We’re counting down the Top 10 Horror Movies of the 1920s in honor of the one hundred years between now and then. We have entered the 2020s and it seems like only yesterday I was throwing on my flapper dress, doing up my hair in a finger wave and going out on the town to cut a rug. But time marches on and slows for no mortal- argyle socks or otherwise.
So without further ado, allow me to unleash the Top 10 Horror Movies of the 1920s!
10. Haxan (1922)
Haxan was part documentary, part fiction, exploring the history of witchcraft, demonology, and satanism. It was broken down into four parts with the first focusing on a dissertation of all things evil such as demons and witches their appearances in primitive and medieval culture. The second features a series of fictionalized vignettes depicting medieval superstition and beliefs on the matter of the before mentioned witches and demons. The third segment was a long narrative of an old woman accused of witchcraft by a dying man’s family and the fourth teaches how modern psychology offers better insight into the beliefs and practices of the past. Pretty forward-thinking for a time when most people with mental health issues were discarded into barbaric institutions.
9. The Golem (1920)
Strange things are afoot in 16th century Prague when a rabbi gets his people kicked out of town only to build a statue in effigy, in hopes that it might come to life in the form of a savior for him and his crew. It seems when the chips are down, this rabbi might be one siddur short of a Tanakh, but an evil spirit sees the rabbi’s fumbling attempts and brings the statue to life. Remember when I said the spirit was evil? Well, at first, the creature is gentle and kind but all that goes sideways when he quickly changes to an insane monster, imprisoning the rabbi as a servant.
Wegener made a version of this folk-horror film in 1915 but was unhappy with the compromises he had to make in telling the true lore of this story. The German Expressionist director remounted the 1920 version and cited it as a complete and accurate telling of the tale in Prague while he was filming another of his horror films, The Student of Prague (1913).
8. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
It seems German Expressionism was all the rage in the 1920s and The Man Who Laughs is another dark and dreary example of the bleak stylings of this artistic movement. Directed by Paul Leni, the film features a man living with a grotesque carnival-like grin after being disfigured by a king as a child. Now an 18th-century clown, he once again becomes the pawn of royalty that scarred him as a boy.
The Man Who Laughs was originally supposed to be a vehicle for actor Lon Chaney following the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) but Universal failed to gain the rights to the Victor Hugo and the project stalled out. Once things were ironed out contractually, Chaney was out and German actor Conrad Veidt was in after having previously worked with director Leni in Waxworks (1924). The rest is ghoulish history. One look at Veidt’s oversized, leering grin and you’ll not sleep soundly for a long while.
7. Faust (1926)
Mephisto and an Archangel walk into a bar… actually they make a bet that the demon can corrupt a good man’s soul, destroying all divinity within the mortal’s being. If the demon wins, Lucifer gets dominion over Earth. You’d think with stakes like that, the archangel would have maybe consulted with someone above his pay grade about this but he doesn’t and things are looking rather miserable for our temporal, Faust.
Up until this point, no movie looked the way Faust did. This beautifully shot film was the benchmark in the industry for years to come. Its technical influence on the industry lived on through its innovations such as an unheard of a two camera set up. The special effect, while dazzling to audiences and other filmmakers alike, was time-consuming. For example, the short scene where the contract is being written by fire took an entire day to film.
6. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
We all know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and John Barrymore’s (yep, Drew’s grandpappy) performance of the tortured doctor is the stuff of legends. The stark contrast between the two characters, while on the surface is stereotypical, the subtleties he brings to the deeper recesses of both sides of the role’s characteristics are brilliant.
In fact, Barrymore’s commitment to the character is so inspired, the filmmakers didn’t use any special effects during the transformation scenes from Jekyll to Hyde. They relied on Barrymore’s ability to contort for face and convulse his body and the result was cinema magic.
