Horror was one of the cornerstones of the burgeoning cinema of the 1920s. Why this should be is a profound question. Perhaps it was because the horror story translated more successfully to the silent film stage than many forms of drama. After all, the horror story has often been much like a morality play or a familiar fairy tale. We do not need to hear the lines; the emotions and motivations of the actors are felt by all. Certainly, horror films of the silent era and into the early years of the sound motion picture (and even to the present day?) exhibit a heightened air of melodrama which is not always fairly attributable either to the material or to the quality of the performances. With the advent of sound, the horror film underwent a transformation and the craft of the film, the methods of producing the effect of terror or horror, became more subtle, and more personal.
Carl Laemmle's Universal Pictures was the major force in the early years of the horror cinema, touting such names as Lon Chaney, Sr., Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, and Lon Chaney, Jr., but other studios, RKO Radio Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Paramount also contributed significant works to the canon. Many of the familiar classics of this period must be recognized for their importance in the history of the genre, yet I confess to being less impressed by some of these (e.g., Frankenstein) than with the lesser known efforts of the period like The Mystery of the Wax Museum and Dracula's Daughter. Even in these early years a large volume of celluloid was generated which is not worth watching, usually for matinee features and serials, although the available venues for such junk were far fewer than today. In the case of major production features, the criticisms I have are sometimes a little unfair.
Films of this period should be judged with a discernment which takes consideration of the style of the period; often melodramatic, ananchronistic in language, often ostentatious and having pretentions of high stage drama, disturbed by attempts at comic relief where none is wanted by contemporary audiences, and after 1934, excessively repressed in terms of potentially offensive content by the Hays Office and the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC). If these limitations are understood in their proper context, these older works can be viewed less critically. Notwithstanding this apology, there are some, particularly those produced before 1934 and those which excelled within the limitations of the time to achieve a craft which many contemporary films would do well to rediscover, and for which no apology is necessary. They are the true classics, worthy efforts by the standards of any age.
In these Classics of the 1920s, `30s and `40s, the roles of good and evil are usually clearly drawn, or if obscured then ultimately revealed in their true character; and good triumphs in the end. They are morality plays in many cases; the post-modern rite of exorcism. They represent the restoration of order in society at a time when western civilization still clung with failing strength to attitudes, virtues and beliefs of a banished past, of Victorian empires and Western frontier expansion, of boundless opportunity and hope for the future; when the real horrors of the Great War and its aftermath had shattered that illusion and the whole world began to sense, dimly but certainly, that what the future held was worse still. As the nuclear age dawned in the late 1940s, a realization also dawned upon the western mind, which ushered in the next era in horror cinema... but of that later.