< Horror Film History — Horror Films in the 1920s

Silent Horror: The Golem, Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu, Häxan

The Silent Era of Horror Movies

“Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Everything there — the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air — is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre. Here I shall try to explain myself, lest I be suspected of madness or indulgence in symbolism. I was at Aumont’s and saw Lumière’s cinematograph — moving photography” — Maxim Gorky, 1896

The first horror films are surreal, disturbing pieces, a blend of many different art forms reconstructed on the new medium that would come to rule them all. Aesthetically, they draw on the influence of expressionist painters and spirit photographers of the 1860s. Narrative style comes from the stories played out by the Grand Guignol Theatre Company which in turn were taken from Gothic literature. They also draw upon the folklore and legends of Europe and render monsters familiar from childhood into physical form.

Capturing Ghosts

Spirit photography – the practice of using double exposures or superimpositions to depict ghosts within a frame of film – was popular from the 1860s onwards, not only among Spiritualists (who may have believed the images were real, vindicating their belief in the afterlife) but also among stage musicians and their audiences, who delighted in fakery as entertainment.

Nineteenth-century audiences enjoyed seeing ghosts captured in still photography and magic lantern shows, so it was natural that the techniques of superimposition would be transferred to the new technology in order to tell fantastic and bizarre tales.

While the first moving pictures tended to be action and comedy, early filmmakers also used photographic trickery to explore darker stories with psychological and supernatural themes, recognizable as the first horror films — although they wouldn't be labeled as such until the 1930s. They had to overcome the limits imposed by the technology and tell a story powerful enough to make the audience suspend their disbelief. Gorky's description of flickering images "dipped in monotonous grey" says it all.

Darkness and shadows, such important features of modern horror, were impossible to show on the low contrast film stock available at the time, so some sequences, for example in Nosferatu, where we see a vampire leaping amongst gravestones in what appears to be broad daylight, will seem doubly surreal to a modern audience primed to expect pitch black and bright light. Nonetheless, these early entries to the horror genre established many of the codes and conventions still identifiable today.

Unfortunately, the fragility of early film stock and the piecemeal approach to archiving mean that many of the earliest horror films have been lost forever. Some, however, have survived.

The Very First Horror Films (19th century)

Both audiences and filmmakers demonstrated an early interest in the macabre, although the term 'horror' wasn't used to describe a film genre until the 1930s. These early horror films were referred to at the time as 'Spook tales'.

This fragment, Le Squelette Joyeux shows a sinister dancing skeleton and was created by the Lumière brothers in 1895.

The first horror film on record is Le Manoir du Diable (1896), created by one of film's earliest visionaries, Georges Méliès. Although it has a running time of a little over three minutes, this supernatural story still manages to pack in the genre paradigms: bats, devils, witches, cauldrons, ghosts, trolls, all appearing and disappearing in puffs of smoke.

German Expressionism In Movies

During the First World War, the German government decided to ban all foreign films. This gave a major boost to the German film industry, which went from producing 24 films in 1914 to 130 in 1918. German filmmakers had plenty of opportunities to develop a national style, which was heavily influenced by the Expressionist movement in German fine arts. Artists moved from the theatre into film and applied the same thinking to their set designs. They believed movie sets should represent an artificial reality, distorted landscapes reflecting the interior state of the characters or the emotional themes of the story rather than natural locations. Given the national mood in wartime Germany, this led to some nightmarish designs.

The Golem (1915/1920)

The Golem (1915, re-released in 1920) dubbed 'the first monster movie', is based on the Jewish legends about a clay man created by a magically-inclined rabbi. The 1915 version, purportedly about an antique dealer who discovers a four centuries old golem and uses it as a personal servant, has been lost, but it was so successful that it generated a comedy about an actor in a golem suit (The Golem And The Dancing Girl' made in 1917) and a prequel, made in 1920, which is the only one of the three films to survive. The poster for the 1915 Golem is typical of the Expressionist film art of the era — and nightmare-inducing.

