What images are conjured by the simple words “horror film”? What are the first thoughts that crawl to mind, automatic and unbidden?
Perhaps your mind wanders to a dark, shuttered house with creaking floorboards, where the spirits of prior residents refuse to rest in peace. Maybe you begin to picture the spindly, clawed fingers of an Edwardian vampire who has persisted through the centuries on a steady diet of human blood, or the half-decayed skull of a zombie, clawing its way up from a freshly disturbed grave. Maybe you picture none of the above, and your conception of “horror” instead focuses on the existential fears or mundanity of everyday modern life, or the sadists who just might be living next door.
For the last century (and well beyond), horror cinema has encompassed all of these things, and so much more besides. As a genre, horror offers an avenue for dissecting the paranoia, distrust and biases experienced by any given generation, sublimated into popcorn entertainment. Horror films make an appeal to their audience’s anxieties and their fears, but also their hidden desires, shameful though they may be. It’s a film genre that plays to our basest instincts, such as our desire to be thrilled or titillated, but the same films can also occasionally provoke deep intellectual analysis or debate. Ultimately, horror films reflect what you put into them. Some are simply blood and guts—others are much more.
With that thought in mind, allow us to introduce Paste’s Century of Terror project. Each day, for more than three months, we’ll be counting down the 100 greatest horror films of the past century. Beginning with 1920, a watershed year for the concept of cinematic horror, and continuing all the way to 2019’s pick on Halloween, we’ll choose a best film from every single year, whether it was a good era for horror, or one of the genre’s notorious fallow periods. Some entries will represent incredibly difficult choices between numerous classics of the genre. Others will force us to watch obscure new films for the first time, or niggle over what does or does not constitute “horror.” Overall, this will be an exercise in exploring the full breadth of the horror genre for the last 100 years, as we watch it survive and thrive in the face of everything society can throw at it. Truly, like a classic slasher villain, you can never keep horror down for long.
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)
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.
The early 1920s, and really the entire decade by extension, until the talkie revolution, have a tendency to feature one or two significant horror films per year. In the beginning of the decade these are largely international films, the U.S. film industry having not quite caught up yet to the experimentation that was happening overseas. In 1921, that included early films from the likes of Fritz Lang (The Three Lights) and F.W. Murnau (The Haunted Castle), both of whom will appear prominently in later entries of this series.
These years are also plagued, however, by the existence of significant films that are now lost to time. Among them in 1921 is the Hungarian-produced Dracula’s Death, which preceded Nosferatu by a year in adapting—apparently very loosely—the characters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The film is theorized to be lost, although a print may apparently still exist in Hungarian archives. Regardless, it likely hasn’t been screened since 1923.
1921 was also home, oddly enough, to one of the earliest adaptations of Frankenstein in Italy, under the title Il mostro di Frankenstein. This adaptation was preceded only by the more famous Thomas Edison-produced, 12-minute version of Frankenstein from 1910.
1921 Honorable Mentions:
The Haunted Castle, The Three Lights, Dracula’s Death (lost film)
Director: Victor Sjöström
In the canon of “man on his deathbed looks back on how his life ended up in such a ruinous state” films, few approach the iconic nature of The Phantom Carriage, one of the best known works in the history of Swedish cinema. It’s a masterpiece of composition and a breakthrough in early practical effects (especially double exposures to simulate ghostly transparency) within the horror genre, although the film functions just as much as a morality playlet and over-the-top melodrama. Regardless of classification, though, its imagery has echoed and been evoked through popular cinema around the world for almost a century.
The Phantom Carriage is the story of unrepentant drunk and consumptive David Holm, who stands proudly as one of the more determinedly unsympathetic “protagonists” in film history. Gathering all his drinking buddies around him in a graveyard on New Year’s Eve, he relates a folk tale of how the last soul to die in any given year is supposedly cursed to drive the carriage of the damned for the next 365 days. This is of course exactly what happens to David, who learns he’ll have to take over for his friend Georges, who managed to die the previous New Year’s Eve … but not before Georges takes David on an interdimensional journey through time and space, so David can see all the lives his obstinate drunkenness and misanthropy have destroyed along the way.
