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A Brief Look at the Scream Queens of the Silent Film Industry
The shadow of Count Orlock creeps up the staircase. Bulging head and elongated knife-point fingers crawl up the wall as his unsuspecting victim awaits him in her bed. She is powerless to resist her fate, soon his shadow, like the dark tide of a black ocean, washes over her.
Most of us watch the iconic scene from Nosferatu (1922) with a sense of dread and almost erotic fascination as Greta Schroder’s character, Ellen Hutter, lies helpless against the sheer will of the vampire. It’s depictions such as these that claw at our psyche and make horror both despised as pulp or revered as an art form. As fans, we have a lot to owe to the past and the genre would be a long forgotten memory without the visceral performances of women like Greta Schroder (pictured in the header) who helped lay the foundations of modern horror.
Cabinets and Phantoms
The films of the 1920’s were defined by their experimental natures. Cinema was relatively new and many actors of the time were making transitions from the stage to the screen. This allowed directors and performers to play around with the media. New lighting techniques, set designs and special effects added to the wonder of film. Horror was nothing new, but the effectiveness of a film to lucidly display our worst fears struck a chord with audiences, and nothing was able to hammer in the last coffin nail like a charming woman in a dire situation. Two of the best examples can be found in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
When I was in middle school, I inherited my grandmother’s color TV. She must have bought it in the 70’s cause it was old. For some reason the antenna was able to pick up some distant TV station which showed horror films every Thursday night at midnight. I remember watching The Phantom of the Opera alone, in the dark with no other sounds but the background music from the film. The film scared the fuck out of me. I remember the moment Christine (played by Mary Philbin, who also stars in The Man Who Laughs) gathered up the courage to sneak up on the Phantom and pull off his mask. He showed his grizzly face and pointed at her as she released a scream that I thought I could actually hear! Mary Philbin was my first encounter with the silent era ‘scream queens’, and she was amazing!
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari features Lil Dagover as Jane, a woman who fights against her attacker to avoid a stabbing but subsequently faints and gets dragged through the streets. Lil Dagover shows a range of talent as she descends into madness and becomes a self-proclaimed queen at the local insane asylum. Performances from women such as Mary Philbin and Lil Dagover helped pave the way for the one of the first ‘scream queens’ in the era of sound, Fay Wray.
The story of women in silent horror films would not be complete without including the tragic Martha Mansfield. She was an amazing actress who could really transmit raw emotion through the screen and fill the silence with dread and loathing. A tumultuous brew of conflicting thoughts and feelings oozes off the screen. Do yourself a favor and watch an outstanding example of her talents in the clip of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), below. Only three years later, when she was only 24 years old, her costume caught fire while filming The Warrens of Virginia and she died a day later of complications at the hospital. We really missed out on a legend.
Strength in Silence
Without these indispensable performances, the horror film genre would have lacked the edge it needed to get off the ground. We must be grateful for such outstanding actresses who were willing to put so much on the line for their art. These remarkable women were able to scream their guts out loud enough for you to hear them through the silence of the early film industry, and that deserves every ounce of our respect and gratitude.
Born and raised in San Diego California, I grew up loving the action horror and sci-fi genres. The first R rated film I saw was Predator back when I was 8 years old. Aliens blew me away as a youngster and I made a M41-A pulse rifle out of paper towel rolls and rubber bands. I ran around for hours avoiding face huggers and blasting xenomorphs in my back yard and I am bringing that big imagination to Nevermore Horror.