1920s Horror Movies

Fallen soldiers in the trenches of the First World War, 1920s horror

The Silent Horror of War

In much of Europe, the sheer number of the dead swept away a century of sentimental mourning practices in a matter of months. The war remade the world’s map… Everything produced by [subsequent] civilization has written into it the viral code of barbarism. In every horror movie we see, every horror story we read, every horror-based video game we play, the phantoms of the Great War skittle and scratch just beyond the door of our consciousness.

W. Scott Poole Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror by (Counterpoint Press, 2018)

The Great War was an all-consuming monster. From the relative comfort of the 21st century, it’s difficult to appreciate the extent to which new technology wreaked unprecedented death and destruction and eradicated the pre-1914 world order almost completely by 1918. 1920s horror films express the aftershocks of these cataclysmic war years and reflect the nightmares of the men who lived when so many died. These haunting silent movies were, in many cases, made by veterans who had crawled out of the stinking mud of No Man’s Land and were forever transformed. Unable to document their experiences on the front line literally, these were the only stories – often rooted in folkloric or supernatural fancies – the survivors felt they could tell as the truth lay beyond regular comprehension.

After those first giddy months, when the boys believed they’d all be home by Christmas, those confined to the Home Front also shouldered a now unthinkable burden of pain. Every serving soldier had a circle of family and friends who experienced their trauma second hand, whilst nursing loss and shock of their own. The numbers of casualties are eye-popping: “Of the 60 million soldiers who fought in the First World War, over 9 million were killed — 14% of the combat troops or 6,000 dead soldiers per day.”1 This had a cascading effect on young women raised in the 1910s to expect fulfilment via a husband and family: there were no eligible bachelors left for them to marry.

By the end of 1916, every boy I had ever danced with was dead.

Diana Manners, quoted in In Flanders Fields: 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance, ed. Amanda Betts (Knopf Canada, 2015)

Every community knew returning soldiers, afflicted with what we’d now describe as PTSD but which was then dismissed as “shell shock”, sitting silently in armchairs, unable to participate in the familiar chatter of old. Then there were those with missing limbs and mutilated faces. The First World War was the also the first to be documented, comprehensively, as moving pictures recorded on the camera that never lies. Even if you weren’t personally affected, there was no escaping the national grief.

1920s horror movies could no longer rely on old fashioned theatrics to elicit a thrill. The Great War reinvented the visual language of horror for a newly traumatized world. Gone were the cute dancing skeletons and actors who vanished in puffs of smoke. Instead, horror filmmakers had to reach for more immediately resonant terrors.

On screen in this era, characters drift through blasted or distorted landscapes, lost. Ravaged by disease (or machine gun fire), human faces take on the appearance of skulls. Characters struggle to distinguish between what they imagine (or dream) and the reality of what they see. It’s all equally incomprehensible. Nothing plays by the old rules. Death shifts from an abstract to a palpable, if volatile presence, laying waste to entire cities (Nosferatu) or dancing in a crowd (The Phantom of The Opera). Rats – scurrying, chewing, squeaking – infest every waking moment. And everywhere, the madness of crowds as populations of the living and the dead blindly submit to orders from above.

A century later, 1920s horror movies still offer us a haunting glimpse of what it must have been like to be alive at this time, simultaneously saved and damned. The Roaring Twenties are often – erroneously – exalted as a period when people had a good time all the time. Quite the opposite is true: the Bright Young Things danced on the precipice of a dark and hopeless abyss.

US Army, the Great War, 1920s horror

German Expressionism In Silent Horror

Several important early horror films were made in Germany. 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 began to develop a national style, which was heavily influenced by the Expressionist movement in German fine arts.

Artists moved from the theatre into film, where they applied Expressionist 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 production designs.

The Golem (1920)

The Golem (1920), 1920s horror movies

The Golem (1915, re-released in 1920) has been dubbed ‘the first monster movie’. It’s based on 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. This last 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.  More about The Golem (1915/1920) >>>

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 .

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), 1920s horror movies
One of Walter Reimann’s designs for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

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’, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an eerie exploration of a troubled mind. The plot pits 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, Caligari is stylish, imaginative, and never less than haunting.  

More about THE CABINET of DR. CALIGARI >>>>>>>

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. These early entries in the genre established many of the codes and conventions still identifiable in horror movies today.

Black and White In Color

One of these conventions, surprisingly, was the use of color within each frame. Location shooting added realism to a production, but had drawbacks. The main one was natural light. On an indoor set, filmmakers had precise control over darkness, shadows, and highlights. Directors of photography were becoming adept at lighting scenes in order to communicate atmospheric dread. However, exteriors were a different matter. The low contrast film stock available at the time meant it was technically very difficult (and expensive) to shoot at night. Filmmakers had to settle for the grey wash of daylight when shooting and then hand-tint sequences to get the required tonal intensity.

