Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: In silent horror movies no one can hear you scream

The silent film is virtually—and in part because of its silence—a world of its own, but even in that world the silent horror picture is a little world unto itself. And it’s a corner of cinema that is less known than it should be—perhaps because it’s occasionally confusing owing to what has come to be classified—or mis-classified—as horror. With this in mind, this weekend—this very crowded Halloween weekend—there are eight silent classic horror films—four on Saturday and four on Sunday—playing free to the public in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina. This may give viewers a better understanding of silent horror, if only on a small scale.

The whole silent horror question has been confused in the last 50 years because of “monster” magazines, which date back to 1958 when the first Famous Monsters of Filmland appeared—not surprisingly, coinciding with the “Shock Theater” TV package of old horror movies. Within its pages—and by intellectual osmosis the pages of other such magazines that followed—were found scads of photos from old films, many of them silent and just about anything that looked weird or grotesque was apt to find its way into there. The odds were increased if Lon Chaney, Sr. was involved. Hence, movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) became horror movies by a kind of weird default—and Chaney became the first horror movie icon retroactively.

The truth is that Chaney was more the world’s first character actor star than the world’s first horror star. Many of his movies were on the macabre side and his specialty was grotesque character make-up, but not many of the movies were necessarily horror pictures. High on that list is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the Quasimodo make-up was catnip to monster magazines. Photo after photo cropped up until it became a horror picture and Quasimodo became a monster (he even got his own Aurora model kit)—even if neither statement was true. Some Chaney experts wail and gnash their teeth over this, insisting that Chaney wasn’t a horror star. Maybe not, but if it hadn’t been for that tag and the movies that qualified or seemed to qualify, it’s unlikely the man would be nearly so well remembered today.

On the other hand, the youthful enthusiast—hell, even the not so youthful enthusiast—who slogs his or her way through Nomads of the North (1920), Shadows (1922) or, for that matter, The Hunchback of Notre Dame could well be put off silent movies for life—horror or not. I’ll undoubtedly receive some flak for that, and even more for my assertion that the Chaney Hunchback is pretty awful and Chaney himself isn’t much better in it. That it isn’t a horror movie is a completely separate issue for me.

So what is silent horror? Well, the definition is slippery at best, though it includes old dark house mysteries, folklore, melodrama, psychological and—to a fairly small degree—supernatural horror. The defintion is loose, but the films chosen to represent it in this particular set qualify on one or more of those aspects. And, they generally provide the groundwork for the first wave of sound horror that began with Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931. Let’s take a look at them in the order they’re being shown.

The Bat (1926)—Sat., Oct. 30, 1 p.m. Roland West’s The Bat is by no ,means the original Old Dark House movie, but it’s one of the best ones—and from a literary standpoint, it could lay claim to being the first in terms of origins. It’s taken from the 1920 Mary Roberts Rinehart-Avery Hopwood play of the same name, which itself was drawn—except for the character of the Bat—from Rinehart’s 1908 novel The Circular Staircase. (To confuse matters, Rinehart and Hopwood also turned the play into a novel called The Bat.) However you want to approach it, it’s one of the most striking of all silent horrors.

All in all, The Bat is a fairly straightforward story where something of a value is hidden in some upstate New York mansion and a whole bunch of people are after it. What sets it apart is the super criminal known as the Bat, which is also a homicidal maniac and a flashy dresser. In addition, the story has a gimmick, but it’s one that works pretty well, and still might fool some audiences—assuming people honor the request not to give the game away. Now, all that lies in the material itself, but the film offers considerably more thanks to director Roland West, production designer William Cameron Menzies and cinematographer Arthur Edeson. They bring such atmosphere and style to the whole thing that it becomes a truly special—and very creepy—movie.

I will note that I’ve never quite decided whether the Bat costume—or more correctly its headpiece—is horrific or just plain funny. Quite possibly, it’s both, though West himself must have had second thoughts about this clearly impractical disguise, because when he remade the story as The Bat Whispers in 1930, the costume was redesigned to include a bat-wing cape and the headpiece was replaced with a more practical over-the-head black mask. It was this concept that inspired Bob Kane to create Batman.

