Silence is Horrifying: Macabre Classics from the 1920s

Onscreen in the Roaring Twenties, no-one could hear you scream. Literally no-one.

Modern consensus has decided that silent films are quaint and not engaging, that their quality is measured only by their influence, and various other quips of bullshit. Primitive though they may be, and certainly slower than the blockbuster hits of 2015, to see a silent movie, and particularly a good silent movie, is to witness storytelling at its most visual. And because, unlike later examples, the horror cinema of this era couldn’t simply deploy a stinger to make you leap from your seat – or even anything resembling such a tactic – then filmmakers had to ensure that the moving image itself was enough to strike fear into an audience. And some of them were very good at it.

It should be noted that the term ‘horror movie’ would not be defined, or even appear on a regular basis, until Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) kicked off the Hollywood pre-Code terror phase (interviews with Bela Lugosi from the early ’30s refer to such movies as ‘mystery plays’). Examples from the silent period thus arguably present the genre in its nascent form, the categorisation having been applied retrospectively. Referring to movies from this era as ‘horror’ therefore comes with its complications and disputes, but still, the era provides many a macabre image owing to literary horror and the Gothic tradition, lifting hysterical emotions and heightened reality straight out of Carfax Abbey, and pouring them by the coffin load onto the big screen.

But that heightened reality itself is also inspired by the lives of those who contributed to the genre, particularly folks from the Weimar Republic after World War I where soldiers were returning maddened and deformed, where the cities were essentially mountains of rubble, and where citizens were starving in their hundreds of thousands. Visions of their shattered world fanned the flames for the tortured and anguished films of the German Expressionist movement, which would go on to be hugely influential not just in horror, but for film noir, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and most overtly, Tim Burton. Ad infinitum.

Nowadays, silent cinema is generally seen almost like an interesting but largely unwanted prequel to a glorious and lengthy franchise. So here are five silent horror classics that defy such an attitude and celebrate the format, standing the test of time and remaining essential viewing for any form of film fan whatsoever. But if you already endorse pre-Jazz Singer cinema, and are indeed acquainted with some or all of the movies included here: watch them again!

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The grandaddy of horror cinema, Robert Weine’s haunting classic is occasionally short on narrative thrust, but nevertheless creates a soul-sucking environment that’s a blast to get lost in. Inspired by a distorted, war-struck Germany and the murder of a young girl seen firsthand by co-writer Hans Janowitz, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fills the screen with twisted architecture, stark make-up, and uncanny behaviour in a tale of fluctuating extremities and variable madness. When a mysterious figure arrives in Holstenwall and presents his sidekick at a carnival – a somnambulist who can see the future – the city descends into hysteria as bodies start to crop up, the victims of unusual and grisly murders.

Caligari is one of the most discussed films in cinema history, from deep analyses of its visual aspects to its argued foretelling of the rise of the Third Reich, so it’s barely possible to add anything new to the oversaturation of words that it’s already drowning in. In fact, it’s probably insufferably boring to see its name up there, recommended and fawned over once again, just as it has been for the past 95 years. But despite the fact that you can’t get away without mentioning it, it’s always worth peddling the film to anyone not only interested in film history, but in film itself; the level of creativity on display here is invigorating, and the subjective vision of post-war Germany is as thought-provoking as it is disquieting.

The Phantom Carriage 1

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

In what could also be called Wild Strawberries: The Raw Materials, Victor Sjörström’s The Phantom Carriage is not only a stunning exploration of cynicism and unrequited kindness, but equally a macabre representation of the lingering figure of death. It basically invented Ingmar Bergman.

Shortly after drunkard David Holm (Sjörström) recites the myth of how the last person to die each year is tasked with driving Death’s carriage to collect the recently deceased, he is killed at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve (because obviously). With a nod to A Christmas Carol, David’s friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) then rocks up in the Deathmobile to pass over his miserable duties, but not before dragging him to see Edit (Astrid Holm), the dying Salvation Army Sister who has spent most of the final year of her life failing to inspire David to clean up his act. To make matters worse, she’s dying because David inadvertently gave her tuberculosis, through having her fix his coat that was plagued with germs from months of living rough.

Representing the eponymous vehicle with which one must glumly retrieve corpses is the use of ghostly superimposition and image layering, which today seems slightly crude but still manages to construct a chilling sight thanks to Julius Jaenzon’s brooding cinematography. And the acting is thoroughly underplayed for the period, which crafts an entirely haunted and haunting atmosphere, and is also a good thing if exaggerated performing is a thing that turns you off from silent cinema. What’s more, the cinematography, performances and effects combined serve to create a picture that is at once heartbreaking and frequently macabre.