Paul Wegener directed and starred in the origin story of how the golem came into the world. He is brought to life by Rabbi Loew to save the Jews of sixteenth century Prague from persecution. However, this noble intent is defiled by the Rabbi's assistant, who tries to use the golem for his own nefarious ends, causing chaos in the ghetto.

Karl Freund's camera work and Hans Poelzig's strange, twisted sets had a lasting impact on the genre. The Jewish legend influenced Mary Shelley during her creation of a monster a century earlier, and a decade or so later, this cinematic golem is a clear influence on Whale's and Karloff's depiction of Frankenstein's Monster.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919)

Director: Robert Wiene

Three set designers were particularly influential —Walter Röhrig, Hermann Warm, and Walter Reimann. These three men were part of the broad group of artists associated with the Zurich magazine, Der Sturm. They all worked on the production design of the triumph of German Expressionist cinema, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).

Hermann Warm believed "films must be drawings brought to life". The absurd geometry and heightened shadows of the Caligari designs convey the sensation that reality has been recreated from the strokes of a madman's pen.

Often cited as the 'granddaddy of all horror films', this is an eerie exploration of the mind of a madman, pitting an evil doctor against a hero falsely incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. Through a clever framing device the audience is never quite clear on who is mad and who is sane, and viewing the film's skewed take on reality is a disturbing experience, heightened by the jagged asymmetry of the mise en scene. Although modern viewers might find the pace slow, with long takes and little cutting between scenes, "The Cabinet..." is stylish, imaginative, and never less than haunting.

This is largely because the diegetic world is wholly artificial, a complete re-imagining of a Northern German town. The audience views the tale throught the twisted vision of the narrator, where roads, hills, houses and even trees take on a menacing new shape. This is not reality, and the stylised performances reflect that, with the players moving as symbols through the surreal landscape, their stark make up adding to the dreamlike sensation. This contrasted dramatically with the documentary style of film making prevalent in Europe at the time, and proved that film could be a poetic, stylised medium as well as a reflective one. Much has been written on the politics of The Cabinet..., representing as it does puppet humans controlled by a sadistic madman. It certainly struck a chord with German audiences of the time, suffering as they were from the economic consequences of war reparations, helpless in the face of spiralling inflation.

A 1996 reissue, complete with art deco titles, makes perfect sense of a film that has had a profound influence on subsequent horror.

Moving Towards Realism

By the beginning of the 1920s, European filmmakers were experimenting with ways to bring more realistic story-telling to the screen, moving away from highly stylized sets and instead showing characters interacting with real-life locations. Hollywood movies, which favored realism, had come to dominate the European market during the chaos of the war years, and local filmmakers felt the need to regain their competitive edge.

Nosferatu (1922)

F.W. Murnau's masterful Nosferatu (1922) mixes Expressionist interior designs (his castle) with recognizable exteriors (a funeral procession through the streets). Written by Caligari screenwriter, Henrik Galeen, who baldly plagiarized Bram Stoker's Dracula to present a new villain, Count Orlok (played by a grotesquely made-up Max Schreck), Nosferatu has been described as the vampire movie that actually believes in vampires.

Häxan (1922)

Häxan is the unique vision of Danish writer-director-actor Benjamin Christensen. The narrative blends fact and fiction, taking the audience on a bawdy romp from ancient times to the early 20th century as it explores beliefs surrounding witches, demons and their assorted familiars.

Even in 1922, when the horror genre didn't exist and filmmakers were still figuring out the rules of the new medium, Häxan was an oddity. As well as mixing documentary and fairy tale-telling, it's peppered with gore, nudity and other highly explicit imagery (women lining up to kiss the Devil's arse). Perhaps that's why Christensen places his elaborate sequences of flying witches, demon births and out-of-control nuns within an ostensibly anthropological framework? He knew he wouldn't get away with it otherwise.


