Summer of Horror, Part 1: The 1920’s

As I work my way semi-chronologically through the history of important and notable horror movies, I will be doing mini-reviews of each movie grouped together by category. To kick off the Summer of Horror 2013, I watched three silent horror films of the 1920’s.

Until I get past the 50’s, I would say that watching these films is more of an academic exercise than anything. It’s difficult to judge movies this old on their own merits, as most of the hallmarks of cinematic storytelling had yet to be invented. Filmmakers of this era had no precedent to go on besides live theater, whose primary attributes they tend to mimic to a certain degree. Takes are long. Cameras are static. Actors play to the balcony. But you can still see instances of cinema finding its own identity in these old movies.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)


Many consider this the first “horror” movie ever made (you could make an argument for Edison Co.’s adaptation of Frankenstein in 1910, though this was a “lost” film that not many saw). If this truly is the first horror film, I’d say it sets a strong foundation. In fact, of the three 1920’s horror movies I watched, this one felt the most “cinematic” despite being the earliest.

You could almost call it a zombie movie. The plot centers around a tale told by a patient at a mental asylum (we don’t learn this until the end – century-old spoiler alert), about a mad doctor who runs a carnival attraction – a somnambulist named Cesare who is entirely under the doctor’s control, and has committed multiple murders against his will in the small German town. The main character’s best friend is murdered, prompting him to launch an investigation into this Dr. Caligari and his bizarre, unwitting slave.

You could also call this a proto-Tim Burton film. In what is now known as the German Expressionist movement, the environments in the movie have a heavily stylized, fantasy aesthetic. Every structure is built askew, with lots of sharp angles and diagonal lines. Natural lighting is cheated by shadows painted directly onto the sets. Even the interstitial title cards are done in a handcrafted, paper cutout style.

At 71 minutes, this was probably considered long by 1920 standards. For me, as someone not accustomed to older films, I found it fairly enthralling and not at all difficult to watch. The visuals alone make for a fascinating, surreal experience.

Nosferatu (1922)


The first (unofficial) adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, I saw this after seeing the more famous (and officially sanctioned) Dracula from 1931, with Bela Lugosi. Not having seen Nosferatu, I was familiar with its background as a Dracula adaptation, but didn’t know exactly how faithful it was to the story which is now a classic. It’s remarkably similar to the aforementioned 1931 Dracula, with only the character names and a nature of the titular vampire to differentiate.

The far more iconic portrayal of Count Dracula by Bela Lugosi is suave, articulate, and distinctly human. Not so with Nosferatu. This Dracula (Count Orlock) hardly qualifies as human, and is more animalistic and rat-like in appearance. The portrayal makes for some of the creepiest imagery in the film. Orlock has a tendency to lurk in the distance and stare, or stalk in the shadows when in hunting mode – all eyebrows, rat teeth, and long pointed fingers and ears. Max Schreck is incredibly creepy in this role, and it’s not too surprising to learn that rumors had spread after the release of this film that Schreck was a real vampire (a conceit later used for the film Shadow of the Vampire).

Probably the most haunting and effective shot in the entire film doesn’t feature Schreck at all – but is a long static shot of a high view over a street in the fictional German town of Wisborg, as line after line of pallbearers carry coffins down the road – victims ostensibly of a Plague outbreak, but in reality the victims of Count Orlock. To my knowledge no other Dracula adaptation has portrayed the vampire’s murder spree being blamed on a plague outbreak. It adds a remarkably bleak tone to the film.

Like many silent films of this era, the plot is somewhat difficult to follow, as many common storytelling techniques had yet to be invented and early filmmakers were still figuring out how to tell stories most effectively with this new medium. Even being familiar with the basic plot of Dracula, I still found myself struggling to explain the motivations of some of the characters. While I’m sure to lose credibility with film aficionados by saying this, I do recommend reading the plot synopsis on Wikipedia while you watch the film, if you aren’t accustomed to silent movies already. And if you watch the movie on Netflix as I did, be prepared for the music to be ill-matched to the tone of the film. I attempted to do some research into which home media release of Nosferatu had the most appropriate soundtrack, but was unable to get definitive answers. I guess that sort of thing comes with the territory.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)


I’m very familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical version of this story, having seen the live stage production a couple of times as well as the Joel Schumacher film version. It’s hard to believe it didn’t exist as a musical until the 80’s. Before that, this 1925 silent film was the most iconic portrayal of the Phantom.

I went into this wondering how a story so deeply rooted in music could be made into a silent film. It seemed to work remarkably well, though I could have been biased by the soundtrack that accompanied this particular version. It seemed to be pretty well-matched to the action on screen, and even would switch to vocal opera when a character was singing. I didn’t have any difficulty following the plot, though again, it could have been due to my familiarity with the musical version.

My favorite scene was easily the masquerade ball. In what must have been a huge accomplishment in 1925, this scene is in color (albeit rather limited, desaturated color). The Phantom appears in a sort of Crimson Ghost getup that would make a truly excellent Halloween costume, if one were so inclined.

Phantom Masquerade


Honestly, how badass is that?


Next time, I cover four iconic Universal Horror Classics.

One comment

  1. Very interesting! I’d heard of the first two (and in the case of Caligari, rave reviews) but I actually did not know the phantom story existed before the musical. Seems like these would be fun to watch!

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