Häxän (1922)

Unsurprisingly banned or censored in just about every country upon its release, and finding new life within the counter-culture in the 1960s (then gaining the suffix: Witchcraft Through the Ages), Häxän is totally batshit even by today’s standards. In relation to the aforementioned consensus that silent movies are quaint affairs: anyone who believes such a thing has clearly never seen the docu-horror in which babies are drip-dried and cooked for eating, where old women throw buckets of their own piss at neighbours’ houses, or where swaths of ‘witches’ queue up to kiss the anus of the devil. The German Expressionists may have twisted reality, but Häxän completely and utterly terrorises it, and it has the time of its life in the process.

There’s nudity, blasphemy, and gore abound in this crazily heretic picture, all alongside the message that those of whom the religious types deemed witches in the medieval age were later understood as being simply mad. Danish director Benjamin Christensen, who also had a lot of fun playing Satan in the picture, somehow didn’t manage to sabotage his own career with this one; on the contrary, he got offers to work for Ufa in the Weimar Republic, and later in Hollywood. However, he didn’t last out the decade in the States, and only made a brief return to directing ten years later in Denmark, before being chased out of the industry altogether due to disastrous box-office results. But as troubled as Christensen’s working life was, Häxän shines through undisturbed with its glorious recreations of the myths of witchcraft, and the bizarre scenes of interrogation that took place during the Inquisition.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

At this point, you could feasibly rely on the Gerrys for creating horrible atmospheres, but less and less so for telling spectacular stories. F.W. Murnau blatantly ignored copyright law and made Nosferatu (1922), which has the nauseating air of creeping death, but with an engagement level that isn’t always compelling. Robert Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac (1924) is the era’s darkest representation of true terror, but its narrative occasionally suffers by diving too headlong into its portrayal of insanity. And Paul Leni’s name-making Waxworks (1924) is a tonal mess of a film, squandering the awesome swashbuckling of its first half for two undercooked chapters of greed and paranoia.

But over in America, actor and make-up innovator Lon Chaney was fresh off the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and ready to cement his legacy as the man of a thousand faces. Cue the scene in which the Phantom’s mask is removed, roughly halfway into the movie: the reveal of Chaney’s make-up, a secret kept until the film’s release, is a truly horrifying sight even despite the subsequent ubiquity of its image in film culture. In that face is shock, fury and anguish in equal measures, the expression of an evil man seeking redemption in the arms of opera starlet Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), yet feeling utterly betrayed by her stubborn refusal of his aching love.

The Phantom of the Opera is so gripping because we see that the Phantom is unstable, and that his actions are provoked by social rejection, a man so desperately trying to be good thrown into a maddening fury when all appears lost. It’s also a glory to look at, as this is a grand production with lush, expansive sets and thousands of extras. At once, the movie encapsulates the notion of the ‘Dream Palace’ as it were in the early days of cinema, while also flipping that dream into pure nightmare with its elaborate narratives, striking cinematography, and heavy air of death that pervades the picture. Again, we remember Chaney as a man of a thousand faces, but this is his most resonant guise: the inhuman visage of the Romantic, ill-fated Phantom.

The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Rounding off the Expressionist movement good and proper, Paul Leni’s third Hollywood production assesses the horrorshow that is mankind and all the greed and cruelty it wields, particularly (as with the contemporary Soviet counterparts) the decadence and corruption of the bourgeoisie. We first meet Gwynplaine as a young boy, shortly after pirates have carved a permanent smile into his face (like a Chelsea grin, with less grisly prosthetics), and shortly before he rescues Dea, a blind infant in the cradle of her dead mother’s arms. They are taken in by Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who nurtures them until they are old enough to conduct a jolly travelling circus act together. Gwynplaine (now Conrad Veidt) hides the shame of his disfigurement behind his Laughing Man routine, which eventually captures the attention of a young Duchess named Josiana (Olga Baklanova), a greedy and decadent woman who threatens the engagement between Gwynplaine and Dea (now Mary Philbin, in a heartbreaking performance).

Emerging from that is a class warfare, whereby the unfortunate Gwynplaine is soon exploited by those peering from more privileged positions. So essentially, this is the silent version of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), and with Gwynplaine’s fixed, occasionally horrifying expression, it helped to set the stage for the Universal monster movies of the 1930s, as with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. It also has melodramatic acting and expressionist lighting thrown in to make this film not only emblematic of the decade’s most notable European and American silent horrors, but also symbolic of the transition into the dominance of Hollywood, which began to occur a year earlier as sound divided cinema into nationalities and language. Indeed, its status as a horror is debated and occasionally dismissed entirely, but as with The Phantom Carriage, the horror in The Man Who Laughs is in the undercurrent, with its Gothic leanings providing an air of malaise as the characters are driven towards true despair.

– Liam Ball

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s