majorly significant work was also the first genuine vampire film. ‘Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror’ (1922) by F. W. Murnau.

This legendary film was the original adaptation of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ but made with the names of character’s and locations changed. Murnau did not seek copyright permission for the book on which to base his film. As a result, he was taken to court by Stoker’s estate and all copies were ordered to be destroyed. One copy survived however to become a seminal work of primal horror.

Beautifully filmed on location throughout Eastern Europe and bringing forth the most vile, animalistic, repulsive vampire ever placed on screen.

 

 

The Legendary Lon Chaney

 

‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ of 1923 starred the famous ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’, Lon Chaney. So popular and effective was Chaney for his self made make-up and disguises that a funny saying at the time was, “Don’t step on that insect, it might be Lon Chaney..!” 

Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel about an unlikely bond developing between a beautiful Gypsy girl and the lowly bell ringer Quasimodo (Chaney).

 

 

‘The Hands of Orlac’ (1924) Is another classic silent horror. Directed by Robert Wiene of Caligari fame and starring Conrad Veidt also from Caligari. The story is about a world famous pianist who loses both hands in a railway accident and receives the hands of a recently executed murderer through transplant. He becomes obsessed with horror, then murder when he discovers the repellent truth of his new hands.

‘Waxworks’ by Paul Leni, also from 1924 is a horror/fantasy which tells the story of a writer who takes a job from a waxworks proprietor to write a series of articles about his wax exhibits which include Caliph of Baghdad, Ivan The Terrible and Jack the Ripper!

 

The Very First Phantom…

 

In 1925 came ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ the first film version of Gaston Leroux’s famous novel about a deformed ‘Phantom’ (Lon Chaney) who haunts the Paris Opera House, appearing and disappearing at will using secret passageways and the labyrinth of tunnels beneath. In love and obsessed with the opera’s rising star, he determines to do away with those who stand in her way of becoming famous.

A beautifully powerful silent classic, the famous unmasking sequence showing Chaney’s ghastly makeup still so effective to this day. The design of the ‘ghost face’, being kept secret until the movie’s premiere would have completely shocked!

 

 

Next was the film interpretation of the legend of ‘Faust’ in 1926. Another classic of silent cinema directed by F.W. Murnau. The demon Mephisto makes a bet with God that he can corrupt a good man’s soul. The man in question makes a deal with the devil to save his village from plague. However, his soul is now at the mercy of evil.

Can he save himself in time before it’s too late?

 

 

Clever Mixture of Themes

 

The Cat and the Canary (1927) by German Expressionistic filmmaker Paul Leni is a horror/comedy whose influence can be seen in ‘The Old Dark House’ genre of films popular from the 30’s through the 50’s.

Twenty years after the death of their rich eccentric uncle, several relatives gather together for the reading of his will and spend the night in his haunted mansion. Meanwhile, a lunatic known as ‘The Cat’ has escaped from an asylum and is hiding within the spooky house!

 

HYTGuntitled

‘The Man Who Laughs’ (1928) is based upon the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo and directed by Expressionistic filmmaker Paul Leni. The main character wears a grin so sinister and extreme that the film is often regarded as having an element of horror. Actor Conrad Veidt’s make up was reportedly the inspiration for the character of ‘The Joker’ from the Batman comics.

 

Within the next few years, the use of sound in the form of dialogue would become commonplace. Studio’s were already utilising a musical score within these silent movies to enhance plot and help describe the events and feelings taking place. Orchestra’s were often placed at the foot of a movie’s screen in theatres to provide a ‘soundtrack’.

 

Dialogue Unpopular at First!?

 

When the first ‘talkies’ came out, they may have featured dialogue, but many did not have musical accompaniment throughout their scenes and as a result seemed hollow or empty in places. Frankenstein is a good example of this. Sound effects also took some time to be properly employed. As in, The Island of Lost Souls.

The importance and influence of early silent classics cannot be overstated for the direction ‘horror movies’ began to take. Pioneering French and German directors, Georges Méliès, Henrik Galeen, Robert Wiene, F.W. Murnau, along with actors such as, Conrad Veidt, Paul Wegener, and Lon Chaney were unquestionably responsible.

 

 

…Their coming was inevitable but their style, groundbreaking! These were the best silent horror movies of all time!

 

 

 

 

Please feel free to add any thoughts or comments below and thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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17 Comments

  • MissMone says:

    This is a really good read, Jamie!

    • jamie says:

      Really appreciate your interest MissMone. Was so great to research and watch some more of the old silent productions. Fascinating too to learn more about the earliest days of film. …The silent movies (especially horror), have a truly unique power all of their own!

  • Stu says:

    I’m watching the Cabinet of Dr. Haligari now! Lol. I really like how you went into the history because no one really talks about that these days. I really think horror movies have taken a turn for the worse in recent years. I like to genuinely feel scared, and I have not since “The Strangers”. The movie got terrible reviews but I think otherwise. It really creeped me out and made me feel what it was like to be scared during a movie. Nothing since then has really creeped me out. I watched the Blair Witch project and really enjoyed it. My heart was racing throughout. There was just something about it’s style and technique that really worked on a terrifyingly creepy level.
    Anywho, I’m rambling. Great site here! Looking forward to more.
    -Stu

    • admin says:

      Let me Know what you think of Caligari? Thanks a lot for your comments Stu. I totally agree with you. Horror, like many things has become completely formulaic and predictable. Or worse still, mindlessly excessive. I was absolutely stunned by the Blair Witch Project however. To see the actors go from blaming each other to being angry, desperate and frightened, then in complete despair/survival mode was very real. They totally go through the full range of emotion. Really convincing and engaging.

