Halloween month continues at Balladeer’s Blog with this look at two dozen of my favorite silent horror films.
THE CRIMSON STAIN MYSTERY (1916) – This was a 16 chapter silent serial that contained multiple horrific elements. The fact that it is so little remembered these days makes it perfect for this list, given Balladeer’s Blog’s overall theme. A mad scientist calling himself the Crimson Stain experiments on human guinea pigs in an attempt to create an intellectually superior race. His experiments all fail, producing hideous, mutated monsters. The Crimson Stain organizes his misbegotten menagerie into a villainous organization and wages a campaign of terror on the world at large. A heroic detective leads the opposition against them and tries to learn the identity of the Crimson Stain. Chapters in this serial boasted wonderfully campy titles like The Brand of Satan, The Devil’s Symphony, Despoiling Brutes and The Human Tiger.
THE MAN WITHOUT A SOUL (1916) – A man returns from the dead bereft of any trace of morality or humanity. He now views the people around him as victims and prey.
THE GOLEM AND THE DANCER (1917) – In the very first known horror movie sequel Paul Wegener starred and directed himself once again as the clay monster called the Golem. In this enjoyably “meta” production decades before Scream or The Human Caterpillar II, Wegener played himself.
In an innovative storyline the actor portrayed himself being so impressed with the way his original turn as the Golem was such a hit that he took to donning an elaborate costume and hitting the night-darkened streets to encourage the notion that a real-life Golem was stalking the city. His motive was part publicity stunt and part romantic, as he used his masquerade to try to win the heart of a beautiful dancer with horrific unintended consequences.
ALRAUNE (1918) – This 80 minute Austro-Hungarian production was an adaptation of the Hanns Heinz Ewers novel Alraune. There was also an 88 minute German adaptation of that 1913 novel released this same year. The German adaptation featured a mad scientist artificially inseminating a prostitute with the sperm of a hanged murderer to create the soulless, vile woman Alraune. This Austro-Hungarian version presented the scientist creating Alraune by having a prostitute masturbate with a mandrake root. No, I’m NOT kidding. In both movies the evil woman thus artificially created lures men to horrific fates via her feminine wiles, like the mutant Helen in Arthur Machen’s story The Great God Pan. Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame was a co-director of this movie.
THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1919) – Even if you’re not a fan of silent movies the chances are you’ve heard of this milestone motion picture which is synonymous with German Expressionism. The bizarre sets and eerie imagery of the film greatly influenced directors in its native Germany and also around the world. Director Robert Wiene presented the macabre tale of the sinister Dr Caligari, a carnival mesmerist, and his “cabinet”, which contains the zombie Cesare (Conrad Veidt himself) the doctor’s obedient thrall. Caligari dispatches Cesare by night to kill and carry out his other nefarious designs. The twist ending (which I won’t spoil) was often criticized for diluting the anti-war and anti-statist theme established in the rest of the film.
THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1919) – Sweden’s Victor Sjostrom (aka Seastrom), the man who inspired Ingmar Bergman to make films, directed and starred in this Swedish film. The story involves the Phantom Carriage and how the last person to die each year, just before Midnight rings in the new year, is condemned to become the ghostly driver of the Phantom Carriage. The cursed driver must spend the next year driving the ghostly hearse throughout the world collecting the souls of all the people who die.
EERIE TALES (1919) – Conrad “Major Strasser from Casablanca” Veidt is, in my opinion, the most neglected figure from silent horror films. In this German work Veidt co-stars with Reinhold Schunzel and Anita Berber. The three play Death (Veidt), the Devil (Schunzel) and the Strumpet (Berber), figures who step out of the paintings in an antique book shop and provide the wraparound segment to the anthology of horror tales that follows.
Like Creepshow and other anthology horror films Eerie Tales sprinkles light fantasy and levity in with the scares. The short horror stories that play in between the segments with Death and the Devil fighting over the Strumpet are The Manifestation, The Suicide Club, The Black Cat, The Hand, and The Spook. This flick made me want to see Veidt as Dapertutto and Dr Miracle in Tales of Hoffmann.
DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (1920) – The most acclaimed of the many silent film versions of the Robert Louis Stevenson story. John Barrymore, Drew Barrymore’s grandfather, starred as Jekyll and Hyde in this excellent adaptation. For decades when the film was unavailable for viewing the legend grew that Barrymore supposedly didn’t use makeup and just conveyed the difference between the two personas with his thespian skills. That is absolute nonsense. The makeup work, including an expanding cranium and lengthened fingers for Mr Hyde, is superb. Hyde looks more hideous and more depraved with each transformation all the way to the film’s tragic ending.
THE GOLEM (1920) – The very first horror film prequel. In this German production Paul Wegener once again directed and played the title monster, just as he did in 1914 and 1917. This time around Wegener had the budget to make the story a period piece and related the original story of the Golem in 1500’s Prague. Rabbi Lowe conjures up the clay monster called the Golem to avenge the oppressed Jewish people on their Hapsburg oppressors, led by Rudolph II. Wegener was thus the only person to direct and star in an original horror film as well as its sequel and prequel.
THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN (1922) – Starring the one and only Will Rogers as Ichabod Crane, this is the most famous silent movie version of the Washington Irving story about the Headless Horseman.
NOSFERATU (1922) – F.W. Murnau directed and the legendary Max Schreck starred as the vampire in this unauthorized adaptation of Dracula. This is one of the most enduringly popular silent horror films and with good reason. Rather than the suave continental charmer that so many cinematic vampires are presented as being, Schreck’s undead character is virtually rodent-like and has more in common with zombies. Nosferatu is a classically eerie depiction of an unliving predator satisfying his deadly hunger with no concern for his victims.
WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (1922) – Silent versions of this Swedish “docu-drama” are the best. Avoid the copies with added sound and narration by William “Naked Lunch” Burroughs. The film’s pictures and reenactments of witchcraft practices, witch hunts and Black Masses are haunting and would make nice video wallpaper at a Halloween party. The most notorious scene in this controversial flick is the one with witches kneeling before Satan and literally kissing his buttocks in worship.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) – I always commit the blasphemy of pointing out that I don’t consider this to be very much of a horror story, but I know other people do, so I’m including it. This umpteenth silent film version of the story is the most famous one and starred the iconic Lon Chaney as Quasimodo.
THE WEREWOLF (1923) – In its native France this flick was titled Le Loup-Garou. For the first time in a werewolf movie something other than the American Indian tradition was featured. In France a murderer finds himself suffering from the curse of lycanthropy.
THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924) – The best silent adaptation of this often reworked tale. Conrad Veidt starred in this German film directed by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’s Robert Wiene. Veidt, Casablanca‘s Major Strasser, who played Caligari’s thrall Cesare, this time portrays a concert pianist who loses his hands in a train accident. When his hands are replaced with the hands of a dead murderer he feels them taking on a life of their own.
WAXWORKS (1924) – Decades before Night Gallery there was this German film set in a Wax Museum. Horrific tales of some of the historical villains preserved in wax are presented, anthology film style. Emil Jannings portrayed the mad, homicidal Sultan Haroun-al- Raschid, Conrad Veidt (yes, again) played Ivan the Terrible poisoning victims and then timing their deaths with an hourglass and Werner Krauss depicted Jack the Ripper in a segment that was often heavily edited by theaters because of its tone and content.
THE MONSTER (1925) – The incomparable Lon Chaney starred as the mad scientist Dr Ziska in this horror film that is often neglected because of its annoyingly heavy use of comic relief moments. Dr Ziska is in the habit of engineering car accidents for various innocent motorists and their Model T’s. Then his lackeys abduct them and take them to the mad doctor’s sanitarium which is far removed from the nearest town or city.
Once there Ziska uses his victims as human guinea pigs in his macabre experiments. Chaney’s Dr Ziska is an elegant baddie in the mold that Vincent Price would later perfect. His lackeys are the mute, hideous brute Caliban, the undead Rigo, who dresses in a Grim Reaper cowl, and Madman Dan, who is the uncontrollably crazy wild card. Based on a stage play by Crane Wilbur, who would go on to write the 1950’s film House of Wax.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) – To me this is the ULTIMATE silent horror film. It may sound odd but this movie is the very best cinematic adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel. Nearly every frame of this masterpiece is like a painting and it’s a rare viewer who can take their eyes off the screen at all as the movie plays. Lon Chaney’s iconic portrayal of Erik, the hideously deformed Phantom of the Paris Opera House, is magnificent in every way.