If that sounds a bit like A Christmas Carol, except with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come being promoted to Scrooge’s sole tour guide, then you’d be correct, except for the positively bleak tone throughout. The film trades in the absolute caddishness of the bitterly selfish, “modern man” symbolized by David, who mocks others for their attempts to make the world a better place and physically rejects acts of kindness meant to help him crawl out of the gutter. Watching a kindly Salvation Army worker sew new patches into David’s torn coat, only for him to rip them out rather than accept a bit of human kindness is a devastating sight, which can’t help but make the viewer consider the implications of “those who can’t be saved.”
Viewing The Phantom Carriage, film geeks in the audience will be struck by certain scenes or shots that seem like clear inspirations for depictions of death and the afterlife in the decades that followed. The carriage itself cresting a hill is notably evocative of a similar shot in director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, that of the danse macabre filmed from a distance. And when David clutches an axe, chopping down a door in a frenzy while his wife and children cower on the other side, comparison to Kubrick’s The Shining is unavoidable. The scene loses none of its power without being able to hear the dull thud of axe on wood.
Modern restorations of The Phantom Carriage, such as the one featured by the Criterion Collection, have made the film more accessible (and visually crisp) than ever, although it can also be seen in its entirety (in less than perfect quality) by simply browsing YouTube. This is one case, however, when a traditional viewing, preferably with a bit of mood lighting, will go a long way in delivering the intended atmosphere. Your friends probably won’t appreciate you throwing it on at a New Year’s Eve party, but you’re welcome to try.
The American horror market is showing some signs of life in 1922, with horror-adjacent films from D.W. Griffith and Wallace Worsley, but the three most prominent works are all still European. Fritz Lang again makes his presence felt with Dr. Mabuse, and Benjamin Christensen creates his best-known work, Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages.
Of the honorable mentions, the latter comes close to unseating even a title so monolithic in its esteem as Nosferatu. Truly, there’s nothing else quite like Häxan, a pseudo documentary purporting to show how “backward” Europeans once punished (and tortured) those accused of witchcraft. If you’ve ever wanted evidence that people were exactly as cynical and sarcastic 100 years ago as they are today, look no further than Häxan, a film that looks upon the abuses of the past with both condemnation and a certain gallows sense of humor about the whole ordeal. Alternatingly funny and genuinely creepy, Häxan remains mesmerizing to watch in 2019.
Nosferatu, though, looms above everything.
1922 Honorable Mentions:
Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Häxan, One Exciting Night, A Blind Bargain (Lost film)
Director: F.W. Murnau
It’s incredible to think just how close the world came to losing Nosferatu forever. We know it as the first true adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that’s also exactly why it almost vanished from the face of the Earth after its initial release: Its producers never acquired the rights to the novel. Instead, they merely changed all the character names, which was the impetus for Max Schreck’s iconic Count Orlok. The result was a court order that sided with the Stoker estate, which ordered the immediate destruction of every copy of Nosferatu—orders that were promptly carried out in Germany. Thankfully, for the future of the vampire genre and horror cinema in general, several copies of Nosferatu had already been sent abroad, where they waited in the U.S. for seven years before Nosferatu finally had its premiere in 1929, in the twilight of the silent film era. Finally, horror fans in the U.S.A. found out what all the fuss was about—only two years before Universal would unveil its own Dracula. All existing versions of Nosferatu were created from those sole, surviving prints.
As a film, it’s a monumental achievement for the time period. Along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it stands as the most iconic work of German Expressionism in film, although where that film is fantastical and illusionary, Nosferatu’s settings are more classically gothic and romantic. Murnau reserves some of the most expressionist touches for the depiction of the vampire himself, and especially his larger-than-life shadow, which stands in for the vampire in several iconic scenes.
And my, what a vampire. Max Schreck puts on a performance for the ages as Orlok, a rat-faced and spindle-fingered ghoul lacking any shred of humanity. Unlike the seductive, captivating presence that would become the archetype for portrayals of Dracula after Bela Lugosi in 1931, Orlok is a proper beast, and a genuinely frightening one. There’s something distinctly inhuman, something alien about the rigidity of his movements, his gaunt frame and wild-eyed expressions, that is still unnerving to watch today. It’s not at all surprising that director E. Elias Merhige and actor Willem Dafoe wanted to pay homage to Schreck’s otherworldly performance by portraying him as an actual secret vampire in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire. Schreck is just that good.
