If you are one of those people who has dismissed silent movies as being boring and two dimensional, then think again
The early days of cinema are replete with special effects, strong plot lines and good characterisation and when it comes to horror I believe silent movies particularly of the 1920s were at their best. It was the time when German Expressionism was spreading across the arts and it was most successfully realised in the medium of film where it could maximise the macabre elements the most. On screen characteristics included bizarre camera angles, heavy shadows, stylised sets and twisted gothic buildings. Performers emphasised expression over the portrayal of realism but it was a dark twisted expression which focussed on insanity, crime and emotional torment. Themes that were close to home for German audiences in the aftermath of war but heavily exaggerated and dreamlike.
Watching German expressionist films will give you a great historical reference to see how it influenced the horror genre in general and in particular film noir – its direct successor.
I’ve picked three of the classics and added a further two favourites which were also landmark films that helped shape the future direction of horror film making.
If only Bram Stoker had known the significance of that trip to Whitby Cathedral which inspired his book Dracula. Lucky for us F. W Murnau, the director of Nosferatu, did not have to destroy the film despite the Bram Stoker estate suing him for copyright. While names were changed so Count Dracula is changed to Count Orlok, Nosferatu was in fact the first adaptation of the famous vampire story.
Thomas Hutter is the estate agent who travels to a castle in the Carpathian mountains to sell a property to the count whose name cannot be mentioned without a deathly silence descending on the locals. The towering yet gaunt 6’ 3” frame of Max Schreck – whose name literally means ‘fear’ in German plays Count Orlok. With his menacing rat-like face and spiky fingers he prowls round his castle feasting on the blood of his naïve visitor while he sleeps, all the while casting looming shadows and ominous silhouettes. Hutter is overcome by strange sensations and becomes increasingly fractious but diligently stays to see through the transaction. He returns to his beloved in North Germany who has researched that the only way to end the curse that has beset their town with the arrival of the count is to sacrifice herself to this evil, blood sucking vampire which she dutifully does.
Cabinet of Dr Caligari
One of my all favourite movie scenes is that of the zombified gait, blanched face of the character Jane, and the off the cuff remark from Francis ‘’oh that’s my fiancee”. The comment is an early example of dark humour and so refreshingly modern for this 1920s film. The story is about a travelling magician/Dr and his serial killing somnambulist Cesare who he controls and manipulates. The film was the first landmark example of German expressionism. It is heavily stylised with asymmetrical camera angles, stark contrasts between white representing purity against black representing evil. The twist at the end is said to be the first example of this plot devise.
I was blown away by Golem. It has all the hallmarks of great cinema. It has a cracking story with suspense, action, romance and history alongside clever special effects that give us a Frankenstein prototype. You couldn’t ask for more.
The story is set in Prague in the 16th century and centres on a prophecy that the Jewish community will be persecuted. Using sorcery, Rabbi Loew creates a giant creature from clay – a golem played by Paul Wegener who is also the director. The Golem fulfils his duty but then under the influence of a demon goes on a violent rampage throughout the ghetto.
Golem is another example of German expressionism with its emphasis of emotion and style over reality along with its twisted gothic buildings and balconies fashionedby weird angles that cast menacing shadows. W Freund was the cinematographer who besides working on Golem, filmed Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and was part of the talent that left Germany for America in the interwar year period. In the US he filmed Dracula (1931) which had multiple copycat versions in the 1960s and The Mummy (1959) which he also directed.
The Phantom Carriage
This terrifying yet utterly compelling film came out of Sweden in 1921 and was based on a novel by Nobel prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlof and directed by Victor Sjostrom. Ingmar Bergman claimed to have watched it at least once every year from the age of 15 and Stanley Kubrick borrowed a scene from it for The Shining.
The story centres on a homeless drunkard David and his downward spiral of self loathing and abuse. On New Year’s Eve David is offered hospitality by a young Salvation Army nun Edit who makes it her mission to try and redeem him which he steadfastly ignores. The following New Year’s Eve, she insists that he visit her as she lies dying from the TB that she initially contracted from him on first meeting him the year prior. He is summoned from the graveyard where he sits with his other homeless friends, recounting the legend of the Phantom Carriage that whoever dies before the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve will be charged with collecting the souls of the deceased for the following year. A few minutes before midnight a fight breaks out.
Unlike Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Golem which stress expression and high drama to almost comedic levels, The Phantom Carriage unashamedly documents the reality of life on the poverty line with all its grimness and brutality and this is its horror. There are impressive special effects. Double exposures were developed and layered so that a semi transparent ghost like figure can separate and move independently from the same character.
The Haunted Castle
The title of F.W. Murnau’s ninth film is misleading as it suggests a supernatural horror when in fact it is based on a moral horror that plays out with excruciating suspense. A group of aristocrats assemble at Castle Vogeloed, the home of a mutual friend and they await the arrival of Baroness Safferstatt whose husband is believed to have been murdered by his brother over an argument regarding inheritance. Though acquitted, suspicions remain high amongst the circle that the brother Count Oetsch was responsible. When he unexpectedly turns up at the Castle on the eve that the Baroness is due to arrive with her new husband tensions naturally run high. The Baroness is frozen with her feelings of torment over the murder and the prospect of coming face to face with the killer. Relief comes in the knowledge that Father Faramund is also due to arrive at the castle to whom she knows she can speak frankly and confide her terrifying unease and grief. The film is said to have the first instance of a moving camera and while it might otherwise lack some of the visual richness of the earlier German expressionist films it is an intensely and insanely gripping thriller.