By Heather Babcock
As I watch and explore silent pictures, a common theme emerges: Death. This is not surprising as many of these films were created in the years following WW1. An estimated 37 million lives were lost during what is considered one of the deadliest and bloodiest wars in history. Young men (some still teenagers) from rural areas and working class backgrounds saw enlistment as their one chance to travel and experience adventure – to “see the world” – sadly, many saw their dreams of exploration mutate into real life nightmares of unspeakable horror.
Death and destruction lurk within the shadows of movies made during this period. Feelings of loneliness, disappointment and alienation fuse with fear. What follows is a handful of silent horror films which offer a very different kind of escapism: watching these movies, you may feel as though the world has been upended – leaving you alone to drown in their vast, sempiternal skies.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
“Nosferatu. Does this word not sound like the deathbird calling your name at midnight? Beware you never say it – for then the pictures of life will fade to shadows, haunting dreams will climb forth from your heart and feed on your blood.” (Opening inter-title of Nosferatu)
Okay, so if that opening inter-title alone isn’t enough to give you goosebumps, you may want to check to make sure that you still have a pulse. Adapted (without permission) from Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula and produced by a studio with real-life occult connections, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) may just be the greatest horror movie of all time, silent or talkie.
A WW1 vet, Murnau aspired to become a painter but was frustrated by his own attempts. “He said he felt like Raphael without hands,” Ellen Luckow, daughter of art director Robert Herlth said in the documentary The Language of Shadows (2007). “He sees everything but cannot paint it.”
Film became Murnau’s canvas, with shadows as his paint. His use of light and shadows in Nosferatu (1922) is much more memorable – and frightening – than the CGI gore of today.
Bela Lugosi’s vampire in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) is in-arguably the most iconic and enduring but with all due respect to the great Lugosi, it is Max Schreck’s Count Orlok, with his hunched skeletal frame and Edvard Munch-esque eyes, who terrifies the most.
Enter Nosferatu’s “land of phantoms” where men hunger for flies and corpses thirst for blood in what has to be the deadliest real estate transaction ever.
A Fool There Was (1915)
All hail Theda Bara (real name Theodosia Goodman), widely considered the silver screen’s first sex symbol and the woman who made the word “vamp” both a noun and a verb. In A Fool There Was (1915), the film that catapulted her to fame, Bara chews up scenery (and men) as a liquor pushing, sexually aggressive vampire. This vamp doesn’t drink blood though: rather Bara slowly drains the will to live from her male victims by eating away at their dignity. “Kiss me, my fool!” she famously purrs but beware: her kiss renders “respectable” men destitute and depraved. Buried alive under the rubble of their broken lives, still her victims beg her for more.
Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Vampire, the mythology of A Fool There Was (1915) is older than this 104 year old movie: alluringly evil woman lures happy family man away from his wholesome wife and child, leading him down a path of debauchery towards a tragic decline. In 2005, the trashy tabloid media basically ripped off the plot of A Fool There Was (1915) with Angelina Jolie in the role of Theda Bara, Jennifer Aniston as the wronged wife and Brad Pitt as the blameless husband who’s lured into the web of “the vamp”.
In his book Hollywood: The Pioneers (1979), Kevin Brownlow writes that “by the end of World War One, Theda’s day was over.”
Unfortunately, the “slut-shaming” fostered by movies like A Fool There Was (1915) lives on. And that’s the scariest thing of all.
HE Who Gets Slapped (1924)
Forget Pennywise. That clown’s got nothin’ on Lon Chaney’s HE, a depressed scientist who, beaten down by life and tired of being treated like a joke, turns himself into a living punchline as HE: a masochistic (and eventually sadistic) circus clown who begs to be slapped for laughs. HE Who Gets Slapped (1924) was the first film solely created by MGM and the studio’s first use of Leo the Lion. It’s a strangely delicious bit of demented whimsy that will haunt your dreams and sweeten your nightmares. Chaney’s performance creeps under the skin and stays there. HE Who Gets Slapped (1924) would make an amazing double bill with Joker (2019).
The Phantom Carriage (1921)
Victor Sjöström’s “tale told in moving pictures” is proof that you don’t need gore or CGI to evoke chills. The great director used a blue tint and double exposure to create the haunting image of the titular carriage, driven by a ghostly hooded figure in dirty robes.
The film opens on New Year’s Eve as a Salvation Army sister lies dying of consumption. Meanwhile, three ne’er-do-wells guzzle bootleg whiskey in a graveyard, “waiting for the midnight hour.”
“Whoever dies on this Eve must drive Death’s carriage,” one of the vagrants, David Holm (played by Sjöström himself), tells his friends. Little does he know that once the clock strikes twelve, it will be he who will be chosen to collect the souls of the dearly (and not so dearly) departed. But first David will be made to atone for his misdeeds on earth, which were unspeakably vile. It is hard to say what is more terrifying: Death’s carriage or David Holm, a man so cruel and vicious that he heckles at baptisms, neglects his wife and children in favor of booze and, in spite of the fact that he knows he is consumptive, coughs in people’s faces “in hopes of finishing them off” (including his own children). In a flashback scene, we watch as the aforementioned Salvation Army sister spends an entire night mending David’s filthy coat. The next morning, instead of thanking her, he gleefully rips the coat’s lining and tears off the buttons. In spite of all this, she loves David and truly believes he is capable of redemption and kindness. On her deathbed, she cries out for him.
The Phantom Carriage (1921) is part horror movie and part morality play. The flashback scenes of David wasting away his time and family’s paycheck in a saloon at the expense of his wife and young children bring to mind Ten Nights in a Barroom, Timothy Shay Arthur’s 1854 temperance novel which was made into a widely popular play and inspired no less than seven film adaptations from 1901 – 1931. It is the scenes of the phantom and his carriage however that are truly memorable and haunting: as long as I live, I shall never forget the image of the Grim Reaper and his horse drawn carriage plunging the depths of the ocean to claim the soul of a drowned man.
The Phantom Carriage (1921) had a huge influence on at least one other famous thriller: a scene in which David uses an axe to break down a door, with his wife and children cowering on the other side, no doubt inspired the infamous “Here’s Johnny!” bit in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
Tip: Don’t watch The Phantom Carriage (1921) – or any of the above films – just before bedtime…unless you really don’t want to sleep.
(Originally written in October 2018, updated in October 2019; copyright Heather Babcock)