Ultimately, although Count Dracula remains more famous as a vampire character, Orlok and Nosferatu have never left us. His likeness continues to crop up in tribute form, time and time again. He was the vampire in TV’s ‘Salem’s Lot. He leaps from the screen in a classic episode of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?. He shares an apartment with Taika Waititi in What We Do in the Shadows. You can’t shake his image. You can only pray for daybreak.
Although The Hunchback of Notre Dame exists on the periphery of horror, it represents a big moment for the genre in the American studio system, launching Lon Chaney to stardom as the first bonafide American “horror icon,” and presaging later smash hits such as The Phantom of the Opera. The rest of the year, like the rest of the early 1920s, is mostly notable for its European output—several Expressionist German films in the form of Warning Shadows and The Stone Rider in particular.
There’s also the case of While Paris Sleeps, another Lon Chaney feature that was produced in 1920 but released in 1923. Its plot reportedly plays out almost like an early version of House of Wax, although it’s impossible to say for sure, as the film is now considered lost. That leaves 1923 with a dearth of high-profile offerings, making The Hunchback of Notre Dame a pretty obvious pick. It’s still a few more years from this point until there’s a reliably robust crop of horror films every year. Just wait until we reach the 1930s, though.
1923 Honorable Mentions:
Warning Shadows, The Stone Rider, While Paris Sleeps (lost film)
Director: Wallace Worsley
It’s certainly not hard to make a case for The Hunchback of Notre Dame as more “adventure” or “romantic drama” than it is a horror film, save for one key characteristic: The iconic, unavoidably grotesque appearance of its title character. Lon Chaney Sr. was referred to as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for a reason, a plaudit made only more legitimate by the fact that it was often Chaney himself to who was conceiving and applying his own makeup. A master of multiple crafts, you might call him the Doug Jones of his day—an actor renowned for his ability to emote, via subtle physicality and full-body performance, through layers of makeup and costuming that might suffocate other performers.
Here, in Universal’s massively successful (their biggest silent film ever) adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Chaney is a dynamo of pent-up energy. He attacks his stunt work with a ferocity that makes you fear for the performer’s safety, clambering and climbing, riding on Notre Dame’s bells while sporting a countenance as Quasimodo that is genuinely is difficult to look upon. Described as deaf and half blind, he seems covered from head to toe in misshapen lumps of flesh, and you can feel his agony in the bestial movements he applies as he scampers through the cathedral and rings its bells with reckless abandon. His hatred of the common folk who live below makes him at first seem loathsome, and then pitiable—as does the tear-jerking, morose ending.
At the same time, though, there’s also an odd undercurrent of misanthropic black humor running through The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Its assemblage of beggars—quickly revealed to be a den of con artists with faked illnesses and deformities—is shockingly modern in terms of its cynicism toward charity and “human decency,” feeling more like a statement of Gen X punk rock disgust than something you’d expect to see in a silent film in 1923. Combined with the sometimes awkward attempts at period dialog, you’ll be hard-pressed not to laugh when the captain of the guard orders his men to “tie up this varlet!” in reference to Quasimodo.
Ultimately, though, The Hunchback of Notre Dame resonates most strongly today for its timeless tale of haves vs. have nots, just as relevant now as it was when written in 1831. On the strength of a physical performance that has never really been equalled in any of the other Hunchback adaptations, it was a launching pad for both the fortunes of Lon Chaney and American horror films in general, although the American horror output would still prove sporadic until the boom of the 1930s.
After the iconic silent films that kicked off the era of cinematic horror in the beginning of the decade, 1924 has slowed down considerably. There’s very little of note from the American film industry in this year, even when accounting for lost films, aside from the oddity that is the 1924 version of Dante’s Inferno, which attempted to update Dante Alighieri’s epic poem to a modern American setting. The only really notable films are from Austria and Germany, in the form of The Hands of Orlac and another House of Wax precursor, Waxworks. Of the two, Orlac gets the edge.
