Although there certainly were a handful of fine horror films made prior to 1920, this list can essentially also be called, "My Favorite Silent Horror Movies". The problem with the 1920s, however, is that there is such a significantly smaller amount of movies surviving than in later decades, which results in this becoming more of a "usual suspects" list than anything else, since there is a more limited selection from which to choose.
Did you know that 90% of all the movies made in the silent era are lost? Yes, I was shocked to learn this statistic as well. What's also telling about this list is that a full six of the ten come from non-English speaking countries, demonstrating that the U.S. had not yet established itself as the center of the cinematic world. Anyway, take it for what it is, and behold the finest horrors the silent era had to offer...
10. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Based on the Victor Hugo novel, this is not quite horror per se, but the classic Jack Pierce makeup from this early Universal gem still inspires terror. In fact, as most probably know, it was Bill Finger's inspiration for the creation of Batman's archnemesis the Joker a dozen years later.
9. Dr. Mabuse (1922)
The original Dr. Mabuse film, this tense crime thriller from Metropolis-director Fritz Lang contains elements of mystery, fantasy and suspense, all set in a bizarre gangland environment. An often copied film--in fact, the latest version of Dr. Mabuse is set to come out next year.
8. Haxan (1922)
Arguably the finest horror-themed documentary ever made, chronicling the "history of witchcraft through the ages". This history is depicted via illustration, as well as a series of dramatizations, resulting in some truly indelible images. A 1960s re-issue was narrated by William S. Burroughs.
7. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
Another genre-bending entry from the pen of Victor Hugo, and although it is not a horror film in the true sense, the involvement of the great Lon Chaney, and that unforgettable makeup, make it difficult to omit. Easily one of the most underrated movie "monsters" of them all. The whipping scene in particular is something that stays with you.
6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Considered by some to be the finest horror film ever made, this classic early piece of German expressionism features some of the most mind-bending set design you'll ever see--reminiscent of some of the best of '30s Universal. It also has a young Conrad Veidt (the Nazi from Casablanca) as the uber-creepy Cesare.
5. Faust (1926)
Otherwise known as F.W. Murnau's other horror classic, Faust is his adaptation of Goethe's play, itself based on much older tales of the epic war between God and Satan over the soul of a powerful alchemist. Amazing visuals, particularly for its time. Expressionism at its best.
4. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Perhaps the silent horror flick best known by mainstream audiences and casual fans, this is also the finest hour for Chaney, the genre's first megastar. As Erik the Phantom, he is an icon, and the makeup he created for himself will live forever in horror immortality.
3. The Golem (1920)
A take on the classic bit of folklore about a rabbi in 16th century Europe who conjures up a creature to exact his vengeance, this is quite simply a gothic masterpiece, dripping with atmosphere.
2. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920)
I've recently come to appreciate this as the finest adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson's famous novella--better even than the revered 1931 version starring Fredrich March. Barrymore is jaw-dropping, conjuring up the evil Hyde with minimal makup and maximum acting chops. Put plainly, the finest American silent horror film.
1. Nosferatu (1922)
Not only the greatest horror film of the 1920s, but I believe an argument could be made that it might be the finest horror film ever (although I personally will not make that argument). Pure joy for any true horror fan, from beginning to end, Max Schrek's exploits as the demonic Count Orlock make up an almost transcendent experience of movie viewing. It might be easy and predictable to choose this as number one, but I choose it for a reason--it is the most frightening movie of its era, and still the most rewarding to watch. Not to mention the best screen adaptation of Dracula.
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