Welcome to a World of Spooky Silence
So you are one of those keen horror fans, who like to travel back in time to experience the frights and terrors of earlier cinematic eras. So are we!
The spooky stuff of the Silent Era may be a thing of the distant past, but thanks to an enthralling, good old invention called Film, it will never be really gone.
Whenever you miss those days and feel like you want to shiver and scream, all you have to do, is sit tight, bite on your nails, and enjoy the thrills that only a silent horror movie can give you.
Silent horrors are usually slow paced, but in a positive way. This is how they build up tension and create a truly petrifying atmosphere. The lack of words only helps their cause, making scenes mysterious and horrifying. Once you get in the mood, they can give you a hell of a ride.
It will be a pleasure to drag you kicking and screaming through the blood-chilling frames of each horror film featured here, so let’s proceed to the collection that awaits you.
Oh, by the way: This is not your average horror film list featuring only the scariest and goriest films. We treat horror as the broad genre it actually is. Thus, we tried to diversify this collection as much as possible.
We picked dramatic- and romantic horrors, thriller-, crime- and mystery horrors, Expressionist fantasy- and science fiction horrors, horror essays, horror melodramas and everything in between, even horror comedies. Oh, and we will touch the surrealist horror genre a little bit too.
Also, we believe there are no borders when it comes to movies, so we didn’t limit ourselves to the US only. Our horror collection features masterpieces from various countries, including Germany, Sweden, Austria, Italy, France and even Japan.
Ready to jump and scream in terror? Buckle up then, and let the best horror films of the Silent Era scare the living heck out of you!
This collection is an episode of FrameTrek’s Best Horror Movies of All Time. A mega-journey dedicated to identify the spookiest films of each cinematic era, chronologically. It starts right here, with the Horrors of the Silent Era and wanders ahead decade-by-decade, all the way to our ever moving present.
Presenting the 17+1 Best Silent Horror Movies
The ‘+1’ is a Bonus Movie. Wait for it!
Italian fantasy horror film.
Story: Loosely adapted from Inferno, the first canticle of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and inspired by the illustrations of Gustav Doré.
Why is Dante’s Inferno among the best silent horror films?
✓ This is the first feature length horror film.
✓ It is arguably considered the world’s first blockbuster.
✓ The first (and possibly finest) adaptation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
German horror mystery thriller film directed by Robert Wiene, starring Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt.
Story: Hypnotist Dr. Caligari uses a somnambulist, Cesare, to commit murders. (IMDB)
Arguably the first true horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari set a brilliantly high bar for the genre – and remains terrifying even more than a century after it first stalked the screen.Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus
Why is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari among the greatest horror films of the Silent Era?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies list.
✓ Considered a classic, it helped draw worldwide attention to the artistic merit of German cinema and had a major influence on American films, particularly in the genres of horror and film noir.
American science fiction horror film starring John Barrymore.
Story: Dr. Henry Jekyll experiments with scientific means of revealing the hidden, dark side of man and releases a murderer from within himself. (IMDB)
Why is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde among the scary horror films of the Silent Era?
✓ Received positive reviews from audiences and critics, who praised the movie’s style and Barrymore’s performance.
✓ One of the most popular movies of the 1920s, and a true silent classic.
German fantasy horror film starring and directed by Paul Wegener.
Story: In 16th-century Prague, a rabbi creates the Golem – a giant creature made of clay. Using sorcery, he brings the creature to life in order to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution. (IMDB)
Why is The Golem among the most popular silent horror movies?
✓ Praised by critics and audiences for its expressive settings, powerful visuals and the performance of the principal cast.
✓ A landmark of German Expressionism, listed in the “101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die”.
✓ An early classic in horror cinema, and one of the first films to introduce the concept of the “man-made monster”.
Swedish fantasy horror melodrama film directed by and starring Victor Sjöström.
Story: On New Year’s Eve, the driver of a ghostly carriage forces a drunken man to reflect on his selfish, wasted life. (IMDB)
Why is The Phantom Carriage among the best silent horror movies?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Generally considered to be one of the central works in the history of Swedish cinema.