1924 Honorable Mentions:
Waxworks, Dante’s Inferno
Director: Robert Wiene
The Hands of Orlac is arguably the next most prominent work in the filmography of director Robert Wiene, after the monolith that is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Unlike that film, this one is an example of German Expressionism more in its motifs and performances than in art direction or settings—no topsy-turvy dream city to navigate, this time. Rather, the setting is grounded in the cold reality of modern Austria, although the film’s protagonist is haunted by the threat of the fantastical.
Conrad Veidt, our somnambulistic killer from Caligari—and four years before he’d appear as the title character in The Man Who Laughs—plays a concert pianist named Paul Orlac, who loses his hands in a grisly accident. Desperate for a way to maintain his livelihood, he turns to modern medicine and is granted a new set of transplanted hands, but with a catch—they previously belonged to an executed murderer named Vasseur. Repulsed by the thought of living with a killer’s hands, Orlac begins to spiral into paranoia at the thought that his hands are alien to him, still containing some vestige of the killer’s evil ways. And when someone close to him turns up dead, slain by the killer’s own knife, Orlac can’t help but question whether he might somehow be responsible.
A classic of the “am I suffering from mental illness, or an elaborate hoax?” variety, ‘ala The Game, Orlac is one of the first classics of a subgenre we would come to refer to as “body horror.” As in other examples of body horror, fear is driven from the subconscious questioning of whether one’s own being can be trusted, or whether it has somehow been invaded, stolen or corrupted by an outside force. The same themes would go on to be mined in both a serious manner by the likes of David Cronenberg, in films like Shivers or Rabid, and in horror comedies like Evil Dead 2 or even 1999’s Idle Hands.
The Hands of Orlac has seen several remakes, including 1935’s Mad Love, starring Peter Lorre and Frankenstein’s Colin Clive as the titular character, and 1960’s The Hands of Orlac starring Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee. None can quite pull off the emotive simplicity of Veidt’s performance, however, and you’re likely better off sticking to the original, which is easy to find in the public domain.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame made Lon Chaney Sr. into a “horror” star in 1923, but it’s Phantom that really solidifies the perception, at least as far as our pop-cultural memory is concerned. In truth, Chaney was cranking out genre movies at a ridiculous pace in this particular era—every year seems to have a handful of Lon Chaney starring vehicles. In 1925, he also stars in future Dracula and Freaks director Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three, and in another low-budget horror flick called The Monster, practically cornering the entire genre to himself. Never again would horror be so dependent upon a single face, so it’s almost no wonder that Chaney was the “Man of a Thousand Faces”—he literally had to be.
As for the rest of 1925, there’s not a ton to recommend. The Lost World is an early achievement in stop-motion dinosaur effects, but is a bit of a stretch to label as horror. Maciste in Hell is an interesting adaptation of Dante’s Inferno-style hand-wringing, but good luck finding a decent copy of it. Phantom stands head and shoulders above everything else.
1925 Honorable Mentions:
The Unholy Three, The Monster, The Lost World, Maciste in Hell
Director: Rupert Julian
Where The Hunchback of Notre Dame cares more for the humanity and pathos of Chaney’s Quasimodo, The Phantom of the Opera is a more purely entertaining tale of melodramatic obsession and gothic grandeur. Here, as the hideously disfigured Erik, Chaney is much more regal, commanding and arch—a vaudeville stage villain with a twist of “mad scientist.” Where the pitiable hunchback crept and cowered, Erik imperiously believes that he’ll live to see the world pay for everything it’s done to him—and hold his dream woman in his thrall, at the same time. And all from the comfort of a subterranean sewer bordello, at that.
Actress Mary Philbin portrays would-be opera prima donna Christine Daaé with a combination of ambition and naivete that make her somewhat unsympathetic, seemingly a sly commentary on how the ugly nature of her desire for fame and influence makes her every bit the “monster” that The Phantom is under his mask. To wit, she’s perfectly happy to accept the assistance of her mysterious benefactor, even when that help extends into the realm of outright murder. Only after seeing under the mask of her new beau does Christine decide that there seems to be anything wrong with the direction her life is taking—and by then, of course, it’s far too late, and she’s become the Phantom’s prisoner.