This technique can be seen, for instance, in Nosferatu, when a vampire leaps amongst gravestones in what appears to be broad daylight. Originally, this sequence was intended to be tinted dark blue, so the vampire would appear to be bathed in moonlight. Many silent horror movies, although shot on black and white film stock, were hand painted (usually by female technicians) in color.

For many years, the only prints available to modern audiences of silent horror films were untreated, black and white reference prints. However, this was not how they were screened originally. Audiences in the 1900s-1920s delighted in hand-colored versions of movies long before color film was invented.

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922), 1920s horror movie

F.W. Murnau’s masterful Nosferatu  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.  More about Nosferatu>>>

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.

Haxan (1922) 1920s horror movie

Even in 1922, when the horror genre didn’t formally 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.

More about HÄXAN >>>>>>>

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. Additionally, they designed their own costumes and makeup and performed their own stunts. It was easy to brand movies by featuring their name or face on a poster. Audiences knew what to expect before they even walked into the theatre.

One character actor, Leonidas “Lon” Chaney opted for the exact opposite of a recognizable star persona. 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. This, coupled with significant makeup design skills earned through many years in vaudeville, made him an ideal silent movie actor.

Lon Chaney, star of many 1920s horror movies, and his makeup box, 1925
Lon Chaney with the tools of his trade, 1925

Chaney knew he would never be a leading man and instead focused on playing supporting roles. He was drawn to 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).

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) - 1920s horror movies
Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, 1923

Adapted from Victor Hugo’s 1831 French literary classic, the silent film version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a lavish production, with a budget of around a million dollars. Much of this was spent on extensive sets recreating the cobbled streets and Gothic facades of 15th century Paris on the Universal backlot.

Lon Chaney’s performance as Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer doomed by his feelings for the beautiful maiden, Esmeralda, is central to the movie’s appeal. Like Count Orlok in Nosferatu, Quasimodo is an outwardly grotesque monster humanized by – naturally, unrequited – romantic love. This ‘Beauty and the Beast’ pairing would become a popular genre trope.

Chaney wanted the role for a long time before he got it. He spent years trying to persuade his studio bosses to adapt Hugo’s novel for the screen, but had to wait for his star to rise – and for Irving Thalberg to get on board with the idea. It was a worthwhile bet. The Hunchback of Notre Dame made over three million dollars at the box office. It was the most financially successful film made by Universal during the silent era. It proved that horror sells and its profitability paved the way for the Universal monsters of the 1930s.

The Phantom of The Opera (1925)

The Phantom of The Opera (1925), 1920s silent horror movie
Lon Chaney as the Phantom, 1925

Chaney followed the Hunchback’s success with another novel adaptation. Carl Laemmle Sr. bought the rights to Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra specifically as a vehicle for Chaney. It was another Paris-set story about a disfigured individual who causes chaos because of his feelings for a pretty young girl. Once again, Chaney created his own make-up design.

At the time, Phantom wasn’t quite as successful as Hunchback, making just two million at the box office. It was popular, nonetheless, and was even reissued as a talkie (with a newly recorded soundtrack) in 1930. This version, since lost, grossed another million dollars.

Chaney’s versions of the hunchback Quasimodo and the Phantom are outwardly repulsive. However, his performances convey these characters’ inner dignity, forcing the audience to empathize with their predicament, rather than simply being outraged at their deeds. Chaney was the first star whose name became synonymous with scary movies. He was the original 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.

Phantom of the Opera (1925), 1920s horror
From ‘The Phantom of The Opera’ (1925)

By comparison, the first talkies were static and clumsy. Actors had 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 favor . No one wanted to see them once the talkies came to town. Many prints of one-time classics were lost forever, quite literally dumped in a forgotten corner (as were some of the big stars). Other irreplaceable canisters of film burned away to nothing: the nitrate-based film stock commonly used at the time is combustible if it’s not stored in temperature controlled conditions.

Silent Horror Movies in the 21st Century

Once again, thankfully, silent film is considered an art form and every effort is being made to preserve remaining prints and make them accessible to new audiences. Many silent horror films are available, in part or in whole, via online archives. Freshly restored and rediscovered prints are shown at dedicated silent film festivals around the world. More than a century after they were shot, these early silent horror movies have the power to haunt new audiences.

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. The first horror movies are surreal, disturbing pieces, often framed as dream sequences. Others show real people crying, screaming, laughing, smiling, communicating emotional shifts through all the years – with such clarity. Spook tales tend to focus on the monstrous and tragic, but what often shines through these negatives is the endurance of love, sacrifice, and joy.

Still, so many classic and groundbreaking early horror films are lost to us. All that remains are a few publicity stills, or a poster or review. Others, like Nosferatu, were only preserved by twists of fate. It takes 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.

Further Reading

  1. World War I Casualties