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01 December, 2007

Silent Screams: Ten Silent Horrors Every Fan Should Own

Anyone who’s even a casual student of film knows that, from the earliest days of cinema until 1927, the movies were silent. There was usually a musical accompaniment, but the film itself did not carry a sound track. There was no dialogue, no sound effects. Thus, over thirty years worth of film history has been written off by fans who, for one reason or another, refuse to watch a silent film. That’s unfortunate, especially for fans of horror. Many of the most influential Horror and Science-Fiction films extant, films that continue to inspire filmmakers today, are silent, and should be seen by everyone who considers themselves Horror Fans.

Personally speaking, I’ve long had a love of silent film, ever since the day I watched a screening of F. W. Murnau’s 1922 classic NOSFERATU at a school Halloween carnival when I was a first-grader. There was absolutely no sound… no music, nothing save the click-clack of the projector and the quiet hum of it’s cooling fan—and the startled gasps of a tent full of children as Count Orlok climbed the staircase to the bedroom of Ellen Hutter.

That scene had a power to impress itself upon the consciousness that wasn’t dependent on dialogue or an evocative score; visual cues were all we had to go by, and our minds absorbed the play of every shadow on that staircase. That’s the beauty of silent film: It strips away the distractions, and leaves nothing but the visual medium on which to focus.

In little over thirty years of Silent Cinema, some of the greatest films in history were produced, many of these genre films. This is my list of ten of those films, ten that should be in every collection. Though subjective, I do believe that these are the “Essentials”, the ones that are too important to miss.

1.) NOSFERATU-EINE SYMPHONIE DES GRAUENS ~aka~ NOSFERATU-A SYMPHONY OF HORROR—F. W. Murnau—1922: Very nearly a “lost” film, as Bram Stoker’s widow sued successfully to have the film destroyed for infringing on the Dracula copyright, NOSFERATU stands as one of the most influential Horror Films ever made. Coming at the height of the German “Expressionistic” movement, Murnau’s skillful use of light and shadow, the stylized look of the sets, and the design of Max Schreck’s make-up, all serve to create an unforgettable visual narrative. Most of it works very well, even after 85 years. What doesn’t age as well are the stiff, wooden performances from most of the cast. Still, this is a true classic, one that never fails to reveal new facets of itself.

2.) DAS KABINETT DES DOKTOR CALIGARI ~aka~ THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI—Robert Wiene—1919: Perhaps the first true Horror Film, it single-handedly gave birth to the aforementioned “Expressionist” movement in German cinema, though how it came to pass was something of an ‘unintended consequence.’ Germany was plunged into economic devastation following its defeat in World War I; consequently, even the cost of lighting film productions was prohibitive. Robert Wiene, who was well known in art circles but had little experience in film, asked the leaders of a new school of art to design and create sets that would look good without the need for expensive lighting effects. The result was a visual style that would influence the next twenty years of Horror Films.

3.) THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA—Rupert Julian—1925: The most important American Horror Film of the silent era, this is the film that made Universal a great studio, and cemented Lon Chaney, Sr.’s status as a great star. The sheer scale of the production was enormous, and marked a major commitment for Universal Studios. The Paris Opera House set still survives, at least as recently as 2001, and still sees occasional use.

4.) METROPOLIS—Fritz Lang—1927: One of the first Science-Fiction films, Lang’s social commentary is one of the most powerful films of the ‘20’s. Composed of striking visuals and a frenetic pace of action, this film established Lang as a master of the genre film.

5.) THE CAT AND THE CANARY—Paul Leni—1927: One of the first, and certainly the best, of the “old dark house” style of mystery thrillers, THE CAT AND THE CANARY originated as a stage play in 1922. When noted German filmmaker Paul Leni brought it to the screen for Universal, little did he know that he was drafting the blueprint for the great Universal Horrors of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Leni, who would die of toxemia in 1929 at the age of forty-four, made skillful use of shadows, cobwebs, and secret passages, conventions that would become trademarks of movies such as DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE BLACK CAT.

6.) THE UNKNOWN—Tod Browning—1927: Of the more than 100 films Lon Chaney made during his life, fewer than forty survive, and this is one of his best. Directed by Tod Browning, who had been raised in a circus and never lost his affinity for the bizarre and grotesque, this is Chaney’s crowning achievement in contortion. Playing Alonzo the Armless, Chaney learned to do everything, from throwing a knife to lighting a cigarette, with his feet. Alonzo is in love with Nanon, the circus-owner’s daughter. Nanon, played by Joan Crawford, has a deep psychological aversion to a man’s touch, thus making her the perfect object of Alonzo’s affections. What follows is a haunting psychological horror, laden with sexual overtones, as we see to just what depths a twisted man will sink for love.

7.) HÄXAN ~aka~ WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES—Benjamin Christensen—1920: Part documentary, part horror film, this Swedish import is one of the most visually unique of the first era of Horror. Rarely seen in it’s original form, due to the scenes of Satanic rituals and frequent nudity, it’s recently been released to DVD from The Criterion Collection, in its complete state.

8.) THE LOST WORLD—Harry Hoyt—1925: Though Willis O’Brien’s Dinosaur creations appear crude in comparison to the work he would do a short eight years later in KING KONG, they were head and shoulders above anything anyone else was doing at the time. The script, based on a story by Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is rambling and incoherent, and Hoyt might as well have telegraphed his direction in from home. Not that it mattered; this was Obie’s movie, and his monsters carried the day perfectly well.

9.) THE LODGER—Alfred Hitchcock—1926: Not Hitchcock’s first film, but certainly the first that foretold the brilliance of the man who would become the genre’s greatest director. Based loosely on the Jack the Ripper murders, this movie displays many of the hallmarks of Hitchcock’s latter films, and should be a must-see for fans of the director.

10.) DER GOLEM ~aka~ THE GOLEM—Paul Wegener—1920: Not the first film version Wegener directed of the Gustav Meyrink novel, but the only one that survives, a valid argument can be made that this film is the direct ancestor of James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN; certainly more so than the 1910 Edison film. Visually impressive, it is one of the great masterpieces of the German cinema.

If you’re a fan of Silent Film, then these movies are probably familiar to you; at least, most will be. If not, then consider this list a jumping-off point for an exploration of early cinema. Silent movies have much that they can offer the viewer, and while it is a different experience, it is also one that is very rewarding. I think it would be unfortunate to miss out on that experience, just for the want of a soundtrack.








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