On a point-by-point basis, I admit I prefer The Bat Whispers (which the Thursday Horror Picture Show will run at some point). It does lack the Menzies production design—though Richard Day draws a good deal from the look of the 1926 film—but it has some of the wildest outbursts of cinematic flourishes for compensation. The Bat is never stagey, but it’s definitely done in Hollywood silent basic terms of a nailed-down camera. In The Bat Whispers, on the other hand, West’s camera is very fluid, especially for an early talkie. The talkie aspect is also a plus with its ripe, over-the-top dialogue. Plus, Chester Morris’ Detective Anderson in the remake simply wipes Tullio Carminati’s Detective Moletti in the silent off the screen. But don’t sell The Bat short. It has a lot going for it.

Haxan (1922) Sat., Oct. 30, 3 p.m. To be honest, I have very little to say about Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan—or Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. It’s very highly regarded in some quarters and it achieved cult status when it was re-issued in 1968 in a 77 minute version narrated by William S. Burroughs. Shortening it was probably in its favor. Burroughs’ narration probably wasn’t, but it made it seem relevant to a modern time. Personally, I would never have picked this movie—it’s here because someone requested it. I saw it probably 30 years ago. I thought it was stupefyingly boring. I made it about half-way through last week before I decided that life was too short to watch it a second time. Bear in mind, I’m in the minority on this. You may feel very differently.

The Cat and the Canary (1927) Sat, Oct. 30, 5 p.m. Readers who attended this week’s Asheville Film Society showing will already know the storyline of Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary, since the 1939 Bob Hope version that was screened and this first film version of John Willard’s 1922 stage play both follow the source material pretty closely. Both are also essentials of the genre, though I have to admit that the silent film has the edge in terms of stylishness and influence. Good as it is, you won’t see the influence of the 1939 in the design of both James Wan’s Dead Silence (2007) and David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but Leni’s film informs the look of both.

While The Cat and the Canary is far from the first story of its type, it’s easily the most famous—and not without reason because it can be said to “have it all.” There’s the creepy old mansion in rural New York (which, judging by these tales, must be overrun with such places)—and the Leni film offers the creepiest of them all—greedy relatives, a will being read at midnight, an escaped lunatic with homicidal notions, missing jewels, a sinister housekeeper, a sinister doctor, secret passages and a heroine very much in distress. Really, there’s not much more that could be packed into it, but Leni gets the maximum value out of absolutely every ingredient—and tosses in a nod to Caligari in his depiction of the docror. One odd sidenote is that the film drops the play’s voodoo angle involving the housekeeper, casts a white actress (Martha Mattox) in the role and yet retains the character name “Mammy Pleasant.”

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) Sat., Oct. 30, 7 p.m. One of the most famous of all silent horror, The Phantom of the Opera is, frankly, not a very good movie—but it’s a not very good movie with a lot going for it. It’s also a movie that’s a little hard to judge today, because Universal dusted it off in the early sound era, recut it and tried to turn it into a hybrid part-talkie (with someone who is painfully not Lon Chaney doing the voice of Erik the Phantom). The recutting made nonsense of a lot of the plot—and that truncated version is the only good copy we have today. The 1925 cut (which is actually a second cut with added footage) exists, but the print is—well, pretty bad, even though it is coherent.

The problem is that the complete—hard-to-watch—version may make Phantom coherent, but it can’t make Rupert Julian’s pedestrian direction stylish. In fact, the scenes that work best in the film—notably the Phatom’s unmasking—appear to have been directed by Chaney himself, who got fed up with Julian’s work. How bad is Julian’s direction? Well, nothing ought to be more surefire than the famous scene where the Phantom drops a chandelier on the audience, and Julian completely botches it. (It’s even worse when you compare it with the same scene in the 1943 version.)

So why is it still an essential? Well, there’s the sheer size of the production, which is still impressive. There are individual sequences that have a staying power—the unmasking, the climax, the Bal Masque (in two-strip Technicolor), the image of the Phantom on the rooftop—and there’s a richly melodramatic turn by Arthur Edmund Carewe as Inspector Ledoux. But the simple answer is one word: Chaney. However overrated some Chaney performances have been, his Phantom is a brilliant tour de force. It’s not just the make-up he created—though it’s striking and effective—it’s the fact that his every expression, his every movement is fascinating. It’s simply impossible to look away when he’s onscreen—and, thankfuly, he’s onscreen a lot.

