Genre films have been around basically as long as cinema itself—which means audiences have been shrieking at monsters and marveling at space adventures for over 100 years. Technology may have changed rather dramatically, but a lot of the core stories are still remarkably similar.
Most of these films are in the public domain, which means you can easily find them on YouTube and other streaming sites. But if you can—and this’ll be easier for certain titles, like Nosferatu, which tends to pop out of its coffin around Halloween—try and catch them on the big screen, accompanied by a live or otherwise creatively curated musical score.
This is by no means a complete list of every silent horror or sci-fi film; I was aiming more for an introductory array of films that are well-known, easy to access, and still exist more or less in their complete form. If your favorite isn’t listed here, please share in the comments!
1) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Dr. Caligari, a fiendish hypnotist, pulls the strings and manipulates a sleepwalker into murder—an eerie tale made even more nightmarish by exaggerated, strikingly angular set design that would help define (along with a few other entries on this list) the German Expressionist film movement. In the last act, there’s a big reveal that makes the ending of Robert Wiene’s horror classic even more nightmarish, predating anything M. Night Shyamalan ever plotted by nearly eight decades.
The actor who played the somnambulist, Conrad Veidt, fled Germany with his Jewish wife after the Nazis came to power; ironically, one of his best-known Hollywood roles was playing Major Strasser, the Nazi who harasses Humphrey Bogart and company in Casablanca.
2) Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang’s legendary, influential sci-fi epic was obviously going to make this list. It’s the tale of a wealthy industrialist’s son who falls in love with Maria, a woman who inspires the legions of factory workers in the titular city—and the wealthy industrialist himself, who conspires with an inventor to build a robot Maria to confuse everyone and (unsuccessfully) prevent any pesky rebellions from breaking out.
Though it’s a visual delight, mixing German expressionism, Art Deco, and a 1920s view of a mechanized future, Metropolis isn’t exactly a fast-paced thrill ride—but its generous running time (around two and a half hours) is kind of a miracle, considering a good chunk of the film was thought to be lost until prints were discovered in the mid-2000s, resulting in a 2010 restoration that plugged decades’ worth of nagging plot holes.
3) Nosferatu (1922)
The next German Expressionist film on this list is F.W. Murnau’s spooky thriller, starring the long-fingernailed grandaddy of our still-thriving obsession with vampires. (The famous shot where Count Orlok rises stiffly from his coffin recently got a comedic shout-out on FX’s What We Do in the Shadows.)
The names are changed from Bram Stoker’s Dracula—but not much else is, which caused some legal drama with Stoker’s heirs after the film was released. Max Schreck’s turn as the ancient creature is so eerie it inspired an entire movie suggesting the actor actually is a vampire (as played by Willem Dafoe in 2000's Shadow of the Vampire), but the performance is really just the creepiest element in a movie that drips shadowy dread from every frame. Murnau makes good use of early special effects to help advance the atmospherics (like when he speeds up Orlok’s supernaturally-enhanced carriage), as well as stylistic techniques that were groundbreaking at the time, such as cross-cutting between montages.
4) The Lost World (1925)
Harry O. Hoyt directs this adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle adventure, but the real glory of The Lost World goes to Willis O’Brien’s stop motion special effects, which were cutting edge at the time and are still pretty fascinating to behold.
An expedition to find a missing explorer lost in the South American jungle discovers up-close-and-personal proof that dinosaurs (including a Triceratops, a Stegosaurus, and the ever-popular T-rex) are far from extinct; there’s also a love triangle, a trained monkey, and a blustery performance by Wallace Beery as Conan Doyle’s recurring character Professor Challenger. O’Brien went on to create the special effects for 1933's King Kong and 1949's Mighty Joe Young; he was also the mentor of Ray Harryhausen, who continued to innovate on the stop-motion art form in movies like 1963's Jason and the Argonauts.
5) Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
This Danish oddity from director Benjamin Christensen is not actually a narrative film; instead, it’s a series of freaky but darkly funny chapters purporting to study and recreate, as the subtitle suggests, witchcraft through the ages, from medieval times up through the 1920s. The macabre imagery (a tongue-waggling Satan, spell-casting, ghostly witches flying through the sky, possessed nuns, torture, blasphemy) meant the film didn’t get a proper U.S. release until the 1960s, but it’s since become a cult classic for obvious reasons.
6) Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)
The first Soviet sci-fi film is, appropriately enough, based on a novel by Aleksey Tolstoy, one of the first Russian-language authors to help popularize the genre. Prolific director Yakov Protazanov helmed this adaptation, which stands as one of the first movies to show characters engaging in space flight and traveling to alien worlds.
An engineer wants to escape his increasingly messy life on Earth, so he blasts off with a friend (and a stowaway) to Mars—where the elaborately costumed inhabitants have been peeping on Earth through a telescope for some time. There, he meets the comely Queen Aelita and helps spark a Martian revolution. Not unlike The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, there’s a twist in the last act, though this time it makes for a bit more of a happy ending.
7) A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Of course, Aelita isn’t the earliest sci-fi film to show things like space exploration. You’re probably already familiar with the most iconic image from French filmmaker Georges Méliès’ galactic adventure: the Man in the Moon with a spaceship lodged in one of his eyes. A Trip to the Moon runs under 20 minutes and that moment midway through; Méliès himself plays one of the bearded astronauts who encounter a fantastical lunar landscape and some unfriendly creatures on their journey.
The film was created in Méliès’ specially-designed studio, which resembled a greenhouse, and is packed with examples of the director’s fondness for camera trickery, like the “tracking shot” (before there was such a thing) as the rocket closes in on the Moon.
8) The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Just 15 years after the source novel was released, and several decades before Michael Crawford first crooned “The Music of the Night,” silent-film superstar Lon Chaney headlined what’s still one of the best-known adaptations of the story.
Universal Studios built a replica of the Paris Opera House for the production, but the most memorable visual is, of course, the unmasking of the Phantom’s ghoulishly terrifying visage—one of the most famous creations dreamed up by “the Man With a Thousand Faces.” As the above trailer makes clear, 1925 audiences were shielded from seeing any publicity photos of Chaney in full make-up, in order to make the moment his entire face is seen onscreen all the more gasp-inducing. Honestly, even if you’ve seen what’s by now a very well-known horror-movie character, it’s still an unsettling reveal.
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