✓ Notable for its special effects, its advanced (for the time) narrative structure with flashbacks within flashbacks, and for having been a major influence on the works of Ingmar Bergman.
German Expressionist fantasy horror romance film directed by Fritz Lang.
Story: When a woman’s fiancé disappears, Death gives her three chances to save him from his fate. (IMDB)
Why is Destiny among the best horror movies of the Silent Era?
✓ Received positive reviews from audiences and critics, who praised its art direction, photography, and special effects.
✓ An influential silent classic. Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock (among others) were deeply impressed and inspired by this film.
German Expressionist fantasy horror film directed by F. W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck.
Story: Vampire Count Orlok expresses interest in a new residence and real estate agent Hutter’s wife. (IMDB)
One of the silent era’s most influential masterpieces, Nosferatu’s eerie, gothic feel — and a chilling performance from Max Schreck as the vampire — set the template for the horror films that followed.Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus
Interesting fact: The movie was banned in Sweden due to excessive horror. The ban was finally lifted in 1972.
Why is Nosferatu among the best silent horror movies?
✓ It is selected by the Vatican in the “art” category of its list of 45 “great films”.
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list
✓ The first true vampire movie ever made.
Swedish horror essay film written and directed by Benjamin Christensen.
Story: Fictionalized documentary showing the evolution of witchcraft, from its pagan roots to its confusion with hysteria in modern Europe. (IMDB)
Interesting fact: At the time, this was the most expensive film produced in any Scandinavian country.
Why is Häxan among the scariest horror movies of the Silent Era?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and received critical praise for its combination of documentary-style and narrative storytelling, as well as its visual imagery.
✓ Due to its graphic depictions of torture, nudity, sexual perversion and anti-clericalism it was one of the most controversial movies of its time.
✓ The film acquired a cult following among surrealists, who greatly admired its subversion.
American drama horror romance movie directed by Wallace Worsley and starring Lon Chaney.
Story: In fifteenth century Paris, the brother of the archdeacon plots with the gypsy king to foment a peasant revolt. Meanwhile, a freakish hunchback falls in love with the gypsy queen. (IMDB)
A heart-rending take on the classic book, with a legendary performance by Lon Chaney.Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus
Why is The Hunchback of Notre Dame among the top silent horror films?
✓ Praised for its grand sets that recall 15th century Paris as well as for Chaney’s performance and make-up.
✓ One of the most successful movies of the 1920s, and an influential silent classic that helped set a standard for many later horror films.
Austrian crime horror mystery film directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt.
Story: A world-famous pianist loses both hands in an accident. When new hands are grafted on, he doesn’t know they once belonged to a murderer. (IMDB)
Why is The Hands of Orlac among the scary horror movies of the Silent Era?
✓ Commercially and critically successful upon release, the film continues to be one of the most critically-acclaimed Austrian-produced films.
✓ It was one of the first films to feature the motif, often recurring in later films, of hands with a will of their own, whether or not attached to a body, as well as popular fears around the subject of surgical transplants, in the days before such procedures were possible.
American horror film directed by Rupert Julian and starring Lon Chaney.
Story: A mad, disfigured composer seeks love with a lovely young opera singer. (IMDB)
A century later, it still retains its ability to scare – and Lon Chaney’s performance remains one of the benchmarks of the horror genre.Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus
Interesting fact: The film is famous for Chaney’s ghastly, self-devised make-up, which was kept a studio secret right up until the film’s premiere.
Why is The Phantom of the Opera among the greatest silent horror movies?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ Added to the United States National Film Registry, having been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
German drama fantasy horror film directed by F. W. Murnau, starring Gösta Ekman and Emil Jannings.
Story: The demon Mephisto wagers with God that he can corrupt a mortal man’s soul. (IMDB)
Why is Faust among the most famous silent horror films?
✓ Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ Perfectly captures the intensity of a medieval universe steeped in religious fanaticism and pagan alchemy.
✓ Praised for its special effects and it is widely considered an influential classic, an example of German Expressionist film and one of the best horror movies of all time.
Japanese drama horror thriller film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa.
Story: A man was so cruel to his wife that she had gone mad and was taken to an asylum. Feeling guilty, the husband gets the job of a janitor at the institution with a plan to stay close to her and eventually free her.
