Top 5 1920s Horror Movies
We’re hopping into the TWM Time Machine for this one folks and going all the way back to the roaring ’20s. To a time when horror was mostly silent, kind of campy and not really that popular of a genre.
We’re talking movies that are around a hundred years old, after all. So, this may be rather short today but here we go anyway! Buckle up folks, we’re going for a ride.
Jeffs House Of Horror takes the roaring 20’s
5. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Roderick Usher summons his friend to his crumbling old mansion in the remote countryside. Usher has been obsessed with painting a portrait of his dying wife Madeline. When she passes away, Usher has her buried in the family crypt, but the audience soon discovers that Madeline wasn’t really dead, that she was buried alive in the tomb. Madeline revives from her catalepsy, exits her coffin and returns to her shocked husband.
The Fall in the House of Usher was written by Luis Buñuel and Jean Epstein. The film was Buñuel’s second film credit, having previously worked as an assistant director on Epstein’s film Mauprat. Following an argument with Epstein about his interpretation of the material, Buñuel left the production. Among the changes in the story from the original material was the relationship between Roderick and his sister which was changed to man and wife in the film. Film critic and historian Troy Howarth stated it was unclear how much if anything of Buñuel’s writing was included in the finished film.
The film co-starred French film director Abel Gance and his then-wife Marguerite Gance, fresh from their collaboration on Gance’s epic 1927 film Napoleon. American critic Roger Ebert included the film on his list of “Great Movies”. In 2021, The Daily Star ranked The Fall of the House of Usher 8th on its list of the greatest short story adaptations, praising it for “managing the almost impossible feat of the perfect Edgar Allan Poe adaption”.
4. Phantom of the Opera (1925)
At the Opera of Paris, a mysterious phantom threatens a famous lyric singer, Carlotta, and forces her to give up her role (Marguerite in Faust) for unknown Christine Daae. Christine meets this phantom (a masked man) in the catacombs, where he lives. What’s his goal? What’s his secret?
We’ve got our first Lon Chaney, film folks! The initial critical response to the film was mixed. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times gave the film a positive review as a spectacle picture but felt that the story and acting may have been slightly improved. Variety wrote, “The Phantom of the Opera is not a bad film from a technical viewpoint, but revolving around the terrifying of all inmates of the Grand Opera House in Paris by a criminally insane mind behind a hideous face, the combination makes a welsh rarebit look foolish as a sleep destroyer.” Modern critical response for the film has been more positive, with many considering it the best adaption of Leroux’s novel to another medium, or at least until the classic 1986 Lloyd Webber stage musical version was first performed. This is a gem and I highly recommend it.
3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
In 15th-century Paris, the brother of the archdeacon plots with the gypsy king to foment a peasant revolt. Meanwhile, a freakish hunchback falls in love with the gypsy queen.
The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 91% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 23 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 8.08/10. The site’s critics consensus reads, “A heart-rending take on the classic book, with a legendary performance by Lon Chaney.” Our second Chaney film today is an absolute gem that really set the standard as far as horror goes for the time. The acting was really superb. Quasimodo and Esmeralda looked again very similar to the characters of the Dieterle version, and it was quite incredible how Lon Chaney could so easily climb up and down on the Cathedral walls with his huge hump. I was also content with Sister Gudule having her own part in this film. All in all, this is one of the best movies from the ’20s and one of the best from Lon Chaney.
2. The Headless Horseman (1922)
The village of Sleepy Hollow is getting ready to greet the new schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, who is coming from New York. Crane has already heard of the village’s legendary ghost, a headless horseman who is said to be searching for the head that he lost in battle. The schoolteacher has barely arrived when he begins to pursue the beautiful young heiress Katrina Van Tassel, angering Abraham Van Brunt, who is courting her. Crane’s harsh, small-minded approach to teaching also turns some of the villagers against him. Soon there were many who would like to see him leave the village altogether.
The unlikable, stern schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, who at one point beats a student, was played by Rogers, a popular actor playing against his typical roles. For authenticity, filming took place in the Hudson River Valley around Tarrytown, New York, the setting of Washington Irving’s story, with its Dutch farmhouses and covered bridges.
The Headless Horseman was the first black-and-white feature film photographed entirely on panchromatic stock, which, while two to three times more expensive, did not tend to turn blue eyes and skies white and lipstick as black like the commonly used orthochromatic film did. One effective special effect was the use of double exposure to give the headless horseman a phantom-like appearance.
1. Nosferatu (1922)
Wisbourg, Germany based estate agent Knock dispatches his associate, Hutter, to Count Orlok’s castle in Transylvania as the Count wants to purchase an isolated house in Wisbourg. They plan on selling him the one across the way from Hutter’s own home. Hutter leaves his innocent wife, Ellen, with some friends while he is away. Hutter’s trek is an unusual one, with many locals not wanting to take him near the castle where strange events have been occurring.
Nosferatu is legendary in the horror community. Nosferatu brought Murnau into the public eye, especially when his film Der brennende Acker (The Burning Soil) was released a few days later. The press reported extensively on Nosferatu and its premiere. With the laudatory votes, there was also occasional criticism that the technical perfection and clarity of the images did not fit the horror theme. The Filmkurier of 6 March 1922 said that the vampire appeared too corporeal and brightly lit to appear genuinely scary. Hans Wollenberg described the film in photo-Stage No. 11 of 11 March 1922 as a “sensation” and praised Murnau’s nature shots as “mood-creating elements.” In the Vossische Zeitung of 7 March 1922, Nosferatu was praised for its visual style.
Nosferatu was also the first film to show a vampire dying from exposure to sunlight. Previous vampire novels such as Dracula had shown them being uncomfortable with sunlight, but not life-threateningly so.
This was the only Prana Film; the company filed for bankruptcy and then Stoker’s estate, acting for his widow, Florence Stoker, sued for copyright infringement and won. The court ordered all existing prints of Nosferatu burned, but one purported print of the film had already been distributed around the world. This print was duplicated over the years, kept alive by a cult following, making it an example of an early cult film.
The film has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 97% based on 63 reviews, with an average rating of 9.05/10. The website’s critical consensus reads, “One of the silent era’s most influential masterpieces, Nosferatu’s eerie, gothic feel—and a chilling performance from Max Schreck as the vampire—set the template for the horror films that followed.”
It was ranked twenty-first in Empire magazine’s “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema” in 2010. Find a way to watch Nosferatu if you can, it may seem campy by today’s standards but it is absolute gold.