Universal Silents: The Dawn of the American Horror Film

The Golden Age of American horror films begins with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931 and ends in 1936 with the release of Dracula’s Daughter. While other Hollywood studios made horror films in the 1930s (like Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Warner Brothers’ Doctor X, and MGM’s Freaks), none was more closely associated with the genre than Universal. Other classic Universal films include The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), 2 Poe inspired movies (The Black Cat – 1934 and The Raven – 1935), the first werewolf picture Werewolf of London (1935), and The Invisible Ray (1936).

Lon Chaney in the groundbreaking HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923).
Lon Chaney in the groundbreaking HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923).


Yet the tradition of horror movies at Universal begins much earlier during the silent era, they just weren’t called horror films then. It all began in 1923 with the large scale production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This movie was a megahit and it transformed Universal from a purveyor of cheap entertainment into one of Hollywood’s major studios. The film’s star, Lon Chaney, went from respected character player to major star.

Hunchback didn’t start out to be a horror film. It was actually a “Beauty & the Beast” type of tragic romance. The horribly deformed Quasimodo loves the Gypsy girl Esmeralda but can’t have her because of his ugliness. The original title of Victor Hugo’s novel was Notre Dame of Paris and Quasimodo was just one of many characters but after this movie it has forever been known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 

Lon Chaney & Mary Philbin in the original PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).
Lon Chaney & Mary Philbin in the original PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).


Up next there is The Phantom of the Opera (originally 1925). Once again Lon Chaney stars as a horribly disfigured central character and once again there is a “Beauty & the Beast” scenario at play. As originally conceived and shot the film was a tragic romance (like the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical today) but preview audiences didn’t like it and so it was transformed into a horror film with a completely reshot ending. The film was drastically re-edited and sound was added for a 1929 re-release.

However before sound arrived a gifted German director named Paul Leni came to Universal in 1927 and heavily influenced the look of future Universal horror films. In 1924 back in Germany, Leni had made one of the first horror anthology films called Waxworks. Using Expressionistic lighting and camerawork the film told 3 stories of wax figures that come to life, an idea that would be recycled many times in the years to come.

Paul Leni's THE CAT & THE CANARY (1927) - the original Old Dark House thriller.
Paul Leni’s THE CAT & THE CANARY (1927) – the original Old Dark House thriller.


For Universal he decided to make a film of a long running stage play called The Cat & the Canary. The setting was a creepy old mansion where several heirs are gathered together for the reading of an eccentric millionaire’s will. After the reading, the solicitor is killed and a mysterious figure with grotesque face and claw like hands threatens the rest of the cast. It eventually turns out to be one of the heirs (but which one?) and it all ends on a happy note for the young couple involved.

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) - the source for The Joker in BATMAN.
THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) – the source for The Joker in BATMAN.


As a film, Leni turned this mystery-comedy into an unbelievably evocative and atmospheric thriller through his camerawork and his use of Expressionistic lighting. It equally balanced thrills, chills, and laughter and created a look that James Whale would follow closely in Frankenstein and especially in The Old Dark House. Leni followed Cat with The Chinese Parrot, the first Charlie Chan movie and then with The Man Who Laughs (both 1928) another story from Victor Hugo about a grotesque character. In that film the protagonist, Gynplaine, had a hideous grin carved on his face as a child.

In 1929 he had just completed another stage play adaptation, The Last Warning, which was loaded with even more atmospheric settings and camerawork. Before he could start on another film, he died of blood poisoning from an infected tooth at the age of only 42. Sound was just around the corner and atmospheric sound effects would soon become more important than the look of a horror film. However that wouldn’t happen until after the Golden Age ended in 1936. Until then Universal directors James Whale, Stuart Walker, and others would combine Lon Chaney’s grotesque monsters with Paul Leni’s atmospherics into the Universal Classics we know and love today.

So as Halloween gets ready to make its yearly appearance and old school (and hopefully new school) horror aficionados gather around whatever it is they choose to use for a playback medium, in addition to the classic Universal sound films, check out the Universal silent films that made the Golden Age possible.

All of the principal films discussed in this article are currently available on Blu-Ray and/or DVD.

Article by Chip Kaufmann.