The Horror Honeys: Horror Movie History: The Films of the 1920's

Horror Movie History: The Films of the 1920's

The first in a series of articles on the history of horror films, I'm going to be hitting a LOT of "Horror Hipster" buttons. The films on this list you may not have seen (and you might not be able to find) but they're an integral part of the history of Hollywood Horror, and an important reflection of national identity and political climates. The 20s were a rough time in many parts of the world, the first World War had taken a heavy toll on the world population, not to mention the emotional and physical toll on the survivors. Germany was in the depths of reparations payments, and the entire world was reeling from the enormity of what had actually happened during the war. The 20s were also a time of rebellion - women were realizing that they could have a life outside the home, and the movies of the 20s helped spur on that movement.

As I've mentioned in previous articles, early film was an expression of theatre - heavy on the pantomime, with big expressions, big gestures and overemphasized makeup were the name of the game. Silent films are an acquired taste, they're usually slow to build action - the slowest of slow burns are silent films - and the payoff scares are obviously oriented towards the audiences of the time. With that in mind - grab your greasepaint and check out these 20s treasures!

1920 - 1924

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - before horror was considered a "true genre," Dr. Caligari is widely considered to be the first true horror film ever made. Dr. Caligari tells the story of a murderous fortune teller who gives dire predictions of his clients' fate, and then assists in the fulfilment of those predictions. The story is a second hand/flashback account told by the best friend of the first victim. Does that count as the first version of 'found footage?'

The Golem: How He Came Into The World (1920) - A German film about the plight of the Jews of Prague, The Golem was a very early politically charged film about a Rabbi who creates a creature out of clay to protect his congregation from persecution. While the subject of this film is set in the 16th Century, The Golem is an almost prophetic portrait of the plight of German Jews only a few decades later.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920) - Starring the incomparable John Barrymore, it's fair to say that everyone knows the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - A dedicated scientist overtaken by the monster within. On the heels of World War 1, the world knew what it was to release the monster that they didn't know was lurking beneath. The true terror in the 20's was the dark heart of man.

Nosferatu (1922) - Unable to secure the rights to Bram Stoker's "vampire novel," W.F Murnau made a film that followed the basic outline of Stoker's novel with enough minor changes to prevent legal action or the film being shut down - regardless, Stoker's estate made sure that all photographs and negatives of the film were destroyed. Nosferatu was banned in Sweden until 1972 for "excessive horror" which seems utterly laughable by today's standards. If you aren't able to find a copy of this film, it's highly suggested that you check out The Shadow of the Vampire which tells the (fictional) story of the filming of Murnau's horror masterpiece.

Haxan (1922) - Haxan is a historical view of witchcraft presented in seven parts and in a variety of styles. Witch-hunts, renaissance witches, pagan ritual, and the comparison of the hysteria of contemporary women with the behaviour of the witches in the Middle Ages, concluding that they are very similar. Fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable is a continuing theme in horror films - when women were starting to come into their own, this was a very real mystery that needed to be confronted. In this case, as a horror film subject.

The Hands of Orlac (1924) - World War 1 brought to the home front the realities of warfare - amputation, surgery, and the advent of transplants, a new fear was born. The Hands of Orlac confronts this fear - what if your replacement limbs one belonged to a less than savoury character? Will they follow their old profession or serve their new master?


Wolf Blood (1925) - The first (surviving) werewolf film, Wolf Blood is another exploration of the fear associated with medical procedures. In this case, a man receives a blood transfusion, and believes that he is turning into a wolf. Nearly impossible to find, Wolf Blood is an important building block in the animal horror genre - once again the fear of releasing the wildness within takes hold of the early film going audience.

Phantom of the Opera (1925) - Lon Chaney's iconic performance isn't the beginning of his penchant for playing the roles of the mad and disfigured, but is one of his better known portrayals. The Phantom stalks the Paris Opera House seeking the ultimate in beauty - the perfect voice, the perfect student. The story of The Phantom is a familiar one through years of musical versions, and remakes, but nothing is as beautiful as the original.

Faust (1926) - Another W.F. Murnau creation, Faust is a VERY old tale of a wager between God and The Devil for the price of a man's soul. Goethe's original 1830's tragic play was very long, and took place over several complicated sets and locations. Muranu's Faust was created with an almost limitless budget and the beauty of the play is not lost in the film re-imagining. Faust is a must see from this era.

Metropolis (1927) - One of the earliest science fiction films,Metropolis is a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city's mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences. Once again in the aftermath of war, and coming into a new decade, the difference between the socio-economic classes weighed heavily on the world and Metropolis put that into a futuristic context that the contemporary movie goer could identify with.

The Man Who Laughs (1928) - In 1660, a proud nobleman refuses to kiss the hand of a tyrannical Irish king - as revenge, he is cruelly executed and his son surgically disfigured. Known in modern times as "A Glasgow Smile," our protagonist was perhaps our first look at the Joker and his "why so serious" grin. The tragic tale of The Man Who Laughs is a continuation of the mindset of the day - the superficial beauty and the beast mentalities, and the continued exploration of the fear of the unknown and the unexplained.