Dir. George Melford, USA, 1931
Often praised as being a superior version of the English-language Dracula, Melford’s movie certainly plays less stagebound than Browning’s. While largely following the same beats (by virtue of having to use the same sets) as the English version, there’s enough here to make the film worthwhile in its own right.
Dir. Tod Browning, USA, 1931
The horror film genre didn’t exist before Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. There were occasional horror movies – particularly Nosferatu, which casts a long shadow over this first official adaptation of Dracula – but it was Universal in 1931 that kick-started the first cycle of horror films; the re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938 that initiated the second, and re-makes by Hammer that launched the third. And the two characters have been popularly linked ever since. Andy Warhol and Dan Curtis tackled them both in the 1970s, and there were big-screen adaptations in the 1990s.
Dir. Paul Leni, USA, 1927
Opening with a hand clawing away cobwebs to reveal the opening titles, The Cat and the Canary deploys all the tricks of German and American cinema in a virtuoso, last-minute masterpiece of silent film-making. It’s rife with all kinds of neat touches – from animated intertitles that deploy different fonts, punctuation and crash zooms to mimic the cadence of the human voice, to superimposed skulls, giant cats and medicine bottles that reflect the inner lives of the characters.
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1927
One of the earliest films to be based on the Jack the Ripper murders, and one of Alfred Hitchcock’s first pictures, The Lodger is not, strictly speaking, a horror film. Nor is it even a ‘Hitchcockian thriller’, except in the most tentative sense.
Opening promisingly, with a screaming girl and the discovery of a corpse – the Avenger’s seventh victim, we soon discover, the first part of the picture is effective and gripping. The horrific backdrop – a killer is stalking blonde women each Tuesday night – could be the premise for half a dozen gialli. Hitchcock establishes the media furore around the murders with a montage of newspapers going to press; and then more intimately the terror this reportage is provoking backstage at the ‘Golden Curls’ fashion show. While some of the girls make a joke of it, others are genuinely frightened. Our heroine, Daisy, seems made of sterner stuff.
Dir. Rupert Julian, USA, 1925
The most famous of Lon Chaney’s horror roles (he’d also played Quasimodo in 1923, and would go on to play the vampire in London After Midnight in 1927), The Phantom of the Opera is a pretty faithful adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel.
It opens with the old managers of the Paris Opera House resigning at the height of their success, and handing the reins to the new management. It turns out the opera is under the influence of a mysterious ghost, who instructs that Box Five is to be kept empty for him, and who is promoting the chorus girl Christine Daae at the expense of the prima donna Carlotta.
Dir. Benjamin Christensen, Sweden/Denmark, 1922
Presented as a documentary on the history of witchcraft through the ages, Haxan is about as serious a study as Cannibal Holocaust is of South American customs. It’s a salacious, shockfest dressed up with a long introductory sequence about cosmology in antiquity; some medieval woodcuts and a final sequence that’s meant to make the audience reflect on how much we have really changed since the Dark Ages.
Dir. FW Murnau, Germany, 1922
Given it is also held up as a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema, Nosferatu couldn’t be much more different from Caligari. The first film revelled in artifice. Nosferatu is steeped in realism. The earlier film is shot on studio sets; Nosferatu is largely filmed on location. Caligari is an insane nightmare. Nosferatu, though nightmarish, has the uncanny intruding into the normal world.
It’s also practically impossible to watch this, probably the most influential of all horror movies, without spotting the roots of so much horror cinema – from the 1931 Dracula, whose best moments are frequently pointed to by Murnau, to the vampire, who holds himself like Karloff’s creature, stalking jerkily through the rooms of Castle Orlok. And Orlok’s end, dissolved into dust by the rising sun, a complete departure from Stoker’s source novel, is so powerful it’s recycled in Hammer’s original Dracula.
Dir. John S Robertson, USA, 1920
This is the first of three adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella to be released in 1920. It’s a shame that FW Murnau’s version, Der Janus-Kopf, has not survived. Robertson’s picture is notable for the star performance from John Barrymore as Jekyll and Hyde, but at 79 minutes lacks the Tales of the Unexpected style mystery/twist of the source.
Dir. Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920
Eureka’s 2014 Blu-ray makes the bold claim that The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is ‘the first true horror film’. While not really true, it’s probably fair to say that this is the earliest horror film whose influence has endured beyond the silent era. It’s visually striking – right from the queasy green-tinted title cards with their odd, abstract designs a discordant note is struck which follows through both in the much-praised expressionist set design, but also in the spiky, disjointed story.
A film in six acts, it opens with the striking image of two men talking in a garden while an ethereal maiden, dressed in white, floats dreamily towards them. This is the framing narrative, and we learn that one of the two men is Franzis, who proceeds to relate the weird story of Dr Caligari and his somnambulist slave Cesare and the reign of terror they perpetrate in the town of Holstenwall.