In the 1920s, the horror genre cemented itself as a cornerstone of the new cinematic era. This, in part, was due to the fact that horror was an easy genre for a silent film audience to interpret. Horrific monsters, shadow imagery and terrifying makeup were easy ways to indicate dread without the aid of music, speech and CGI effects. For the pioneers of horror film, imagery and emotion were the way to connect with an audience. Even when pictures developed and evolved to use sound, the best element of silent era horror were kept to provide audiences with films that not only shocked but also use eerie subtleties to build up suspense and dread.
The prevalence of cheap jump scares and the overuse of horror cliché has tainted a genre whose imagery and emotion of old is too often left forgotten. Too often modern horror filmmakers rely on sudden blasts of music to frighten their audience or the ‘I am behind you’ scares. These films may give the audience a brief scare and satisfy their scare quota, but I wonder how many go home and ponder over the film. How many remember images of horror that leave an imprint on the memory.
I class the Golden Age of Horror as being situated between 1918-1948. For any horror movie buffs, I have selected five horror films of the era that I believe are essential viewing. I judged most of these films on their aesthetic value; I believe these to be films that modern filmmakers could draw inspiration from. While films like Dracula and Frankenstein are more famous (I would also recommend watching these), I have decided not to include them on the list.
Director: F. W. Murnau
The story behind the making of Nosferatu is as fascinating as the film itself. The story goes that the producer of the film—Albin Grau—was a soldier in the first world war. One day when he was walking through the village, a Serbian farmer told him about his father who had risen from the dead and become a bloodthirsty vampire. This astonishing story inspired Grau to make a vampire film. Under Grau’s instruction, the writers of the film were told to write a screenplay inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The film company had not obtained the rights to adapt to the famous novel; this led to the Stoker family suing the company for plagiarism. Rumours also traveled around the set of the film labeling Max Shrek (the actor that play Count Orlock) as a real vampire. Nosferatu is regarded as one of the finest examples of the German expressionist movement with its use of emotional theatrics and subtle symbolism.
If you have read Dracula it is easy to see why the filmmakers were sued by the surviving members of the Bram Stoker family. The film starts with land agent Thomas Hutter on route to Transylvania to meet with the mysterious Count Orlok. He is warned by the superstitious village people about the count as he continues his journey, but pays no heed to their idle ramblings. He arrives at a spooky castle and meets the strange Count Orlok. The Count watches Hutter eat a splendid banquet dinner and notices that Hutter has cut his finger with a sharp knife. Count Orlock can’t help but suck the blood from the open would, much to Hutter’s shock. Realising that the villagers may have been correct in their assertions about Count Orlock, Hutter goes to bed with a crucifix. When he awakens, Count Orlock is nowhere to be found, and he is trapped in the castle. Meanwhile, Count Orlock takes a boat to Hutter’s home in Wisborg to pursue Hutter’s beautiful wife Ellen and wreak havoc on the local community.
Nosferatu is one of the first films to depict the image of the vampire and has helped shape modern interpretations in film and television. By today’s standards, the acting style may seem melodramatic but I suppose this is a testament of its time. What has remained timeless are the special effects, the use of light and dark space and the creeping suspense prevalent throughout the whole film.
The Wolfman (1941)
Director: George Waggner
The Wolfman was the second werewolf movie made by Universal Studios; it was preceded by the less successful Werewolf of London starring character actor Henry Hull. In The Wolfman, we find a film with a great story and stunning effects. Again there are no cheap jump scares; this film uses both subtle foreshadowing and grotesque transformation to get its audience scared.
The plot centres around protagonist Larry Talbot who learns that his brother has died. He returns to his ancestral home to investigate his brother’s death and make peace with his estranged father. When he visits the local tavern, the villagers make vague references to the wild wolves of the surrounding forest and assume that is how his brother died. As he further investigates the death, Larry is charmed by a local antique dealer named Gwen. By accident, he buys a silver cane that is adorned by the silver head of a wolf at her store. When Larry and Gwen visit a gypsy camp a wolf attacks them. In an effort to save Gwen, Larry kills the wolf but gets bitten in the process. A fortuneteller reveals that he will now be a werewolf for all time.
Not wanting to give away the ending, this film set the standard for transformation sequences in horror films until the ‘70s. These special effects had actor Lon Chaney Jr. in the makeup chair for three hours at a time. It also took around an hour to remove the makeup. For those not familiar with famous Golden Age horror actors, Lon Chaney Jr. was the famous son of Jon Chaney Senior. Lon Chaney Senior was named the man with a thousand faces and was known for playing horror characters in films like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In this film, the son pays homage to his father by transforming his own face. Lon Chaney Jr. played the Wolfman in all subsequent films featuring the character and is quoted as saying of the character, ‘He was my baby’.