Certainly, The Phantom of the Opera is the most well-remembered and treasured of the pre-Dracula Universal horror films, owing to a few key factors. The sets are particularly spectacular for the time period, from the majestic center stairway and foyer of the opera house, home to the striking, two-strip Technicolor “Bal Masqué” sequence, to the watery catacombs that hide the Phantom’s secret lair. And of course the film remains preserved in the memories of film historians thanks to Chaney’s iconic face itself, another testament to the actor’s skills in designing his own makeup. The sunken eyes, upturned nose and jagged teeth of the Phantom give him an emaciated, skull-like visage that should always be considered an integral part of the lineup of Universal Monsters, although The Phantom is now sometimes forgotten among that particular pantheon. To leave him out would be a mistake, especially given how Chaney’s face reportedly had patrons screaming and fainting in the aisles in 1925.
Indeed, the Phantom proves to be one of horror’s most devilish early icons, a mastermind who wraps the rest of the film’s characters around his finger with relative ease. The film’s hapless protagonists attempt to rescue Christine from the villain’s clutches while falling prey to an array of fiendish traps and mechanical devices, eventually succeeding only due to the Phantom’s last-minute act of mercy. The audience is left with no question of who the superior mind belongs to—the Phantom. This “horror puppetmaster” archetype would echo through the ages, from the mad doctors portrayed by Karloff and Lugosi in the 1930s, to Vincent Price’s Abominable Dr. Phibes, to Saw’s own Jigsaw Killer. All bear the grandiloquent mark of the Phantom.
The back half of the 1920s is not exactly horror’s most prolific era, at least in terms of the volume of films being produced, but there are a few notable exceptions in each year. 1926 is one of the rare years that doesn’t see the release of any Lon Chaney horror flicks, but instead we’re gifted with two very distinct international classics: Germany’s Faust from Nosferatu creator F.W. Murnau, and Japan’s singularly strange A Page of Madness from innovator Teinosuke Kinugasa.
Of the two, Faust is better remembered by most horror audiences today, and not without reason. Murnau employs many of the same fantastical, expressionistic visual cues present in Nosferatu to tell a tale that has been adapted countless times in cinema, hewing fairly closely to the framework of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s legendary stage adaptation of Faust. The great Emil Jannings is cast in one of his best roles as the devil Mephisto, towering over Faust’s village in a way that would presage the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in 1940’s Fantasia. Equal parts buffoonish and genuinely unsettling, Jannings figures prominently in Paste’s list of the 25 greatest film Satans for a reason.
In the end, though, we have to lean toward A Page of Madness for its disconcerting uniqueness, which is utterly unlike anything else that can be found in the same time period.
1926 Honorable Mentions:
Faust, The Man Who Cheated Life, The Bells, The Magician
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
For 45 years after its initial release in 1926, almost no one on Earth was even aware of the existence of A Page of Madness. The silent, avant garde horror film had come and gone largely unnoticed during its original release, the product of an artist collective called the “School of New Perceptions” who seemed to be rebelling against naturalism by making the most surrealist and nightmare-inducing series of images they could conceive. A challenging, bizarre film even in its home market, A Page of Madness must have left some perplexed viewers scratching their heads in 1920s Japan, but after its initial release it was physically locked away and forgotten, until it was rediscovered by director Kinugasa himself in 1971—legend has it that the director literally unearthed it in his garden shed, having forgotten he ever stored it there. What followed was a long-overdue rediscovery by the film world, which reacted in awe at the sheer, disconcerting imagination that Kinugasa and his collaborators captured back in 1926.
The story of A Page of Madness, such that exists, revolves around a middle-aged janitor at an insane asylum, who wanders the halls with his mop and observes the patients in their various states of frenzied activity. The audience slowly comes to realize that the janitor’s intent at the asylum is to secretly care for his wife, a patient who went mad due to her husband’s cruel treatment of her. Wracked by guilt, and also trying to provide for a daughter who is seeking a socially respectable husband, the janitor must hide the existence of his wife from the world, lest his daughter’s honor be tainted by the association.
