10. Frankenstein (1910)
This first filmic adaptation of Frankesntein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley isn’t definitive, nor is it particularly scary. But as a work of cinema years before “narrative” film really existed wholesale, it manages to boast a rather complete narrative of madness, invention, and human decay – and it does so completely through pure visuality and achingly theatrical performance.
It boasts no dialogue title cards, meaning the nuances of the characters and the dialectic between creator and created are ed through the film’s grotesque visuality and campy physicality that borders, at times, on a ghoulish interpretive dance. Frankenstein captures the hunger pangs of birth and death with texture and an amateurish grace.
The primordial, stilted motions of the creature, in particular, are aching and even touching. And they are all the more subversive for the way the portrayal of Frankenstein, the scientist, is very much of the same theatrical style – it’s as if the created is imitating the creator to define its humanity. The film’s exploration of the monster, caught between humanity and an artwork for show, also doubles as an early exploration of society birthing its own sort of artificial-but-real humanity in the early 1900s, that of the cinema, depicting humanity’s image but struggling to define itself in relation to humanity. And to define humanity in the process.
9. The Hands of Orlac (1924)
The Hands of Orlac was one of Robert Weine’s many collaborations with Conrad Veidt – the two went together like a black hole of a lock and an angular, twisted, contorted, piercing knife of a key – but it is, admittedly, not their finest. The reason, curiously, is that it is perhaps more cohesive as a traditional film – all hopped up on plot and narrative.
If Dr. Caligari was a pure encapsulation of the otherworldly despair of insanity and the cavernous places of the human mind as well as a meta-textual reflection on the inherent lies and manipulation of film, The Hands of Orlac is a story exceedingly well-told and nothing more. If anything, Wiene’s oppressive, rapturous commitment to filmic deformity and landscape-of-the-mind distortion is dialed back significantly in this more populist film, creating something significantly entertaining but a bit too limited by its willingness to play it safe. It accepts filmic language rather than smashing it to bits.
At the same time, what it does with filmic language is create a rather gripping yarn about a concert pianist who’s hands, his prized possessions, are mangled in an accident, and who receives the hands of a murderer in replacement. On the surface, it’s a human tragedy that fails to reach the positively delirious-demented heights of Veidt’s later The Man Who Laughs, but it’s loaded with artful touches.
Visually, the focus on the anguished, contorted hands approximates a subtle pinpoint form of contained expressionism, and a number of shots of Orlac angstily returning to his dream profession close in on his hands in motion surrounded by a pure, eerily concrete blackness.
Elsewhere, witness the decidedly sexual way that Orlac’s wife gazes at her husband’s hands, with the film giving us all manner of sexual imagery to convince furthermore. In fact, Alexandra Sorina achieves the seldom matched feat of standing tall alongside a Conrad Veidt performance and coming away unbeaten – she gives a performance of delirious lust, raw primal urge, and impossibly aching emptiness with her face and eyes.
To this extent, the film gives us one of the film world’s greatest fears in its earliest, most direct stage: the thought of one’s body, taken for granted as the one truly personal domain of power, turning against oneself and having its way with the master.
8. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
It’s easy to see The Man Who Laughs and come away with only its main character. With perhaps the finest and most holistic combination of make-up and performance ever rendered in film, the main character’s look, mannerisms, and the underpinning heart-rending drama are the film’s greatest achievements.
But behind them lies a work of perceptive drama and soul-angst loneliness, as well as a film of great visual effervescence. Watching the film, which was released in 1928, it is almost immediately obvious that director Paul Leni was making full use of the advances in camerawork in the years between this film and the earlier films on this list.
While those films were often resolutely static, The Man Who Laughs has a much freer spirit, as if its hell-bent anxiety manifested in a reckless, chaotic social abandon. The camera sways to and fro and in many shots. At least once, it almost produces whiplash for how it zigs and zags around the frame, moving as if being pulled up and down rapidly on a pulley. While most silent films, especially silent horror, very much perfected a certain a moan into the dark, Leni’s film screams into the night and howls at the moon with a renewed sense of modern passion and filmic invention.
