Some of the most influential and beloved horror films came from an era before gory special effects, prosthetic limbs designed to be torn off actors, and meager shock scares. These were the silent horror films. Even today, while many silent films have disappeared from popular consciousness, silent horror films still maintain a widespread audience. Whether they are the products of German Expressionism or early Hollywood creature features, they continue to intrigue and influence film makers and audiences to this day. Some silent horror films have gained legendary status (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), while others have been either ignored or forgotten in recent decades.
Here is my top 10 list of underappreciated silent horror films. Arranged chronologically from the date of their release, these films were some of the most influential horror films ever made.
(For a film to qualify for this list, it must still survive in some capacity. Lost films or films with a majority of the footage missing are not eligible.)
10. Le Manoir du Diable
Directed by Georges Méliès
This odd little cinematic jewel by early film pioneer Georges Méliès (whose most famous film remains A Trip to the Moon) is considered to be the very first horror film. Clocking in at around three minutes, it contains many images that would go on to become staples of the horror genre. The first image of the film is of a plastic bat hanging from a wire being dangled inside a medieval castle. It quickly turns into Mephistopheles who summons all manner of objects and beasts. These include a bubbling cauldron, skeletons, ghostly apparitions, and witches. He uses these to torment two intruders to his castle. The film ends with one of the men grabbing a crucifix and using it to repel Mephistopheles away.
Directed by J. Searle Dawley
The first ever adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this film was a product of Thomas Edison’s Edison Studios in the Bronx, New York City. This twelve minute short took three days to shoot and was directed by J. Searle Dawley. It contains an extremely condensed version of the classic tale. Doctor Frankenstein creates a living monster, the monster rebels against Frankenstein, the monster runs away after learning of his horrible appearance, and peace is restored. However, this film provides an interesting twist to the story in that it implies that the monster was nothing but an outward manifestation of Doctor Frankenstein’s internal madness. It contained some crude, yet strangely effective, special effects for its time. The most memorable is when Frankenstein creates his monster by pouring a series of chemicals into a cauldron. A skeleton pops out of the top and slowly gains shape and flesh. Imagine the face melting scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” but backwards.
8. The Student of Prague
Directed by Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener
The Student of Prague is an early German horror film that contains a basic retelling of the classic Faustian tale. It involves a poor student named Balduin becoming completely obsessed with a countess. He ends up making a deal with a sorcerer named Scapinelli to give everything he desires, including great wealth. In return, he must sign a contract. You can figure out where the plot goes from there. The film is notable for several different reasons. First, it contained some very prominent special effects that were considered quite extraordinary for the era. The most famous is where Balduin shares the screen with a double of himself. Also, Scapinelli is an incredibly important figure in the development of horror films. He was one of the first characters who would seduce the protagonist with deals and bargains instead of defeating him with demons and infernal magic. It was due largely in part to this film that the entire trope of “Satan as a salesman” developed and flourished in the world of cinema.
7. The Golem: How He Came into the World
Directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese
The Golem: How He Came into the World was a milestone in German Expressionism. If The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari hadn’t literally been released mere months before this film, it would have gone down as one of the very first films of its genre. The third (and only surviving) in a trilogy of films about a giant clay golem, this film explained the horrible creature’s origins. We travel to the slums of Prague in the 16th century where a local rabbi creates a clay golem and brings him to life to protect the Jewish community from their enemies. Unfortunately, the golem goes crazy, sets fire to the town, and goes on a killing spree. In addition to having some of the greatest sets and cinematography of the entire German Expressionist movement, The Golem: How He Came into the World was significant because it helped create one of the very first widely recognized movie monsters. The golem paved the way for all of the vampires, werewolves, mummies, and other deadly creatures that would come to populate horror films in the coming decades
Directed by Benjamin Christensen
Häxan holds the distinction of being the only documentary on this list. The film is an examination of superstition and makes the academic argument that much of the hysteria concerning medieval witch-hunts can be ascribed to mental illness. While this may not sound very appropriate for a horror film, what makes it qualify for this list is how it goes about making that argument. The film is based partly on the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century German inquisitor guide. As such, director Christensen indulges in lengthy recreations of witch covens, satanic rituals, and inquisitional witch hunts. Scenes include a Witches’ Sabbath, the supposed possession of an abbey of nuns, and a cruel reconstruction of a scene where an inquisitor tricks an innocent woman into pretending to be a witch, in the process condemning her to be executed for witchcraft. While it may be a piece of academic film making, no horror enthusiast should go without experiencing this film.