The Man of A Thousand Faces

Over in the USA, spook tales were proving very popular with audiences —and profitable. As always, Hollywood followed the money and met audiences' desires for the dark side with horror stories drawn from a variety of sources, from classic novels to pulp magazine features to stage plays.

At the time, actors built careers by crafting a consistent star persona that movies could be written around, like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, or Joseph Frank Keaton's Buster, or Clara Bow's It Girl. Stars like Chaplin and Keaton were also writers and directors, who designed their own costumes and makeup and performed their own stunts. Their name or face on a poster offered an easy way of branding movies and setting audience expectations.

One character actor, Leonidas "Lon" Chaney constructed his trademark persona around the exact opposite of consistency. He styled himself as "The Man of A Thousand Faces", so skilled in the art of makeup and physical performance that he could disappear into a variety of roles, even appearing as several characters in the same movie. The son of deaf parents, he learned to express emotions without words from an early age, and this, coupled with significant makeup design skills earned through many years in vaudeville, made him an ideal silent movie actor.

Lon Chaney and his makeup box, 1925

Chaney knew he would never be a leading man and instead focused on playing supporting roles, complicated villains and monsters who often suffered from physical deformities, wearing their inner trauma on the outside. "Getting into character" involved spending hours carefully applying layers of wax and colored greasepaint, donning false teeth and hairpieces, and strapping his limbs into harnesses (he played a number of amputees).

Many of Chaney's films have been lost, but two classics survived: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of The Opera (1925). Chaney's versions of the hunchback Quasimodo and the Phantom are outwardly grotesque. However, his performances convey these characters' inner dignity, forcing the audience to empathize with their predicament, rather than simply being outraged at their deeds. Over the course of the decade, Chaney became synonymous with scary, twisted movies, a master of the genre before the genre even had a name.

Chaney is also remembered for his collaboration with writer-director Tod Browning, who was similarly drawn to macabre morality tales. They first made a movie together in 1919 (The Wicked Darling) and worked together right up until Chaney's death, of throat cancer, aged 47. Chaney died in 1930, as he was preparing for the lead in Browning's production of Dracula (the role then went to Bela Lugosi).

The End of The Silent Era

The technology for recording sound onto film strips was developed in the early 1920s, but it wasn't until 1927, when Warner Brothers made Al Jolson sing in The Jazz Singer that the "talkies" looked like they might be here to stay. Over the next few years, Hollywood studios all made the transition to talking pictures, although the new form was slower to catch on overseas (especially in Japan) and there were holdouts even within the studio system — Charlie Chaplin made Modern Times as late as 1936.

In some ways this was a terrible shame. By 1927, silent films were sophisticated visual narratives, artfully constructed from fluid photography and emotionally adept performances. Filmmakers and audiences alike were now well versed in the language of cinema, able to piece together meaning and response from sometimes quite abstract imagery and symbolism. Silent films were as close as we ever got to collective fever dreams — or entering another person's nightmares.

By comparison, the first talkies were static and clumsy. Actors were forced to stick close to the camera so their voices could be recorded on the new, heavy (and studio-bound) equipment. But cinema as an art form was moving inexorably towards a more realistic mode of storytelling, and synchronous sound was here to stay. Unfortunately, this meant that silent movies fell out of fashion — no one wanted to see them once the talkies came to town — and many prints of one-time classics were lost forever, quite literally left to rot in a forgotten corner (as were some of the big stars).

It's quite a challenge to re-learn the language of silent cinema, but it's very rewarding to be able to lose yourself in imaginative worlds created a hundred years ago, to watch real people crying, screaming, laughing, smiling, communicating emotional shifts through all the years with such clarity. Spook tales of the time might focus on telling stories about the monstrous and inhuman, but what shines through the negative is the endurance of love, sacrifice, and joy.

What remains to us of this era is sometimes just a lucky accident (as with Nosferatu), but more often is the result of a lot of work (including detective work) by dedicated film preservation and restoration professionals. Consider making a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation in your favorite spook tale's name.