Only around 80-90% of silent films have survived over the years. It makes discussion about them a bit more complicated, as there is no way to truly define overall what silent films were like in their time without making big assumptions. That said, there sure were a whole lot of creepy old horror films back then. Many of the tropes we see today had their beginnings in silent films, and these movies still have the ability to induce a chill. The now-antiquated equipment on which they were made and the fact that silent film stars are long since deceased adds an eerie vibe. Besides all of that, some of them have surprisingly feminist messages behind them.
Although silent films weren’t always great for diversity, and in fact could be outright hostile, the surviving films that defy convention even in small ways deserve their place in history.
There is an old legend that the mandrake root is capable of impregnating humans, and this forms the basis of the plot for Alraune. A professor with a poor opinion of women orders his nephew Franz to hire a sex worker and bring her home for an experiment. Franz agrees, despite being understandably reluctant. The uncle somehow impregnates this woman with a mandrake root (I’m sure) and Alraune is born. The professor monitors her, makes uncomfortable associations about hereditary promiscuity and slut shames Alraune frequently, then finally admits to himself that he’s attracted to her. It’s all pretty gross, but when he loses all his money and Alraune packs her things to go, he begs her to stay with him and help support him with the wealth she herself has amassed. She assures him she’ll find happiness with someone but not with him, and he flies into a fit of rage. Franz shows up in the nick of time to get her out of there.
There were multiple versions of the story, but the 1928 version is the most striking due to the incredible presence of Brigitte Helm as Alraune. Helm is a fascinating if underrated actor with a brief but amazing career. Viewers will likely recognize her in her most iconic role, that of Maria in Metropolis, which was her first film. Although she starred in several movies, some of which have survived, and was considered as the Bride of Frankenstein for a time, little is known about her life. As an actor in mid-‘30s Germany, it is said she was targeted by Nazis for marrying a Jewish man and quit acting as she left her home country due to her disgust over the Reich and their control over the German film industry. It’s difficult to accurately pinpoint Helm’s innermost thoughts decades after the fact, but that sense of outright defiance is well on display in Alraune.
THE CURSE OF QUON GWON (1917)
This can only tenuously be referred to as a horror film, but it certainly is underrepresented and fits well within the fantasy genre. Although much of the film remains missing, with only two of the eight reels still in existence, the patchwork version of it that remains is well worth watching due to its historical significance alone. The first film known to be directed by a Chinese-American woman and long thought to be a lost film, Marion Wong enlisted her family and friends to make The Curse of Quon Gwon. The movie apparently came to be when Wong grew frustrated with the lack of diversity in film and created her own production company. Unfortunately, she was unable to secure distribution for this forward-thinking film, and it was more or less abandoned until a 2007 restoration.
The horror elements of the films come in when the character played by Violet Wong’s mysterious double appears to steal her baby and ruin her marriage, seemingly a residual curse of a Chinese god that follows his people to the US and disapproves of them for leaving home. Although the films exists only in small scraps, and no script or title cards exist, the cultural significance can’t be denied. Despite the frustrating feeling of missing out on major elements of the plot, what remains is well acted, expertly edited, and all the more tragic knowing that this woman was an adept filmmaker that deserved a career as a filmmaker.
THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN (1928)
Referred to at times as the first surrealist film, although there is plenty of debate on that subject, the association of this movie to art house crowds neglects its very real horror elements, along with an underlying sense of feminist subversion that deserves the analysis it has received by film writers. Filmmaker Germaine Dulac went on to create other films after Seashell, but her opportunities were limited, and it is generally considered her masterpiece.
The subject of the film is a corrupt clergyman who lusts after a young woman and finds himself spiraling into a nightmare state that forces him to confront his own hypocrisy. Interestingly, the film caused a riot at its first screening, where several men of the Parisian avant-garde art scene descended into full chaos from the moment the title card appeared onscreen. Dulac was a lesbian and in hindsight a groundbreaking feminist as well, and it’s hard to believe that the inordinate amount anger directed at her wasn’t gendered when months later the premiere of the arguably more offensive Un Chien Andalou by Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel went off without causing much of a ruckus at all. Although surrealist films by male filmmakers of the time almost always receive more mention, focus, and analysis, The Seashell and the Clergyman is possessed of a haunting quality that continues to cast a long shadow over art house filmmakers to this very day.
Of all the films on this list, Suspense might be the best known, as Lois Weber’s groundbreaking career has come under more scrutiny as of late, due mostly to the efforts of feminist scholars. Still, despite it all, Suspense remains one of the great horror films of the silent era. Revolving around a young mother left at home alone with her infant son and attacked by a drifter, Suspense isn’t the first home invasion film, but it is to this day one of the very best. Utilizing revolutionary film techniques, it packs a hell of a punch for a 10-minute piece of celluloid.
The mother might not exactly get the ultimate heroic moment, but the feminism of the director shines through in her bold creative decisions and her interest in presenting the constant potential danger women are vulnerable to even in seemingly benign times. The husband and the police might save the day, but the mother focuses all her ambition on saving and protecting her child. As early film protagonists go, she holds up.
THE UNKNOWN (1927)
A criminal with easily identifiable hands goes on the run from the police after murdering a man in cold blood by hiding his arms in a corset and joining the circus as a knife thrower, tossing the blades with his feet rather than his hands. He falls in love with the daughter of the circus’ owner, but murders him when he discovers his secret. The daughter has a longstanding fear of men’s hands and arms, and being grabbed at triggers her, so she is comforted by the presence of the knife thrower, despite her growing attraction to the strong man. When the knife thrower surgically removes his arms to win her affections and she shuns him regardless, he plans to murder the strong man.
Director Tod Browning hit a career peak in 1931 with Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, only to have his prospects tank after the now infamous Freaks (1932) bombed. Although it certainly hasn’t aged well politically speaking, the grimy, insidious quality of Freaks had indeed defined most of Browning’s output, and The Unknown is no different. The legendary Lon Chaney is at his absolute best here. A very young Joan Crawford might not be given the most challenging part in the film by any stretch of the imagination, but the sense of outrage and her complicated air of mystery that marked much of her later career are already well on display here. Although her role could be expanded, her unspoken trauma and her unwillingness to allow the men around her to use her for their own desires is admirable.