The hit sound film The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson and directed by Alan Crosland, fueled the mainstream appetite for newfangled "talkies"... and brought on the death throes of the ol' fashioned silent film. Over the next few years, silent motion picture production around the world slowed, withered, and died. Before this era came to a close, however, the horror genre took root, clawed its way into mainstream popularity, and spawned a wealth of atmospheric and unsettling thrillers. These films built the foundation upon which a century of horror movies would be constructed. The art of film was still in its infancy, and this silent era of experimentation gave rise to some of the most striking and fascinating horror movies ever made.
While Germany would soon rise to dominate horror of the silent era, Italy helped get the ball rolling with their first feature length film, Dante's Inferno (1911), directed by Giuseppe de Liguoro. This epic adaptation of Inferno - the most disturbing and lurid section of Dante Alighieri's 14th-century poem, The Divine Comedy - mesmerized, shocked, and thrilled audiences with its grotesque and nightmarish visions. Horror/fantasy dabbling had begun almost immediately following the dawn of cinema (short films dating back to the mid 1890s featured horror/fantasy themes and imagery), but the commercial success of Dante's Inferno helped give cinema of the macabre some real momentum.
Travelling north to Germany, we enter the fever-dreams of German expressionism, the beating heart of horror cinema during the silent era. One of the most celebrated classics of this period is Robert Wiene's The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920), an enormously influential film that kicked into high gear Germany's expressionist filmwork. The movie is a surreal, wildly imaginative visual feast about a hypnotically-controlled somnambulist who awakens from a death-like sleep and predicts a near-future murder.
Less legendary is another great Robert Wiene movie, the underrated thriller, The Hands Of Orlac (1924). This captivating, bizarre, twisty-turny tale of horror, murder, and blackmail features a train-wreck aftermath sequence that is visually on par with Hollywood spectacle still decades away.
Required viewing for horror fans wishing to introduce themselves to German expressionism is Nosferatu (1922), directed by F.W. Murnau. This was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. A court order dictated all prints and negatives of Nosferatu be destroyed following a lawsuit launched by Bram Stoker's widow. Many years later, one surviving film print surfaced. What was considered a lost film was brought back from the brink to become renowned as one of the great masterpieces of world cinema. Released the same year was a less-infamous film from Murnau, Phantom, which tones down the surrealistic visuals and fantasy elements to deliver a powerful dramatic thriller about a poet's life spiraling madly out of control.
F.W. Murnau directed another classic of expressionist horror, Faust (1926). This tale of an elderly alchemist being tempted into a pact with the Devil features creepy lighting, inventive effects, claustrophobic and menacing set design, and beautiful model work. Especially during the first half of the film, Faust delivers some of the most sinister and otherworldly sequences ever put on celluloid.
In the category of lesser-known and underrated silent horror films is Germany's The Student Of Prague (1913), directed by Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener. This movie, a tale of the supernatural revolving around a man's mirror reflection, contains some impressive early film trickery. Paul Wegener was also at the helm for another remarkable and underrated example of German horror, The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920), about a monster made out of clay and brought to life.
German filmmaker Fritz Lang is best known for his trailblazing science-fiction silent-era masterpiece Metropolis (1927) and his film-noir talkie, M (1931). Not discussed often enough is a movie Lang released six years before Metropolis, the beautifully shot Destiny (1921). This surreal exploration of death's inevitability tells three stories framed within the primary narrative. Three candles, each representing a human life, slowly burn down as a woman negotiates with Death to return her deceased lover.
A final example of underrated silent German cinema I'll mention is Warning Shadows (1923), directed by Arthur Robison. This horror/drama/fantasy film is about an otherworldly shadow-puppet show staged in the midst of a disintegrating marriage. The film is notable for having no intertitles (no on-screen text) to display what the characters are saying, or explain the story points. The entire feature-length run time contains not a single word... it's 100 percent visual storytelling.
Traveling north from Germany to Scandinavia, we encounter Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (1922), a documentary about superstition, mental illness, and the moral panic and mass hysteria of the witch-hunts. The many dramatic reenactments in the film function as horror-anthology-esque vignettes, and are lovingly designed, photographed, and directed for maximum eeriness and shock. Consequently, Häxan scores higher on the fright meter than many fictional narrative horror films of the era. Upon release, Christensen's documentary was banned or heavily censored in various countries around the world for its depictions of torture, sexual perversion, and disturbing imagery.
We can't leave Europe without acknowledging the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, and is his silent UK film The Lodger (1927), about a London serial killer. The Lodger introduced themes and techniques that would guide much of Hitchcock’s career. Interestingly, Hitch was, at the time, inspired by German expressionist cinema, the influence of which is visible in The Lodger. Though it was not his first film, Hitchcock considered The Lodger the real beginning of his career.
Hopping over the Atlantic Ocean to the United States we discover many American silent horror classics, including Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1920), directed by John S. Robertson and starring John Barrymore, The Phantom Of The Opera (1925), directed by Rupert Julian and starring Lon Chaney, The Cat And The Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), both directed by Paul Leni. The Man Who Laughs stars silent horror mega-star Conrad Veidt of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, The Hands Of Orlac, and about 80 more pre-sound films.
Lurking beyond these popular silent films, US cinema of the 20s includes some less-celebrated yet still very interesting horror movies worth tracking down. Wolf Blood (1925) directed by George Chesebro, is not often discussed in silent horror cinema circles, but it's an exceptionally intriguing American entry about a man in an isolated logging camp who receives a blood transfusion from a wolf. Well-written and featuring visually interesting locations, Wolf Blood is generally cited as the earliest surviving werewolf film.
John Ford, considered one of the greatest American directors in motion picture history, and a filmmaker who helped define American cinema, is best known for his westerns, such as Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956). Ford began his directing career in silent films, and one of his last and best was the horror/thriller Hangman's House (1928), about a man who risks his life to avenge his dead sister. It's a powerful and engrossing picture, worthy of much more attention than it tends to receive.
This sampling of sans-audio horror only scratches the surface... there is much more to explore in scary cinema of the silent era. Dig deeper into its depths and you'll find a treasure trove of uncanny and thrilling terrors from the earliest days of the horror genre.