And then we have Conrad Veidt, one of the most gifted actors in any time period from any country, and one of the few to be as at home with subtle, humanist nuance and over-the-top, caterwauling theater-isms. He was willing to take any role and always gave it his all – although his role in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may be more famous, he may have never ed a character as complicated as Gwynplaine.
Equal parts aching humanity and unnerved theater mannerisms, his performance is totally alien to any conception of modern acting, with motions that are nervous and primordial more than anything else. The film is as much a romance as a horror – or more appropriately, it is a romance that uses the visual language of horror – but he makes the film’s emotions out to be less sexual than a sort of pre or extra-sexual longing for human compassion as a respite from pure loneliness.
His grin is one of the most demented yet hauntingly beautiful malformations of the human spirit ever rendered on film – it’s easy to see how this character proved the primary inspiration for the visual design of the Joker – but the character is so much more. When he looks at the camera, it’s as if he’s looking through the celluloid and glimpsing into your soul.
7. The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920)
Der Golem is a film of pure wonder, something to get lost, a pillow and blanket accompanied starry night of filmic invention that approximates horror only because it has to. The film, about the mythic “Golem” of Jewish folklore, details the character’s creation for the purpose of protecting the medieval Jewish ghetto of Prague. Naturally, being that this is horror after all, creation inevitably gives way to destruction in that ever-certain daily dialectic of earthen existence. It more closely approximates tragedy though, giving the film an added dramatic heft and sense of existential crisis, and the imagery follows suit.
Even before the film approximates anything like horror, we have all manner of mythic visuals all bent up on pre-surrealist geometry– the film reads expressionism not only as the domain of horror, but of awe and wonder. With all manner of wide-eyed, starry lighting effects and locations constructed out of strange angles that are all nonetheless undeniably earthy and slap-dash, the film blends the reality of poverty with the stunning geometry of the mind. It is what a child might imagine the past to be like when staring up at the clouds.
Of course, this is horror after all, and the cardinal rule of horror must hold true: what comes up must come down. Thus, if there’s genial wonder, there’s all manner of sturm und drang later on when the Golem is birthed, including bold, distorted text placed over the frame to capture the whimsical, frail, yet unnerving spirit of a character brought into society on a whim. Soon enough, the Golem is abused by a malevolent figure, Astaroth, and wreaks havoc on the town.
A late film revelry is something out of a taunting nightmare, with the film matching imagery of pure human chlutter threatening to overtake the frame to a cut of the Golem far off in the distance and completely alone surrounded by empty space. But through it all, the film still has an undeniable sense of human warmth and community, the kind which drove the creation of The Golem, and which will likely help the community move on in its wake.
6. Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
Haxan is a curious beast. Benjamin Christiansen’s Danish/Swedish film was intended as a documentary expose on the evils of witchcraft, paganism, and religious hysteria, and as a logical argument it’s a right failure. Firstly, its pop psychology is right out of its time – which is to say it is categorically Freudian and thus incredulously gendered and woefully inaccurate. Christiansen argues, functionally, that witchcraft was a form of female hysteria, and his argument is beyond poor. Beyond this, the film manages to up itself and not only use questionable factual evidence, but to do so with all manner of didactic boorish-ness and stuffy intellectualism that is resolutely un-filmic.
At the same time, if this is a film of poor intent and questionable logic, it is a sensual wonder. There’s an old stereotype, perhaps true in the 21st century more than ever, that if you want a crazily creepy, macabre, darkly humorous, and sinister film, all you have to do is get Denmark or Sweden involved. Christiansen went and got both, and the results are wonderfully inventive and tremendously hopped up on their own energy.
We’ve got tinted frames, ghastly superimposition, some truly ghoulish and genuinely disturbing stop-motion imagery, all kinds of garish make-up and costuming, some fine expressionist shadow-work, and a general atmosphere of playful dread and oddball weirdness constructing the film’s limitless boundaries.
It’s no wonder the film has become something of a midnight cinema hit, often making the rounds with accompanied narration that perhaps states a little too much of the cheeky revelry one can get through simply basking in the visual experience of the film. There’s a certain psychedelic kitsch to the whole affair, but the graininess of it all, the film’s very distance from our time period, keeps it from irony– in fact, it allows it to capture another world of perverse fascinations and of primordial, joyous decay.