In the 1920s those seeds planted the decade before took hold, and there are notable examples of early horror on both sides of the Atlantic. The most significant of these, and perhaps the most famous, is F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. It is the first of countless adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though famously made without the permission of the Bram Stoker estate. Although included amongst the Expressionist movement, what’s startling today is the movie’s lyrical use of natural light and exterior shots (of running water, animals etc.); visually it is in stark contrast to Caligari’s jagged mindscapes. They both create otherworldliness in different ways, one by giving us distorted images we can relate to, and the other by alienating us with carefully employed images of nature.
The best vampire movies from this to Let the Right One In (2008) take the myth seriously, and consider the sad reality of a creature who needs human blood to live and can only come out at night (the rules of vampirism change from movie to movie, as suits the plot). Whether they project charm, sex appeal or terror they have to address the fact that they want to drink your blood, and when presented with the opportunity find it almost impossible to resist. Later versions invariably played up Dracula’s romanticism; this version plays up his animalism.
The Count (here renamed Count Orlok) is played here by the aptly named Max Schrek, and while it is Bela Lugosi’s later performance that inspired the most imitations, this is ultimately the creepier one. His coiling fingers, forever shown in extended shadows, bald head and pointed ears are iconic; there is something half-dead about his appearance from the start. The lighting and focus on his face is sometimes curiously soft, making him look undefined: only semi-human. The loose nature of the adaptation allows Murnau and writer Henrik Galeen (who also wrote silent horror classic The Golem (1920)) to bring their own ideas to Stoker’s text: the curious parallels, for instance, between Hutter (the film’s equivalent of Jonathan Harker) and Orlok, and the apparent telepathic bond between these two and Hutter’s wife, Ellen (/Mina), who ultimately defeats the vampire.
The movie is full of great moments and sequences, none greater than the haunting voyage from Transylvania to Wisborg (a fictitious German town), including the famous shot of the vampire rising, in one steady movement, upright from his coffin. One of my favourite moments shows the shadow of his hand move over a woman’s body until it reaches her heart, then clenches shut. He is often seen in shadow, and the more obviously Expressionistic techniques are all connected with his character: the speeded-up carriage ride, the use of a negative image, and the moments when his character simply fades from the frame.
The horror genre as it emerged in Hollywood was more than simply a response to the birth of horror in Germany: a number of the technicians and directors from Germany actually moved to Hollywood in the ’20s, anticipating the refugees from Hitler who would come later. Murnau, one of the undisputed masters of silent cinema, came to Hollywood to make Sunrise (1927), after directing his own versions of Jekyll And Hyde (1920) and Faust (1926). The Expressionism movement continued to exert a large influence on American horror of subsequent decades.
American horrors of the 1920s are synonymous with one name: Lon Chaney, the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces,’ who appeared, under his own heavy make up, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925 and still the best version, pictured below), and The Hypnotist (AKA London After Midnight, 1927, one of the more famous lost films of silent cinema). The latter of these was made by Todd Browning, who went on to make Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). Chaney withdrew from the role of Gwnyplaine in Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928) leaving the door open for Caligari’s Conrad Veidt to take the role; the protagonist’s disfigured face, frozen in a permanent smile, would be an influence on Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. These movies were made almost exclusively by Carl Laemmle’s Universal Studios which over the next decade produced some of the most famous and important horror movies of the century, which I shall look into in the next article.
The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari and the 1910s