Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been composing a quickly expanding list of horror films I want to watch (and re-watch for the millionth time) now that fall is officially upon us. I thought it best to start out with some early iterations of the vast genre for a couple of reasons. First, they are each a great reminder to jaded horror film fans that not every movie needs to garner scares from blood, guts, and screams (though those ones are awesome in their own right). Second, all of them are free and available online and have a conveniently short runtime. Another good perk with silent films is you can feel totally free to make your own soundtrack. Max Schreck mixed with Mogwai? Could be really incongruous, but I’d like to find out.
1) The Haunted Castle (1896)
Georges Méliès is often credited as being the grandfather of special effects in movies. Haunted Castle exhibits some classic Méliès illusions that were undoubtedly shocking to audiences in 1896. Perhaps is was seen less as “scary” and more as an attraction, but it’s nonetheless thought of today as one of the earliest horror films. This would be an awesome one to have on your TV on a loop during your Halloween party.
2) Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Hands down one of the greatest, visually rich horror films of all time. The set design is so striking and complements the eerie storyline of Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist, Cesare. If you’ve managed to go this long without seeing Caligari and have escaped any spoilers, you’re in for a real treat.
3) Nosferatu (1922)
Back in a much simpler time, long before vampires became sexualized and glittery, Dracula was portrayed as horrifying and gross. Star Max Schreck was cast purely based on his bizarre and off-putting looks. Make sure you watch the restored version (linked below), which has been tinted with nitrate—without color it’s completely impossible to distinguish day and night. And for the avid Nosferatu fans, the highly talented “Not So Silent Cinema” is coming back to PhilaMOCA Halloween night to perform their live score during the screening.
4) The Man Who Laughs (1928)
This German Expressionist film is closer to a melodrama in its plot, but because of its bizarre and dark aesthetic it definitely still deserves to be considered as a horror film. Conrad Veidt stars as the carnival freak whose mouth has been cut so he always appears to be smiling. If nothing else, seeing his enormous smile while he’s crying is pretty creepy—the look is said to have inspired the Joker.
5) The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Based on the classic story by Edgar Allan Poe, Usher is an outstanding example of an early supernatural film. Not only did Jean Epstein direct this, but also Luis Buñuel wrote the adaptation. It’s a gorgeous avant-garde ghost story, what’s not to like?
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.