Horror films so often take shortcuts with their sound. Tension can be built around a lack of context and wan direction using a slow crescendo of dissonant music that drops out at just the right moment before it surges back in with a blast. Blood-curdling screams, ringing clangs of objects hitting the floor and the amplified screech of the cat initially believed to be the lurking monster are just some of the noises that mingle with this overworked musical approach to get a cheap jolt out of a crowd. Not that tawdry genre music and clichéd audio effects cannot be used to great effect—see any good giallo or the recent, demented love-letter to giallo audio engineering, “Berberian Sound Studio”—but sound regularly works in place of exceptional or even competent filmmaking rather than as a part of it. It is an integral aspect of jump-scare horror, a generic approach against which I have a recorded bias.
It may be for that reason, then, that horror films from the silent era excite me so. They are movies that must live and die by their imagistic properties, their ability to establish the parameters of a diegetic reality and to what extent that reality can erode from sheer force of madness. Films made in the wake of German Expressionism especially demonstrate this, erecting two-dimensional but dynamic backgrounds that play out a character’s insanity and terror in purely visual terms. That lack of filter between a character’s inner state and its art direction and structure routinely creates a more visceral link between film and audience than the host of found-footage movies that have taken over the genre in the last few years.
There are numerous examples of great silent-era horror filmmaking, and the 10 films listed below are not intended as a best-of nor an introduction, with some early masters of the genre (Paul Leni, the great actor Lon Chaney) restricted to only one film when many deserve mention. Instead, they are merely a broad sampling of a genre’s fruitful infancy. Not all are scary in the sense we typically understand it now, still tied to the genre’s tragic, Victorian roots, but they lay the foundations for a kind of film that so rarely meets the level of innovation seen in these and other films, from a personalized application of Constructivist montage to some of the rawest acting of the silent period. As an added bonus, many of the films listed exist in the public domain, and all can easily be found for viewing.
FRANKENSTEIN (J. Searle Dawley, 1910)
Made under the auspices of Edison Studios, the first cinematic adaptation of “Frankenstein” misses the texture of the source material even more than the more well-known 1931 film. Even so, this short is one of the most outright scary on this list, less a work of intense moodiness prevalent in the Expressionist-leaning work of the next decade than an unadorned series of jolts more effective for occurring primarily in static long shots. The reworking of Shelley’s plot strips out the deeper meanings in favor of something closer to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s” narrative of less Icarus-like moral failure, but that only adds to the sense of the film as a concentrated fright.
THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (Victor Sjöstrom, 1921)
An obvious (and openly admitted) influence on Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” “The Phantom Carriage” is not merely a great work of early horror but a classic of silent cinema, full stop. A ground-breaking use of double exposures gave Death’s cart not only a ghostly, translucent quality but a depth of movement never before seen with the technique, while a fractured timeline turns every belated revelation into another devastating show of the protagonist’s history of moral decay, itself more terrifying than his new job as Death’s driver. Such moments do not so much disrupt the overall sense of inactive gloom but give it context, deriving the atmosphere not only from the arduously created ghost world but from the accumulation of a past one wishes forgotten.
HAXAN (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)
Infamous for its depiction of torture and nudity, “Häxan” includes disturbing sights like Satan bursting out from nowhere to torment monks, monsters slithering out of witches’ wombs and demon orgies. Yet its framing device, as a quasi-scientific tour through the history of witchcraft and its social stigma, clarifies these demented sights as the feverish, misogynistic fears of the men who persecute women across the ages. It makes the otherwise common shot setups of silent age (static takes placed at a fair distance from the action—feel like a work of anthropology, which plays up the real horror of systemic violence against women over the theatrical terrors of witchcraft. This also has the effect of portraying the ostensibly enlightened finale, in which science has replaced religion in the treatment of mentally ill women, as a mere continuation of abuse, not an alleviation of it.
NOSFERATU (F.W. Murnau, 1922)
An obvious pick, albeit a timely one given its imminent hi-def reissue by both Kino and the UK’s exemplary Masters of Cinema label. Worlds removed from the erotic state of current vampire fiction, “Nosferatu” nevertheless plays up a kind of elitism that has been ignored in most modern vampiric lore. The film’s Count Orlok, with his needle teeth, winged ears and bent frame, certainly lacks the debonair air of Frank Langella or Christopher Lee, but he also might be a more honest representation of late European aristocracy, all inbred shut-ins roaming their dilapidated fiefdoms and desperate need to feed off the few remaining peasants in their purview. F.W. Murnau would soon outgrow the limits of Expressionism, but with this film, he did the movement the service of perfecting it before he moved on.