5. The Hands of Orlac
Directed by Robert Wiene
Released in 1924, this Austrian film would introduce a plot that has been recycled countless times in multiple forms of media. The story goes that a concert pianist named Paul Orlac gets a hand transplant after he loses his own in a terrible railway accident. As fate would have it, the replacement hands were those of a recently-killed murderer. Soon, Orlac finds himself fighting the urge to kill those around him. Things go from bad to worse when his father, whom he was on the outs with, is found murdered. The film features an early performance by horror icon Conrad Veidt who famously played the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the titular character in The Man Who Laughs. Though the film would be remade several times over the years, including the classic American film Mad Love with Peter Lorre, this was where the idea of possession through medical transplant began.
Directed by Leo Birinsky and Paul Leni
Featuring a who’s who of early German actors (including Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, William Dieterle, and Werner Krauss) and direction by legendary horror director Paul Leni, Waxworks is a dream come true for horror enthusiasts. The film itself is actually an anthology film that encompasses many different stories. It involves a waxworks proprietor who hires a writer to create a series of stories for his various exhibits. These include the Caliph of Baghdad, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper. The audience travels to different eras of time as the film reenacts the writer’s various stories. At first the film plays more like a fantasy adventure than a horror story…at least until the writer discovers that the Jack the Ripper statue has come to life…
Serving as Paul Leni’s last film made in his native Germany before moving to America, it was an appropriate send-off for one of German Expressionism’s greatest auteurs.
3. The Monster
Directed by Roland West
Easily one of the strangest films on this list, Roland West’s film The Monster featured a unique blend of horror and humor that was unusual for the time. But that isn’t to say that the film wasn’t important as a mainstream horror film. In fact, The Monster could very well be one of the most influential horror films ever made. It pioneered two important archetypes for horror films. The first was that of a mad scientist that had minions at his disposal. The mad doctor in this case is named Ziska. At the beginning of the film, Ziska takes over an abandoned sanitorium only to kidnap people to use in his mad experiments. This leads to the second important innovation in The Monster: the implementation of the ‘old dark house’ trope. Armed with compelling characters, creepy sets, and an infectious sense of humor, The Monster raised the bar for horror films.
2. The Unknown
Directed by Tod Browning
What do you get when you combine one of the greatest horror directors and one of the greatest horror actors of all time? The answer is The Unknown. A collaboration between director Tod Browning (Freaks, Dracula) and Lon Chaney Sr. (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera), The Unknown is one of the most unsettling horror films from the silent era. Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a criminal posing as an armless circus freak to avoid the law. He falls in love with Nanon, the circus owner’s daughter, who has a crippling fear of being touched by men. Because of her fear, she is friends with Alonzo who is unable to touch her. So one night, he decides to have his arms surgically removed so he can be with Nanon. As fate would have it, while he is gone, she is miraculously cured of her illness and falls in love with the circus strongman. Upon discovering this, Alonzo loses his mind and swears to take revenge. An intense film combining some of the greatest minds of early horror films, The Unknown is not to be missed.
1. The Cat and the Canary
Directed by Paul Leni
Before he made his most famous film The Man Who Laughs, director Paul Leni created the gothic masterpiece entitled The Cat and the Canary. Like his earlier film Waxworks, this film utilized a unique blend of German Expressionism, horror, and humor. Inspired by a 1922 black comedy of the same name, The Cat and the Canary would go on to be one of the most beloved and imitated (it was remade 5 times) silent horror films of the 1920s. At least…it was at the time. Nowadays the film has been largely ignored or forgotten. It truly is a shame, because the film was incredibly influential at the time, even going on to inspire Alfred Hitchcock. It deals with a young girl named Annabelle who inherits her uncle’s fortune after a reading of his will 20 years after his death. But, in order for her to gain the fortune, she must have a clean bill of mental health. Things are complicated when she and her family stay in his old haunted mansion and are stalked by a mysterious figure. What’s worse, the mansion becomes the hiding place for an escaped lunatic simply known as “the Cat.” Will she maintain her sanity? And who, or what, is stalking her? And what of “the Cat”? Watch this classic and find out.