Nerd History (w/ Tom Elmore): The Three Godfathers Of Modern Horror Films

Welcome to another edition of Nerd History with Tom Elmore!

Many of us celebrate the arrival of Halloween by watching horror films. And whether or not you prefer the classics monsters like Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s Monster, or the newer ones such as Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Kruger, almost all of them can trace their origins to three German films of the silent era.


From 1911 until 1933 Germany enjoyed its first taste of democracy during the Weimar Republic. This gave German artists freedoms of which modern artists would be jealous. Consequently every area of German culture enjoyed an unprecedented wave of creativity. The German film industry flourished during this period, producing about 250 films a year. In Berlin alone there was over 230 film studios. Though filmmakers had unprecedented artistic freedom, they had to overcome obstacles created by a broken infrastructure, shortages caused by World War I and one of the worst economies in the history of Europe.

Yet thanks to their fertile imaginations and remarkable talents, it was German filmmakers, and not Hollywood, producing the most ambitious and technically advanced films in the world. However, many of the films (these three included) showed the conscious and sub-conscious fears of the German people, in particular, fear of authority figures.

NOTE: Synopses contain spoilers. Yes, these films were made almost 100 years ago, but still, a spoiler alert is a spoiler alert! 

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) – 1920.
Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, Directed by Robert Weine, Produced by Decla-Bioscop.



A young man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) tells an older man that evil is everywhere as a young, dazed woman named Jane (Lil Dagover) walks by them, Francis claims that Jane used to be his fiancée and proceeds to tell a story.

In Holstenwall where Francis competes for Jane’s affections with his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), a strange and mysterious figure visits the town clerk to obtain a permit to show his attraction, a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt-best remembered for playing Maj. Heinrich Strasser in Casablanca) in the upcoming fair. The doctor gets his permit, but the clerk mocks him. That night the clerk is stabbed in his bed.

(public domain/fair use)

The next day Alan and Francis visit the fair and sees Caligari’s exhibit. The doctor opens a raised coffin to display a sleeping Cesare. Under Caligari’s orders, Cesare awakens. When Caligari tells the spectators that the somnambulist can see the future and will take questions from the audience, Alan ask how long he has to live to which Cesare replies, “until dawn.”

That night Alan is killed. Francis investigates and spies on Caligari. Meanwhile Cesare sneaks into Jane’s house with the intent of killing her while she sleeps, but instead kidnaps her. A mob hear her screams and chases the somnambulist, resulting in Cesare’s death. The police raid Caligari’s exhibit but the doctor escape. Francis follows him to an insane asylum where he learns that he is actually the asylum’s director who is obsessed with an 18th-century mystic named Caligari who used a somnambulist named Cesare to commit murders. (Somnambulism, by the way, really does exist. It is an extreme form of sleepwalking and can be life-threating.) When a somnambulist is admitted to the asylum, the director decides to recreate the actions of the mystic in order to understand them. The police are called to the asylum where the phony Caligari is exposed and put in a strait jacket, becoming one of the patients.

The narrative returns to the present. In a surprise twist it is revealed that Francis is actually an asylum inmate. So is Jane who believes she is a queen. Cesare is a patient too. He is not a somnambulist but quiet and dangerous. Meanwhile, “Dr. Caligari” is the asylum director. Francis attacks him, but is restrained in a straitjacket. The director announces that now that he understands Francis’ delusion, he can cure him.

(public domain/fair use)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often incorrectly cited as the first horror film, however it was the first to have an impact. One of the reasons for the film’s fame are the expressionistic sets created by Herman Warn, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig. They used black and white paint and painted forms and shadows on the sets to give it an unreal, graphic look that reflects the mind of a mad man. Often left unsaid is that electricity was being rationed in Germany at the time and using this color scheme reduced both the use of power and the cost of set construction. Furthering the surreal look was that everything was filmed on set, and Decla-Bioscop’s stages were unusually small.

This was the first screenplay for writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, who saw it as an attack on authority. The script was inspired by a true event. Janowitz believed he had witnessed a murder near an amusement park when he saw a woman disappear into some bushes. A few moments later he saw a man emerged from the same bushes. The next day it was reported that the girl was killed. Mayer based the doctor on a military psychiatrist he had dealt with.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most influential, studied and discussed films ever made, and often appears on “greatest films” lists. As one of the best examples of the German expressionist movement, its influence can be seen in the Universal horror films of the 1930s and the film noir of the 40s and 50s. Director Tim Burton paid homage to the film by re-imagining the Penguin (Danny DeVito) as resembling Dr. Caligari in his 1992 film Batman Returns.