This, at least, is the film’s story on paper. In reality, almost all of A Page of Madness must be inferred by the audience. Lacking intertitles and traditional dialog, the film would have been accompanied in its initial runs by an in-house narrator to provide crucial context. Functioning as a truly silent film, the audience is simply left to pick meaning from the disorienting, searing imagery of insanity.
And truly, this film really is disturbing viewing, even to a modern audience. Beautifully shot but spastically edited, it intercuts a constant stream of impressionistic imagery over sequences depicting various mental patients, queuing up startling visual metaphors for the mental degradation of both the criminally insane and our ailing protagonist, while maintaining a degree of empathy for both. Its purpose isn’t to gawk at a freak show of crazies behind bars, but to note just how thin the line is between people on one side of the divide and the other.
Regardless, A Page of Madness belongs now to the small class of silent horror films from the 1920s that remain genuinely unnerving to watch today. If you put this film on during the background of a Halloween party, someone will ask you, sooner rather than later, to turn it off. And they’ll probably say something like “This thing is freaking me out, man.”
After taking a year off from horror, Lon Chaney is back in action in two of 1927’s most notable horror films, in the form of The Unknown and the mysterious London After Midnight. Both films happened to have been directed by Dracula’s Tod Browning, but only The Unknown can actually be seen in 2019. Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Phantom of the Opera, this story also sees Chaney playing a disfigured man in love with a woman he can’t possess—only this time, the disfigurement is actually an elaborate con.
London After Midnight, meanwhile, is perhaps the most famous “lost” horror film of all time, and certainly is among the most sought-after of all lost works of the silent era. A detective thriller at heart, its horror reputation comes from Chaney’s particularly ghoulish makeup job, which saw him playing a vampire-like character with sharp, filed teeth and a dapper beaver hat. Reception to the film was mixed at the time of its release, but the destruction of the last known copy of London After Midnight in the 1965 MGM vault fire, coupled with the surviving production photos of Chaney’s makeup, have since catapulted it to mythic status. The closest that any of us will likely ever get to seeing it is the 2002 reconstruction from Turner Classic Movies, which combined the original script with various production stills and artwork to illustrate a rough outline of the film. But who knows—maybe someday, a full copy will be discovered.
1927 also gives us an early Hitchcock silent entry in the form of The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, and the particularly influential “old dark house” yarn The Cat and the Canary, making this arguably the strongest overall year for horror cinema in the back half of the 1920s.
1927 Honorable Mentions:
The Unknown, London After Midnight (lost film), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, The Last Performance, The Gorilla
Director: Paul Leni
Few horror films have been remade so many times, at least in a loose sense, as The Cat and the Canary. It wasn’t the absolute first film to bear the hallmarks we would stylistically come to refer to as the “old dark house movie” (The Monster did it in 1925), but its success made it the first to turn most of the subgenre’s tropes into institutions that have been repeated in other Old Dark House films for nearly 100 years. In fact, the tropes of The Cat and the Canary still seem so familiar today that the experience of watching it for the first time in 2019 feels oddly comforting, as if you’ve seen the film before.
The Cat and the Canary doesn’t quite have the artistic pretensions present in A Page of Madness, or even The Phantom of the Opera, but it can earnestly claim to be a fun, entertaining mystery that holds up surprisingly well to modern viewing. In truth, it’s actually something of a stylistic mashup—a straightforward mystery plot born out of a stage play, revolving around an extended cast of suspicious characters brought together to spend the night in a spooky old mansion, accented by the German Expressionist visual stylings of director Paul Leni. These inspirations aren’t present in the performances so much as they are in the establishing shots, cinematography and even the quirky, moving intertitles, which have much more personality than most films of the time. The exterior illustrations of the house itself, meanwhile, look like something out of Nosferatu, bleeding around the edges into the night, as if its evil can’t be contained. How perfectly spooky, right?
