Imagine you’re living in the mid 1930s. Many things in your life are a lot different, but the only thing we care about here is the movies. Alien invasions, poltergeists, exorcists, zombies and a variety of maniacs chasing clueless teens are yet to come. At the same time, there are quite a few films made between the two world wars that gave birth to the horror genre and still influence it now. Created in the era when the line between film as art and film as entertainment wasn’t yet distinctly drawn, some of those movies are mainly memorable as the original classics, while others are still scary enough to creep out even an experienced slasher fan. Interestingly, silent horrors are even scarier than talkies – the curious play of light and shadows, darkness looming from every corner of the screen, actors using only their bodies and faces to act – it all works to create memorable images that stick in your mind forever. So here’s an idea – let’s go back to the roots of movie horror this Halloween. To get you started, I’ve listed 8 of my own favorites here. But surely, feel free to explore – there are many more scary vintage gems out there.
“Nosferatu” (1922) Any reader of Bram Stocker’s “Dracula” will tell you that most of its screen versions have very little to do with the novel. The book was too long, slow, and scientific in its approach to interest filmmakers in its full original version. German director F.W. Murnau probably butchered the original story even more than some of his successors, but what he can be definitely credited with, is bringing to life a Count that followed Bram Stocker’s description of the character much closer than all the famous Draculas. Stocker’s Dracula was an ancient creature, driven solely by physical urges, with little understanding of life outside his castle’s walls. Max Schreck’s Nosferatu – the character’s name was changed since Murnau failed to obtain rights to the book – is exactly that. It’s a horrifying monster that hardly looks human at all – everything about it suggests it came from another world. Thanks to the slightly blurry quality of film at the time and since no close-ups were used, Schreck’s make-up and acting made him a very believable Count. So believable, that it inspired 2000’s film “Shadow of the Vampire” suggesting that Schreck really was an immortal bloodsucker (brilliantly played by Willem Dafoe) discovered by Murnau (John Malkovich) in Slovakia, while he was scouting for filming locations.
“Dracula” (1931) Tod Browning is known as Edgar Allan Poe of the movies, so it’s hardly surprisingly that three of his works made this list. Most famous of the three, is, of course “Dracula” – the film that created the iconic image of the world’s most famous vampire, later imitated in numerous other films, cartoons, parodies and comic books. It also became one of the most popular Halloween costumes. But in fact, Browning got his way, none of this would have happened. His initial plan was to hire an unknown European actor and keep him off the screen for most of the time. However, Universal – the studio which gave “birth” to horror genre in the 1930s – requested a more straight-forward approach and Hungarian Bela Lugosi in the title role. Thus he became the Count – slick black hair, a tuxedo and a cape plus an accent – all which made women’s hearts beat faster. Lugosi had the look, the speech, and the poise, but his acting style was way too influenced by the silent cinema – the menacing face and eyes filled with rage that he makes at the camera appear hilarious rather than creepy to a modern viewer. Besides, the movie feels hurried, with all the scenes clumsily stapled together, and all the real action takes place off-screen. Dracula is never seen feeding on his victim – even from the back – and you never see him staked. That certainly allowed Lugosi to reprise his role in as many movies as possible later on, but deprived the film off an ending: all we see is Van Helsing walking down the stairs, apparently meaning to kill the vampire… The end. Huh?
“The Unknown” (1928) This is surely one of the best of Browning’s silent era movies and one of his best collaborations with Lon Chaney – an actor of remarkable talent, who managed to demonstrate it in full even in the limited possibilities of silent cinema – his face “spoke” better than words. Chaney starred in some of silent era’s scariest and eeriest films, that make “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” seem like family movies. “The Unknown” is one of the former kind. Chaney here is a circus employee – an “armless” knife-thrower Alonzo, in love with his charming assistant Nanon (Joan Crawford). Nanon also happens to have a fear of men’s arms – they tried to grab her way to many times – therefore she shuns the embrace of romantic strongman Malabar, and prefers Alonzo’s company. But there is a catch – Alonzo actually has hands, and apparently uses them to perform robberies in every town where circus stops. He also uses them to strangle Nanon’s father when the latter discovers his secret. Believing he has a chance with Nanon, but afraid to be discovered and resented by her, Alonzo resolves to a desperate measure – amputate his hands. As he spends time in recovery, Malabar begins to wear down Nanon’s resistance…
“Freaks” (1933) Browning was “a son of the circus” – not literally, but spiritually, and ran away from his well-to-do family to join one at 16. Naturally, his experiences were reflected in some of his works, including “The Unknown.” But even more so his knowledge and love of circus was embodied in another of his best works, “Freaks.” The film is based on the story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, and focuses on a dwarf, a trapeze artist (Olga Baklanova) and a strongman as well as the rest of circus characters including a bunch of “freak show” performers. Dwarf is in love with the beauty, she accepts his advances and agrees to marry him – upon learning of his great inheritance – while scheming to later poison him with her lover the strongman. Upon learning about the plan, other circus “freaks” unite for deadly revenge. The story itself obviously had potential, but Browning’s decision to cast actual circus artists with disabilities, turned out fatal. Viewers were used to seeing actors in makeup – not real-life Siamese twins, a human skeleton and a limbless man. Horrified by seeing all those images up close, viewers clearly missed the simple message of the movie – that the real ugliness was not in the deformed faced and bodies, but in the minds and souls of the two “normal” good looking characters. After very unsuccessful test screenings, the movie was crudely cut, leaving out almost 30 minutes of film (now lost), but it didn’t save it. “Freaks” was a complete failure, banned in many American states, and some European countries for years. Browning’s big career went downward from then on, and film remained forgotten until 1970s when it received a cult status.
