It is claimed that when people first went to see moving pictures in the mid-1890s, they reacted with horror whether it was a horror movie or not. This was the first time in history that reality could be captured and viewed and replayed and stored forever, and people weren’t sure how to respond. Even simple footage of streetcars moving that lasted only 15 seconds were said to elicit terrified shrieks from audiences.
When writer Maxim Gorky first went to see the Lumière Brothers’ A Street In Paris in 1896, he said, “It is terrifying to see, but it is the movement of shadows, only of shadows. Curses and ghosts, the evil spirits that have cast entire cities come to mind…”
This list, however, attempts to trace the very first films that could reasonably be classified as “horror” movies because they contain some of the earliest examples of what would become horror tropes: skeletons, bats, demons, vampires, haunted houses, and monsters. It covers films from 1896 to 1929, by which time the Sound Era had already started. We don’t cover any of the lost silent horror films like London After Midnight (1927).
To many there is nothing more horrifying than silent horror films. They show dark, soundless nightmare scenarios where no one can hear the screaming. Without further ado horror fans, here are all the best old silent horror movies.
Released in France as Le Manoir du Diable, this is widely considered both the first horror movie and the first vampire movie. In the space of just over three minutes, a giant bat suddenly appears in a large, empty mansion room and begins flying around. Then it transforms into the Devil, who conjures a troll-like assistant and a giant boiling cauldron out of thin air. Then he summons a woman out of the boiling part, but miraculously she is unharmed. The Devil then vanishes, replaced by a pair of aristocratic dandies whose fighting is interrupted by a female demon with a pitchfork. After the demon and one of the dandies leave, the remaining dandy tries to sit on a chair, only to realize it’s suddenly been occupied by a skeleton. When he strikes the skeleton with a sword, it turns into a bat, which then turns into the Devil. Then the dandy is also suddenly surrounded by four ghosts. And all this action has happened after only two minutes. The full film is three minutes and eighteen seconds long. Directed by film visionary Georges Méliès.
Another extremely early example of a horror comedy by Georges Méliès lasting barely a minute. A man (played by Méliès) lies down in bed to go to sleep, only to be interrupted by a beetle the size of a house cat crawling onto his bed sheets and then onto the wall. He smashes the beetle to death using a broom, then discards of it in his night table. At the time it was released, the film was considered a comedy and not a horror film, but modern viewers are likely to feel queasy when they see the giant insect suddenly appear. According to The Stop Button, “The only thing wrong with Terrible Night is it isn’t long enough. Méliès does such fine work in the first minute, you’d love to see what he could come up with in a second one.”
Released in France as Le squelette joyeux, this seminal 40-second offering from the Lumière Brothers—often referred to as the Godfathers of Cinema—is their only stop-motion film. It features nothing more than an animated skeleton in front of a black background who dances so energetically that it keeps falling apart and then putting itself back together again. It could be considered both a comedy (because it’s cute and light-hearted) and a horror movie (because it’s a dancing skeleton). The video referenced above as an added live musical accompaniment.
A meticulously hand-tinted film from Georges Méliès, meaning that it was shot in black and white but that technicians hand-colored certain items in the frame so they’d maintain the same color throughout the movie. In the space of just under two minutes, a green demon wearing red shorts is framed in front of two giant red devil heads hanging on the wall. He wraps a woman into a bundle and throws her into a giant golden vat, from which emerge orange flames. He then throws two more lavender-colored women into the infernal vat. A second green demon comes in to stir the pot, from which emerge three white ghosts who float and writhe above the floor until they finally burst into three orange fireballs.
The first cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel lasts just under 14 minutes. The crucial sequence begins just after the three-minute mark as Dr. Frankenstein looks through a slot in a steel door to behold the creation of his monster. We first see a skeleton, then scraps of flesh slowly start flying onto it until the monster is completely created. At one point while it’s only barely covered in flesh, the skeleton starts waving, which is one of the most terrifying images in film history. The film was thought to have disappeared almost immediately after its release and wasn’t rediscovered until a copy was found in Wisconsin in the 1970s.
At roughly 72 minutes, this adaptation of Dante Alighieri’s classic allegory could reasonably be considered the first feature-length horror film in history. Although produced and released in Italy as L’Inferno, it is also thought to be the first feature-length film presented to audiences in American history. It is also the first (and last) movie to show full-frontal male nudity in American theaters until 1969. The poet Virgil leads the poet Dante through the layers of purgatory and hell, reliving every sequence that was detailed in Dante’s original poem. There are lots of naked people in distress and a scene where a man walks around carrying his own decapitated head. 20/20 Movie Reviews says, “Anyone with an interest in the history of cinema should make an effort to seek this film out. Rightly famous, it is quite bizarre, unique and — in a way — haunting.”
