films The Best Horror Films from the Silent Era

Christopher Myers
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The early era of film gave birth to masterpieces that resonate even today. These silent horror films laid the groundwork for the entire horror genre. Each a work of art, these early films had to rely on clever cinematography, visual storytelling, and compelling use of shadow to frighten audiences. Here are examples where eerie atmosphere trumps cheap scares. The use of a full orchestral score adds a layer of gothic charm to these films that any horror buff will appreciate. Some of them are even still shown with a live band accompaniment, just as when they were first released.

While these films are enjoyable to watch in their own right, they also are great to study. Most modern horror conventions can be traced back to these films from the silent era. If you look closely, you can see elements later used by Vincent Price, Tim Burton, and many others. Several of the greatest horror actors to ever live, such as Boris Karloff, got their start in silent pictures. The 2005 silent film The Call of Cthulhu is a direct throwback to this bygone age of cinema.

These are not only some of the greatest horror films from the silent era, they are also among the best horror films ever made. 


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This 1920 rendition of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel is as eerie as it is entertaining. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde offers a compelling look into the duality of man, as well as the hubris of knowledge. John Barrymore shines in his nuanced conveyance madness, his eyes speaking volumes more than words ever could.

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Nosferatu


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This 1922 classic is still scary even by today's standards. Nosferatu proves that mastery of mood and lighting is crucial to creating a feeling of dread. The plot is easy to follow and compelling, which is sometimes difficult to achieve in a silent film. The silence adds to the atmosphere of the film, as if our characters have lost their voices in terror. The construction of the film keeps the viewer engaged throughout.

Also, Count Orlok looks super creepy, like nightmare-fueled demon meets perverted, old man level creepy.

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This 1927 film practically invented gas-lighting. In a setting straight out of Scooby Doo, our heroine must spend a night in a spooky mansion in order to secure a sizable inheritance. If she is pronounced insane, however, the inheritance will instead go to a mystery figure, the identity of which forms the crux of the film's plot. It is hard to watch this film without thinking of Vincent Price, especially his performance in the 1959 movie House on Haunted Hill.

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Watching The Phantom of the Opera with a live orchestra seems especially appropriate, since this 1925 film itself plays like a symphony throughout. This film combines horror and gothic romance superbly. The phantom (Lon Chaney) is a tragic villain in the truest sense, one whose fall from grace leaves audiences saddened and conflicted.

Of course, the film also features the masterful creature makeup work of Chaney, and the scene of the phantom being unmasked as he plays his organ is one of the most iconic images in all of horror.

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This 1920s film is above all disorientation, and is really one of the first psychological thrillers to be made. The movie puts you into the mindset of the characters, going beyond realism and carefully controlling perspective. The sets are as twisted as the narrative, featuring odd angles and a whimsical expressionist style. You can easily see the influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in Tim Burton's films, especially Edward Scissorhands.

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The Hands of Orlac


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In this 1924 film, a master pianist loses his hands in a tragic accident. In a bizarre twist of fate, his new hand grafts once belonged to a murderer. The Hands of Orlac comes from the director (and lead actor) of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and thus the two films share much of the same visual flare. This is probably the creepiest hands have ever been, even though countless other films have attempted without success to explore the same territory.

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The Man Who Laughs


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The sins of the father are visited upon the son in this 1928 film. A noble refuses to kiss the hand of the king and is then executed. His son's face is mutilated in the same way as Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight (and indeed, the permanently grinning-grimacing face of Conrad Veidt as the main character inspired Bob Kane to create Batman's nemesis).

We follow this poor fellow's adventures as he is adopted by a traveling showman. Our villain is the court jester, who also wears a false smile. This is a powerful film, which deals with complicated themes throughout.

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Faust


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Goethe would be proud of this beautiful 1926 rendition of his masterpiece. Faust follows the character of the same name as he is seduced by a demon named Mephisto. Tempted by the allure of knowledge and youth, Faust literally signs a deal with the devil. The narrative asks, can a man cheat the devil, or does he always get his due?

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