With October comes all things spooky and frightening: carved pumpkins; Halloween costumes in a seemingly infinite range of shapes, sizes, and subjects; decorations in the form of skeletons, black cats, and tombstones; Fall festivals with food, fun, and games; haunted houses of both the kid-friendly and extreme jolt variety; and an overabundance of candy that is as frightening to parents (knowing of the resulting dentist bill) as it is enticing to kids. Part of the traditional delight to the season is in a good (or bad) scary movie, of which there is also an infinite roster. After all, horror movies have been around almost as long as film itself, and it may be the special seasonal nature that allows the older classics to be embraced so easily by new generations – just as Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas find fresh converts every December. Still, there are those who feel that the modern horror film has lost all subtlety and mourn the glory days when true horror was derived from what was not seen on the screen but only hinted at. In today’s age of gore and sadism, there is little left to the imagination. On the flip side, there are many teens who refuse to see a movie unless it is in color; black and white, like subtlety, is way too old fashioned.
Perhaps it was the restraint used that makes these earlier films so memorable; indeed, several studios became synonymous with the genre because of their ability to make horror fun to watch. Universal cornered this market in the thirties and forties, just as Hammer did in the fifties and sixties – even though the latter pushed the envelope of the time by not only showing more blood and filming it all in vivid Technicolor, but also accenting the scenery with scantily clad females and ample cleavage.
But the horror film took shape well before Universal, with early versions of Frankenstein by Edison, and even magician-turned-filmmaker George Méliès. Indeed, there is a wealth of shockers from the silent era that have withstood the test of time: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Lon Chaney, Sr.), Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem, Häxan, and Phantom of the Opera (Chaney again) among them. Phantom has always been a popular choice around this time of year, and despite the numerous film adaptations of the Gaston Leroux novel made since then, the Chaney version still remains the best of the lot. Continued demand for this eighty-five-year-old film is evident in the new Blu-Ray release of both the 1925 and 1929 reissue version due out this next month. By the time that sound arrived in 1927, the horror genre was already well established, and a few of these have never been matched. When it comes to a good fright, sound is obviously optional.
For all this, it is worth considering that an estimated 80 to 90 percent of all silent films have been sacrificed to time and neglect, and we should consider ourselves fortunate that many of the Chaney’s films have survived, along with the other horror classics of the period (screen vamp Theda Bara’s existing films can be sadly counted on two fingers). For all this, there are the others that are irretrievably lost, and with each passing year, the chances of their being rediscovered in some film archive or private collection continues to shrink to near nothingness. While there are many “most sought after” lists, some titles (such as London After Midnight) remain at the top, while others are interchangeable. A recent list was compiled and posted on cinemassacre.com, representing a top ten of the most sought out silent/early sound films in the horror genre. While the Cinemassacre list represents only one person’s preference of titles, it is a good indicator of what once was but no longer is. Here is a rundown of the list:
The number ten spot is Phantom of the Opera – not the Chaney version (although I am still waiting for someone to do a proper restoration of the film to it’s original 1925 cut – an omission to the upcoming Blu-ray) but a lesser-known version made in 1916. Number nine is The Cat Creeps, a 1930 remake of Cat and the Canary (itself a wonderfully fun chiller in the “old dark house” mold). The film was shot simultaneously in both English and Spanish, a not so uncommon practice that was also done later with Dracula (many consider the Spanish version to be far superior to the Bela Lugosi film). A few clips of The Cat Creeps do exist.
Position eight is The Vampire (1913). There were a number of vampire films made in the silent era, although not all of them were of the blood-drinking variety, others ranging from Theda Bara’s vamp in A Fool There Was to the brilliant early French serial, Les Vampires.
This is followed by number seven, Henry MacRae’s The Werewolf (1913), which was destroyed in a fire in 1924. Number six is The Mummy, or mummies, as there were numerous mummy films made during the silent era, including versions in 1911, 1912, 1914, and 1923. Spot five is Life Without a Soul (1915), the second version of Frankenstein after Edison’s.
The Golem movies occupy the number four slot – three films were made on the subject, all written, directed, and acted in by Paul Wegner. Only the 1920 version exists in full, and it is considered to be one of the great expressionistic films to have come out of Germany during the silent era. Of the other two, only a scant three minutes exists of the 1915 version, and the 1917 version is thought to be wholly lost.
Number three is Dracula’s Death (1921), the first film version of Dracula… sort of. The Hungarian film centers on a girl in a mental institution who dreams of Dracula.
Ironically, London After Midnight is given the number two position in this list. The last known print of this 1927 film burned in an MGM vault fire in 1967. Every few years, a new story appears about its supposed rediscovery, but then is revealed to be yet another hoax. At present, the closest we can get to experiencing this film is in a 2002 reconstruction by Rick Schmidlin using still photos (no moving footage) based on the original shooting script. TCM runs this from time to time.
Cinemassacre gives the top position to the lost King Kong films, most notable the spider sequence from the original King Kong – a sequence that may or may not have been shot, depending on what story you believe. What does exist of this sequence are sketches and photos, which may have been test shots to a sequence never completed. Another less known film is a Japanese version of the film, King Kong Appears in Edo.
Is this a definitive list? Not at all. Any rating list is based on individual preferences, and this is no different. Ask another film enthusiast and they will no doubt produce another list that might – or might not – include some of these titles. What is most notable is that over a short hundred years, so many films have been forgotten, left to disintegrate due to its unstable nitrate stock, or in some cases, were destroyed deliberately. Early studios did this regularly, seeing no value in their older silent product, or in the case of A Woman of the Sea (1926), a non-horror film by Josef Von Sternberg, the only existing print was destroyed by no less than Charles Chaplin, supposedly for tax-related purposes. Now that is the real horror.
A detailed video of this top ten list can be seen on the Cinemassacre website: