Silent Screams on the Silent Screen: A Casual Glance at the Horror Films of the Early 1900s

Modern film-goers are often found to be of the opinion that black and white movies are “boring” for reasons that I cannot fathom. Perhaps they require color and bright flashing lights and cgi effects to keep their attention. Maybe they accidentally caught a drama from the 1940s when they were young children, at an age when ANY drama will seem dull and agonizingly slow. The people who feel this way, and there are a dismayingly large amount of them, can’t begin to imagine how boring and terrible silent films must be. No color AND no sound?? Actually, these people probably dismiss the idea of ever watching a silent movie so quickly that they don’t even form an actual opinion on the matter. If you are one of these people, then please read on. I hope to open your rapidly moving eyes and special little minds to a few gems.


Truthfully, the silent era created great masterpieces in comedy, action/adventure, drama, mystery, tragedy, and so on. Many of these movies are so entertaining based on the incredible stunt work alone that you forget that movie-making was in its infancy and there would not be a dependable computer involved in the process for almost a hundred years in some instances. Yes, the make up was thick. Yes, they did over-act in a strange manner, but these people were used to stage acting in front of live audiences and Vaudeville, and old acting habits were probably difficult to overcome. If you give them a chance, you can see past the old-timey fashions and unusual activities and casual instances of appalling racism to see that these people are still people, and just like movie stars should be — most of them are quite easy on the eye. They might be older than your great-grandparents on the timeline, but if you can suspend your beliefs on matters of actual age vs movie age, or if you can even imagine yourself to be alive in those 1920s and seeing these films as they were released in the cinema — you might find it a more welcoming experience than you would have otherwise.

But I am not here to explain to you the entire history of the silent screen. No. It is Halloween time, friends. And you all love scary movies. Lucky for you, the silent films did their part in creating some of the creepiest imagery of all time. There is a lack of bared bosoms and painfully realistic gore, but they did quite fine with what they DID show, and also with what they only implied. Also PS the film quality makes everything kind of spooky and horrifying on top of everything else. So stand by, Sneer Friends, while I watch a few select films one by one — most for the first time ever — and become increasingly scared because I am a wimp.

the Unknown (1927)

I am not sure that this is exactly a “horror film” despite the presence of Lon Chaney all up in here. Get used to mention of Mr Lon Chaney, Sr, by the way because he was some amazing master of horror and is in several of the ones I shall be viewing tonight. This is more of a, how do you say… “Not Particularly Scary But Gosh That’s Pretty Messed Up” sort of movie. Is that a genre? Should it be? I kinda think so, and the Unknown probably started it all.

I am actually a little reluctant to even explain to you this plot. I went into it not really knowing much about it at all and I was utterly surprised multiple times throughout this viewing. And I mean I literally made that D: face and sometimes just had a dropped jaw with lifted eyebrows like I couldn’t even believe it. For the record, I really COULDN’T believe it. So I think I will just tell you what I knew going into it: Lon Chaney is an armless knife-thrower in a traveling circus. A young Joan Crawford also stars. I really think that’s all you need to know, honestly.

oh joan

Horror: I am a huge wuss when it comes to anything scary, so my rating will be a little skewed for you hardcore horror fiends out there. On a scale of one to ten, with one being “this was meant for toddlers” and ten being “I woke up with this movie leaning over me, staring at my face,” I gave it a three: “I mean yeah it was unsettling and bizarre and I keep thinking about it, but I’d go out to dinner with it if it asked me, actually.” Not that scary.

Fascination: I don’t know if I am easily mesmerized by old films because I feel like I am observing very old photographs (which I enjoy) that are moving, or what. Watching people who are long, long dead moving around gives me the creeps, but in a good way. This movie of course has plenty of that, but it isn’t really too visually striking otherwise. The quality of film on the dailymotion video was good, the acting was solid, I didn’t want to stop watching. On a scale of one to ten, one being “Snoozeville, population: ALL” and ten being “it was like the movie kept licking my eyeballs sensually and the licks were dosing me with LSD and it was therefore a kaleidoscope of OH GOD AMAZING” I would give it a five: “I didn’t hate it and I sure would watch it TWICE!”

Classic Film Rating System: Four Stars, chumps. Two thumbs up. I recommend it because at the very least I think you will feel pleased. It’s pretty short and pretty much never boring. But if you go here looking for spookiness, I don’t think you’ll have any. Unless you are phobic of gypsies, maybe. I found it here, but who knows when it will be removed:

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Haha oh my god so like my intention here was to introduce you to scary scary films but my first two attempts turned out to be not that scary and also SO GOOD. He Who Gets Slapped is a totally bizarre film based on some Russian play or something — it doesn’t really matter. The important part is that it is a completely enthralling story about betrayal and EMOTIONS and it might be scary I guess if you are clown-phobic, because there are a ton of clowns all over it. And I mean, they are the really terrifying looking clowns, too. Here, look at Lon Chaney’s character, wouldn’t you assume that this is a pure horror?


And if you take isolated scenes from this film without any context, it LOOKS like a horror film. His character is a broken, betrayed man who was basically driven to insanity but because he is a clown, no one ever takes him seriously, and it is exactly the kind of recipe that modern clown-fearers nightmare over. But instead, you feel for his terrifying character and there are also other parts to the plot, and to be honest, any time you start to feel frightened by all of the clowniness, you can rest assured that soon John Gilbert will be in a scene and gosh he is not bad looking at all when it comes right down to it.