5. The Haunted Castle (1921)
Not to be confused with Georges Méliès 1896 first-ever horror film of the same name, The Haunted Castle tells the story of a nobleman who hosts a days-long hunting retreat for a bunch of his rich friends at his remote castle where the hunt is cut short due to inclement weather. After spending days indoors, hosting the men, the Count comes down with either a serious case of a guilty conscience or a serious need to prove his innocence when he attempts to convince the men that he did not commit a murder years earlier.
Director F. W. Murnau (whose name you’ll see on this list quite a few times) creates a moody psychodrama using flashbacks and dream sequences that drip with a dismal atmosphere that at the time, only Murnau could seem to conjure. This is also one of the earliest surviving works of the director.
4. London After Midnight (1927)
Those hypnotic eyes, those pointed teeth, that ghastly smile, these are the images of the man in the beaver hat played by horror legend Lon Chaney. As the story goes, five years after the death of Roger Balfour, Scotland Yard’s Detective Burke is still investigating the case in an attempt at proving the death as murder and not a suicide. While on the case, he encounters a ghastly man in a top hat who may or may not be trying to help him solve the case.
The makeup effects for Chaney’s ghoulish man in the beaver hat was done with wired fitting around his eyes that fit like monocles. The teeth were pointed like vampire fangs which gave the character a quality quite different from that of the detective, which was needed since Chaney played both roles. Sadly, the last surviving print of this film was destroyed in the 1965 MGM vault fire, but in 2002 Turner Classic Movies aired a reconstruction version of the film which used the original script and film stills to recreate the film’s original story.
3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
When it comes to German Expressionist Cinema you can’t find a more quintessential film than Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The story of an insane carnival hypnotist who uses a somnambulist to commit murder is a masterclass in early suspense filmmaking and despite it being one hundred years old, silent and in black and white, it still holds up remarkably well today.
The film is seen thematically as anti-authoritarian with a focus on the brutal and the irrational. The character of Dr. Caligari represents a “brutal” “irrational” German war government and Cesare, the sleepwalker, is betokened as the everyman who is conditioned by this brutal government to kill in their wars. The use of a dark and twisted visual style emphasizes these bleak themes, with sharp, pointed forms, oddly angled lines set at unusual angles.
2. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Another famously tragic story told time and again. This not the Phantom from that fluffy musical people are used to, it’s a true horror film complete with murder, mayhem and a peek at the real horror which lies within the hearts of those that fear what they don’t understand.
Actor Lon Chaney designed his own makeup for the character of The Phantom and it remains his most ghastly. It was such a hit with the filmmakers that they kept the monster’s visage secret right up until the release of the film, barring any release of publicity stills prior to release.
1. Nosferatu (1922)
When director F. W. Murnau wanted to film a version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he couldn’t secure the rights from the late author’s family so he decided that he would forge ahead and make his own vampire movie, liberally borrowing from Stoker’s mythos. Among the changes, the name Dracula became Count Orlok, the location changed from Britain to Germany and the word vampire changed to nosferatu.
Upon the release of the film, Murnau was sued by Stoker’s heirs and all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed. Thankfully copies survived and today, almost a century later, Nosferatu is considered an important influence in filmmaking, horror or otherwise.
The horror was rich in this decade and it almost feels like a crime leaving so many films off this list. Below, I have included a mere smattering of the films that almost made the list but could easily be interchanged with anything mentioned above.
Fall of the House of Usher (1928) brought the Edgar Allan Poe tale from page to screen in full cinematic glory. Waxworks (1924), another Paul Leni film, focuses on the fantastical perils of working in a wax museum. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) keeps chameleon Lon Chaney swinging from the belfries and Dante’s Inferno (1924) saw part of Dante Alighieri’s famous Devine Comedy poem adapted for the screen complete with fright wigs, blackface, and full nudity… in hell.
What do you think? How does our list compare with yours? What would you included or take away? Let us know on our Twitter, Subreddit and Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook. We’re dying to know your thoughts. Until next time, kids… Stay creepy!