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The Birth of Horror: Scary Silents



Everyone loves a bit of a scare, whether it is on a death-defying rollercoaster or watching a horror movie from behind a cushion while trying to bury yourself into the depths of the sofa. For centuries humans have loved scaring other humans, and modern day is no exception. Horror films are churned out by the dozen, and we are all familiar with the typical horror tropes that [almost] never fail to put bums on seats.


With Hollywood’s obsession with constant reinvention comes sparkly vampires, masked serial killers and shaky-cam ghosts. The truth is, film directors have been scaring audiences successfully ever since the birth of film, and there is nothing I love more than some good old fashioned horror movie cheesiness!


One of the first films ever shown to a public audience could, in some ways, be considered a horror movie. Although it wasn’t intended to terrify its audience, the first showings of L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) in 1896 by the Lumière brothers terrified audiences. The 50 second clip of a train pulling into the station was said to have caused the audience to panic, believing the train would come at them straight out of the screen.



The term ‘horror movie’ only came into existence in the 1930s, in the writings of critics in response to the Dracula and Frankenstein films, which are often considered the first ‘real’ horror movies. And that they may be, in terms of concreting the typical horror look, storyline and themes that are remembered today.


It was prior to this that some of the greatest horror movies graced the silver screen, since all but forgotten. At a time when experiments in film were all the rage and there was not yet such a thing as a movie studio ruling every script with an iron fist. Let’s take a look pre-1930, at some of the world’s greatest horror films and thriller movies!


Le Manoir du Diable (‘The House of the Devil’) 1890, Georges Méliès 

Something that really gets me jumping up and down and shaking the nearest person to me is how absolutely mind-boggling the first films actually were. There’s something about these aged wonders that can make ANYTHING interesting, even the feeding of sick kittens! But what makes this film (and, in fact, all of Méliès films) particularly interesting is the use of special effects, such as making one thing suddenly turn into another.  Ok, so it’s no Avatar, but consider this was all done by hand and, often, in camera.


Although originally intended to amuse the audience as a form of pantomime, the themes and images featured have become staples of the horror genre, and therefore this can be considered the first horror movie.



Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’) 1919, Robert Wiene

Talk to any film buff, horror fan or goth and they will probably purr with glee at the mention of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari. Forget Dracula, this is THE most influential horror film hands-down, and just looking at a screenshot will tell you why. It also, supposedly, introduced the twist ending to film, but you will have to watch it to find out ;P


The film consists of a disturbing look into the mind of a madman (though it is never quite clear who is mad and who is sane) in a tale of murder. Without going into details, the viewer is treated to a twisted ride through the story as envisioned by the narrator, which is mimicked and further distorted by the set design, acting and extreme makeup. A completely artificial world surrounds the characters, where alleyways twist, doors loom and rooms appear to have a surreally altered perspective.


Dr Caligari was like nothing Europe had ever seen before, as documentary films were all the rage, this film proved that the medium could become a subjective artform as well as an objective one.


Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (‘Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror’) 1922, F. W. Murnau

Although a stark contrast between the charming, slick version of Dracula played by Bela Lugosi, Nosferatu is most definitely the first vampire to grace the screen. Set almost 100 years before its release, the film follows the story of Count Graf Orlok in an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel.  Due to the obvious plagiarism, Murnau struggled to maintain control over the film, resulting in prints being destroyed. Only in recent years has a version approximating the original been available to the public.


The vampire of this classic is far more frightening than many of its successors; although parodied into oblivion, the inhuman look of Orlok was truly terrifying to audiences of the day. Actor Max Schreck was grotesquely made up to become an emaciated, rat faced creature with hideous long fingers clutching at his prey.


The Hands of Orlac, 1924,

Although not generally thought of as one of the greatest horror films, I’ve included this as a personal recommendation and homage to one of my favourite actors of the silent era. Horror icon Conrad Veidt not only starred in The Hands of Orlac but also in Caligari and The Man Who Laughs, which is said to have inspired the look of Batman’s Joker.


Remade twice, once with Peter Lorre (another actor known for his sinister roles), the story follows a sad tale of pianist Paul Orlac, who loses his hands in a terrible accident. In an oddly futuristic plot device, he receives hand transplants, which just happen to be the hands of a murderer. Madness ensues. The basic premise of the story set a whole new genre for horror – the possession of transplanted body parts, which is still used in film today (think of Ash’s hand trouble in Evil Dead II).


Although the film doesn’t use the typical horror themes, it is Veidt’s performance that sends a tingle up the spine. With just title cards and musical accompaniment, silent acting is quite a feat, which often resulted in hammy over-exaggerated gestures and plenty of swooning. The cast of The Hands of Orlac set the bar high as far as extreme horror acting is concerned, a standard that many actors and actresses since have failed to achieve.