Horror movies have been around for as long as movies have been around, and we jumped into the way back machine to look at some of the earliest and most influential horror films the genre has to offer. So many fundamental genre elements – tropes the genre adheres to today – were created in these early, eerily beautiful silent gems that they deserve some attention. While there are actually loads of options – nearly everything Lon Chaney ever did, for instance – these are the five films we deem the best.
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5) The Unknown (1927)
When Tod Browning makes a movie about side show freaks, color us excited. In this unseemly tale, the great silent monster Lon Chaney is The Amazing Alonzo, an armless knife thrower/sharp shooter/guitar player/smoker in a circus. He has eyes for his show partner Nanon (Joan Crawford, pre-wire hanger), but the circus strongman is hot for her.
So, it all sounds a tad like Browning’s infamous Freaks. But Nanon spurns the strongman because she can’t stand to be groped by men’s hands – which makes it seem like Alonzo is a shoe-in, except that he is not what he appears to be.
Camera trickery, an actual circus performer, and Chaney’s convincing performance work together to create a believable side show character in Alonzo. Browning couples this unsettling performance with an air of seediness and some bizarre plot twists to leave a lasting impression.
4) The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
You know the story – a shadowy figure haunts the Paris opera house, demading that the object of his affection, Christine, be given the lead in Faust. In what amounts to a cautionary tale about women prioritizing career over family, the story revolves around a masked and disfigured madman and the singer who is easily duped, then saved by righteous men.
The reason this particular version of the film works so well is, of course, Lon Chaney’s now-legendary look. The actor devised his own make up and underwent painful tricks of physical contortion, succeeding in shocking audiences with a ghastly but very realistic visage. His flair as an actor is also on display, and though other versions sometimes mine for a bit of empathy or heartbreak as this hideous creature connives for a love triumphant, Chaney delivers menace and horror.
3) The Man Who Laughs (1928)
The German Expressionist director Paul Leni (Waxworks, The Cat and the Canary) worked with J. Grubb Alexander’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel to cast a macabre spell with this film – one of our very favorites.
A nobleman offends the king, who kills the nobleman (iron maiden!) and has his son, Gwynplaine, disfigured by a surgeon so he can spend his life laughing at his fool of a father. The boy is tossed out, wandering in the snow. He finds a blind baby girl, and the two are saved by a traveling carny.
As is Hugo’s way, goodness is found in the tormented and hideous while the gorgeous society show themselves to be the true beasts. The film looks gloomily gorgeous, and in the hands of silent film star Conrad Veidt, Gwynplaine becomes Hugo’s most sympathetic and heartbreaking monster.
2) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Few films of the silent era or any other are as visually striking as this. Another German Expressionist, director Robert Wiene uses light and shadow, exaggerated angles and shadowy spirals to envelope us in a nightmare.
In a story told in flashback we learn of Francis, who is visiting his bewitched beloved in an asylum. He tells the tale madness – a traveling hypnotist and his somnambulist, performing at a town fair; murder, magic, and lunacy.
The film’s twist ending and framed storytelling have become commonplace in horror, but the look of this film has never been truly recreated. Taken in the context of the time, Caligari becomes a metaphor and premonition of German’s mindless obedience to lunatic, homicidal authority figure. Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz wrote it just after WWI to reflect their experiences in the war, but it mirrored a growing phenomenon in their country.
1) Nosferatu (1922)
Best vampire ever.
Not the seductive, European aristocrat, cloaked and mysterious – oh no. With Count Orlock, filmmaker F. W. Murnau explores something more repellant, casting an actor who resembles an albino naked mole rat. Given that Murnau equates the film’s vampire-related deaths with the plague, this vermin-like image fits well. But more than that, thanks to a peculiarly perfect performance by Max Schreck, Murnau mines the carnality of the vampire myth for revulsion and fear, rather than eroticism.
Murnau’s mastery behind the camera – particularly his ability to capture the vampire’s shadow – made the film a breathtaking horror show at the time. But don’t discount this as dusty history. Max Schreck is a freak, and in his bony, clawlike hands, Count Orlock remains the greatest vampire ever undone by a sinless maiden.