Horror comes to America



The Silent Winter showing of Murnau’s Faust brings to mind how much modern horror owes to the German Expressionists of the 1920s. F.W. Murnau, along with Fritz Lang, pioneered the modern horror film in Germany and brought their skills to America.

Murnau’s first foray into Hollywood cinema delivered Sunrise, easily one of the best American films of the silent era. At the Oscars, it picked up Best Actress (Janet Gaynor) and Best Cinematography (Karl Struss), and an unprecedented special award for “Unique and Artistic Production.” It’s nigh impossible to overstate the impact that Murnau and his contemporaries made on Hollywood. And speaking of German cinematographers, Universal’s genre-defining horror films of the 40s (Dracula, et al.) owe their iconic vision to cinematographer Karl Freund, who previously worked with Murnau on The Last Laugh and Tartuffe. (He even went on to pioneer the three-camera TV technique on I Love Lucy.)

Nosferatu is no doubt Murnau’s most famous work, and its acclaim is certainly deserved. (I think I prefer scary, repugnant vampires to our current high-schoolers and swamp dwellers.) But Sunrise and The Last Laugh would have to duke it out for the the title of my personal favorite. Both bring the high-contrast, surreal technique of his horror films into everyday life. And what could be more frightening than everyday life?

Not sure where I’m going with all this, other than to note that my appetite for creepy, expressionist horror has been whetted. Time for an UFA fest!