Category: History of Horror

History of Horror: The Cat and the Canary

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.

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History of Horror: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

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.

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History of Horror: The Phantom of the Opera

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.

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History of Horror: Haxan

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.

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History of Horror: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

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.

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History of Horror: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

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.

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History of Horror: Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari

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.

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