Though Cesare’s body count is small compared to those who came after him, he is the first mindless killer in cinematic history, paving the way for Jason and Michael Myers. One could also argue that he is the first zombie in horror films, while his master, Dr. Caligari is easily the silver screen’s first mad scientist.

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World) – 1920.
Written by Henrik Galeen and Paul Wegener,
Directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, Produced by Universum Film AG (UFA).


original poster, circa 1920 (public domain/fair use)

In medieval Prague, the head of the local Jewish community, astrologer Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück ) predicts disaster for the Jewish community. The next day the Holy Roman Emperor orders all Jews out of Prague before the next new moon.

To execute the order, a knight named Florian (Lothar Müthel) is sent to the Jewish ghetto where he falls in love with Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) the Rabbi’s daughter, who is also the love interest of Loew’s assistant (Ernst Deutsch-whose character is never given a name). The Rabbi tells the knight that he can predict the future and requests an audience with the emperor.

Upon Florian’s departure, Loew begins making a huge clay statue to defend the Jews. Soon, the knight returns with a request for Loew to attend the Rose festival in the palace. While the knight and Miriam share a romantic movement, Loew and his assistant summon the demon spirit Astaroth and forces him to say the magic word that brings the Golem to life. Loew writes the word on a scroll and places it in an amulet on the statue’s chest.

At first the Golem is used as a household servant and goes with Loew to the palace. There the emperor is both frighten and amazed by the Golem and asks Loew if he can do other feats of magic. The rabbi creates a magic screen and shows the history of the Jewish race. Despite Loew’s pleads for silence from the audience, they laugh at the sight of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew and the palaces starts to collapse. The Golem props up the falling ceiling, saving the court. In gratitude the emperor pardons the Jews and allows them to stay in Prague.

(public domain/fair use)

Loew and the Golem return home. The emperor’s pardon spreads joy in the ghetto, but the rabbi is now worried about the Golem. He checks the signs and learns that upcoming star patterns will cause Astaroth to take over the Golem and have it kill the rabbi. Loew removes the amulet, effectively turning the Golem “off.”

Afterwards, Loew joins his assistant in the celebration in the streets. The assistant is dispatched to find Miriam, only to find her in bed with Florian. Upset, he re-animates the Golem and orders it to throw Florian from the building. The demon now controls the statue and the Golem throws Florian from the roof, killing the knight.

The assistant and Miriam flee for their lives to the synagogue to warn the community, but Miriam collapes along the way. The members of the synagogue join the assistant and rush back to Loew’s house and find that it has been set on fire by the Golem who is missing with Miriam. Loew performs a prayer and exorcises Astaroth from the Golem

The Golem is wandering through the ghetto causing havoc and damage, while dragging Miriam by the hair through the streets. He lays the girl down on a stone surface and heads to the city gate. Tearing the gates down he comes across a group of young girls playing. All but one flees at the sight of the Golem. Now docile by the removal of Astaroth’s influence, he delicately picks up the young girl who innocently removes the amulet. He drops the girl and collapses.

Loew finds his daughter sleeping. The assistant comes by and tells the rabbi that people are waiting for him by the gate. Alone with Miriam the assistant tells her that he will not tell anyone about her affair with Florian and asks her forgiveness. Meanwhile the film ends with citizens of the ghetto rejoice and pray at the sight of the dead Golem, with the Star of David appearing at the end credits.



(public domain/fair use)

Der Golem: How He Came Into the World was released eight months after Caligari and was the third film by director, writer and actor Wegener to feature the title character and was actually a prequel to the other two. Sadly, both those films Der Golem (1915) and The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917) are lost.

This is one of the few horror films based on Jewish folklore. Golem appears in the original Hebrew version of Psalm 139:16 “Thine eyes did see my substance – golmi, my embryo state – my yet indistinct mass, when all was wrapped up together, before it was gradually unfolded into the lineaments of man.” “Golem” means “raw” material, indicating an unfinished human before God’s eyes. Today it is a Jewish slang term for a clumsy, slow or brainless person.

In Jewish folklore, a Golem is a creature of clay which could be animated when a scroll with the word “emet,” Hebrew for truth, is inserted in his mouth or written on his forehead. He could be deactivated by removing the first “e” creating the word “met” which means death. The most famous tale of a Golem did involve a rabbi Loew and was the basis for a 1914 novel called The Golem written by Gustav Meyrink on which Wegener based all three of his Golem films.

