Long before horror, or any genre, had a voice there was silent film/movies. Silent movies were difficult to succeed, as to be a “horror” film, one must generate the effect and emotion of terror. Without sound, it was up to the camera work and creativity to get the job done. Georges Méliès’s 1896 Le Manoir du Diable (translated to House of the Devil or Haunted Castle) is commonly cited as the first horror movie. It was filmed in 1896 by Georges Méliès, who filmed five of the first ten horror movies ever made. Following those early years, some very good films were made, some of which became important influences on the genre.
Here is my list of Horror’s Best Silent Movies.
- Nosferatu (1922) – Perhaps the father of vampire movies, this film was produced by Prana films. It was a complete rip off, or as critics say “adaptation” of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, however, the studio failed to get rights to use the story. They simply changed all of the names and went forward, resulting in a law suit that caused Prana Films to fold. Despite the legal issues, Nosferatu was one of the best silent films made and definitely the best silent horror movie ever made.
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – A vivid story of a manipulative hypnotist and a sleepwalker that makes beautiful use of its limitations, capturing one’s attention with the bold, memorable art design for the sets that would become known as German Expressionism. If you want to see the influence of the artistic work on horror, check out some of Tim Burton’s work like Beetlejuice and Nightmare Before Christmas, as it is much the same style.
- Haxan (1922) – Haxan caused a lot of controversy upon release due to its scenes of torture, nudity, and perversion. It was banned in several countries for decades. Benjamin Christensen made the film to shed a spotlight on the inexplicable horrors faced by women who were accused of witchcraft during the Inquisitions. Incredible cinematography for its time and the controversial subject matter made for a great movie. One of the first movies about witches and witchcraft made.
- Vampyr (1932) – While not completely silent, still considered part of the silent era. It is a chilling film about a student of the occult who encounters supernatural haunts and local evildoers in a village outside of Paris. There are a lot of cutaways in this film that make it more like a nightmare than a film.
- The Phantom Carriage (1921) – The Phantom Carriage tells the tale of a man plagued by his past whose story intersects with a folklore superstition that anyone who dies on New Year’s eve must spend the next year driving death’s carriage and collecting the souls of the departed. This film was groundbreaking in special effects for it’s time and it is one of the first “ghost stories” told on film.
- The Golem (1920) – It’s not difficult to see inspiration from Mary Shelly’s book “Frankenstein” here. A rabbi predict disaster for his people, and in response he creates a large figure out of clay and infuses it with both life and purpose — protect the Jewish people. However, other purposes are encouraged and death and carnage ensue.
- Phantom of the Opera (1925) – This masterpiece still holds up today as one of the best adaptations of the source material. Lon Chaney, as the Phantom, is haunting, in large part due to the makeup that he created himself. His sunken eyes and droopy stretched out face are as horrific as iconic.
- Frankenstein (1910) – Adapted from Mary Shelly’s original novel, the film shows young Frankenstein discovering the “mystery of life” after two years at university. He gives life to a creature built by mixing different chemicals, and the monster follows Frankenstein back to his parents’ house. The conclusion, completely different from Mary Shelley’s book, shows the creature disappearing after seeing its own reflection in the mirror, and without killing Victor’s younger brother or his fiancée Elizabeth, as happened in the novel.
- Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) – The famous Shakespearean John Barrymore shoulders the dual roles of man and monster in this hugely popular adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella. This is one of my all-time favorite characters and it pained me to see “Penny Dreadful” end before the third season could explore the Dr. Jekyll story more.
- London After Midnight (1927) – The abandoned home of a wealthy man who supposedly committed suicide five years earlier is taken over by ghoulish figures – could they be vampires? Lon Chaney stars again and reinstates the fact that he truly is a man of 1000 faces. I liked this movie as one of Chaney’s best.
There are many more silent horror films, most of which you can view online. Check them out when you have time – many of them are very short and worth your time.