Cinema Gothic: The 1920s

This is the beginning of a new series tracing the history of horror film over the past nine decades, with five favorites from each decade. We will explore the cinematic artistry of the film, as well as its major themes and, often, its spiritual significance. While there are films that have been reflected upon as being early forms of the horror genre back to the 1890s, none truly exist beyond farcical comedies featuring the paranormal until the 1920s, when a Europe reeling from the ravages of war gave the genre life.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Director: Robert Weine. Screenplay: Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veit, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover. Country: Germany.

Few films carry a style and influence seen directly in films made 90 years later. The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari is one of those few films. In the 1920s, in a world that had just been ravaged by the horrors of war, the horror film burst onto the scene, and nobody was doing it like the Europeans. Germany did it first, and, it could be argued, Germany did it best. I agree with the many who would argue that the first really true horror film was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It alone first conveyed the mystery, the atmosphere, the dread, and the terror for which the genre would forever be known. Caligari is expressionism at its best. The sets are nonrealistic, strangely leaning shapes that merely suggest what they are intended to be. Their sharply angled designs and deep-cast shadows have proven highly influential into the modern day, particularly through the film work of Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Frankenweenie). Even the appearance of the psychic, murderous somnambulist Cesare visually foreshadows the slim, black-clad, pale-faced Edward Scissorhands. The film established the long practice of a twist ending, and this particular twist ending would serve as a template for other great films like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Caligari was given an almost shot-by-shot remake in 2005, which is interesting, but accept no substitutes for the original.

Nosferatu (1922)

Director: F.W. Murnau. Screenplay: Henrik Galeen. Based on the book Dracula by Bram Stoker. Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder. Country: Germany.

The first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (albeit unauthorized), and possibly still the most chilling, Nosferatu dared to make its audience uncomfortable on every possible level. Largely film on location rather than studio sets, there is a realism about the picture (especially in the pristine clarity of recently restored editions) that is striking, contrasted by the ghastly, rat-like appearance of Count Orlock (the name of the Count Dracula character) and his legion of rodents that spread a plague wherever he goes. Dracula is not suave seducer in this film. He is a true monster, hideous and horrible in every way, a parasite to all surrounding him. The film is known for its creeping shadows and the horrific figure of the vampire, but underlying themes should not be overlooked, such as Knock’s obsession with the Occult, the long-spread effects of the vampire (the plague), and the sacrificial willingness of Ellen (the Mina character of the book) to allow herself to be his victim so he can be destroyed by sunlight. The film was given a beautiful remake in 1979, which is worth seeing, but don’t miss out on the original.

Häxan (1922)

Director: Benjamin Christensen. Screenplay: Benjamin Christensen. Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Clara Pontoppidan, Oscar Stribolt. Country: Denmark.

A documentary on the history of witchcraft? So this film claims to be, and illustrates this story in lavish detail, depicting witches’ covens (including interactions with the devil himself), persecutions, and evil oppression. Featuring a surprising amount of macabre detail and engagement with both religion (including some satire of the Catholic handling of the issue) and modern psychology (still in its infancy at the time), the film was sure to leave its 1920s audience wary upon exiting the cinema, and Häxan‘s unique style makes it a must-see even decades later.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Director: Rupert Julian. Screenplay: Elliott J. Clawson, Raymond Schrock, et al. Based on the book by Gaston Leroux. Starring: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe. Studio: Universal. Country: USA

Lon Chaney’s makeup and terrifying-yet-sympathetic performance as Erik, the Phantom, alone make this film a must-see, though they aren’t the only reasons to see it. The magnificent sets (replications of the Paris Opera, as designed by concept artist Ben Carré) are a new level of grandiose. The masked ball sequence, which uses an infantile form of the Technicolor process (to great effect), is a wonder, especially once Chaney’s Phantom enters in his blood-tone Red Death costume. The Phantom, a man with the face of death, lives across the opera’s underground lake (a veritable Acheron river of Greek lore). Only the love of (aptly named) Christine can ultimately redeem him. Unfortunately, while this happened in the premiere cut of the film and the Phantom dies heartbroken but redeemed, this ending was scrapped soon thereafter (along with some other apparently impressive scenes), and the surviving prints show The Phantom being chased by a mob and getting the just desserts for the carnage his has wrought. Still a remarkable film, the restored editions (all of the shorter but more pristine 35 mm. 1929 reissues, as the 1925 only survives as a fuzzier 16 mm. print) are especially worth checking out for the amazing detail of Chaney’s appearance and the stunning revelation of the Technicolor masked ball and hand-colored rooftop and torture chamber sequences. After many other retellings of this story, this film still holds up the best.

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Director: Paul Leni. Screenplay: Walter Anthony, Alfred Cohn, Robert Hill. Based on the play by John Willard. Starring: Laura Le Plante, Creighton Hale, and Forrest Stanley. Studio: Universal. Country: USA

This is the grandfather of all “old dark house” films, featuring long corridors, billowing curtains, and hidden passageways. We are not certain until the end whether this is a ghost story, a murder mystery, or a conspiracy. The tension builds beautifully, and is only heightened by the extremely foreboding atmosphere. Expertly executed by imported German Expressionist film director Paul Leni, this film is notable for creating the atmosphere that all haunted house films thereafter would emulate.

Stayed tuned for the 1930s…

(Illustration: a still image from Nosferatu)