The Golem (1920) Sun, Oct. 31, 1 p.m. There’s a certain amount of confusion about The Golem made by Paul Wegener (who also plays the creature) and Carl Boese in Germany in 1920. It is neither Wegener’s 1915 version (considered lost), nor is it a remake of that film. It is its own beast—a story detailing the creation of the Golem by Rabbi Low (Albert Steinruck) in the Jewish ghetto of Prague in the 16th century. While it’s technically more a film of Jewish folklore than an outright horror picture, it certainly qualifies as horror—and supernatural horror at that—and it’s pretty much the prototype for every artificial creature yarn that follows in its wake. Put simply, it works on the basis that any such creature will eventually run amok, create all manner of havoc and need to be destroyed. In essence, it’s the template for the Frankenstein Monster.

The Golem, however, is not a product of mad science, but a clay statue brough to life through some kind of Cabbalistc black magic involving getting the secret word for life from a demon and using the word to animate the statue. This is a still pretty impressive sequence and Wegener’s Golem is an imposing figure. Much of the film, however, is devoted to the Rabbi using the creature to prevent the Emperor from persecuting the Jews. Still, the elements of horror are always present, and fans of classic horror will note parallels to both Fritz (Dwight Frye) and the Monster’s encounter with little Maria (Marilyn Harris) from James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). Also, The Golem is an excellent example of German Expressionism, drawing from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), but reaching a somewhat more realistic compromise in terms of design.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) Sun., Oct. 31, 3 p.m. John S. Robertson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of Hollywood’s earliest attempts at a horror film, though it owes its existence more to the concept of being an artsy film taken from literature and starring “the world’s greatest actor,” John Barrymore. Strangely enough—even though it was certainly bested by Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 version—it largely works on all those levels. It cheats no single element and never questions the fantastic elements of its story.

It is, however, something of an old-fashioned film, but that somehow suits it. Barrymore is definitely at his broadest in the film, but you can’t say he doesn’t fully throw himself into both characters—with the edge definitely given to Hyde. The reason for that isn’t hard to fathom. Hyde gave Barrymore the chance to distort his matinee idol features into a grotesquerie—and that always appealed to him. For whatever reason, Barrymore hated his good looks, viewed them as a curse and invariably delighted in transforming himself into something far less attractive whenever possible.

The Magician (1926) Sun., Oct 31, 5 p.m. Rex Ingram’s The Magician—based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1908 novel that took its cue from the real life Aleister Crowley—is probably my personal favorite of all silent horror films. For years, this was considered a lost film and it was only this year that it was significantly restored and brought to DVD (albeit in the on-demand DVD-R form). For a long time, all you could find were badly made copies taken from equally badly made 16mm dupe prints. It wasn’t pretty. But TCM plopped for a restoration and got a score “by” Robert Israel and now this remarkable film is finally able to really be seen.

I should note that the quotation marks concerning the score stem from the fact that the music will likely sound familiar to fans of Universal horror movies of the 1930s. Why? Because nearly the entire Israel score is adapted from the adaptations of classical music from Dracula and The Black Cat (1934)—with some straight classical music thrown in. I’ll also note that I find this score incredibly effective, though it perhaps draws a greater parallel between The Magician and the Universal horrors than actually exists—though, Laemmle knows, that connection is pretty strong. Still, The Magician isn’t from Universal. It’s Ingram’s idependent production, made at his studio in France that he set up in order to be free of interference from MGM, who nonethless released the film.

The Magician is straightforward horror—quite unlike any American film of the silent era, even though a case can be made that the titular magician, Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener), is merely a brilliant—and spectacularly unhinged—hypnotist, who only thinks he’s a black magician. (That’s not unreasonable, since the jury is still out on just how much of a charlatan his real-life counterpart, Crowley, was or wasn’t.) In any case, Haddo is out to create a homunclus he can call his own—and for this he needs the “heart blood of a maiden.” That means, of course, he has to find himself a nice virgin and devote her to the cause. Naturally, the maiden in question (Alice Terry) isn’t all that enthused about any part of this.

