Ten Horrific Silent Films

by Paula R. Stiles

1922 - Nosferatu (DVD)Some of these films would not even be classified as horror today. However, all have given images, techniques and themes to the horror film genre that have never gone away (or should definitely be dug back up). It’s not intentional that most of these films are not American, but it might not be a coincidence, either. The German expressionists of the silent era were highly influential on later horror film. I’ve included links to the films (most of them now in public domain) where any are available online:

Frankenstein, d. by J. Searle Dowley (1910) [USA]: In some ways, this adaptation produced by Thomas Edison is more faithful to Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley’s novel than later versions, which is interesting, considering it’s not much over 12 minutes long. In later versions, the Creature is made out of dead bodies, much like some old, Caribbean-style zombies. In the novel (and this version), Frankenstein makes the Creature via alchemical means, much like a Talmudic golem. While the Creature’s look is a bit laughable in modern terms, it does effectively give the impression of a golem and not a zombie.

The making of the Creature is a prolonged scene in which he slowly rises out of a cauldron straight from Shakespeare or Welsh mythology, pieces of himfrankenstein flying together into a complete whole while Frankenstein watches with initial glee turning to dread. Despite the poor preservation of the film, the dated scenery-chewing of the actor playing Frankenstein and the crude special effects, this is quite a disturbing scene. Think the end of The Terminator but in reverse.

Rather less faithful to the book are the assertion that the Creature is a manifestation of Frankenstein’s evil nature, his Id, rather than a victim/child-gone-bad-through-neglect, and the forced happy ending. That said, this does lead to another, very striking, image:

Our view of Frankenstein’s house/apartment is mainly a sitting room with a chair on the left and a mirror on the right. The mirror reflects the door opposite the chair, which means that, almost a century before 24 made split-screen scenes a regular thing, and with no cutting back and forth, you0 can see both sides of the room in the same scene. This leads to some surreal stuff like Frankenstein’s fiancée coming in through the door reflected in the mirror before we actually see her in the room. This effect, once benignly introduced, turns sinister when we see the Creature sneak in the door before Frankenstein sees him. And at the end, we see the Creature, horrified by its reflection, disappear into the image of Frankenstein pointing at the Creature/himself in the mirror. Very Jekyll and Hyde and a simple effect worth ripping off.

Do yourself a favour, though – turn the sound off while watching this. As with most silent films, the music really kills the intended mood.

The Eyes of the Mummy
, d. by Ernst Lubitsch (1918) [Germany]:
This is more a melodramatic thriller than a typical horror film and not all that scary, but it includes many elements found in later horror films and domestic-violenceeyesofthemummy1918dvd thrillers. The set-up where the young European aristocrat on a trip to Egypt decides to go to a nearby tomb, despite warnings of a curse, appears in later Mummy films. The stupidity of Europeans in these films never ceases to amaze me, considering they’re supposed to be the smartest and most competitive race in the story. You have the backdrop of the decrepit old tomb, with one striking image I haven’t seen in other films – a wall where the image’s eyes of the title open, terrifying the tomb’s visitors. Alas, this turns out to be a fraud. There is no actual mummy in this flick.

The Eyes of the Mummy also manages to pencil in the type of godawful backhistory/half-baked mythology found in later Mummy films. In one scene, the bad guy makes a vow “by Osiris, the high priestess”. Only problem? Osiris was a male god not a female cleric. That’s not even getting into the laughable spelling errors/non-anglophone words in the English-language title cards (“sejour”? “Daggar”? Really?).

We get a classic romance plot where a wealthy man raises a woman out of poverty and degradation. In this case, the young European nobleman rescues a light-skinned Egyptian woman from longterm sexual slavery at the 1_01hands of a dark-skinned, abusive Egyptian man (never mind that European men of the time treated women no better) and “civilizes” her by converting her into the perfect little European noblewoman. Pretty Woman did this decades later and made it semi-palatable by replacing the interracial angle with a vaguely class-based one instead. But it’s the same story.

