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

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, owing their visual appearance in part to expressionist painters and in part to spirit photography of the 1860s, and their narrative style to the stories played out by the Grand Guignol Theatre Company and drawn from Gothic literature. They draw upon the folklore and legends of Europe, and render monsters into physical form. 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 the fakery as entertainment.

19th Century Spirit Photography Spirit photography A 19th-century spirit photograph by Wm. H. Mumler

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. 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)

This fragment, showing a dancing skeleton, was created by the Lumière brothers in 1895. 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':

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:


The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919)

Director: Robert Wiene

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.

The Golem (1915/1920)

Director: Carl Boese, Paul Wegener

There were several versions of this, dubbed 'the first monster movie', based on the Jewish legends about a clay man created by a magically-inclined rabbi. The 1915 version, purportedly about an antiques 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. 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 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.

Nosferatu (1922)

Director: F.W. Murnau

Nosferatu is the very first vampire movie, baldly plagiarising the Dracula story to present Count Orlok, the grotesquely made-up 'Max Schreck', curling his long fingernails round the limbs of a series of hapless victims. Described as the vampire movie that actually believes in vampires, Nosferatu gives us a far more frightening bloodsucker than any of its successors; Shreck is simply inhuman. Murnau demonstrated an early mastery over light and shadow which was to distinguish his subsequent work in Hollywood, such as Sunrise (1927), as well as sheer inventiveness with the photographic image, in the microscope sequences and the stop motion special effects. He also clashed with Bram Stoker's widow over the rights to the Dracula story, which had proved very popular as a stageplay. He changed the names of the central characters, but did not alter the story, and the subsequent legal wrangling meant that prints of the movie were destroyed, Murnau lost control of the film, and it is only relatively recently that a version approximating to the original has become available to the viewing public.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000) is a fascinating reworking of the Nosferatu legend; a compelling, if fanciful reconstruction of the film's creation. Starring Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, & Eddie Izzard.