Interesting fact: The film was deemed lost for forty-five years until being rediscovered by its director in a shed in 1971.
Why is A Page of Madness among the scariest horror films of the Silent Era?
✓ Included in Slant Magazine’s “100 Best Horror Movies of All Time”, citing the film’s visuals and atmosphere as ‘lingering long after the film ends’.
✓ Dennis Schwartz from Ozus’ World Movie Reviews awarded the film a grade A, calling it “a vibrant and unsettling work of great emotional power”.
American drama horror romance film directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney.
Story: A criminal on the run hides in a circus and seeks to possess the daughter of the ringmaster at any cost. (IMDB)
Drawing a remarkable and haunting performance from Chaney and filling the plot with twists and unforgettable characters, Browning here creates a chilling masterpiece of psychological (and psychosexual) drama.1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
Why is The Unknown among the best horror films of the Silent Era?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Widely regarded as the most outstanding of the Browning-Chaney collaborations and a masterpiece of the late silent film era, worthy of “cult status.”
American silent comedy horror mystery film directed by the Paul Leni.
Story: Relatives of an eccentric millionaire gather in his spooky mansion on the 20th anniversary of his death for the reading of his will.. (IMDB)
Why is The Cat and the Canary among the top horror movies of the Silent Era?
✓ The movie blends expressionism with humor, a style for which Leni was notable and recognized by critics as unique.
✓ One of Universal’s early horror productions, considered an influential classic and “the cornerstone of Universal’s school of horror”.
American romantic horror drama film directed by Paul Leni and starring Conrad Veidt.
Story: When a proud noble refuses to kiss the hand of the despotic King James in 1690, he is cruelly executed and his son surgically disfigured. (IMDB)
Interesting fact: Gwynplaine’s fixed grin and disturbing clown-like appearance was a key inspiration for the comic book writers behind one of the most iconic comic book villains ever, The Joker.
A meeting of brilliant creative minds, The Man Who Laughs serves as a stellar showcase for the talents of director Paul Leni and star Conrad Veidt.Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus
Why is The Man Who Laughs among the top silent horror films?
✓ Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ Received critical acclaim from modern critics and widely considered an influential German Expressionist horror film.
French drama fantasy horror film directed by Jean Epstein.
Story: Allan visits the sinister Usher family mansion, where his friend Roderick is painting a portrait of his sickly wife Madeline. The portrait seems to be draining the life out of Madeline, slowly leading to her death. (IMDB)
The rapid cutting, fetishistic closeups and generally dreamy ambience bring the movie closer to the realm of filmic poetry than anything else.Film critic Troy Howarth
Why is The Fall of the House of Usher among the greatest silent horror movies?
✓ Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
…and as promised: The BONUS Movie!
French short surrealist horror film directed by Luis Buñuel, written by Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, presenting 16 minutes of shockingly bizarre, surreal imagery.
Why is this a Bonus movie in this collection?
– Because it’s a short film (only 16 minutes). Every other movie featured here is full length.
Interesting fact: A dead calf’s eye was used in the scene where the woman’s eye is slit.
A hugely influential masterpiece stuffed with iconic sequences, Un Chien Andalou has lost none of its power to enthrall – or unsettle.Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus
Why is An Andalusian Dog among the scariest horror films of the Silent Era?
✓ Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list and included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Premiere magazine called it one of “The 25 Most Dangerous Movies” and ranked the opening scene as 10th out of “The 25 Most Shocking Moments in Movie History”.
…end of the reel…
So there you have it: The 17+1 Greatest Horror films of the Silent Era
If you want to take a look at the movies listed above, without all that info between the titles, here’s a quick recap:
|Dante’s Inferno (1911)
|The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
|Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
|The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)
|The Phantom Carriage (1921)
|Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)
|Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
|The Hands of Orlac (1924)
|The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
|A Page of Madness (1926)
|The Unknown (1927)
|The Cat and the Canary (1927)
|The Man Who Laughs (1928)
|The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
|Bonus: An Andalusian Dog (1929)
Tell us what you think about this collection. Fire off your own suggestions and favorites in the comments section below!