The presence of Astaroth also makes this film one of the first films to invoke the supernatural and demonology as a plot points. In demonology, Astaroth is the Great Duke of Hell, who along with Beelzebub and Lucifer, forms the trinity of evil. His name is derived from the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar.

(public domain/fair use)

Though at first glance, Wegener’s Golem does not seem scary, a big, husky man in a double breasted trench coat, Wegner effectively used his body movements to give the creature a perception of power. Also adding to his performance was the expressive facial movements of the actor. Further helping the performance was the dark make up used all over his face and body that truly makes him look like a creature made out of clay.

The cinematography on the 1920 film was done by Karl Freund, (1890-1969) who worked on over 100 films in his career winning an Oscar in 1937 for The Good Earth. Freund is best known for his work on the Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s and is largely responsible for the look of the films, which have in turn inspired generation of horror film writers and filmmakers. He also pioneered and/or perfected several techniques still used in television production while serving as the cinematographer on I Love Lucy.

Freund also directed two of the most important horror films of the 1930s, The Mummy in 1932 with Boris Karloff and 1935’s Mad Love with Peter Lorre. Some film historians also claim that Freund was the true director of Dracula in 1931.

Besides the talents of Freund’s cinematography, the Golem films also had a strong influence on Universal’s Frankenstein series. According to witnesses, the make-up used in Bela Lugosi screen test for Frankenstein’s monster resembled Wegener’s Golem. Boris Karloff’s interpretation of the monster, with his stiff movements suggests that it was influenced by Wegener. The scene where the monster interacts with a little girl is similar to one in The Golem.

However the influence of Der Golem is far more present in Universal’s Mummy series. In the original Freund-directed film, the Mummy is brought back to life via a scroll and Karloff’s make up suggests a person covered in mud or dirt. The subsequent four films in the series would have the Mummy brought back to life by tana leaves administered by a mystic who would also lose control of the mummy. In all of the films, the Mummy moves very stiffly but is also very strong and powerful, not unlike the Golem. And like the Golem, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster often meet their downfall due to a woman.

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror) – 1922.
Written by Henrik Galeen, Based on Dracula by Bran Stoker, Directed by F.W. Murnau, Produced by Prana Films.


(public domain/fair use)

Wisborg real estate agent Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is dispatched to Transylvania to sell a house to Count Orlok. Before he leaves Hutter arranges for his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) to stay with his friend Harding (Georg H. Schnell) and Harding’s sister Annie (Ruth Landshoff).

As he nears his destination in the Carpathian Mountains, Hutter stops at an inn. When he mentions Orlok’s name, the locals become terrified and discourage him from trying to reach the castle by night. Hutter’s coachman takes him only as far as a high mountain pass since it is almost sunset. Soon a black coach arrives and Hutter is told to get in.

At the castle Hutter is welcomed by Count Orlok (Max Schreck), who has prepared a meal for his guest. During the meal, Hutter accidently cuts his thumb. Orlok tries to drink the blood but Hutter repeals the attempt. The next morning Hutter awakens to an empty castle. He also notices two puncture marks on his neck which he attributes to mosquitoes.

That evening Orlok signs papers to purchase a house across the street from the Hutter’s. The count sees a photo of Ellen and comments on how lovely her neck is. Later Hutter reads a book about vampires that was given to him at the inn and realizes that his host is one. He hides under his bed sheets and passes out. Meanwhile Ellen awakens and walks in a trance like state towards a balcony. Harding sees her and shouts out Ellen’s name, causing her to faint. When a physician arrives, Ellen, in her trance induced vision sees Orlok about to attack her husband and shouts out Hutter’s name. The doctor, however, dismisses this a result of blood congestion.

(public domain/fair use)

The next day Hutter again finds himself alone in the castle. He starts to explore and finds Orlok lying in a coffin in a crypt. Horrified he runs back to his room in time to see Orlok piling coffins into a coach and entering the last coffin just before the coach pulls away. A desperate Hutter escapes the castle through a window but is injured by the fall and wakes up in a hospital.

While Hutter is recovering, the coffins are transferred to a schooner where one of them is accidently opened revealing a host of rats. One by one the crew dies save the captain and his first mate. Suspecting that the coffins are to blame, the mate tries to destroy the coffins but is interrupted by Orlok’s awakening. The horrified sailor jumps ship. The captain, in the meantime, has strapped himself to the ship’s steering wheel, making himself easy prey for the count.