Called “the first true horror film” by Roger Ebert, this masterpiece of German Expressionism is remarkable for its jagged, swirling, angular, nightmarish sets that were hand-painted and resemble a troubled mind far more than they resemble any real place on Planet Earth. Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) is a hypnotist who keeps a sleepwalker named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) in a wooden cabinet. When he’s out of the cabinet, Cesare murders people.
This is the second of three Golem films that director Paul Wegener made and starred in as the Golem, but it is the only one still known to exist. It is the cinematic retelling of an ancient Jewish folk legend. Set in the 1500s in a Jewish ghetto of Prague, a rabbi who also dabbles in astronomy starts to fear that the Holy Roman Emperor is preparing to rain down persecution and suffering upon his people. In such times of crisis, he must reanimate a giant clay creature known as the Golem. He places a piece of paper containing magical words inside a small container on the Golem’s chest. Through a dazzling display of strength, the Golem impresses non-Jewish authorities to the point where they cancel the pogrom. But then the rabbi must deal with the Golem, who is going rogue. The film’s set design is absolutely surreal and reminiscent of the dreamscapes in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Although this is one of three 1920 film adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella about a man who has a good side and a very, very bad side, this is the most famous version. Legendary actor John Barrymore—AKA “The Great Profile” for his striking side profile—carries off the initial transformation between the good Dr. Jekyll and the evil Mr. Hyde with facial expressions alone.
The film’s major theme, the idea of us all being at war with ourselves, was summarized on one of the title cards:
In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose.
Technically a slapstick comedy short starring silent legend Buster Keaton as a bank clerk, it’s also a horror movie merely because it takes place in a haunted house filled with demons, ghosts, criminals, and dancing skeletons. It also shows Buster being hit over the head, ascending into heaven, being rejected by St. Peter, and sent down to hell. This is the film that featured Keaton’s famous collapsing stairs gag.
An abusive alcoholic played by director Victor Sjöström is tasked with driving Death’s carriage, transporting souls from this life to the next, because he was the last person to die on New Year’s Eve. But in the process, he also learns something about redeeming his own soul. The domain of the dead is beautifully portrayed through a process of multiple exposures that gives the tortured souls a ghostly appearance. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman claims this is one of his favorite films and says he watches it at least once yearly: “My relationship with [it] is very special. I was fifteen years old when I saw it for the first time [and it became] one of the major emotional and artistic experiences of my life.”
Although this is not the first vampire film, it is the first full-length take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but with key items either changed or renamed to avoid lawsuits. Instead of Count Dracula, we have Count Orlok—who is terrifyingly portrayed by Max Schreck with a bald head, bulging eyes, and long fingernails. Instead of turning people into vampires by sucking their blood, he kills them by sucking their blood. Even though Schreck spends less than 10 minutes onscreen, his visage remains one of the most compellingly terrifying in horror history. So do images of his hunched-over shadow lurking throughout the castle. Bram Stoker’s wife, outraged by what she saw as pure plagiarism, attempted to have every copy of this film destroyed. Luckily for horror fans, she was unsuccessful.
The newly restored color tinted versions are really impressive, but I still prefer the poor black and white versions made from scraps of 16mm prints. Those grimy versions have an uncanny mystery to them and helped build the myth of Max Shreck being a real vampire.Robert Eggers, on his favorite horror movies
A faux documentary in seven parts that some people say is the forerunner of found-footage horror films such as The Blair Witch Project, this Swedish/Danish coproduction is split into seven parts that attempt to explain the history of witches and witch hunting in Europe, with the prevailing sentiment being that any belief in witches is a sign of mental illness. There is torture, nudity, and depictions of deviant sexual acts, which is why the film was banned in the United States. One scene depicts Satan (director Benjamin Christensen) with a huge erection raping a woman. Some scenes, though, didn’t even make it past the Swedish censors before being cut — for example, a cross being urinated on and an infant being held over boiling water. According to Horror Film History, “The narrative blends fact and fiction, taking the audience on a bawdy romp from ancient times to the early 20th century as it explores beliefs surrounding witches, demons and their assorted familiars.”