“Das Cabinet Der Dr. Caligary” (1920) Isn’t it rather creepy that some of the eeriest horror movies of 20s-30s came from Germany? From “Nosferatu” to “M” – they seem to dig up the darkest parts of human soul, almost serving as a premonition of the darker times to come. While American horror was mainly about the shocker effect from the very beginning – German approach has always been deeply psychological. A jewel of German expressionism, “The Cabient of Dr. Caligary,” is a story told from a point of few of a young man named Francis. It begins as he and his friend Alan visit a village carnival and see Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) displaying a strange attraction – a somnambulist named Cesare (Conradt Veidt), who can “see” into the future. Cesare predicts that Alan has to live until dawn next day. When the grim prophecy is fulfilled, Francis and his betrothed Jane, try to investigate the mysterious death – suspecting Caligari. Set amid painted expressionistic scenery, with expressive makeup for the tragic figure of Cesare and Caligary – an epitome of a mad doctor with his wild eyes behind spectacles and matted grizzly hair – the film is a scary accomplishment that feels incredibly modern. Often named one of the best horror movies of all time, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary” is also believed to be the first film to introduce a twist ending.
“The Lodger” (1928) The film is remarkable in several ways. It’s both the first movie to reflect on Jack the Ripper mystery, and, much more importantly, the first “proper” film and first big success of the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, it showcases the theme that was to become Hitchcock’s trademark – a case of a wrongly accused man, sex and murder – plus a blond beauty. The town’s blonde women panic as someone starts murdering gals with “golden curls” one after another, leaving “The Avenger” note behind as his visiting card. At the same time an awkward, tense, sad-eyed young man (Ivor Novello) asks for a room at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Bunting, whose daughter Daisy is just one of those blonde young things, currently considered endangered species. She, however, doesn’t seem to fear “The Avenger” – in fact, her own boyfriend is a detective assigned to the case of the serial killer. The new lodger keeps to himself and demonstrates awkward behavior, but gradually forms a close relationship with Daisy. At the same time, her parents begin to suspect he is the horrid killer… As he did in all his later works, Hitchcock craftily employed the camerawork to spook out the audience and make it as involved in the story as can be – using angles and shots he borrowed from Murnau and Fritz Lang. While the ending is a bit confusing – The Avenger’s identity is never revealed, nor it’s explained what was he “avenging” – “The Lodger” went down in history as first Hitchhokian thriller – the kind that kept the audience on the edge of their seats all the while.
”M” (1931) Since Hitchcock never showed the face of his “Avenger,” it was up to Fritz Lang to give the world its first memorable movie serial killer. As all of Lang’s works, the film is a visual masterpiece – every shot is carefully orchestrated to create sensation of suspense, horror, fear, and finally, desperation. We don’t meet the murderer right away. At first it’s just his shadow and shots of body – but it’s enough to show the man for who he is – a serial murderer and, apparently, a pedophile – since he targets only the small children. Later the man is revealed to have the unforgettable face of Peter Lorre – in his breakthrough role, that later made him a prototype villain in Hollywood. Doing his horrible deeds and passing unnoticed in the streets of the city (there are several hints it’s Berlin), the murderer Hans Beckert, soon has not only the police led by Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) searching for him, but all of the city’s criminal underworld. The latter just wish to be left alone by the police questioning everyone about the killer. One of the vagrants, discovering Beckert for who he is, finds a way to “mark” him – with chalky letter “M” for “Murderer” on the back of his coat – the film’s most famous image. “M” is also the first movie to show a maniac not as an animal, but a helplessly sick man. He’s even allowed an emotional defense speech. “Who knows what it’s like to be?” Beckert screams out to the thugs about to lynch him.
”Frankenstein” (1931) Released in exactly the same year, the two iconic horrors – “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” – had a lot more in common than just Universal as production company. Just like “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” created the world-famous image of the nameless monster, which later came to be mistakenly identified with the name of its creator. Also like its vampire counterpart, “Frankenstein” could hardly scare the modern viewer – though is still a must-see as the absolute classic. Directed by James Whale, and based on Peggy Webling’s stage adaptation, rather than Mary Shelley’s novel, the film seriously departs from its literary original – and I don’t mean just changing Dr. Frankenstein’s name from Victor to Henry. The major portion of Monster’s “adventures” is removed, instead – more time is given to explain the origins of its creation. For example, the Monster’s violent tendencies are explained by the fact that he receives a “criminal’s” brain scavenged from medical lab – as if being sewn together from pieces of dead meat and revived was not enough to get angry. As a character the Monster is quite undeveloped – it remains as clueless, speechless and dumb as it came into this world, and it’s quite unclear how it ever even found a way into Frankenstein family house. Of course there is no denying the mastery of Boris Karloff portrayal of the Monster (which was almost played by Bela Lugosi) and perfect mad scientist’s image created by Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein but the movie is seriously weakened by a pathetic happy end. On the other hand – just as in “Dracula” – the horrid creature is never actually seen dead, allowing for sequels to spawn freely.