Modern horror movies often rely on careful sound design, as evidenced by 2018’s A Quiet Place and Hereditary. But once upon a time, big screen scares existed without synchronized sound. In the ’20s, the horror genre took the form of the silent film, which conveyed the occult and supernatural through careful production design, eerie music, clever lighting, and good old storytelling. Classics such as The Phantom of the Opera and Nosferatu drew on popular literature and contemporary philosophies to instill a fear of the unknown. Here’s we’ve gathered the creepiest silent horror films of all time, paying our respects to the origins of our favorite genre. Note: Since these hail from the ’20s, you’ll be able to stream most of them online for free!
1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Most horror fans are familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of the kindly medical doctor with a malevolent alter ego. While the story has undergone many makeovers, Paramount’s silent film is the original on-screen adaptation of the novella. John Barrymore, in a dual role as the two titular characters, has been praised for his artful performance as Mr. Hyde. In early scenes, he conveyed Hyde’s character simply by contorting his face.
2. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a series of murders occur at the same time a nefarious hypnotist visits a small German town. American film noir and horror borrow elements from this German Expressionist film that uses tropes such as the twist ending and unreliable narrator. Roger Ebert even called it “the first true horror film.”
3. The Phantom Carriage (1921)
The silent horror film The Phantom Carriage has long been celebrated as a keystone contribution to Swedish cinema. In fact, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman considered it one of the strongest influences on his work. The story begins with a drunkard at a graveyard passing on an urban legend to his friends. He explains how the last person to die each year will have to ride Death’s chariot and collect the souls of everybody who dies the following year. Though it’s a drama at its core, the movie has creepy imagery that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat.
4. Nosferatu (1922)
Long before Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Nosferatu brought to life Bram Stoker’s novel through the medium of the silent film. (In fact, Stoker’s widow even sued the production company for copyright infringement, which went bankrupt before the case could go to court.) In the movie, Thomas Hutter, a working man, visits the castle of an eccentric, bloodthirsty client named Count Orlok. While there are notable similarities between Dracula and Orlok, Orlok kills his victims rather than transforming them into his own kind.
5. Häxan (1922)
The Swedish silent film Häxan is technically a documentary, but its creepy, exaggerated sequences make “horror” a suitable label for it. In fact, production was so involved that the project cost over two million Swedish kronor. The movie examines how Middle Age witch hunts came about because of superstition and a misunderstanding of what are now classified as mental illnesses and diseases. It’s so graphic that it was banned in the United States until 1929 for its depictions of torture and nudity.
6. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
No, we’re not talking about the 2004 remake, though that version, no doubt, takes inspiration from this creepy classic. Based on an early 20th century novel by Gaston Leroux, the movie tells the story of a disfigured composer named Erik who becomes possessive over the beautiful opera singer Christine. While he’s widely believed to be a ghost of an opera house, Erik reveals his identity to the singer after he abducts her.
7. Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Un Chien Andalou is a French surrealist short film that takes a deep dive into the human psyche. Without the guidance of a plot, it uses dream logic and Freudian free-association to develop its narrative. The short creates a chain of horrific images that would become some of the most iconic moments in modern horror. Even if they don’t know the silent film itself, people may know the scene where a woman gets her eye cut by a razor.
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