Far too many horror movies nowadays depend on the “quiet…quiet…LOUD!” method of terrifying an audience, but that ain’t scaring, folks; that’s startling. Being startled is a involuntary action; being scared is something mental and emotional, from deep, deep down in your very core. At any rate, I bring up the noisiness of horror movies these days to compare it to those halcyon days of silent movies. There was no shortage of scares, but they depended on visuals to do so. A lot of the best silent horror movies are a billion times better than the sound pictures lately, so before you write off the whole of cinema history in favor of the newest found-footage yawner, here are ten of the very best Silent Horror Classics for you just in time for Halloween:
The Haunted Castle (1896) dir. Georges Melies
This one’s impressive and easy to watch! Special effects pioneer Georges Melies made this 3 minute horror short in the earliest days of film, and it stands as one of the earliest examples of fantastical cinema. While many were just using moving pictures to show people doing things, Melies gave us magic, ghosts, and skeletons.
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920) dir. John S. Robertson
Many different versions of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic were made in the early movie days, but this one starring John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather) is one of the most interesting, with Barrymore himself contorting his face for much of the transformation, only later aided by cuts and dissolves.
The Unknown (1927) dir. Tod Browning
Tod Browning must have been obsessed with circuses. Before his disturbing masterpiece Freaks, or Dracula, for that matter, the director gave us Lon Chaney as an armless circus performer who fires pistols with his feet. His secret, though, is that his arms are actually perfectly intact, and he’s really a burglar hiding from the police. Things are not good when people start finding out the truth.
The Phantom Carriage (1921) dir. Victor Sjostrom
This Swedish fable tells of a drunkard who dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year Eve and is thus cursed to drive the Phantom Carriage for a whole year, effectively becoming the Grim Reaper. Sjostrom himself plays the unlucky soul. As the Criterion clip below says, it’s a highly influential film, with masterful effects for the time.
The Golem (1920) dirs. Carl Boese & Paul Wegener
One of the earliest monster movies, this German film tells of a 16th Century rabbi in Prague who creates a giant out of clay to protect the Jews from persecution. The creature (played by co-director Wegener) definitely pre-figures Frankenstein’s monster in the Universal pictures.
Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) dir. Benjamin Christensen
A very bizarre movie that acts as a kind of living diorama, a series of tableaus which offer a history of black magic and its uses. The film’s writer-director Christensen plays both Satan and Jesus at various points in the proceedings. It looks like it could have been a Rob Zombie music video in the mid-’90s, but it’s really a Swedish film from 1922.
The Man Who Laughs (1927) dir. Paul Leni
One of the more tragic movies on the list, this film tells the story of a young man named Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) whose face is horribly disfigured as a child by a despotic king and forced to live his life with a massive, toothy grin despite him being pitifully sad. Gwynplaine’s visage was one of the inspirations for Bill Finger’s initial images of Batman’s greatest foe, the Joker.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) dir. Rupert Julian
Speaking of famous faces, Lon Chaney’s most famous role has him as a crazed, disfigured composer who haunts the opera house who seeks the love of a beautiful young singer. Chaney used rather painful methods to make his face appear skeletal and misshapen, but it was all in aid of the finished product, which is a masterpiece. The below scene is easily one of the most iconic in all of horror cinema.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) dir. Robert Wiene
Often considered the first horror movie (even though it isn’t), this highly-expressionistic nightmare of a movie stars Conrad Veidt as Cesare, the somnambulist (or sleepwalker) who rests inside the titular doctor’s titular cabinet and only wakes when his master has nefarious deeds for him to do. This movie is genuinely unsettling, and the sets and makeup were inspirations to many directors that followed.
Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) dir. F.W. Murnau
When it comes to horror images, none is more famous than the bald, rat-like appearance of Max Shreck as Count Orlock in Murnau’s Nosferatu, an unsanctioned adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Shreck’s performance is chilling to this day, and might remain the most terrifying vampire committed to film. The movie was ruled unlawful due to copyright infringement in the mid-20s, and all prints were meant to be destroyed. Luckily, one survived, and from that, one of screendom’s most important movies was saved from being lost.
Being so old, most if not all of these movies are in the public domain and can be viewed immediately on YouTube and things. Be cautious, though, that you’re watching the right version with decent accompanying music, or the ghosts of the filmmakers might just haunt you. They won’t say anything, of course, but you’ll still be scared.