…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
‘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.