  • Stu says:

    Nice article!
    I’m watching the Cabinet of Dr. Haligari now! Lol. I really like how you went into the history because no one really talks about that these days. I really think horror movies have taken a turn for the worse in recent years. I like to genuinely feel scared, and I have not since “The Strangers”. The movie got terrible reviews but I think otherwise. It really creeped me out and made me feel what it was like to be scared during a movie. Nothing since then has really creeped me out. I watched the Blair Witch project and really enjoyed it. My heart was racing throughout. There was just something about it’s style and technique that really worked on a terrifyingly creepy level.
    Anywho, I’m rambling. Great site here! Looking forward to more.
    -Stu

  • Zeno81 says:

    Jaime, I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable horror buff (especially the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s) but this is absolutely fantastic. The vintage clips just take it to another level, man!

    I posted it onto my Facebook feed, and I’ve got several friends who love the horror genre like me and it will eat up. Great work! Keep it up!.

    • admin says:

      Wow! Jeeze, I appreciate that Zeno81! Am really glad you liked it. Thanks very much for sharing! I too love many of the movies from the 60’s through to the 90’s. There are certainly MANY classic masterpieces from these decades! Thanks HEAPS for your encouragement friend!

  • Helen says:

    I love the old silent horror films. For some reason they seem to be much more affective than the new films. Especially when the orchestra played. Music certainly emphasised the atmosphere.

    I find the new horror movies are really horrible. There isn’t a lot of talent in them as they use so many props and film manipulation. This tends to take the film to an unpleasant place beyond horror.

    Your site well details the history of the silent movies and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    (ps when you do the 1960’s don’t forget ‘Two on a Guillotine.”

    • admin says:

      I fully agree with you Helen, the musical accompaniment on silent movies, especially horror, created a powerful narrative which I suppose, is much to do with music’s uniqueness. As you say, the atmosphere is superbly emphasized!

      Interesting you say that modern horror films are taken to other, “unpleasant” places “beyond horror”. Couldn’t agree more! Why has this become necessary? Our limited attention spans as modern audiences? Our desensitization?

      Like with so many things…less is more! Especially when supposedly trying to create atmosphere and suspense! To me it’s a no-brainer!

      Thanks very much for your interest Helen! P.S; “Two on a Guillotine”, …Will definitely be checking that one out! Thank you.

  • Tony says:

    Hello Jamie,

    Amazing site for fans of the horror film genre! I love that you incorporate the history into your post here. The old films clearly are classics, leaving much more to the viewers imagination.

    Many of today’s horror films don’t leave much to the imagination – they try to show you every gory detail! I did enjoy movies like “The Shining”, “The Exorcist”, “Pet Cemetery” and “The Sixth Sense”.

    I had not heard of Nosferatu and really enjoyed watching it from your site. The incredible music really enhances it! I learned a great deal from you here, Jamie – thank you for that. Keep up the terrific work!

    Tony

    • admin says:

      Hi there Tony. I’m very grateful for your visit, and those positive comments.

      I’m a huge fan of The Shinning and The Exorcist too! Pet Cemetery and The Sixth Sense were great too. I’ve a lot of respect for The director of The Sixth Sense for allowing his films to build and develop a lot of suspense.

      That’s awesome you watched Nosferatu! Certainly one of the most influential horror movies of all time. It’s nice to know of people taking the time to see these amazing pieces of history!

      Thanks so much Tony! Jamie.

  • Alex! says:

    Jamie!
    Old movies always remember us where the today movies come from! I Really enjoy reading about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! it was a great movie! and even today still have a great charm! in the past they don’t need to have special effects or a great soundtrack to be great, don’t you think?
    which one is your favorite movie today?

    • admin says:

      Couldn’t agree more Alex!!!…Awesome to have your visit and comment my friend. …Favorite movie today? The Omen, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby,The Wicker Man, The Shinning, Werewolf of London, Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola, to name a few. Was also blown away by The Blair Witch Project and even more recently, Paranormal activity. Jamie.

  • Michael Hills says:

    This is a fun post! I’ve seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, and Nosferatu. Didn’t Bela Lugosi play in Nosferatu? I have not seen the 1923 version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Cool. Just one suggestion, wound it make sense for you to add the white zombie in this list as it was the first zombie movie ever made in 1932? Not sure if it fits. It essentially a silent film with key scenes performed with a minimum of dialogue.

    • admin says:

      Many thanks Michael. You’ve seen some all time classics that’s for sure! Actually, Bela Lugosi starred in Dracula 1931, while Nosferatu was made in 1922 and starred German actor, Max Schreck.

      You’re right, White Zombie was the first Zombie film ever made though it did have plenty of dialogue and, in fact, a lot of music throughout. So for that reason, it couldn’t be regarded as a silent feature.

      Silent movies were just that…silent. Meaning although music was used to convey feeling and emotion, there was definitely no dialogue. Only “intertitles” (subtitles) describing what was being said or taking place. . Studio’s hadn’t yet figured out a way of adding audible dialogue.

      Thanks heaps for your comment and question Michael!

  • mikeactiv4health says:

    Wow that’s pretty interesting!

    I really like horror movies, but I only watched the modern horror movies …

    It’s amazing to see how horror movies and movies in general developped in the last decades !

    I’m wondering if there’s there a horror movie that every horror movie lover should have seen ?

    Would really like to know.

    • admin says:

      Wow, so many I could mention! To truly get a sense of how horror has developed and in keeping with this silent film post, I’d have to nominate “Nosferatu” from 1922. This absolute classic is at the top of many people’s favorite’s list and was an immense influence on horror and films in general! This movie is definitely a must-see for it’s expressionistic style, macabre feel and undeniable creepiness. It was the very first adaptation of the now familiar Dracula story and is completely unique and unforgettable!

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