The Phantom’s way of stalking his victims by clinging to the shadows and maneuvering around every twist and turn of the secret passageways and catacombs of the Opera House makes this seem like the master mold of so many inferior slasher flicks to come. Chaney’s grotesque makeup, the Black Lake of the Catacombs and the Gothic horror visuals of the sprawling Opera House that is the Phantom’s domain all combine to make this an undeniable classic. No other film adaptation features such a haunting unmasking scene as the tormented musical genius Erik plays Don Juan Triumphant .
WOLF BLOOD (1925) – In a hybrid of a werewolf story and The Hands of Orlac a man receives a transfusion of wolf blood and then fears he is turning into a murderous wolfman because of it. Suspicion kicks in when the man’s enemies begin turning up dead from savage animal attacks. A mad doctor and a ghostly pack of wolves are the big highlights of this movie, especially the scene where the ghost-pack tries to lure the protagonist to commit suicide by following them over a cliff.
THE MAGICIAN (1926) – This early MGM movie was adapted from Somerset Maugham’s novel based on the notorious Aleister Crowley. Paul Wegener of The Golem fame portrays Oliver Haddo, the sinister title figure who discovers the secret of creating life. He and his dwarf assistant need to use blood from the hearts of female virgins as one of the ingredients, setting up the expected macabre goings-on.
WHY ISN’T THE MAGICIAN BETTER KNOWN?! This is a magnificent movie that modern audiences would probably embrace more than they do films like The Phantom of the Opera, Nosferatu and other classics beloved by me and my fellow silent film geeks. There is virtually no overacting or outrageous melodrama, just VERY nicely handled horror and suspense. Haddo is an elegant, well-dressed, worldy sorceror who employs his powers in subtle ways that eventually become more blatant as he targets a young female sculptor to be his sacrificial virgin. The scene of a gigantic Pan and his disciples celebrating an orgy is very daring for the time.
This could almost count as Gothic horror if not for the 1926 setting. The sculptress’ fiancee and uncle pursue her and Haddo from England to the French Riviera to Monte Carlo and finally Nice in the exciting finale at Haddo’s remote castle. The footage of 1920’s Monte Carlo alone makes this worth watching.
THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) – The definitive silent film version of this oft-adapted story about a creepy mansion where potential inheritors find themselves getting bumped off in a variety of violent and grisly ways. Carl Laemmle directed this Universal Studios product that experimented with using comic strip- style word balloons over the characters’ heads instead of traditional dialogue frames.
ALRAUNE (1928) – German remake of the 1918 film about a mad scientist artificially inseminating a prostitute with the seed of a hanged murderer. This adaptation was notable for the seductive and sinister performance of Metropolis‘ Brigitte Helm as the predatory Alraune.
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928) – 55 minute French adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story about the title structure and the increasingly demented family who called it home. There was also a 20 minute American version released the same year.
THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) – I have no idea why Conrad Veidt doesn’t get the silent horror film love that Lon Chaney and Paul Wegener receive. Veidt shines once again in another landmark horror movie, this one based on the neglected Victor Hugo story about a figure who, like Hugo’s Quasimodo, has a monstrous disfigurement that causes him to be shunned and feared.
The title character, Gwynplaine (Veidt), was tortured and mutilated by lunatics as a child and, in addition to other bodily scars, his face is distorted into a permanent, hideous smile. Mary Philbin portrayed Dea, the blind girl who cannot see Gwynplaine’s terrifying face and is therefore the only person who does not treat him like a monster.
Dea falls in love with Gwynplaine’s poetic nature in fact, but when the grotesque smiler is discovered to be of noble descent the pair are separated by villainous figures involved in aristocratic court intrigues. Olga Baclanova co-starred as Duchess Josiana, the lead heavy in this forgotten Gothic horror classic.
(Footnote: Batman creator Bob Kane admitted that Conrad Veidt’s appearance as Gwynplaine inspired his drawings of Batman’s archenemy the Joker.)
FOR PART ONE, SILENT HORROR SHORTS FROM 1896 – 1909 CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2012/10/19/the-best-silent-horror-film-shorts-1896-1909/
FOR MORE HALLOWEEN ITEMS CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/category/halloween-season/
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