Plenty of other Old Dark House bonafides get their start here. There are secret passageways. A missing will, which names one of the people in the house as a beneficiary. An “escaped lunatic” named The Cat on the loose, who may or may not be prowling the mansion. Disguises. Deaths that turn out not to be deaths. It’s all there. On the other hand, though, there are a few wrinkles that make The Cat and the Canary unlike some of the other films that would follow in its footsteps—such as the fact that the dweeby comic relief character, who is introduced with the phrase “Why Paul, I haven’t seen you since nurse dropped you on your head!”—somehow turns out to be the hero.
Today, The Cat and the Canary makes for charming, spooky, “low-stakes” viewing—the preponderance of spider webs covering every surface of the mansion make it feel like the visual inspiration for every Halloween haunted house you ever visited as a child. Being a silent film, you can’t hear every hinge creaking when characters creep about in the darkness, and yet somehow you know that they are. It’s Scooby Doo, more than 40 years earlier.
And finally: The film has a literal “G-G-G-Ghosts?!?” intertitle card in it. What more could you want?
It would seem that adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe were having a moment in 1928, as the year yielded not one but two different versions of The Fall of the House of Usher, not to mention a notable Expressionist take on The Telltale Heart. Of those two Usher films, MGM’s U.S. version is a short of only 13 minutes in length, although its Expressionist stylings also make for interesting viewing. More well known is the feature-length Usher from French Impressionist and filmmaking pioneer Jean Epstein, although its languid pacing might make it seem interminable to modern audiences—certainly in comparison to the more florid Usher adaptations that would come along in later years, such as Roger Corman’s famous version starring Vincent Price in 1960.
Regardless, 1928 proves to be the last year with a flourishing of horror titles until the advent of film’s sound era.
1928 Honorable Mentions:
The Fall of the House of Usher, A Daughter of Destiny, The Terror, The Telltale Heart
Director: Paul Leni
The Man Who Laughs isn’t truly meant to play as a horror film. Although it’s undeniably an Expressionist work from director Paul Leni, adjacent to the same genre that produced Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—and indeed, starring Caligari’s own Conrad Veidt—it has more story elements of romantic melodrama and even swashbuckling adventure than it does horror. Except, that is, for its searing, deeply evocative imagery, the product of photography that is so successful it goes above and beyond what it was trying to achieve, creating a horror classic almost by accident.
The film is the story of a man named Gwynplaine, adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. As a boy, the young Gwynplaine is orphaned when his dissident father is executed by the English king. Stolen away by a group of child-thieving rogue doctors, his face is grotesquely disfigured into a permanent grin. Escaping his captors, he seeks asylum with a traveling performer, bringing along the baby girl he discovered along the way. Growing to adulthood, he becomes a renowned sideshow act, “the man who laughs,” with his blind “sister” by his side—all the while longing for her love, but consumed by feelings of inadequacy.
That love story may be the focus of the plot, but what the viewer is most likely to take away from the film are singular, disturbing images. A scarred boy, hiding his face, abandoned in the snow. Bodies swinging from the gallows as that little boy runs among them, almost seeming to frolic. A woman frozen to death in a snowbank, still clutching her living baby. An adult Gwynplaine, dressed as an English lord, smiling hideously as his eyes fill with tears before the House of Lords. The dastardly court jester Barkilphedro, whose own grin is equally disturbing and considerably more devious than Gwynplaine’s. Few silent films of the era have such nightmare-inducing still shots.
Those genuinely horrific moments make for an unusual tandem with some of the film’s other unique elements, particularly the character of Duchess Josiana, played by Russian femme fatale Olga Baklanova. Her depiction is extremely Pre-Code, displaying a luridly open attitude toward sex, nudity and flirtatiousness that is shocking to see in a silent film from 1928, running counter to how modern viewers stereotype the era. The Duchess is so voracious, in fact, that in one scene she’s groped and pawed at by the unwashed masses of a county fair … and the character actually enjoys it and encourages them to keep at it. Characters like this one would disappear almost completely from American cinema after the Production Code’s enforcement began in earnest around 1934, not reemerging for decades.
