The Best Horror Movie of 1920: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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The Best Horror Movie of 1920: <i>The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

It would be disingenuous to act as if 1920 gave birth to the first “horror film,” because it most assuredly did not. In fact, as early as 1895, Thomas Edison produced The Execution of Mary Stuart, an 18-second short film depicting Mary, Queen of Scots being beheaded with an axe, pioneering the filmmaking stop trick in the process. A year later, Georges Méliès, who would eventually give us A Trip to the Moon, filmed Le Manoir du diable, The House of the Devil, which many would consider the first proper “horror film.” It may have been only three minutes long, but like Frankenstein’s monster, horror had been given a spark of life.

In the decades that followed, a genre began to coalesce. Antiquarian horror films were produced in the U.S., France, Germany and Japan before the turn of the 20th century. Spanish director Segundo de Chomón chipped in La Casa Hechizada, one of the first recognizable examples of a true “haunted house movie,” in 1907. Iconic stories such as Faust and Frankenstein received their first adaptations, now forgotten to most outside of film historians. Along the way, filmmaking technique and prowess developed rapidly.

Then came 1920. Although it wouldn’t be right to call 1920 horror’s birthplace, it’s absolutely fair to label it as horror’s launching pad. Headlined by several silent horror classics, including the likes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s the year when horror as a genre left an indelible mark on the film industry for the first time. Although the genre would ebb and flow in the decades to come, horror proved quite impossible to stamp out—even when society (or Hollywood) made their best efforts to try.

As a result, there’s no more perfect starting point for this century-spanning project than 1920—the year when horror cinema announced it was here to stay.

1920 Honorable Mentions: The Golem, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Penalty, The Head of Janus (lost film)

The Film: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Director: Robert Wiene

It’s difficult to overstate how transformative The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was not only in German cinema, but in horror cinema worldwide. It remains the formative, foundational work of German Expressionism in film, but its fingers reach out across the century to touch horror films and psychological thrillers in every decade. Its visual motifs show up time and time again, from the shadowy, ghostlike countryside prowled by Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, to the tilted afterlife of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, to the cyberpunk, dystopian skyline of Dark City. It’s not the first horror film, but it’s the perfect starting point for a discussion of horror films.

The story revolves around the titular doctor, a hypnotist who takes advantage of a malleable sleepwalker in order to commit a series of vengeful killings. Every night, under the orders of the so-called “Caligari,” the sleepwalker Cesare arises and carries out his commands, having been stripped of free will and turned into an instrument of death. Given the pacifist ideologies of writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, one can interpret the message as cautionary: A too-late condemnation of the human tendency to blindly obey authority figures that led to the deaths of millions in the first world war.

As a film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari pioneers on multiple levels. On the narrative side, it presents an early use of both the twist ending and the unreliable narrator—our “hero” throughout the story turns out to be quite different in reality than the person he’s made himself out to be. It’s a structure that almost presages the ending of The Wizard of Oz, wherein the audience comes to understand that Dorothy has populated her fantasy with the faces of those people she sees around her every day.

Even more significant, though, are the visuals. The startling use of imaginative landscapes and visually disorienting sets employed in Caligari set the film apart from anything that had come before. The city of Holstenwall, where the story takes place, appears to have been constructed to the specifications of a madman. Staircases rise at impossible, dangerous angles, inviting walkers to slip to their doom. Buildings slant and teeter crazily, defying gravity. Shadows pool in multiple directions at once, seemingly obeying no dominant light source. And in truth, they really didn’t, thanks to stage designer Walter Reimann, who pioneered a technique for painting false shadows and beams of light directly onto the sets to trick the viewer’s eye. The result is often described as “dreamlike,” but if you had a dream about being in a city like Caligari’s Holstenwall, it would probably be because you were running a high fever. The effect is wondrous, but also creepy. In fact, to a modern eye, unaccustomed to the otherworldliness of silent film images, it’s arguably more creepy to watch now than ever.

As modern horror fans, it’s entirely too easy to convince ourselves that we don’t need to make time to sit down and watch foundational, silent films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. We think that having seen clips of these movies in the course of perusing YouTube essays on the history of horror equates with having actually experienced these films for ourselves. This is incorrect. Simply taking in these works piecemeal does a disservice to how they play as theatrical experiences.

In practice, making time for films like Caligari is almost always a rewarding experience—one likely to reinforce the viewer’s appreciation for the entire genre, as they come to recognize the roots of so many other films they love. If there’s one thing I’d like to stress in the course of this 100-day project, it’s that all of these films deserve to be seen, because each laid some kind of vital framework for the next film in line. Caligari, perhaps most of all.

See you tomorrow, in 1921, and every day afterward until Halloween.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.