You’ve also got the old Lifetime-Network standby, made famous by the likes of Sleeping with the Enemy, of the relentlessly abusive ex-“lover” (in this case, enslaver, who is made up to look like Shakespeare’s Othello and suffers a similar fate) stalking the heroine across impossible distances. Meanwhile, her new beau proves about as useful as a thimble in a monsoon when danger finally strikes. The motif of the malignant lover appears again in Universal’s 1932 version of The Mummy, though in that case, Imhotep and the heroine are mutually in love. She only balks when he tries to mummify her in the final scene, turning surprisingly proactive on her own behalf. No such strong women in The Eyes of the Mummy, where we have a beautiful, brainless heroine who approaches every situation (particularly ones involving sharp objects), heaving bosoms first, and manages to trip or faint or otherwise be totally useless. Sad that the slasher heroine is so venerable.

J’Accuse, d. by Abel Gance (1919) [France]: J’Accuse may be a head-scratcher for some, partly because it’s a war romance with a plot that was moldy even when the film came out. How can that be horror?

What makes it stand out is a terrifying sequence toward the end after the Hero,J'Accuse Jean, comes back from WWI, broken and insane. Almost sixty years before Romero, Gance’s hero has a dream where all of his dead comrades rise up out of the fields where they died and rot to come back to his home village and accuse the war’s civilians of not giving a damn about their sacrificed lives. This scene is one of the final spasms of obsessive 19th-century-style spiritualism that rose up toward the end of the War and it’s really disturbing. These zombie soldiers look really dead. Whoever did the makeup (let alone Gance’s direction) did a fantastic job.

But the creepiest part is that many of those playing the dead soldiers had jaccuse1919dvdbecome literal ghost images by the time the film came out. The movie was filmed in the waning days of the War and the extras for this scene were actual soldiers from the front. By Gance’s own calculation, 80% of them died in battle only weeks after the scene was filmed.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, d. by Robert Wiene (1920) [Germany]: This film is a combination of two now-hoary clichés: It Was Only a Dream and The Unreliable Narrator. It’s also a zombie film of the old school: instead of George Romero’s dressing up medieval vampires as zombies, you get the caligari1European “mesmerist” version of Voodoo slaves. In this case, Dr. Caligari uses the “cabinet” of the title to hypnotize people into sleepwalkers who do his murderous bidding. Or does he? If you think Shyalaman invented horror-film twists, you haven’t seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

A classic example of German expressionism, this film doesn’t have any one scene that really leaps out. It’s the overall effect. The film achieves this by employing very tight iris shots on characters and cramped sets. Walls don’t stand up straight incabinet_des_dr_caligari_01 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. They lean at strange angles. Hallways and alleyways are narrow and long, with high, invisible ceilings and furniture made for giants not people. It’s all very Kafkaesque.

I wonder if Shirley Jackson was inspired by Caligari when describing her eponymous dwelling o’ doom in The Haunting of Hill House? I’m pretty sure Beetlejuice borrowed heavily from it, as the fireplace shot during the climactic wedding scene is an almost exact copy of the distorted doorways of this film. The Wizard of Oz seems to have been influenced by it, too, in the oversized design of the Emerald City.

Nosferatu, d. by F.W. Murnau (1922) [Germany]: Probably the most famous of the ten, at least in the horror genre, this is not quite the original film adaptation of Dracula, but it’s the oldest one that survives. Don’t expect sexy Bela Lugosi or Frank Langella or even a romantic/gross Gary Oldman from this one.nosferatu1922 The vampire in this is a nasty creature who appears to embody every ugly Jewish stereotype from Mein Kamf. He’s old. He has a huge, hooked nose and long, grody fingernails. His suitcoat is ancient and too-small. He’s anything but your perfect fatal date. This film was also apparently so screwed up behind the scenes that it inspired a fictional account of the making of the film called Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Shadow of the Vampire‘s chilling twist is that the guy who played Nosferatu was the real thing. It’s also worth checking out.

The most disturbing image from this film is not really when Nosferatu appears, or even when he is struck by the sun and fades into dust, though these are justifiably famous. No, it’s that of his shadow creeping ahead of him before we see him, covering his intended victim and sucking her life away.

