Silent cinema has long been relegated to annals of the academic, saved for classrooms and revivalist houses. Outside of the cinephiles who walk among us, few, if anyone, rushes off to the video store (yes, some still exist) or queues up to a silent film anymore. Silent films shouldn’t be viewed as film’s rudimentary beginnings; they’re more than the La Brea tar pits of cinematic history. Silent film isn’t a genre, but a means by which films were produced and made before sound could be synced with moving pictures. Thus, during this period of film’s history, the genres we recognize today, such as horror, were told through the developing medium of silent film.
Up until 1930, films contained no dialogue, merely intertitles that sometimes contained dialogue or scene settings. The only sounds that could be heard were the film’s accompanying musical score. This raises the question, “If we can’t hear the screams, is it really still frightening?” and the answer is a resounding yes. In our opinion, Nosferatu is just as terrifying as contemporary horror films. Lon Chaney’s haunting, terrifying and empathetic performance in The Phantom of the Opera doesn’t need words; his eyes and subtle facial movements convey so much more and in a resonate and profound way.
Whether it be the gothic images of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or the eerie atmosphere in Phantom Carriage, cinema–at its core–is visual. When expertly crafted and performed, words become a luxury, sound a gilded ornament. But what we remember, what keeps us coming back, are those images.
Here, 13 silent horror films that will not only terrify you, but teach you how to read images in film, the first step to truly understanding just what those moving pictures mean and why they’re so important.
Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Dir: Rupert Julian, Lon Chaney, Edward Sedgwick, Ernst Laemmle
In the most iconic cinematic adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel Le Fantome de l’Opera, Lon Chaney brings the dreaded creature to life with a sensitive, moving performance and ghastly self-devised makeup. From the emotional undercurrents that run through the film to the haunting images Rupert Julian and his crew of directors created, it is safe to say that The Phantom of the Opera is one of the greatest stories ever brought to life on film.
Dir: F. W. Murnau
Inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula but unable to acquire its rights, F. W. Murnau and his creative team almost found a way around copyright laws when they created Nosferatu, a film centered on the horrific Count Orlak who is beautifully portrayed by Max Schreck. Unfortunately for Murnau, Stoker’s heirs sued over the adaptation prompting the court to order that every copy of Nosferatu be destroyed; fortunately for us, several copies were retained and the horror film is now considered to be one of the greatest, most influential works of its genre.
Le Manoir du Diable (1896)
Dir: Georges Melies
Despite the elements of humor and fantasy present in Le Manoir du Diable, the short silent film by Georges Melies is often credited as being both the first horror and vampire film. In the 3-minute film, two cavaliers–one braver than the other–find themselves the victims of a series of pranks played by Mephisto himself.
Dir: Benjamin Christensens
Haxan, considered one of the darkest documentaries ever, explores the relationship between superstition and mental illness, and how a historical misunderstanding of the two have led to hysteric witch hunts. The film features chilling dramatizations that classify this documentary as a horror film.
Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer
While Vampyr was Dreyer’s first sound film, the sparse dialogue and use of intertitles make this, in our opinion, a silent film first, sound film second. Vampyr follows a student of the occult, Allan Gray, as he enters the small village of Courtempierre, which is under a vampyr’s curse. The film isn’t considered Dreyer’s best, but has, since its release, been praised as an important work of its time.
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Dir: Paul Leni
Fans of Batman’s nemesis, The Joker, can trace the origins of their beloved, deranged character to The Man Who Laughs, specifically Conrad Veidt’s interpretation of Gwynplaine, the son of an English nobleman whose face was mutilated into a permanent grin as punishment for offending the king. While The Man Who Laughs is considered a romantic melodrama, Veidt’s portrayal of the grinning clown was disturbing enough to land this film in the horror, rather than the romantic, genre. The Man Who Laughs is a deeply touching film, one that explores our inner relationship with ourselves and others.
The Golem (1915)
Dir: Paul Wegener, Henrik Galeen
The Golem is a figure in Jewish folklore that has evolved over the ages from the perfect servant to the protector of Jews in times of persecution to its most recent connotation, one created by Rabbi Judah Low ben Bezulel, which is used as the basis for Wegener’s seminal film of the same name. The film follows an antiques dealer who resurrects a golem to serve as his servant, but it is when the golem falls in love with his wife that things begin to go awry.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Dir: Robert Wiene; Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
A commentary on Germany’s government at the time and the result of Janowitz’s and Mayer’s time in the military, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari explores the relationship between Government as authority figure and Citizen as civil servant. In addition to its striking political commentary, the graphic set pieces created by Hermann Warm make this film a seminal piece in German Expressionism.
Dir: Paul Leni
Waxworks is yet another great film by legend Paul Leni. The film follows a young poet as he is being commissioned by the proprietor of a wax museum to write the backstory for Ivan the Terrible, Jack the Ripper and Harun al-Rashid. The film would be Leni’s last in Germany before his move to the United States.
Dir: J. Searle Dawley
Before James Whale released his pre-code era Frankenstein (1931), one that would be dubbed by the Library of Congress as being culturally, aesthetically and historically significant to American history, J. Searle Dawley released his interpretation of Mary Shelley’s novel in what would be Frankenstein‘s first film adaptation. While much of the film was lost, stills and a plot description were discovered in the Edison Studios film catalog, The Edison Kinetogram, with a slightly-damaged print of the film being discovered in 1950 and released in the mid-’70s.
The Haunted House (1921)
Dir: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
If you’re looking for something light and playful to watch this Halloween, we highly recommend The Haunted House, starring, written and directed by Buster Keaton (and Edward Cline). The film follows Keaton as a bank teller who becomes involved in a hold-up by a theater troupe posing as ghosts in a haunted house.
The Magician (1926)
Dir: Rex Ingram
If Halloween isn’t the time for creating human life with the blood of a maiden, then we don’t know what is. In The Magician, hypnotist, student of medicine and magician Haddo tries to do exactly that with deadly, horrifying consequences.
The Phantom Carriage (1921)
Dir: Victor Sjostrom
When Ingmar Bergman credits a film as being influential to his work, you know it’s one worth watching. The Phantom Carriage, noted for its special effects and use of flashbacks (a narrative tool considered revolutionary at the time), is considered to be one of the greatest works in the history of Swedish cinema. In it, David, an alcoholic and abusive husband, is forced to recount his life upon death, one masked by the legend of the carriage itself in which its driver is forced to pick up souls until next year’s midnight death. The film does not fall under one category, but can be classified as horror, folklore, thriller and/or religious fable.
Curious readers can find the majority of these films on YouTube.
For more must-watch Halloween films, check out these 13 quintessential slashers.
*Feature image via Film4