horror movies and tv 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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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 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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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 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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Waxworks


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This 1924 film is three short stories of the macabre rolled into one narrative. The owner of a wax museum hires a writer to create stories for three of his wax figures. The three stories are then played out for the audience with expressionist flare.

This "omnibus" approach to horror storytelling would continue on into later decades, with such staples as Black Sabbath, The House That Dripped Blood, Tales of Terror, Creepshow, and Trick 'r' Treat adopting the anthology format.

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The Unknown


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The Unknown is a 1927 film about a man posing as an armless carnival knife thrower, but who secretly works as a burglar. The criminal falls in love with the daughter of the circus owner, who also happens to be his target in the knife throwing act. This is a well-told story with a plot thick with murder and intrigue, all conveyed through by solid acting, especially its star, the always superb Lon Chaney.

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Another film lost to time (the last known copy was destroyed in a fire in 1967), London After Midnight features Lon Chaney as a vampire-like creature with sharp teeth, a top hat, and a cape, not unlike the assumed visage of Jack the Ripper. Tod Browning, later of Dracula and Freaks fame, directed this film, based on his own short story. The above video is a recreation of the film, utilizing production stills.

Whether the film is actually terrifying by today's standards remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however - upon its release, London After Midnight was scary enough for at least one man, who rushed into the street shortly after viewing the movie and murdered a random woman, claiming Chaney's horrific visage had driven him to madness. 

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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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