Early Horror Cinema

Apologies for the lack of posts over the past couple of days…I’ll try as best I can to get at least one of these out a day…to make up for it, I’ll be doing 2 today. We’re starting our journey of Horror Cinema right at the beginning, talking about multiple early horror films that introduced the world to the genre.

Firstly, it is widely recognised that the first ‘horror’ film was produced as far back as 1896 by the french film pioneer Georges Méliès, entitled Le Manoir Du Diable (The Devil’s Castle). We won’t be spending much time on this one but I felt it important to mention the first of a very fine genre of films.

What we’ll be focussing on in this post is the early 1920’s, where German cinema, above all else, was the leader in Horror films…no doubt you’ve heard of Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). We’ll start with the earliest…


Caligari wakes Cesare in the 1920 expressionist masterpiece

Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari certainly is not for everyone…I’m not going to be that guy who insists everyone watches the early silent films because I know many people simply refuse to watch anything so old…I am not one of those people and my love of horror cinema has taken me into watching the majority of these early films. There is much to be appreciated in Caligari, the expressionist style of the time is none more prevelant than in this. You only have to watch a single scene to understand. The mise-en-scene (to use a very formal phrase) is genuinely phenomenal…the symbolism in place in Caligari is masterfully done. There is not much to be said about performances in the film however Conrad Veit, who plays ‘Cesare’, the sleepwalker whom the Dr manipulates into kidnapping women is a standout. The expressionist style of acting was never more important than in the silent era and Veit clearly knew what he was doing…as did Werner Krauss…the man playing Caligari.

I don’t want to spend too much time on each one but I will finish this one off by saying this…the narrative is genuinely exceptional, even by today’s standards and the twist ending is stunning…one of the earliest examples in film of such a narrative ending. I don’t want to give much away about the narrative but if you don’t know, I’ll tell you this. A man tells a story to another man about how he came to be with his fiancé and it all involves the travelling carnival of which Caligari and Cesare are members.

As I’ve said, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone purely because the style is so different to what we are all used to…but for those who appreciate or want to learn to appreciate early cinema and/or early horror cinema…it’s well worth the watch and I like it.

Now, the second of two German silent horror masterpieces I want to talk about, in my opinion, surpasses Caligari in almost every way and that is F.W Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’. I actually own the restored version of this one and it was well worth the purchase. Nosferatu is, unofficially, the first Dracula film, with all the names, locations and some storyline changed due to a failure to acquire any rights. If that isn’t enough to intrigue you then I don’t know what is.


The exquisite lighting in this famous scene from Nosferatu

Performances, particularly Max Schreck as Count Orlok, seem to be more key in this one. Schreck truly gives one of the best performances of the silent era as the Count…he depicts him as a vile creature, almost inhuman and a creature that one can only be fearful of and disgusted by…this is in no small part, due to the terrific make up in place to turn Schreck into a rat-like figure. Speaking of rats, Murnau, the director deserves plaudits for playing on a mass German fear of rat infestation following WWI by depicting Orlok as rat-like…this contextual side of the film is another thing which is to be appreciated here.

Similar to Caligari, it is an expressionist film however, not quite as much as the former…the acting style is of course still there and is done very well by all but the settings are far more traditionally Gothic looking than expressionistic. This gothic style is one of my favourites in all of film and to see it in its earliest form is stunning.

For those familiar with the story of Dracula, I think it can be enjoyed despite the ‘strange’ style and otherness of the film…which could be itself another reason why this one would intrigue someone to watch it. To see the earliest depiction of true gothic horror on screen is, again, far more interesting than entertaining, but Nosferatu certainly can entertain if you’re interested in silent film that is. I am a huge fan of it and I think it’s a must watch for any horror fan.

Another, slightly lesser known German horror from the time is Der Golem (The Golem – 1920) which, if you happen to be really interested in this style of film, would probably be worth the watch too…I can’t comment however, having not seen this film.

Over in the USA, they weren’t doing too bad with their early silent horror either. While it is majorly considered that Germany started the mainstream horror film, America was making a star out of the now legendary, Lon Chaney…the silent icon and the man of a thousand faces. That nickname came due to the high quality make up administered on him for many of his more famous roles. Two of these films that I’m going to talk about here are The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom Of The Opera (1925). I’m not going to lie and say I’ve seen them both as I’ve only seen clips from each but due to their importance in creating the American horror film, I felt it necessary to include them here.


Lon Chaney as the deformed bell ringer, Quasimodo

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a story I’m sure we’re all familiar with and while we wouldn’t consider it a ‘horror’ film now, it most definitely was back then…despite the term ‘horror’ not being used. The appearance of Chaney as Quasimodo was incredibly horrifying at the time, once again, in no small part due to the make up used as you can see above…

The idea of foul or disgusting appearance was clearly the terrifying factor in these early horror films for audiences, as shown in Germany too with Nosferatu. Chaney was truly an early master of horror also starring in such films as Tod Browning’s The Unknown from 1927 but his most famous role was that of The Phantom in Rupert Julian’s 1925 masterpiece, The Phantom of the Opera. This was also Chaney’s only solely horror film with the others mentioned having dramatic and occasionally romantic elements as well as horror. From what I’ve seen, Chaney is truly terrifying as The Phantom and further plays on the horror of disfigurement with another terrific make up job as well as an overall mysterious air about him.

Once again, I would recommend these two, more so Phantom, to any horror fan (including myself) however sadly, I cannot say for sure my opinions I have yet to see the entirety of either film.

Another important American horror of the time was 1920’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, another story I’m sure we’re all familiar with.

On final thing I’d like to mention is of course, the music. Silent films can’t be utter silence. The music in each of these films perfectly captures the tone of each and offers thrills, terror and tension in itself…the music for Phantom is instantly recognisable. Also notable is the fact that the two most famous American horrors of the time were set in France, maybe the U.S. feared the French secretly…


Chaney as the famous Phantom stalks his love interest in the Paris opera house

Tomorrow, we’ll become more focussed speaking only about a single film, and we get out of the silent era too. This was just a simple, basic introduction to this journey that I could not leave out…if you have any other silent horrors that you want to mention please feel free to in the comments and be sure to let me know your thoughts on the films mentioned.

Contact me at morgan@thepurpledon.com if you have any inquiries or suggestions for improvements to posts!

The More Focussed Journey Begins Tomorrow

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