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Universal and the Silent Horror Film

As a fan of genre movies, one of the genres I find myself returning to the most is the horror film.  Perhaps because it’s encompassed such a wide range of cinematic style – from the Gothic horror of Dracula, to the Expressionism of the Val Lewton pictures, and the gritty, at times documentary-like realism of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Blair Witch Project – but the horror film is a genre that has always managed to straddle both popular and artistic demands.

It would be impossible to pick a “favorite” period or cycle of horror films, though the films produced by Val Lewton at RKO in the 1940s would certainly be near the top. Horror has definitely gone through some very different trends, at least in American film, dating all the way back to the silent period.

Oddly, the horror film did not have a terribly strong presence in the American silent film.

The best-known examples from this period originated largely in Europe, particularly with German films like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (the prototypical vampire movie). American films of the period tended to avoid supernatural horror, rather basing the frights in some kind of reality, usually around a grotesque protagonist (and frequently played by Lon Chaney!) This is not to say that there weren’t some very significant horror films produced during the silent era. Universal, even before their great success with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, was responsible for turning out some of the best horror films of the silent era, films which not only served as a model for future films in the genre, but that also hold up as masterworks even today.

One of the earliest examples of an American film that could be classified in the horror genre was actually an adaptation of Frankenstein, produced by Thomas Edison’s company in 1910. The film has been notoriously difficult to see over the years, mainly due to a lack of availability of prints, but it’s interesting as an example of an early attempt to tell a story on film that has become so familiar. The monster in this version is played by Charles Ogle, who would have a long career in supporting parts in Hollywood films throughout the silent era. Here, his makeup is strikingly different than that of Boris Karloff, who of course played the monster in Universal’s classic1931 version of the story. Ogle’s makeup is modeled more on the obviously grotesque, which robs the character of the kind of humanity that Karloff would bring to it 20 years later.

When The Hunchback of Notre Dame appeared in 1923, produced by Universal and starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, it created a sensation. Chaney’s portrayal of the hideous yet human bellringer elicited great sympathy from the audience, even as the film heightened the horrific elements of Victor Hugo’s story. The greatest horrors of all in this beautifully-made film were those endured by the hunchback as he lashed and publicly humiliated in the town square. The sets were designed on as grand a scale as anything that had been done in Hollywood up to that point. Reportedly, more than 250 electricians were put to the service of lighting the set! Lon Chaney, who designed his own makeup for the role, brought out the humanity of the character even underneath the grotesque appearance.

The Phantom of the Opera, produced on an epic scale by Universal in 1925, told the story of the hideously disfigured Phantom (Chaney) who lurks in the cellars of the Paris Opera House, menacing the lead singer and anyone who dares to trespass into his domain in the depths of the opera house. This Universal “super-production” boasted the kinds of elements that would return in the early 1930s with films like Dracula and Frankenstein – large, elaborate sets, a methodical pacing that sometimes seemed to suggest an almost dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality, shadowy lighting and cinematography (heavily influenced by German Expressionism), and of course, a memorable leading “monster”. Once again, Chaney’s performance revealed the humanity behind the monster, though his Phantom is a decidedly more sinister character than the Hunchback. One of the most memorable set-pieces in the film involves a scene in which the Phantom causes a large chandelier to fall on the audience at the opera house during a performance.

Because it began importing German talent at the end of the 1920s, Universal (like Fox) would begin to demonstrate some of the influences of German Expressionism on the American film, and on the horror film in particular. Stylistically, the studio’s product from the end of the 1920s through the 1930s owes a debt to the German Expressionist style, serving as an example of the international influences that shaped the horror film.

Universal would go on to produce the first great cycle of films in the sound era. With Dracula and Frankenstein coming in 1931, followed many sequels throughout the following decade, the studio played a crucial role in the development of the American horror film.

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