Everyone knows the image: a bald, pale figure with impossibly long fingers rises out of his coffin. That’s of course Nosferatu, one of cinema’s great horror icons. Silent films are such a part of our culture that we can recognize so many moments from them, even if we haven’t seen a single movie. If you’ve ever wanted to check out silent horror films but were unsure of where to start, this is a list of the ten most representative films of the era. Made across two continents and two decades, these touch on everything from slashers, to the supernatural, to body horror.
As of this writing, most of these films are easily available on YouTube, but the best place to watch them is through one of their many DVD reissues. Silent films often get a bad rap simply because people don’t have access to prints that aren’t fuzzy, jumpy, and incomplete. That said, you really should watch these movies any way you can. They’re not just an educational look at how horror cinema started. They’re also scary as hell.
10 Dante’s Inferno (1911)
What better way to start this list than with the oldest surviving horror feature? Made by Milano Studios in Italy, Inferno is an hour’s worth of horrific imagery hanging from a nearly non-existent story. Much like the Dante Alighieri epic poem on which it’s based, the film is basically a tour through Hell, following two characters as they check out writhing masses of naked people, three-headed dog puppets, and a man carrying around his severed head.
A 2004 rerelease of the film comes with a score by Tangerine Dream, which pairs well with the nightmarish imagery. Less a film than an experience, Inferno is a great introduction to what silent films do well: throw image after image at you in an attempt to elicit an emotional response at all costs. It’s pure spectacle, using make-up, smoke, and optical effects to create a hellscape for the ages.
9 The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)
1920’s The Golem is technically a prequel to a similarly titled 1915 film by the same writer/director/star. While popular in its own right, this film has eclipsed its predecessor for two reasons: It’s a bigger, more successful story (and truer to creator Paul Wegener’s vision), and it has survived, unlike its predecessor, into the modern era. Good thing, too, because this film is one of the most beautiful horror stories put to film. Basically a retelling of the Jewish legend of a murderous statue that must follow its owner’s commands, Golem has all the hallmarks of German Expressionist cinema: larger than life stakes, settings that highlight emotions instead of realism, and a loopy sort of logic that makes emotional (but not literal) sense.
Plus, Golem is an interesting historical document, especially in regards to the lifestyle of German Jews in the 1920s. From a magical retelling of the history of the Jewish people to the final image of the Star of David, The Golem has a very specific point of view. And in the process, we get to see a giant statue lumber around and murder people. If you’ve ever seen Universal’s Frankenstein movies from a decade later, you’ll know where they got their inspiration.
8 The Man Who Laughs (1928)
More a melodrama than a straight-up horror film, The Man Who Laughs stars long-limbed German actor Conrad Veidt as a man whose face was deformed as a child into a constant, unnatural grin. By many accounts, this character was the visual inspiration for Batman’s main nemesis The Joker. While that comic book character is driven by an urge to incite mayhem, Veidt’s character is much more tragic. Driven by his love for his blind adopted sister, typically melodramatic complications ensue.
What makes this a must-watch for horror fans, though, is the grisly beginning, the sense of weirdness throughout (a twisted duchess tries to seduce Veidt because she’s attracted to his deformity), and the ghastly grinner at its core. Directed by German Paul Leni, this film isn’t as expressionist as some of the others on this list, but it can never get rid of its thick layers of darkness. Because the film was released just before the beginning of the sound era, it comes with a full score that incorporates actual singing and the haunting sounds of laughter.
7 Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920)
1920 was the year of the Jekyll, apparently, because audiences could experience three separate adaptations of the Robert Louis Stevenson story. One was German (and lost), one wasn’t very good (and only 40 minutes), and one was an all-time classic. Star John Barrymore (known at the time as “The Great Profile” for his ridiculously handsome side-face) really uglies it up as the titular duo. His first transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is done entirely through his acting. His later transformations use a bit more effects.
Like a lot of silent films, this movie is a classy affair, but it still has a layer of weirdness and danger that would probably surprise some modern viewers. Director John S. Robertson keeps the pace going, and he wisely increases the emotional stakes of the original story by adding a love interest for Hyde to kidnap and almost-murder.