Director: Tod Browning
Tod Browning’s Freaks was extremely controversial in its day—so controversial that it was banned from being screened until the 1960s. The plot centres around a group of circus folk and the drama that takes place after the curtain is drawn. The audience gets a front seat in experiencing how the circus ‘freaks’ live their day to day lives. There is a human skeleton, a bearded lady, conjoined twins, the stork woman and an armless man. Through their stories, we learn that these people are anything but the monsters they perform as.
One of the exciting events at the circus occurs when beautiful trapeze artist, Cleopatra starts a relationship with Hans—a rich midget. Cleopatra plots with her strongman lover to marry Hans, poison him and spend his inheritance. The freaks accept the trapeze artist as one of their own and trust her. They start to feel uneasy when Cleopatra gets drunk at her wedding feast and calls them all freaks. They work out her plan and what follows next is nothing short of horrific.
This film highlights that we are all human, and that the real monsters in society may hide behind beautiful masks rather than hideous. Freaks has often been referred to as ‘unclassifiable’. I wholeheartedly agree with this; there is no other movie out there quite like Freaks. Freaks is morally satisfying while still falling into the horror genre. It is almost a horror-drama if there is such a thing. The only way to truly judge is to see this one for yourself; just make sure you watch the version with the original ending.
The Mummy (1932)
Director: Boris Karloff
Of all the Boris Karloff Films out at the time, I would recommend The Mummy above all else. While Frankenstein is his most well-known role, his character of Imhotep combines Karloff’s art as the horrifying monster as well as the smooth-talking charmer. Karloff’s vocal expression reminds me of Jeremy Irons’ Scar; low, somewhat soothing but still full of menace. While Karloff seems good in just about anything, The Mummy holds its own through its use of dreamlike visuals and exotic elegance.
The horror in The Mummy is far more subtle than that of Frankenstein or Dracula. The leads Zita Johann and Karloff shine and capture a love that has lasts through life and death. The Mummy also has an amazing and original plot.
A group of explorers discover a mummy in a recently dug tomb. When they discover that the mummy’s bodily organs were never removed, they believe he was buried in the tomb alive for sacrilege. They also discover the scroll of Thoth and read aloud the ancient Egyptian words. This brings the mummy to life. He escapes from the tomb and goes in search of his lost love: Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. The film then skips to ten years later, where the mummy is disguised as a normal Egyptian. He uses his position to help some archaeologists locate the location of his lost loves tomb. He also meets the alluring Helen, who is the spitting image of Ankh-es-en-amon. Not wanting to spoil the film, the rest is for you to watch.
The Cat People (1942)
Director: Van Lewton
I would say that Val Lewin’s The Cat People is truly one of the greatest horror films of all time. When first released, critical consensus was that the film was average. In recent years it has been highly regarded for its use of suggestive horror. While you don’t see the beast in full, the very suggestion that it is there is enough to scare you.
We start the film at the Central Park Zoo in New York. Irena, a Serbian-born designer, is trying to sketch a black panther in one of the enclosures when marine-engineer Oliver notices her beauty. After meeting many times, the two become friends and fall in love. Oliver describes his love for Elena to his work colleague Alice as an inner yearning. Oliver says he feels drawn to her though he does not know much about her. Elena speaks to Oliver one night about her village in Serbia and an ancient curse that transforms young women into black panthers if they ever become passionate with a member of the opposite sex. Despite this, Oliver proposes to Elena and they get married. Oliver is gentle with Elena and tries to help her get over her fear of intimacy. As Oliver begins to get closer to his co-worker Alice, Elena suffers episodes of extreme jealousy where she blacks out. Alice starts to believe she is being stalked by a large predator and wonders if perhaps Elena has been telling the truth all along.
Like many other Val Lewton films, The Cat People makes great use of shadow play and subtle imagery. It is almost film noir in its style, highlighting the predator and prey through dramatic lighting. In this film at many points, a predator is suddenly turned into prey through Elena’s cunning, which makes for a very satisfying viewing. The film uses psychological drama to heighten the suspense of the film and keep the viewer guessing. The film is beautifully shot, with many scenes that completely blew me away. One of my favourite scenes is a pool scene where Alice goes for a swim and sees the shadow of a panther pacing around the edge of the pool.