In this massively successful silent horror classic — the most financially successful film from Universal Studios during the entire silent era, horror or not — Lon “Man of 1,000 Faces” Chaney plays Quasimodo, the deformed church-bell-ringer from Victor Hugo’s novel. Chaney reportedly interviewed several people with physical deformities so he could empathize with Quasimodo’s character. The film is part horror and part romantic tragedy, as much of the plot revolves around Quasimodo’s unrequited love for a beautiful woman, Esmerelda the gypsy queen. Set in 15th-century Paris, much of the plot revolves around a gypsy plot to lead a peasants’ revolt against the king. Terror Trap says: “With an effective palette of makeup, Chaney is magnificently creepy as the tortured Quas, his countenance is unnerving to gaze upon. With only the orchestral score as accompaniment, the creepy effect is doubly enhanced.”
Robert Wiene, director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, is paired once more with Conrad Veidt (the sleepwalker or somnambulist in Caligari), who plays a concert pianist who loses his hands in a tragic railroad accident. He receives a transplant of two human hands, unaware they belonged to a murderer, and finds he suddenly has a strange compulsion to kill. He then gets framed for a crime after someone transfers wax imprints of the murderer’s fingerprints onto rubber gloves and stabs someone to death while wearing the gloves. Due to violence and not sexual content, German and Austrian authorities banned teenagers from seeing this film. Not to mention the jump scares are intense.
Lon Chaney devised his own mask to play the “Phantom,” who skulks around the Paris Opera building mostly undetected. He also devised the makeup for his ghoulish face that is finally revealed in one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history. According to accounts from the time, filmgoers screamed out loud when Chaney finally removed his mask to the terror of a female ingenue played by Mary Philbin. As with his role as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Chaney said his purpose was not to portray a monster, but a deeply tortured human:
I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals.
Based on H. G. Wells’s novel of the same name is possibly the first “big monster” horror film in history, and the stop-motion special effects of dinosaurs were done by Willis O’Brien, who would go on to do special effects for 1932’s King Kong. A group of explorers, intrigued by a missing explorer’s sketches of living dinosaurs in Venezuela, set out to find the lost explorer. Then they realize to their horror that the dinosaurs are real. The New York Times was so impressed by the special effects that it wrote, “(Conan Doyle’s) monsters of the ancient world, or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike. If fakes, they were masterpieces.”
A visually striking and highly disturbing Japanese horror film that comes with no soundtrack at all as per the national tradition, where live narrators usually explained the film to a live audience. The plot involves a man’s quest in the midst of a vicious rainstorm to rescue his wife from a mental institution, but much of the film involves footage of what appear to be genuine mental patients in the throes of psychological agony. A Page of Madness was considered to be lost for decades until its director found a copy in a shed in 1971.
Alfred Hitchcock’s third film and by his own reckoning, the first “true” Hitchcock film. In the midst of a killing spree where someone is targeting young blondes, a man obtains residence at a London lodging house. As luck would have it, the room he inhabits was already decorated with several portraits of beautiful blondes. A woman named Daisy — also a blonde — falls in love with the lodger and steadfastly denies that he is the murderer. The Guardian says that “The initial sequence, showing how news of the murders is disseminated in the press, is brilliant, and there is a flash of pure Hitchcock genius in the lodger’s ambiguous disgust and excitement at seeing Joe playfully put Daisy in handcuffs.”
Unknown to many, this film’s main character Gwynplaine — played by Conrad Veidt of Dr. Caligari fame — was the inspiration for the DC Comics character the Joker. Veidt plays a man who experienced a traumatic accident as a child that left his faced molded into a perpetual creepy grin. The perma-smile on Veidt’s face was achieved by placing dentures inside his mouth featuring metal hooks that pulled the corners of his lips back toward his ears. Gwyplaine is driven insane by his love for his blind adopted sister. Slant magazine praised Veidt’s performance: “As he looks at himself in the mirror, he’s struck with the hollow ghastliness of his life, and his face sags into a visage of misery, with the exception of his perpetual grin.”
A film adaptation of what many critics consider to be Edgar Allan Poe’s finest short story about a family curse. A man paints a portrait of his dying wife, which only seems to accelerate her death. Surrealist master Luis Buñuel originally wrote the screenplay but then had a falling out with director Jean Epstein, so it’s uncertain how much, if any of Buñuel’s screenplay remains in the finished product. The British Film Institute says that “It remains the most beautiful, and truly chilling, of horror movies.” Time Out calls it “one of the most imaginative and entrancing horror movies of the silent era.”
These are the foundational silent classics that would inform the future of horror cinema from slasher flicks to alien movies. If you’re wondering what the first true sound horror movie was that accolade belongs to The Terror (1928), an early Hollywood production made with the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system and produced by Warner Brothers. This film is hardly a cult classic — and has generally been forgotten.