It’s the Summer of Horror. What this means is that my brother (irememberhalloween.net) and I will be teaming up to tackle a list of horror movies we’ve deemed worthy of our viewing and criticism. For the next several weeks, I will be updating my site to include my ramblings and opinions on horror classics I had yet to see, ranging from different genres and starting with the earliest era of popular horror movies: the 1920’s. The three movies from this section that I watched were Nosferatu (1922), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Rather than reviewing each individual movie, I’ve decided to give my general impression of the three movies as one large example of horror in the 1920’s.
The first movie we watched was Nosferatu, which I was curious about but also hesitant due to its age and infamy as being an “unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula”. I didn’t expect to actually be entertained by it and was in a purely educational mindset, but I was pleasantly surprised. The imagery was creepy and I was actually involved in the story. The pacing wasn’t painfully slow for a 90 year old movie, but there were some noticeable lulls.
After watching Phantom of the Opera, the limitations of Nosferatu became much more apparent. Phantom just appeared so much more polished, even though it was made only 3 years later. For example, the music in Nosferatu was horrendous and really distracted from the atmosphere. Often, during a particularly morbid part of the story, the accompanying music would be bright and chipper like what you might hear in a Disney cartoon. Along with this, the editing was inconsistent. Being a silent movie, the only way for the audience to know what’s going on is to read the intermittent dialogue on the screen, but often one sentence would appear on the screen for 15-20 seconds whereas a whole paragraph would disappear after only ten seconds or so. It’s things like these which I chalked up to growing pains as Nosferatu belongs to the very beginning generation of horror movies. However, Phantom of the Opera didn’t have any of these problems. In fact, presentation-wise, Phantom seemed to have aged the most gracefully; the mood was only enhanced by the image of the old, grainy footage and the music was spectacular of course. Also, not having ever seen any version of The Phantom of the Opera, the story kept me engaged throughout.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the last movie I watched from the 1920’s, and after seeing it, I felt more at liberty to admit that Nosferatu seemed inappropriately choppy. Again, the editing and sound issues weren’t at all apparent in Caligari, which is in fact 2 years older than Nosferatu. The imagery in Caligari is downright disturbing at times and I found myself thinking about it hours after having watched it. It’s that kind of very atmospheric movie that really sits with you for a while after it’s over.
One question which was continuously batted around between my brother and I during the viewing of all three movies was: “what’s going on?” As can be expected from such an early and unexplored art form at the time, the narrative backbone just felt weak. Major turning points in the plot would occur within seconds and in such a nonchalant fashion that you could miss the climax of the movie just by taking a sip of your drink.
It was really interesting seeing what is essentially the beginning of horror. I’m aware that there are one or two horror movies just a few years senior, but the roots of my favorite genre of film were still present in each of these films, which are often considered hallmarks of their generation. For movies of a genre so different and controversial to a still blooming industry, I’m happy to say that the 80-90 year old seeds of all of my favorite modern movies are in fact unexpectedly entertaining and even quite scary at times.
Look out for a rundown of four Universal horror classics, coming in the next few weeks.