A new retrospective opened at the Austrian Film Museum this week. Carnival of Souls: Horror Movies 1918-1966 is the first half of a series, featuring 51 films that shaped the history of cinema. The focus on silent cinema is a welcome rarity (with live piano accompaniment). Since we couldn’t jet to Austria for the holiday weekend, we decided to host our own screening at home. We’ve gathered 20 of the greatest silent fright films that draw on dark literary tales, international folklore, and early horrors from history. Turn down the lights, and enjoy the silence.
A “historical” view of witchcraft in seven parts depicting demonic rites and hysteria from the Middle Ages. Director Benjamin Christensen makes an appearance as the Devil and Jesus Christ.
A macabre and atmospheric German Expressionist classic, impeccably designed. The dream of a madman.
Directed by early horror pioneer Georges Méliès, this three-minute short is considered by many to be the first horror and vampire film.
F. W. Murnau’s German Expressionist masterpiece, starring Max Schreck as the undead count, is one of the most influential horror classics. Schreck appears on screen for less than ten minutes, but his presence lingers. The film’s artistry is haunting.
Considered a lost film for years, the 1910 short based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the book’s first film adaptation.
The 1929 version of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous tale about a dark family curse was co-written by Luis Buñuel. He was an assistant director before he reportedly quit due to differences with Jean Epstein. The film is praised for its expressionist, avant-garde style.
We recently featured the 1925 film in our scariest masks in cinema article. Lon Chaney devised his own makeup for the role, including the chilling use of egg membranes on his eyeballs to create a ghoulish look.
The legendary John Barrymore played the double role in this silent story of split personalities run amok. The actor was able to contort his face for part of the famous transformation sequence without the aid of special effects makeup.
A 1920 creature feature filled with sorcery, Jewish folklore, and surrealism.
A concert pianist loses his hands in an accident. The new hands grafted in their place belonged to a murderer. The musician struggles against his body’s new will to commit atrocious acts. Robert Wiene, who directed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, filmed the 1924 Austrian creeper in an expressionist style.
Paul Leni’s 1924 German fantasy-horror anthology brings to life the stories of a writer detailing the strange and horrific accounts of a sideshow wax museum.
“My relationship with [it] is very special,” Ingmar Bergman said of the 1921 supernatural Swedish film. “I was fifteen years old when I saw it for the first time [and it became] one of the major emotional and artistic experiences of my life.” The early special effects are beautifully rendered.
A 1923 German Expressionist silent about a shadow player who entrances a group of dinner party guests. The film segues into a surreal dream that reveals dark visions of things to come.
Director Roland West remade the film several years later as The Bat Whispers, which became an inspiration for Bob Kane’s character, Batman.
A 1926 silent with a hint of a slasher and a mystery twist that takes place inside an old house.
Freaks director Tod Browning filmed the great Lon Chaney in this early MGM classic — a famous lost film. Chaney’s vampiric ghoul is one of horror cinema’s most memorable characters.
Expressionist style meets dark humor in Universal Studio’s influential 1927 haunted house classic The Cat and the Canary, about a millionaire, his greedy relatives, and a creepy mansion inhabited by ghosts. To watch a version of the film with music (grainier and possibly more difficult to see), go here.
Horror icon Lon Chaney stars in this 1925 comedic take on the “old dark house” genre — this time set inside a mental asylum.
German silent film star Conrad Veidt’s character Gwynplaine, whose face is disfigured with a permanent grin thanks to an avenging king, was the inspiration for DC Comics character the Joker.
Before Tod Browning became famous for directing Dracula and Freaks, he dished up a strange little horror tale, starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. The 1927 film is set inside a circus and based on a real-life story from Browning’s days as a sideshow performer. A criminal goes on the lam using the circus as his hideout, but he won’t feel at ease until he can win the heart of the ringmaster’s daughter. Chaney played the fugitive “Alonzo the Armless,” who uses his feet to throw knives. The actor had a real-life armless double (Paul Desmuke). Note: the music in this video is not the original score, but the mute button always works if the soundtrack bothers you.