Today, the film’s stature, and fame as the oft-cited “inspiration for The Joker” in DC Comics, can’t help but make one wonder how it might have turned out differently if made only a few years later, in the talkie era at Universal. Would Gwynplaine, despite being the hero of Hugo’s story, somehow have found himself on a pedestal among the Universal Monsters, thanks to his admittedly disturbing face? Would sequels have followed, involving Gwynplaine’s run-ins with Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster? It’s easy to imagine that Gwynplaine could have been stripped of his protagonist status in the sound era, coming off more like the scar-faced villain in William Castle’s 1961 film Mr. Sardonicus, which draws clear inspiration from The Man Who Laughs in everything but its empathetic nature.
Although 1927’s The Jazz Singer was a big hit at the box office, sending audiences into a tizzy about the possibilities of cinematic “talkies,” it surprisingly wasn’t followed up by an immediate rush of sound pictures. Indeed, the majority of theaters weren’t equipped to exhibit talkies until the end of the decade, and a number of studios simply waited for the “fad” to pass before green-lighting their own sound pictures. Not until 1929 and 1930 did it become clear that the “fad” was soon to replace the old way of life entirely.
The horror genre, too, was a bit slow to adapt, and there are few works of note from 1929 or 1930—one imagines that the industry was busy grappling with more existential horrors in the face of its changing landscape. The few 1929 horror talkies that exist, such as The Unholy Night—which happens to contain an uncredited role by a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff—are both ponderous and unnatural feeling, with stilted performances that highlight the industry’s unfamiliarity with an emerging technology. For now, at least, the best pictures are still of the silent variety. Notable among them is the very first of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” series, The Skeleton Dance, with skeleton animation from pioneering cartoonist Ub Iwerks that would be re-used countless times in the years to come.
1929 Honorable Mentions:
The Last Warning, The Unholy Night, The Skeleton Dance
Director: Luis Buñuel
This is the only entry in our Century of Terror project to highlight a short film rather than a feature, which speaks both to the lack of quality horror features in 1929 and the enduring status of Un Chien Andalou as a foundational entry in the history of film surrealism. Is this project, conceived by director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí, really an expression of “horror,” per se? Well, not exactly—not in the classical sense, anyway. But the intent of the piece, according to its creators, was to shock, anger and unsettle, and ultimately that’s a horror film in our books. The fact that the film’s most famous shot involves an eye being sliced open with a razor only adds to its horror legitimacy.
Un Chien Andalou is a loosely constructed series of vignettes, some of which are implied to involve the same “characters,” but the film never deigns to name anyone, and the same actors portray multiple, distinct people—choices presumably made to advance a sense of befuddlement. Even the title is meaningless, translating to “An Andalusian Dog.” Intertitles offer up time stamps like “once upon a time,” “eight years later” and “around three in the morning” without any impact on plot, setting or the appearances of the characters, leading the audience to question why it was given this information at all. The easiest way to sum up anything regarding “plot” and Un Chien Andalou is to say that it involves a man and a woman … and that they don’t exactly get along.
The actual imagery, meanwhile, isn’t for the squeamish. Beyond the infamous eyeball-cutting sequence (it was actually a calf’s eye, which doesn’t make it any less gross), the 20-some minutes of footage include such sights as a man’s hand crawling with ants, a woman being run over by a car and a man dragging a pair of grand pianos that are stuffed with the decaying bodies of two donkeys. Modern viewings of this kind of footage benefit also from the otherworldly sort of quality that tends to be afforded when one views a strange silent film in a world of smartphones and YouTube videos—what was decidedly weird in 1929 only seems all the weirder now, given our modern standard of entertainment. Watching Un Chien Andalou in 2019 feels like you’re picking up on a strange transmission from an alien world—one where film scenes are placed in no particular narrative order, and the general goal is maximum disorientation. Although “dream-like” is a term that often gets thrown around in film description, this is one film that actually operates with the irrational logic of a fever dream, and the sense that one is an unwilling passenger who has been shanghaied into the audience.
In its time, Un Chien Andalou represented a new method of visually conceptualizing the prominent psychological philosophy of Freudian free association—today, it’s more of a novel, disconcerting diversion. But considering that it’s one of the few films on this list you can view on YouTube in its entirety, over a lunch break, we encourage you to do so.