What if someone screams and no one can hear it, does it make a sound? For three decades horror movies were silent. Like the mystique of Halloween, through the silence, people’s eyes were magnetized to horrific images that spoke thousand of words and emotions without making one sound.
The piercing screams and monstrous roars that fill recent horror movies almost overshadow the chilling thrills of horror movies from the silent era. In the years before sound, horror was tied with comedy in popularity in silent films and, through generations, remains extremely memorable. From 1902 through 1927, people gasped and fainted in theater seats as they watched many horror movies. From 1920 to 1925, horror movies nearly dominated the silent screen. The screams only came from the audience.
Although sound movies were introduced in 1927, it took about 15 years for sound to play a critical role in horror films. Even classics like Karloff’s Frankenstein and Lugosi’s Dracula played more toward graphics than audio. That’s partly because directors Todd Browning and James Whale graduated from the silent era. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Spellbound. Miklos Rosza’s score included an eerie electric synthesized sound that was used to typify the inner workings of the confused, criminal mind. For nearly 30 years, horror films were silent yet extremely chilling and memorable.
In 1902, French filmmaking pioneer George Melies released the first science fiction film about a trip to the moon.
1920 was a big year for horror films and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, from Germany, used shadowy effects to render dark ominous layers into this dark tale.
John Barrymore, a classic theater actor, offered a violent and chilling portrayal of the “darker” sides of personality in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The actor that typified horror through painful, horrific disguises was Lon Chaney. His role as Erik in 1925′s Phantom of the Opera is still viewed as the personification of ghostly horror, even though Phantom of the Opera was remade several times, including a musical version. The silent Phantom remains truly effective.
Lon Chaney went to great and painful lengths to distort his face and body to provide truly creepy imagery. His Phantom makeup has never been fully duplicated. Chaney painted his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly deformed look of the Phantom. When audiences first saw Chaney’s Phantom they were said to have screamed or fainted at the scene where Christine pulls the concealing mask away, revealing his skull-like features to the audience.
Phantom of the Opera and Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were among the top grossing films of the silent era. Phantom also introduces a short technicolor sequence of his appearance at the masquerade ball.
It’s rather odd that our favorite vampire, Dracula, never made it to the silent screen. He did. An extremely creepy Dracula was seen in the German classic, Nosferatu.
The dark and ominous Nosferatu is the undeadly silent prelude based on Dracula. The German classic starred Max Schreck (Schreck is German for fright). This portrayal was truly a thin, ghastly vampire waiting to pounce on his victims. There’s no romanticism here, as portrayed in the 1930 sound version with Bela Lugosi. Just pure horror!
Due to copyright issues with Bram Stoker’s 19th-century Dracula novel, the film was called Nosferatu, The Undead.
Perhaps one of the very first horror stories first came from ancient, Talmudic, Jewish folklore. The Golem was an anthropomorphic, unfigured mass of life. In 1920, during the first massive ways of horror films, Germany releases The Golem, a mystical tale of bringing death to life. A precursor of Frankenstein, Golem made legend seem real.
From the earliest civilizations, fear of the unexplainable often accounted for unfathomable horror. We seem to celebrate horror on Halloween but for thousands of years, pagans relished in rituals of magic and mayhem. Whether horror is a prime motivator for survival is questionable. It remains an entertaining preoccupation.