German Expressionism’s influence can still be felt today. Take any episode of American Horror Story or any Tim Burton film or any gothic music video, and you will see that heightened sense of reality, the use of grossly distorted architecture and the deep, long shadows that the movement was known for. And it is that style that was utilized in two of the earliest horror films: Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Weine, is not really a horror film in a literal sense, but it contains the psychological underpinnings that would reign in the genre. Told by a man named Francis, the story focuses on Dr. Caligari as he visits a small town with his somnambulist named Cesare and presents him at the fair. After Cesare correctly predicts a man’s upcoming murder, Francis grows suspicious and investigates, but the somnambulist kidnaps his fiancee, Jane. Chased by the the townspeople, Cesare drops Jane and tries to escape, but collapses and dies. Caligari attempts to escape himself, followed by Francis to an insane asylum. The film leads you to believe that Francis discovers that Caligari is in fact obsessed with somnambulism and sorcery, but in a twist, the final minute reveals that Francis is in fact a patient of the asylum, along with Cesare and Jane, and the man of his obsession, Dr. Caligari, is the asylum director, the entire narrative imagined in his head. It may be the first real twist ending of cinema.
The use of the camera dynamics, the lighting of Cesare and the gothic and grotesque settings really create an eeriness that translates to a horror aesthetic. With a monster, an evil doctor and an insane asylum, the film is filled with elements of macabre that have served the film well nearly 100 years after it was made.
Directed by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula (all prints were court ordered to be destroyed following a suit brought on by Stoker’s family, but some copies were saved) and follows Bram Stoker’s narrative very closely.
Thomas Hutter is sent to Transylvania to carry out a real estate transaction while his wife, Ellen, stays behind. Upon finding the recipient of his business deal, Count Orlok, Hutter realizes that something is very wrong. He is disfigured, more a wraith than a human being, and tries to suck his blood when he pricks his finger. After buying the home across from Hutter’s, the Count compliments Hutter on a picture of his lovely wife. After discovering Orlok sleeping in a coffin during the day, Hutter attempts to escape but is knocked unconscious as he falls out his window. Orlok travels to Germany, killing all of the members of the ship he travels on, and moving his coffin to the house he had purchased. Many citizens of the town die and rumors of the plague circulate. Hutter tries to tend to his wife and keep her safe, but Orlok breaks in during the night and drinks her blood, but he is careless, the light of day catching up to him too quick. He vanishes into nothingness at daybreak.
While the narrative is a classic of literature, what really distinguishes Nosferatu from other vampire films is its lighting, camerawork and moodiness. Just the shadow of Count Orlok played masterfully by Max Schreck moving across the stairs is enough to send shivers down your spine. For all the blood and gore and menace of modern vampire films, the simple use of shadows, harsh lighting, makeup, calculated motion and cross cutting make the 1922 film still one of the scariest movies of all-time.
German Expressionism’s influence still lives on today, but it is these early films that established a new mode of cinema. They are strong testaments to a motion picture industry that valued the image beyond all else and modern horror owes a tremendous debt to the work of Weine, Murnau and their brethren.