It can be argued that some parts of the film—notably just how Miss Terry (in real life Mrs. Ingram) is still a virgin after Haddo transports her to a (very pre-code) revel in hell and uses this knowledge to break up her romance—don’t entirely make sense. But that doesn’t mean that the film’s not exciting, entertaining and a genre classic to be reckoned with. After seeing it, you’ll be hard-pressed to believe that James Whale and company didn’t study The Magician closely before embarking on Frankenstein and even more Bride of Frankenstein. You’ll also find it hard not to accept Wegener as one of the movie’s most agreeable hams.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) Sun., Oct. 31, 7 p.m. What can possibly be added to what has already been said about Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Not much really. This is where the whole concept of the German Expressionist horror movie started. And its influence is simply impossible to overstate. What might be worth noting, though, is how very well this template for so much that follows holds up when seen in a good print with an effective musical score. And that’s what’s on view here. Here is a film about which it can be said, “you’ve never seen anything like it,” and yet realize that, in fact, you’ve seen a lot of things like it that owe their very existence to it. Still, there truly is nothing quite like this.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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9 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: In silent horror movies no one can hear you scream

  1. Chip Kaufmann

    Thanks for the article Ken but the turnout for today’s movies was virtually non-existant. Perhaps the evening show of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA drew some people. It’s a pity that the Carolina can’t use the small screen in the lobby (like Cinebarre does) to show what’s upstairs as people in the theater had no idea the films were there. There were no flyers on the door or in the lobby and you can’t open the curtains behind the lounge screen during the day. Perhaps tomorrrow will draw better however I see no comments on this article as of this writing which does not bode well.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I never expected this to do much. The weekend was against it on every level. And I knew this wouldn’t get much attention because everything on the main page has gotten the bum’s rush because of the constant influx of Moogfest stuff. And I knew that was going to be the case.

    Plus, let’s face it, it’s Halloween weekend and it’s Halloween overkill weekend at that. You’re up against the new releases, parties, home-screening gatherings, other special showings, TCM’s three solid days of horror pictures…In fact I can’t think of a Halloween this overloaded.

    In some ways, I don’t mind, because I’d like to run three of these titles as THPS screenings.

  3. brianpaige

    I have to be honest….I’m not the biggest fan of silent horror movies. But then I’m not into silents to begin with, since it’s almost like being forced to watch something for a school assignment rather than something I’d actively enjoy watching.

    No Nosferatu mention though? When I think silent horror, I think Nosferatu. Even then, I find the movie somewhat of a chore to watch. Honestly, who in their right mind would put on the silent Nosferatu instead of the Lugosi flick?

    The Bat Whispers is awesome, even if Maltin gives it *1/2 (sent him the appropriate hate mail). The film is meant to be a crazy comedy. The Bat was okay, but I think sound helped it. For instance, in the original The Bat simply gets caught in the bear trap, while in the remake he gets caught and we HEAR his hysterical “Owwwwwwww!!!” in a fabulous moment.

  4. Ken Hanke

    But then I’m not into silents to begin with, since it’s almost like being forced to watch something for a school assignment rather than something I’d actively enjoy watching

    Then you probably oughtn’t watch them. Problem solved.

    No Nosferatu mention though?

    Simple: we’re running it on Nov. 11 at the Thursday Horror Picture Show.

    When I think silent horror, I think Nosferatu. Even then, I find the movie somewhat of a chore to watch.

    That last is an unfathomable statement to me.

  5. Being located where I am, I couldn’t attend any of these screenings, but I did watch CALIGARI and THE BAT at home on Sunday evening.

  6. Chip Kaufmann

    CALIGARI LIVES! 15 people attended tonight’s showing of the classic German film (a few of them were at the METROPOLIS screening) which shows the drawing power it still has after more than 90 years. The ultra-modern electronic score would have been right at home at Moogfest. The audience thought it really enhanced the movie.

  7. Chip Kaufmann

    CALIGARI LIVES! 15 people attended tonight’s showing of the classic German film (a few of them were at the METROPOLIS screening) which shows the drawing power it still has after more than 90 years. The ultra-modern electronic score would have been right at home at Moogfest. The audience thought it really enhanced the movie.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I very rarely care for out-of-period music on films like Caligari, but this is one case where it really does work.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Being located where I am, I couldn’t attend any of these screenings, but I did watch CALIGARI and THE BAT at home on Sunday evening.

    Solidarity is appreciated — even from afar.

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