With so many horror film relying on jump scares and loud noises, we wanted to take a look at some of the most atmospheric, eerie films with no sound at all. While being startled is an involuntary action, being actually scared as a result of a chilling atmosphere is far harder to pull off. With silent cinema being forced to rely on visuals, some of the creepiest films ever made came from this era. We present our personal pick of the top silent horror movies of all time.
10. The Golum
One of the earliest examples of the monster movie, this German film tells of a 16th Century rabbi in Prague who sculpts a giant from clay to protect the Jews from persecution. The creature (played by co-director Wegener) definitely influenced later, more iconic monsters such as Frankenstein’s monster in the Universal pictures. Three films starring this monster were made, but only one survives to this day – How He Came into the World.
9. The Phantom Carriage
The Phantom Carriage dramatises the battle for the human soul as David Holm (played by director Victor Sjöström) is drafted to drive Death’s carriage, collecting the souls of the departed. As he fulfils his duty, the boundary between the world of the dead and the living is shown via ghostly multiple exposures. These multiple exposures are all the more impressive when you consider that they were achieved on hand-cranked cameras, rather than in the lab.
8. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Polish director Jean Epstein was influenced by French Impressionism, as well as the conventions of German Expressionism. His adaption of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is a mix of these ingredients: a disorienting and disturbing tale of love, loss and decay. The wide floors of the almost-empty sets communicate a sense of deep darkness, punctuated by a candle flame, or a glimpse of a bridal veil trailing from a coffin.
7. The Man Who Laughs
One of the more tragic movies on the list, this film tells the story of a young man named Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) whose face is disfigured as a child and is forced to live his life with a massive, toothy grin despite him being pitifully sad. Interestingly, Gwynplaine’s visage was one of the inspirations for Bill Finger’s initial images of the Joker. Although widely disliked for it’s morbidity on release, modern reviewers have been more favourable. And that grin is genuinely haunting.
6. Frankenstein (1910)
Thought to be a lost film until the 1970s,this small-scale version of Mary Shelley’s novel is in many ways more haunting than bigger budget Frankensteins. The filmmakers intended to emphasise “the mystic and psychological problems in this weird tale” rather than the gore or shock, but the creation scene is surprisingly gruesome for the time. As the screen is washed in a red tint, a skeleton emerges, gathers scraps of flesh to its bones and begins to wave. All the while, we keep cutting back to the horrified doctor peeking through the door.
5. The Haunted Castle
We’re putting this one on the list more because of it’s historical significance than actual scares. The film contains many traditional pantomime elements and is intended to amuse people, rather than frighten them. However, it is widely considered to be the first horror film ever made. At only three minutes long, it introduces many of the traditional elements of gothic horror – bats, cauldrons, skeletons, demons and the supernatural. Thought to be lost until the late eighties, it’s an interesting one to check out – if only to see where this all started.
4. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Many different versions of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic were made in the early movie days, but this one starring John Barrymore is one of the most interesting. It’s a showcase of early special effects with Barrymore himself contorting his face for much of the transformation, only later aided by cuts and dissolves. Barrymore’s own hands, extended by gruesome, gnarled fingers, are a tribute to Famous Players-Lasky’s makeup department.
3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Inspired by a trip to the funfair, the mindbending narrative of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which concerns a sleepwalking murderer controlled by a sinister showman, boasts visuals high in German Expressionism. Without sounds, the film manages to convay madness, instability and fear. The visuals of impossibly tilted and twisted painted backdrops and the now iconic deathmask makeup have made this one of the most influential horror films to come out of the silent era.
2. The Phantom of the Opera
Horror legend Lon Chaney was known as ‘the man of a thousand faces’, and here he uses his makeup skills to transform himself into the deformed ‘Phantom’. Contemporary reports said that audience members fainted and screamed when the Phantom was unmasked, revealing a corpse-like face with deep eye sockets, receding lips and gaping nostrils. For Chaney, playing such terrifying roles had a social purpose. “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice,” he wrote in the year this film was released. “The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals.” There have been dozens of Phantom adaptations, both pre-dating and following this one, but for us, Lon Chaney is the Phantom.
When it comes to iconic horror images, few are more famous than the bald, rat-like appearance of Max Shreck as Count Orlock in Murnau’s Nosferatu, an unsanctioned adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With his long claws, gruesome teeth, Shreck’s performance is chilling to this day, and might remain the most terrifying vampire committed to film. The movie was ruled unlawful due to copyright infringement in the mid-20s, and all prints were ordered to be destroyed. Luckily, one survived, and from that, one of horror’s most important movies was saved from being lost.