The ship arrives in Wisborg, while the curious townspeople explore the ship, Orlok departs with one of his coffins unnoticed and moves into his new house, where he often stares from his window at the sleeping Ellen. When the local officials examine the ship’s log book, they determine that the crew died from the plaque. The local townspeople panic and everyone is told to stay indoors, but numerous deaths still occur.

(public domain/fair use)

Meanwhile, a recovered Hutter rushes home. Against his wishes, Ellen reads Hutter’s book on vampires. She learns that the way to destroy a vampire is for a pure hearted maiden to distract the vampire with her beauty all through the night until the sun rises, causing the vampire to die in the sunlight. Ellen opens her window to invite Orlok in, but faints. After Hutter revives her, she asks him to send for Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt). After Hutter departs, Orlok arrives. He becomes so distracted from drinking Ellen’s blood that he does not notice the sunrise until it is too late and he vanishes in a puff of smoke. (Note: HE DOES NOT SPARKLE!) Ellen then dies in the arms of her husband.

Contrary to many accounts, this was NOT the first film adaptation of Dracula. There were two previous versions made, both presumed lost. However some consider this to be the most faithful film adaptation of the novel ever made.

In order to avoid paying copyright fees Murnau changed the names of the characters and places from Dracula, but Bram Stoker’s widow filed a copyright infringement lawsuit anyway. A German judge ruled in her favor and ordered all prints of the film be destroyed. However, at least one print had been sent overseas and thus the film survives to this day. (Incidentally, Stoker failed to copyright Dracula in the United States, which is still a sore point for his heirs.) The lawsuit bankrupted Prana Films making this their only production.

In most unrestored, public domain prints you will see the character names as Stoker wrote them: Orlok as Dracula, Hutter as Johnathan Harker, Knock as Renfield, Ellen as Nina Harker, Harding as Westenra, Ruth as Lucy Westenra. Though for some odd reason Wisborg (a fictional town) becomes Bremen (which is real).

(public domain/fair use)

Much of the film’s success is due to Murnau’s use of light and shadow; an early precursor to film noir. Many of the images we think we are seeing are actually only suggested, it is our mind telling us what we think we see. This is a technique that has been copied by numerous filmmakers since, most notably Sir Alfred Hitchcock, but seldom used better than it was here. The film also features some of the earliest uses of trick photography.

Schreck’s Orlok is a far cry from the aristocratic, suave European nobleman that Lugosi created and light years away from the pretty boys of The Twilight Saga. Orlok is a traditional European folklore vampire, a repulsive creature that resembles a rat. His fangs are not canine teeth, but the two center upper teeth. He acts nervous and almost feral. Orlok is not an object of desire, thus it is very easy to see why he could so easily fall victim to a woman’s charm.

For years, Nosferatu’s interpretation of the vampire mythos was pushed aside in favor of Universal and Hammer Studios’ versions. Then in 1979 two unrelated events changed things. That year CBS made a mini-series based on Stephen King’s vampire novel Salem’s Lot directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The make-up for the head vampire, Kurt Barlow, (Reggie Nalder), was based on Schreck’s Orlok.

Also that year famed German filmmaker Werner Herzog remade the film as Nosferatu the Vampyre. Though he faithfully followed Murnau’s story, he used the names created by Stoker since the copyright on Dracula had expired. Noted German actor Klaus Kinski played Dracula. Herzog filmed two versions simultaneously with the same cast and crew, one in German and the other in English.

In 2000 director E. Elias Merhige, released Shadow of the Vampire a fictional account of the making of Nosferatu in which Schreck (William Dafoe) is a real vampire who reneges on a deal with Murnau (John Malkovich) not to attack the cast and crew. Dafoe received an Oscar nomination for his performance.

Since then more vampires who look like Orlok have hit the small and big screen,.Orlok himself has appeared in some recent vampire novels. But no matter what vampire film you watch this Halloween, it will certainly owe a debt to Nosferatu.


All three films are in the public domain and can be accessed in their entirity on You Tube. For those desiring a hard copy, there are numerous horror themed budget dvds that feature these films, but the print quality varies.

Restored prints of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu are available on dvd and blu-ray from Kino Video (  Kino also offers a restored version of Der Golem, but only on standard DVD.


-Tom Elmore
Staff Writer/Resident Historian: Nerd Nation Magazine


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