WAXWORKS (Paul Leni, 1924)
Not a full horror film, per se, this anthology framed around a man dreaming up stories for a half-assed wax museum begins with an extended comic adventure involving Emil Jannings as a lusty caliph. Once Conrad Veidt enters as Ivan the Terrible, however, the film plunges from light suspense into a nightmare worthy of Paul Leni. Veidt cuts a terrifying profile as Ivan, his eyes humming with paranoia as he angles himself over cowed servants. The flat Expressionist backdrops behind him not only etch a portrait of a character’s warped inner mind but revealing as illusory that character’s sense of imperial glory. The final few minutes, in which the poet concocting tales dreams being chased by Jack the Ripper, is full concentrated horror, but the film’s most terrifying shot remains Veidt’s Ivan, reduced to spending the rest of his life constantly tumbling an hourglass he believes will mark his death if it ever runs out.
MENILMONTANT (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)
Russian emigré Dimitri Kirsanoff puts the French village of Ménilmontant on the cinematic map with a demented work of beautiful terror that begins with the grisly murder-suicide of two girls’ parents and opens up into a silent-era precursor to the middle section of “The Night of the Hunter.” A dizzying array of pioneering film techniques—double exposure, superimposition and complex montage—capture an impressionistic response of pure bewilderment as the young women are thrust suddenly into a world as intoxicating as it is perilous. A modernist fairy tale avant la lettre, “Ménilmontant” achieves a purity of emotional transference between audience and harried character that horror films have rarely approached in the intervening 87 years.
THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)
Alfred Hitchcock’s apprenticeship period in Germany during the height of Expressionist cinema clearly made an impression, and “The Lodger” sets down a career’s worth of themes with focused efficiency but vivid aestheticization. Opening with a doomed blonde’s futile scream that cuts away to a tawdry neon sign advertising her show, “The Lodger” sets down the master’s sick wit and fetishitstic hangups within seconds, and the rest of the film, with a wrong man narrative centered on a hyperbolically suspicious red herring and technical feats of manipulative subjectivity, shows Hitchcock in impressive command of a range of techniques and preoccupations, albeit with less finesse than his later efforts. That’s right, among the many immediate, sensory pleasures of watching this film is the awareness it imparts that, eventually, Hitchcock really could be subtle.
A PAGE OF MADNESS (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1927)
Rediscovered in 1971 after being thought lost, “A Page of Madness” exists in a shortened form that crucially lacks the narration that would have been provided live during the 1920s. This omission ultimately befits the film, set in an asylum where a man works as a janitor to plot the escape of his committed wife. A lack of intertitles or narration strands the viewer in the perspective of the inmates, and as with Jean Renoir’s “Night at the Crossroads,” the lost footage only adds to the insensibility already programmed into the frame.
Indebted to Western styles of montage, Expressionism, even Cubism (in the distorted figures filmed with warped lenses), “A Page of Madness” nevertheless presages numerous stylistic moments from later films, from a focus on cracks that foretells “Repulsion’s” most disturbing recurring tic to a scene of male patients crushing themselves against the cell bars of an ever-dancing inmate that looks forward to Fritz Lang’s similarly eroticized mob in “Metropolis.” Prevented the luxury of a third-person vantage point, the viewer has no escape from the ever-escalating descent into chaos, a sensory experience few horror films have ever managed to convey.
THE UNKNOWN (Tod Browning, 1927)
If Tod Browning, Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford sounds like a match made in hell, you don’t know the half of it. Set, of course, in a carnival freakshow, “The Unknown” tracks Chaney’s criminal fraud, who poses as an armless man to avoid being caught. But when the ringmaster’s daughter (Crawford), whose fear of men’s groping arms leads her to spend more time with the man, the killer finds himself driven mad by desire. Stripped of extra make-up and prosthetic but for a double thumb, Chaney gives a performance of his usual intensity with his own face, magnifying his capacity for anguish and fury to unparalleled heights. Browning’s direction, as ever, is expressive but muted, his spacious, chilly frames paradoxically bringing his perfectly chosen actors into closer proximity. It’s a raw nerve of psychological horror posing as a monster movie, and it boasts one hell of a grimly funny riff on “The Gift of the Magi.”
HANGMAN'S HOUSE (John Ford, 1928)
Ford’s later work only exhibits in sublimated form the powerful influence German Expressionism had on his early talkies and late silents, and few of his films show off that influence like “Hangman’s House.” In it, a war hero (Victor McLaglen) returns to his Irish homeland where he is a wanted man to exact revenge against the man who drove his sister to suicide. Ford’s unabashed sentimentality for his homeland is nowhere to be found here, where the mists roll Gothically over the dilapidated castle of a dying hangman who sees visions of executed condemned in his fireplace. The film contains many Ford trademarks—multi-plane compositions, close-knit ethnic communities and loner heroes who ride off when their job is done—but the generally light, elegiac tone of his glory days is replaced with something seedier and more malicious. Still instantly identifiable as a John Ford movie, “Hangman’s House” has a menace to it only rarely matched in the director’s canon.