The Unknown (1927)

Directed by Tod Browning [Other horror films: London After Midnight (1927), Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Devil-Doll (1936)]

The Unknown is one of those silent classics that often gets labeled horror when in reality, I feel that’s a harder case to make. I see enough horror here to keep referring to this as such, but it’s definitely much lighter on outright horror than many other silent horror films at the time were.

Plot-wise, it’s a somewhat interesting love story, and of course Lon Chaney has a fantastically expressive face, but aside from the somewhat thrilling conclusion, I don’t think The Unknown necessarily has a whole lot going for it. I mean, of course, there’s a pretty nice psychological feeling here, and there’s a few scenes that are pretty good, but at only 50 minutes, I don’t know it this has ever made an amazing impression on me.

I’ve seen The Unknown quite a few times, and it’s probably one of the silent horror movies I’ve seen the most (the short runtime being one possible reason), but it’s never been one that blew me away. It’s above average, without a doubt (if only because of the strong performances of both Chaney and Joan Crawford), but when it comes to silent horror, I want a bit more than what The Unknown has to offer, and this is far from my go-to, and farther from my recommendations to those delving into silent horror cinema.

7.5/10

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Cat and the Canary

Directed by Paul Leni [Other horror films: Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924), The Man Who Laughs (1928), The Last Warning (1928)]

A classic of silent cinema for a reason, The Cat and the Canary is a wonderfully-made dark house horror-comedy mix that stands up to this day.

Directed by Paul Leni (Waxworks, The Man Who Laughs, and The Last Warning being his greatest additions to horror besides this), The Cat and the Canary is a very well-done and atmospheric movie, which certainly feels as though it possesses the artistic flair of Leni’s previous Waxworks. The comedy isn’t too pervasive (though one gag does run a little long), and it’s even moderately welcomed at times (the line “I thought I had an appointment, now I’m sure of it” still got a kick out of me).

This silent flick has a lot of flair to it. The inter-titles are cleverly used to indicate mood (shaky text when one is scared, all caps when someone shouts, etc.), and the setting of an old, dark mansion was fun. As was the plot – who doesn’t like a good will-reading, old, dark house mystery, and a killer known as The Cat? Toward the end, when everyone was running around doing their own things, it amazed me how much action a silent movie was able to emulate. And I do mean silent. The print I happened to see this time around had no score, but unlike most silent films, that didn’t really seem to take anything away from the movie. It was still suspenseful when suspense was called for, so it worked out well.

The cast was pretty solid throughout. Laura La Plante (who is also in Leni’s 1929 The Last Warning) did fantastic as the main woman, who everyone thought was going insane. Creighton Hale (who starred also in Seven Footprints to Satan, 1929), who started off a comic relief character, slowly became the hero of the film, and held his own against the killer toward the end of the movie is a show of bravery. Though Tully Marshall wasn’t onscreen for that long a period of time, he also stood out positively.

Martha Mattox, who played a grim housekeeper to great effect, was another solid performance. Mattox, coincidentally, appeared in a couple of early 30’s films I really liked (Murder by the Clock from 1931 and The Monster Walks from 1932) before her early death at 53 in 1933. George Siegmann, like Marshall, only appeared a handful of times, but was also pretty solid. Siegmann, like many of the others I’ve mentioned, has a history with silent horror, not only appearing in Leni’s next movie, The Man Who Laughs from 1928, but also appeared back in 1914’s The Avenging Conscience. As it turns out, Siegmann died in 1928, so The Man Who Laughs would be his final movie.

Lastly, playing a seemingly-sinister doctor, Lucien Littlefield did fantastic. Unfortunately, he only appears toward the tail-end of the film, but it’s still solid enough to stand out.

The Cat and the Canary is a silent horror flick with style, and while I admit I didn’t care for it much the first time I saw it (many years ago, when I was something like 14 or 15), it certainly comes across a far more enjoyable movie now, and is a highlight of the 1920’s.

8.5/10