The Battleship Potemkin
, d. by Sergei Eisenstein (1925) [Russia]:
This is another possible headscratcher. It’s an historical propaganda film from Russia about the 1905 Revolution. It’s also probably Eisenstein’s finest, and often scored to Shostakovitch’s somber Symphony No. 5. The two notable scenes for which it’s justifiably famous are the initial mutiny sequence on the Potemkin and the massacre on the Odessa Steps (which never actually happened), where citizens of Odessa who have risen up peacefully in support of the crew’s mutiny are shot down in cold blood by the Tsar’s soldiers. The latter puts the film on this list.

Absolutely horrible things happen to children in this scene. I’m no big fan of watching children get killed on film, but if horror filmmakers are going to insist onphoto-2 Evil Child/Child in Peril plots, they should have another look at Battleship Potemkin. The makers of Harper’s Island, for example, should have watched this and reconsidered their creepy little girl character, Madison, but as we all know, nobody in television (and few in film) today will kill off kids the way this film does.

A boy is trampled to death by the terrified mob fleeing the Tsar’s soldiers, who are marching robotically down the steps, shooting into the crowd. His mother lifts up his body, Pietà-style, and appeals to the soldiers’ sense of mercy. They have none and she is shot down, too.

A young widow dithers with her baby carriage at the top of the now-infamous staircase, but is fatally shot. In her death throes, she pushes the carriage onto the steps. Down it bounces, the child inside crying in bewilderment, until it reaches_40324011_potempkin203 the bottom and violently tips over…Eisenstein cuts away to reaction shots from bystanders at this point, but it’s obvious what just happened. The scene ends with one of the bystanders, an elderly woman, sporting a horrific, and possibly fatal, head wound.

The baby carriage sequence is so famous that, among others, Hitchcock fanboy Brian De Palma did a nearly blow-by-blow homage to it in his gangster thriller The Untouchables.

The Phantom of the Opera, d. by Rupert Julian (1925) [USA]:
This is considered by many to be Lon Chaney Sr.’s finest hour as both an actor and a makeup artist. It has also given us one of the most indelible images in horror film opera1in the form of the Phantom’s true face (not revealed until nearly halfway through the film). As with some other silent films of the era, parts of this were filmed in colour for enhanced effect. Most striking is the “Bal Masque” sequence where the Phantom appears in public dressed as the “Red Death” from Poe’s story of the same name.

I had a chance to see this version of The Phantom of the Opera at a local high school recently. The atmosphere was enhanced considerably by live organ music and two bats who happened to be living in the school auditorium. Confused by the combination of darkness and loud sound, they and their shadows roamed the ceiling in front of the screen for most of the film.

I gotta be honest, though – this puppy is sloooowwwww. The heroine, Christine Daaé, and her beau are totally unsympathetic and the Phantom is aphantom opera chaney psychopath. At ninety minutes, the film drags because there’s really nobody to root for, especially since the film ends in classic horror-movie fashion, eight years before Universal’s version of Frankenstein did it, with a Parisian mob wielding torches along the Seine. Reportedly, this was a second ending filmed after the first, more romantic one, failed to win over the test audience.

That doesn’t take away from the fact that Chaney gives a fantastic performance. His makeup job (reported to have involved fishhooks and other extremely painful elements) is highly effective, even when seeing the Phantom’s true face becomes commonplace in the latter part of the film. The use of shadows and the catacombs set underneath the theatre is also amazing and the Phantom’s total control over that environment is pretty scary. People who enter his domain uninvited can expect a variety of horrible fates.

This one has been justifiably ripped off over the years, and not just by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Check out, for example, the pig masks in The Twilight Zone episode, “The Eye of the Beholder”, about the beautiful woman who lives in a world where beauty is ugly and forbidden.

West of Zanzibar, d. Tod Browning (1928) [USA] (link only includes first part): West of Zanzibar is a sleazy, highly-disturbing story that leaves you needing a hot shower afterward. It’s a classic case of boundaries-pushingwestofzanzibar Pre-Code silent film. If you haven’t seen any of the stuff that was put out in Hollywood before the Hays Code censored American cinema into forty years of charged sublimation, you are in for quite a shock.