Horror: I was not scared during this movie. There were some scenes that made me pause to consider how surreal and horrible things were. I made a lot of the D: expression with worried eyebrows. But things were not “scary.” They were “moving,” and “staggering” from time to time, but never really scary. Unless you are afraid of any of the following: old film quality, clowns, circuses, madness, or intensity of emotions to some breaking point. They unnerve me a little, these things, but on a scale of one to ten, with one being “as frightening as a baby kitten” and ten being “as scary as you’d think a movie about a mentally and spiritually broken clown would be,” I would give it a two: “I wanted to hug a clown tonight. I wanted to hug THAT clown.”

Watchability: I think my whole review up to this point pretty much explains the watchability of it all. It is a vimeo, and of good condition as far as these things go, although I recommend muting the distracting soundtrack that is supplied and either watching it in true silence, or finding some music that is screeching violin-based if possible and listen to that simultaneously. It isn’t on youtube, netflix doesn’t carry it, I couldn’t even find it for sale anywhere during the world’s briefest search and what in the heck is THAT about? Why must the world hate me so much? Why is it so insistent on keeping us apart. Weep weep. However, on a scale of 1 to 10, one being “twin kicks to the eyes” and ten being “I did not blink for 95 minutes because I was so enthralled,” I give this baby a solid NINE: “I actually loved it. I don’t love a lot of movies and god you probably will think I am demented or something because you’ll hate it, but I don’t care. This is True Love.”

Overall: I’ve calmed down a little since my initial viewing (it is three weeks later now) and I think I can give you an honest assessment that may be more in tune with how people who aren’t me think. I still give it the maximum amount of thumbs and stars, with a few extra besides. It is a fine film that should interest you, I think. Although the first ten or fifteen minutes sort of drag because scientists are mean and are terrible in this movie. It made me sad. But I guess it was important in order to set up the rest of the plot. Go watch it now, imo.

God bless you, archive dot org. May you keep this link alive for the rest of all time.

the Monster (1925)

This movie also stars Lon Chaney, because he is clearly the Man. The plot is about mysterious disappearances, junior detectives, and sanitariums. It is set in Small Town, Somewhere, and seems to cast a judgmental eye on the average denizen of such places. Actually, even though the film begins immediately with a car crash and a monster, the next twenty minutes or so are entirely a comedy film — and not a particularly funny comedy.The characters are clownish parodies, the main hero guy is all goofy and cowardly and… I mean, I guess it is good for the contrast effect later, when the film turns into a Classic Sort of Horror. But it was really hard to keep my attention on the first almost-half of the film. So I mean, good luck with that if you want to give it a shot.

The second half of the film is pretty spooky. It is set in a creepy old insane asylum, there are shadows, foreign giants, what I perceive to be a worrisome flaming homosexual from 1925, a damsel in distress, drunken tomfoolery, a dark and stormy night, and a mad scientist. These things are so classic. By the ending, I felt that it had redeemed itself somewhat, but I probably should have watched this one first rather than have it attempt to follow two excellent films that I enjoyed so much. I was bound to be let down after those. That’s just how things go. But I don’t think I would have much cared for this one anyway. Maybe you will?

Horror: Parts of this one are SORTA scary, I GUESS. You probably won’t have nightmares or anything, and I guess the the ideas for the horror are rather cliched by now, but you need to remember that this is all when this stuff was new to viewing audiences. Maybe if you weren’t raised on episodes of Scooby Doo, this would be shockingly scary, and not “material for a cartoon.” On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being “a care bear” and ten being “an eldritch abomination from the deepest parts of the ocean,” I would say that the horror rating for this film is a three: “a little less scary than that time Scooby Doo was menaced by the 10,000 Volt Ghost if you were four years old when you saw that episode.”


Yeah But How Does It LOOK: IT AIN’T PRETTY, kids. The actors are all varying shades of unattractive, in my expert opinion. Honestly the most attractive person in this was Lon Chaney, just so you know what we’re working with here. The dailymotion also has several problems which annoyed me, but I guess I can’t complain too stridently — at least someone tried. Thanks, MargaliMorwentari. But a lot of times, you can’t read the dialogue because the screen is weird, and there isn’t even any poorly-paired music with it. However, that could be a blessing. On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being “I’m so tired of making these ratings” and ten being “why did I think I could keep it up?,” I’d describe it as visually appealing as a two: “Thank god this is the last movie I reviewed.”

Standard Movie Rating System: I think I would give this one a single thumb up, and not even all the way up. The thumb is sort of wavering in the air as if I could not care any less. I might only give it one and three-quarters of a star. I mean it didn’t totally suck, I just didn’t really like it. It did not tickle my fancy, nor did it capture my interest particularly much. I actually felt like watching it was a chore, and I LIKE silent movies. Maybe I was just having a bad morning though, that’s possible. Here is the link though, however long it may last. I leave it up to you.

All right kids. This turned into a Lon Chaney Sr Love Fest, and I don’t have any regrets. I was going to do more but I cannot ever be succinct about anything ever, and the other films on my last are all hard to find or can be categorized in other ways, and I do love categorizing things. I hope you enjoy these, you poor, now-terrified readers, and I hope they inspire you to seek out more silent films on your own good time for your own good time.

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