5. The Phantom Carriage (1921)
Like many (most) films on this list (and most silent horror), The Phantom Carriage is less a narrative or a “complete” film in the modern sense of the word than it is an amalgamation of human worries left out to chill in a wintry wonderland that calls a world far, far from Earth it’s home. The story of a phantom carriage fated to arise and carry away all those who have sinned, Victor Sjostrom’s film is morality play celluloid of the highest order.
The film is one with its titular death-wagon, creeping and crawling around with inhuman lethargy and as grueling in its ghastly somnambulant dread. It’s not “realistic” – more a collection of dream/ nightmare imagery – but with lines like “whoever dies on this eve must drive the cart of death”, realism is the last thing one would want. When something chills the spine so, it’s achieving a kind of emotional realism that owes nothing to logical reality.
Visually, the film was advanced for its time, particularly in its use of superimposition – the hazy, barely-there phantom was not in the shot, but added afterward. The effect attains a ghastly import, as though the phantom existed under the celluloid and threatened to break through. The effect was so overpowering that Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer paid homage to its impermanent, impressionistic display of ghoulish wonders by up-and-making one of the greatest horror films of all time, Vampyr.
Elsewhere, the film is a masterwork of composition, the framing capturing both the impossible emptiness in the negative space around the phantom and the suffocating clutter of human sin in a number of shots featuring men in heated anxiety (the ceiling seems to weigh in on them and their surroundings are less wholly present than hastily scribbled in).
But the superimposition from beginning to end is the film’s lynchpin – it’s as if the celluloid is peering into another dimension and bringing the impression, but not the truth, of something ever-present and dangerous back with it. If that dimension is more the human soul than anything else, then that’s horror for you.
4. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
The center of this version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s morality play about Victorian era social mores, almost universally considered the best adaptation of the novella, relies more-so than any other adaptation of the work on its lead. The film was made before certain Hollywood visual tricks were available, and it is decidedly less expressionistic and caught up in its own wonderful nightmarishness than many silent horrors.
Without the corresponding visual flair, the film’s intentionally broad narrative (the film’s Dr. Jekyll has a severe case of the good intentions) must be held up on the refined shoulders of John Barrymore. He gives a stunningly physical performance that manages to make theatrical showmanship out to be the ravings of a split soul and a delusional madman, throwing every inch of his body into the affair with nothing that resembles nuance and everything that resembles pure chaotic, effervescent power.
Elsewhere, the film is no visual slouch, even if it’s somewhat more restrained and normative (read: acceptable to modern eyes) than many films of the decade preceding it. In particular, the contrast between the rounded edges of certain shots and the resolutely square ones in others serve to tell a story their own, with the less full, more rounded ones marking off the film’s action as taking place very much in a hole of light. It’s as if we’re looking through a keyhole at some naughty, unmentionable activity we ought not be seeing.
The most revealing feature of the film, however, has to be its use of inter-titles, which go far beyond conveying dialogue and into rendering the film an almost picture-book of the human dialectic – we get imagery and quotes from authors seemingly pulled less out of the literal story and more to convey the spirit of the text with a cheeky dogmatism and a slight early 20’s judge-mentalism. Concern over the moral fiber of a human soul is and has always been the core of horror, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde boils it down to its roots.
3. The Haunted Castle (1896)
Melies’ very early bit of filmic-exploration, The Haunted Castle is categorically not scary, nor does it aim to be. Melies was one of the cinema’s first wonderers, a man who used the medium to explore dreams, nightmares, whims, inspirations, dangers, adventures, hopes, and novelties. And through them all he concentrated on performance – he was not afraid to make his films look fake or stagey for he was interested in the stage of imagination and what humans could do with it. He wanted to make something that looked like the product of a human mind.
To this extent, the film is undeniably cheeky in its depiction of a who’s who of horrific imagery, having ghouls and goblins appear out of nowhere for no other reason than “that would be a nice and spooky thing to have happen now, wouldn’t you say!” The main character of the film is a devil so droopily theatrical he’s just begging for an audience – a true showman, all hopped up on his own motion and energy (when he first transforms from bat to vampiric humanoid devil he introduces himself with all manner of endearing, over-the-top arm gestures).
This is horror rendered as play, with Melies taking the broad strokes of the imagery and running with it for three minutes, and generally having a time. It is nothing short of us laughing at death, and death laughing back.
2. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The earliest “full length” film on this list, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari sees the growing pains of German Expressionism in full effect. Robert Weine’s film frays our nerves even as it maintains an intentionally clinical distance. The story of a mad doctor and his somnambulant assistant Cesare on the prowl in a distorted city-of-the-mind, it plays less like a modern conception of narrative and more like a dangerous howl into our minds.
Obviously, the core of the film, as with any silent film, is its visuality, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari doesn’t hold anything back. With backdrops that are both flat and multi-layered, angular and curvaceous, and beautiful and dangerous, the film has a transformative effect like few others.
