Baby, we don’t need dialogue where we’re going. I think it can be hard to know where to start with silent horror, as so many of the one-time greats have been lost to time, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some absolute must-sees hiding out in those quiet cinematic corners. Let’s talk about where to jump in with the spooky, silent scaries!
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari
This iconic German surrealist masterpiece, dubbed by Roger Ebert as one of the “first true horror films”, is still just as scary now as it was on it’s 1920 release. The stunning and off-kilter painted scenery serve as the backdrop to a hypnotic serial killer storyline, and the utterly unique visuals and avant-garde arthouse style have helped it remain just as iconic and watchable more than a hundred years after it was made. If you’re looking for a place to start with silent movies, Doctor Caligari is the perfect lead-in – and is probably one of the scariest things you’ll watch all year.
A curious mix of documentary, re-enactment of occult rituals, and pre-Hays-code sex, drugs, rock and roll, Haxan takes on the historical roots of and attitudes towards witchcraft. Director Benjamin Christensen had no right to be pulling off a film as trippy as this in 1922, and Haxan feels like a true artefact from a different era, a movie that both matter-of-factly and with total disturbing oddness (sometimes in the same shot) explores the history of the occult within the world at the time.
Horror icons and frequent collaborators Lon Chaney and Tod Browning were at the top of their games here, for the 1927 release The Unknown. Set in a circus, where Lon Chaney’s Alonzo has fallen for a woman who can’t stand men’s arms, it’s a twisted combination of melodramatic romance and stomach-churning body horror, all underpinned by an incredible performance from Chaney (for my money, his best ever). Deeply unsettling and genuinely brutal. The Unknown has rightly earned it’s spot on top of Browning’s best-of lists.
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By Lou MacGregor and Kevin Boyle
(header image via The New York Times)
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