Set mostly in Africa, this baby is chock-full of adultery, murder, madness, revenge, grotesque physical handicaps, suicide, rape, domestic battery, drug abuse, scenes of human sacrifice, references to prostitution and STDs, broad hints of incest, and racist stereotypes galore. This is probably the original “protagonist is corrupted by a pervasive culture of savagery and goes native” horror flick.

Lon Chaney Sr. pops up again, this time as the protagonist anti-hero, Phroso, whose quest for revenge takes him down a very dark road, indeed. Most of the scenes in West of Zanzibar are filmed either indoors or at night by firelight. This emphasizes the endemic image of “darkest Africa” ripped off from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now owes a great deal to West of Zanzibar. Deliverance probably does, too.

Un chien andalou, d. by Luis Buñuel (1929) [France]: Creepy, freaky and completely out of its gourd, this experimental film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali isn’t technically genre, but you’re not likely to see such hard-core, mind-bending, non-linear sequences in a non-genre film these days.

Everyone has heard of the opening scene where a woman sits calmly by moonlight while a man slices open her eye with a straight razor. Other sequences include adalidesire young man riding a bicycle dressed like a nun and, later, stalking a woman while dragging a piano across a room (seriously). But the one that always gets me is a little-remarked sequence in the middle where the nameless young man corners the nameless young woman in a shadowy room and feels her up. While imagining her naked. Yeah. Like, what’s that all about? She finally gets away from him and slams the door on his hand, whereupon a hole opens up and ants pour out of the hand. I’m not sure why no one has copied this image yet because it deserves to be merrily ripped off. But silent film has a lot of original stuff nobody ever did follow up. Pity. Today’s film could use the infusion of new/old blood.

Vampyr, d. by Carl Theodor Dreyer (1932) [France/Germany]: This one exists in an odd place. Silent film and early horror film connoisseurs are well aware of it. Everyone else has forgotten about it. It needs a revival.

Technically, it’s an early sound film, but it’s filmed in the way that some silent films with actual sound in them were filmed, with everything (including sparse dialogue from three languages) added later on in the studio. This makes it that much eerier.

The plot is dreamlike and confusing. Essentially, it’s the old saw of a young manvampyr2 who visits rural climes in the Old Country and encounters some weird goings-on, notably: dead people who won’t stay dead. As you can guess from the title, vampires are involved.

Aside from the minimalist use of sound, what makes this film stand out are some very clever FX that are well-known to people who know silent film but startling to anyone who thinks black-and-white films are boring and CGI is actually superior to other forms of FX. Silent film experimented heavily with image manipulation, more so than we do today. Filmmakers used stop-motion, colored filters and different camera speeds to do all sorts of things. They even had colour film (as in Chaney’s version of The Phantom of the Opera). They just didn’t use it very often.

Vampyr is an excellent horror version of this, and is one of my favourite silents as a result. It uses a technique perfected in the late 19th century called “ghost photography”. Early photography required that people sit absolutely still because the film took several minutes of exposure to “fix” an image. If someone (or something) moved about during that time, it left a ghostly image of movement on the film. Now, imagine that as a moving image. “Freaky” ain’t the half of it.

In Vampyr, the young man has an odd daydream where his spirit separates vampyr-dvdfrom his body (seen as a ghostly image literally getting up and walking away while he sits there) and goes to a coffin where he sees himself being dug up. He can tell this because there is a window at face-level in the coffin. This makes him wonder whether he is alive or dead, or trapped in some realm in between, like the vampires he’s heard about. At the end of the film, in a nearly identical sequence, he helps an old man stake the body of an old woman suspected of being a vampire. She is in the same coffin in the same pose at the same place as in his dream. The connection to his dream? We never really find out, and that’s one of the charms of Vampyr: it never…quite…tells you what’s going on, but it does give you just enough information to draw your own conclusions.