6 The Unknown (1927)
Like The Man Who Laughs, The Unknown is more of a drama than an outright horror film, but it earns its horror credit for the murders, danger, and general sense of weirdness. Plus, the main character purposely has his arms amputated, and the climax involves another character as he’s about to be torn apart by horses. Director Tod Browning would go on to great success a few years later (1931’s Dracula, of course), but it’s his 1932 follow-up Freaks that is most similar to this film. Both involve the twisted hijinks that happen backstage at a carnival, both star main characters that start off (relatively) normal and turn into freaks, and both are centered around misplaced love and unhealthy obsession.
Unknown stars Lon Chaney (whom you’ll see later in this list) and a young Joan Crawford. Crawford spends her time with the (supposedly) armless Chaney, because she has the most convenient phobia in movie history: She’s afraid of male arms. A few early scenes are missing, but all the good parts remain: This is a film that has to be seen to be believed.
5 The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Lon Chaney is back, in perhaps his most famous performance (give or take a hunchback). Here, he’s the titular phantom, hiding behind a white mask until one of horror cinema’s greatest reveals. Odds are, you know the story, either from Gaston Leroux’s serialized novel or any of its dozens of remakes through the years. Perhaps you’ve seen the musical. The 1925 version, of course, retains the tragic core of the story, while also adding some truly horrific visuals.
Mary Philbin plays the terrorized Christine, and few silent film stars show as much abject horror as Philbin when she recoils from the Phantom. The supporting cast is pretty good, too, but it really is Chaney’s show. If this film were released about a decade later, perhaps his ghoulish face would be placed alongside Frankenstein, Dracula, and the other Universal monsters. You can watch a 1930 sound reissue of the original film, but the 1925 version is a better, scarier experience.
4 The Beetle (1919)
A little harder to track down than the other (more famous) films on this list, The Beetle is a short, simple horror story from England about an ageless Egyptian princess who can turn into a beetle to exact revenge on a Member of Parliament. Despite the plot summary, it’s not a political film. Instead, it’s a good representation of what British horror was like in the years before Alfred Hitchcock came to the scene.
Director Alexander Butler would go on to direct 1925’s She, an adventure film about a similarly immortal lady. The beetle herself, Maudie Dunham, was a minor film star throughout the 1920s, though most of her films are either lost or difficult to track down. This is perhaps the least stylish film on the list, but it’s the most fast-moving. It takes a simple concept and runs with it.
3 Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922)
A hugely expensive Swedish-Danish coproduction, Haxan was a labor of love for writer/director Benjamin Christensen, who spent years studying European witch trials before making a film that condemns mob mentality and the backwards superstitions that gave rise to thousands of executions. The film is almost a mockumentary, using the sorts of interviews and doc-style footage to really drive home its message.
The horror truly comes during the “reenactment” parts, when we see all the awful things that real people did to each other. At the time, Haxan was banned in America (among other countries), for scenes of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion. Enough said.
2 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
There are other horror films that fit into the wave of German Expressionist cinema. Some have better visuals. Some make more sense. But no film better embodies everything that this movement had to offer than Caligari, a fever dream of a movie about mad doctors, pale-faced killers, and the sorts of nightmare vistas that only a German could dream up. For modern audiences who’ve never seen any silent films, try to picture what it would look like if you opened up Tim Burton’s head. That’s this film.
Conrad Veidt (terrifying as usual) plays Cesare, a somnambulist who stumbles around and murders people. The murders are the result of an evil hypnotist, the mad doctor of the title, who keeps Cesare waiting silently in his cabinet. It all adds up to a twist ending that has influenced dozens of films since. This isn’t the scariest movie on this list, but it’s the most nightmarish.
1 Nosferatu (1922)
The single greatest silent horror film is not surprisingly also the most famous. Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula (so unauthorized, in fact, that Bram Stoker’s widow tried to get every copy of this film destroyed). Luckily, some copies remained, which is why modern audiences can enjoy director F. W. Murnau’s nightmare of a film. Dracula (actually Count Orlok) is played by Max Schreck to such a believable degree that the audiences believed the actor might actually be a vampire himself. (2000’s Shadow of the Vampire seems to think so.)
There’s no overstating the impact that this film had on future cinema. From the way Orlok rises out of his coffin, to the scenes where poor sailors get picked off one-by-one, to the woman-in-danger climax when even the vampire’s shadow can do serious damage… every moment of this film has been baked into the DNA of horror cinema. Orlok’s pale, hairless face is like the Mickey Mouse of the genre: a perfect symbol for a specific brand. And that brand: pure terror. for all of the major films, stars, and studios of the silent era.
If you want to learn more about silent horror, check out the Silent Film Archives.