With pop-up costume shops appearing overnight all over the city, it’s clear that Halloween is quickly approaching. While many networks are celebrating by launching their own Halloween-themed marathons, why not give yourself a spooky, silent Halloween with some classic scary silent films? Here are a few to get you started.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Although Lon Chaney was well-established as an incredible character actor and makeup artist by the time “The Phantom of the Opera” was released, this is the film that is most often associated with his name. Based on the classic novel, the film depicts Chaney as the tragic yet terrifying Phantom with Mary Philbin as the beautiful Christine. Most of the film is shot in black and white, using tinted film to set the time of day and mood. The Bal Masque sequence, however, was shot in an early form of Technicolor, giving it even more life and beauty. And if you’ve been lucky enough to make it this far without seeing Chaney in full Phantom makeup, prepare yourself for a true shock.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
This German Expressionist masterpiece is the oldest entries on this list and one of the first appearances of the incredible Lil Dagover and Conrad Veidt (look for him again in the second installment of this list). The film follows the tale of tormented lovers who have fallen victim to the nefarious Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist Cesare, played by Veidt. The stylized sets, makeup and costumes give the film a surreal feel and give the viewer a sense of the turmoil and mental anguish the characters are experiencing. “Caligari” is also notable for featuring the first twist ending (you’re welcome, M. Night Shyamalan).
Despite all of the legal battles the makers of “Nosferatu” faced against the Bram Stoker estate, and the fact that the film itself was nearly lost forever, it has become one of the most iconic horror films of all time and continues to influence filmmakers 90 years after its release. Although vampires have become common characters in recent years, and “Dracula” has been remade countless times, Max Shreck’s transformation into Count Orlok remains one of the creepiest, most chilling representations of a vampire ever seen.
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
Made near the end of the silent era, “The Cat and the Canary” features some of the best techniques silent film had to offer. The pioneer of the “haunted mansion” genre of horror films, the movie follows the story of the family of Cyrus West — an eccentric and arguably insane millionaire who ordered his inheritance be held until the 20th anniversary of his death. As the West family gathers in Cyrus’ mansion waiting to hear of their inheritance, they must fend off The Cat — a lunatic murderer who tears into his victims as if they were canaries. The film is both scary and funny, featuring great acting by the beautiful Laura La Plante, clever intertitles and fantastic blocking and cinematography courtesy of director Paul Leni.
“The Cat and the Canary” is available on YouTube.
Learn more about the world of silent film by checking out past installments of our silent film series, and look out for part two of our list of spooky silents.
Want to dive deeper into the world of silent film? Keep up with my posts over on Curtains or on Chicago Nitrate.