The film also goes to explicit lengths (perhaps necessary this early in the genre) to express the manifesto of German Expressionism: it’s very self-conscious non-reality. As we learn, the film presents a constructed vision of reality, less something that happens physically and more the impression of the intersection of human decay and imagination, the work of a mind in descent.
Visually, the film backs up its deconstruction of normative reality with an onslaught of pure imagination – the city-scape intertwines and slithers around like a nervous snake. It refuses to conform to any modern or logical conception of architecture– it bears out an aesthetician’s conception of design more than an architect’s conception of logic. Abstract shapes distort the future of film noir to literal drawings plastered up in the background – shadows are literally painted onto the walls, making no bones about their falsity. The celluloid seems to bend inward on itself.
If anything, the backgrounds of the film are extremely amateurish – none of the shadows look like the real deal. But this is precisely the point – this is not a true reality but a person’s imagination of it, all caught up in poor design and slap-dash construction. Its artlessness is precisely the reflection of its human artifice and the limits of a human mind crumbling downward, trying desperately to pick up the pieces of a shattered consciousness.
It should not look cohesive, and it doesn’t. And in the middle of it all is the proto-zombie Cesare, a scarecrow of anguished rage and melancholy malaise ready to have his way with the world – except he’s a victim too. All is not well in this world – perhaps Post-War Germany and perhaps a more timeless human empty zone – and Weine won’t let us forget.
1. Nosferatu (1922)
In many ways “the” silent horror, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu is the definitive reflection of its time. In the demented filmic landscape of 1922, Nosferatu emerged as something much more than any genre film – it brought the filmic language of expressionism to new heights of popularity.
Murnau’s Dracula adaptation gives us a hell of over-stretched proportions and bridges the theatrical with the grimy grit of a mucky Earth. His shadow-work emphasizes negative space like nothing else, and the stilted, grotesque shots of Count Orlok (the name Dracula was copyright protected) walking like a puppet on strings connect the human to the primal. Visually, the film is a soul-deadening chill.
Many of the conventional “flaws” of silent cinema exist in Nosferatu as well: overly-dramatic acting, a confused script, and no narrative flow. Yet, the film is a textbook case for how these flaws were actually strengths as they were used in many silent films. If Nosferatu’s acting is unbelievable as human action, it works completely for the film’s existence less as reality than as a wail of a nightmare.
And if the story is confused, that’s perhaps the point – the narrative emerges less as a story than a collection of images or dream-like moments, less fiction than a troubled vision of another world struggling to pierce ours. As Roger Ebert once put it, the film “doesn’t scare us, but it haunts us”, and the latter is much more difficult, and, indeed, much more unnerving. Nosferatu isn’t a shocking film – it’s more like the after-effect of a shock, lingering in our relaxed state as we realize our comfort was uncalled for.
Nosferatu is also, perhaps, a fascinating reflection of a time and nation smashed together uneasily. There are, as with any Dracula adaptations, problematic themes aplenty – the original novel’s implicit reflection, and in fact deep concern, over reverse-colonization is only enhanced here, with an aristocrat from the East vacationing to Germany and wreaking havoc on the economy and the populace – no doubt prescient for a now beaten Post-war Germany under control by other countries and anxious about the effects on the nation’s identity.
One could equate this with a critique of Western imposition on Germany, but the film retains the book’s aristocratic Eastern traveler motif, loaded as it is with racial anxieties about the “other”, an “other” only felled by a quintessentially Western gentleman scientist. Nosferatu reflects, more than we’d like it to, the fears of a racialized world.
At the same time, the nation that produced Nosferatu was also met in the early 20s with not only extreme, debilitating poverty but rampant, exuberant opulence in the form of the emergence of a new capitalist bourgeoisie utilizing the chaos for its own success. If Germany in 1922 was the expressionist nightmare the film depicts, many Germans abused this chaos for their own benefit, figures grotesquely captured in this film’s titular character.
Weimar Cinema, particularly the works of Fritz Lang, would explore this reality more fully time and time again, often in unstated terms (the shellshock of war undoubtedly makes it difficult to speak of war in literal terms). Murnau would also reflect the theme with greater nuance (and absent the painful racial scapegoating of this film, instead directly targeting conservative Germans for the moral decay) in his first masterpiece Der letzte Mann in 1924. But he never captured the primal hell of a nation on the verge of self-destruction again like in Nosferatu.
Author Bio: Jake Walters is a recent graduate of Amherst College and an aspiring film-writer/ist. He shares his thoughts on film at his website, thelongtake.net and is particularly interested in film in relation to society, race, class, and gender, He writes frequently on horror films and looks to Werner Herzog, Michel Foucault, and John Shaft for life advice. You can find him on Twitter@long_take.