No, despite the title, this isn’t a post on the presidential election. But the results of that contest somehow made me more eager than ever to get back to my classic horror project, which, relatively speaking, is much less terrifying.
Although I didn’t mention it in my last post, one of the reasons I wanted to take up the subject of horror was Edgar Wright’s recent list of “1000 Favorite Movies” on MUBI. While I have a number of issues with his list that I won’t go into here, one of the things that particularly struck me was the prevalence of horror on it. By my count, horror films comprise just over 15 percent of the selections (yes, yes, there’s a spreadsheet). No other film genre even comes close. Of course, Wright’s interest in horror is no real surprise considering he arrived on the directorial scene with the British horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead, but I was somewhat astounded by the sheer volume of it, along with the relative lack of other typical “film buff” genres such as film noir or the western. In any case, seeing Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu) as the first two names on this (chronological) list made me realize I had some catching up to do when it came to horror.
In no surprise to long-time readers, I decided to move in a similar fashion and proceed chronologically through this genre. So I also started with Caligari and Nosferatu as well as a few of the silent films that turned up most often on various “best of horror” lists I found. There were more films I would have liked to have seen but I only have so much time and many weren’t easily available to me via the library or streaming—the classic collections at both Netflix and Hulu are sorely lacking and even Amazon (for which I have to pay per film) didn’t have all that much when it came to the older titles. On the other hand, the San Francisco public library was a veritable treasure trove and most films I will be watching for this entire series came from there.
In another non-surprise to frequent readers, I was somewhat dreading my first two films simply due to their German-ness. This dread proved well-founded in the case of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)—which is more arthouse than grindhouse, and not an arthouse I’m particularly interested in. I’ve never been a fan of German Expressionism and so Caligari’s visual style left me cold. While this movie could appeal on a plot-basis alone (which I won’t spoil here), I found the acting abysmal, the characters underdeveloped, and the intertitle narrative poorly executed, definitely the worst of any silent here. So, while I’m glad I finally saw it, because it does lay the groundwork for what comes later, I don’t imagine I’ll be rewatching it any time soon.
After my disappointment with Caligari, I was a bit wary of having to sit through Nosferatu (1922), but I ended up really liking it. Everything I thought was problematic in Caligari was incredibly done here. The visuals felt fresh and modern. I really felt I got to know the characters and their individual quirks, despite the lack of dialogue. The film makes excellent use of intertitles—not telling when they’ve effectively showed something and vice versa. What’s more, Count Orlok (i.e., Count Dracula, since this film is really just an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with the names changed to protect the not-so-innocent) is certifiably creepy. I think my only problem with the execution of Nosferatu is the lighting. It was genuinely hard to tell when it was supposed to be night and when it was supposed to be day: A problem with a main character for whom sunlight spells doom. But I have a feeling this will be the best vampire picture of the lot, and it definitely made me want to seek out more Murnau.
After these two revered classics, I watched five more silent (or nearly silent) films: The Monster, The Phantom of the Opera, The Unknown, The Cat and the Canary, and Vampyr. The interesting thing about this selection of films is that I soon realized that together they presented most of the themes, tropes, and subgenres I suspected I would find throughout the classic period: supernatural creatures, criminals and other human evildoers, madmen and mad scientists, enthralled henchman, damsels in distress, Gothic mansions and fantastic dreamscapes, and the bizarre or grotesque. So, while I started this project with the idea of a strictly chronological review, I soon shifted to the idea of looking at these movies by theme, which I will do starting with my next post.
In the meantime, back to the silent era…
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is perhaps the best known of the other silents, mostly due to Lon Chaney’s brilliant makeup as the phantom. The film itself is a bit of a mess all around, but it’s a glorious mess. The sets are extraordinary, particularly the opera house, but also the underground lake and dungeons. Apparently this was a very troubled production—the studio was unhappy with the Gothic melodrama shot by Rupert Julian and a new director was brought in to essentially reshoot most of the picture and turn it into a romantic action comedy. Or something. Anyway, the film was cut, and then recut, and then recut back again. So I suspect some of the parts that don’t really make sense (such as the Frankenstein-like mob at the end) come from this re-cutting. This is definitely more melodrama than horror, but deserves a place in the horror canon if only for its proto-horror elements and Chaney’s exceptional makeup, which is not revealed until almost halfway through the film. The color interlude of the masked ball where Chaney enters as the Red Death is glorious. [Side note: three segments of the film were shot in Technicolor but only this one survives]. A few other elements that stood out to me: the use of shadow throughout, the significant use of text in the intertitles, and the amount of time granted the opera sequences (a full thirty minutes).
I also watched two other Lon Chaney movies of the period: The Monster (1925) and The Unknown (1927). While some might not classify them as horror, Wikipedia does, and I agree that they certainly seemed to fall underneath the horror umbrella, the former being an early example of both an “old dark house” and “mad scientist” story and the latter falling into the realm of the grotesque.
The Monster is quite fun, telling the story of Johnny Goodlittle who aspires to become a detective and—in the course of some amateur sleuthing in the quest of a missing person—finds himself trapped in the supposedly abandoned local asylum with his love interest and rival. Chaney plays the mysterious Dr. Ziska who is up to no good. Trap doors and hidden passages abound.
Hands! Men’s hands! How I hate them! Men! The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands from all of them!
—Joan Crawford as Nanon Zanzi in The Unknown
The Unknown is much, much darker. In this drama, Lon Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a carnival worker with an unusual knife-throwing act, while a young Joan Crawford plays his assistant and love interest. Just when you think you know where the story is headed, it takes a surprising turn. The film was directed by Tod Browning, who later went on to direct Freaks. Chaney is simply amazing in it.
The final, true silent I watched was The Cat and the Canary (1927), a classic “old dark house” mystery, though it arrived on the scene a full five years before the film that would give this subgenre its name. This film is the first of two versions of the 1922 play of the same name that I will be reviewing for this series, the second being The Cat and the Canary (1939) starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. I really enjoyed this one and it inspired me to tackle the subgenre more fully in my next post. Stay tuned.
The last film I am discussing here is Vampyr (1932). Though technically a sound film, and one well within the sound period, when I reached it in my chronological viewing schedule I realized Vampyr is almost completely silent (hence its placement here rather than later on in this series). Apparently it was filmed in three different languages and so dialogue was minimized. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, it is much more of a surreal mood piece than a proper horror film. The main character is described as a dreamer and, in fact, it was not always clear to me if some parts were supposed to represent dreams or whether it was all supernatural. It is not even really clear until the end who the vampire is. As in Nosferatu, I think it would have worked better if it had been darker—literally—it was just too bright at night to be truly creepy. Still, it is an interesting take on the vampire genre and the comeuppance of one of the villains at the end is truly horrific.
Have you seen any of these silent classics? If so, do you have more you might recommend to me based on my preferences here? Let me know in the comments below.
Horror Filmography: The Silents
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The Monster (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Unknown (1927)
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
For the previous post in this Classic Horror series, see The Horror! The Horror!.