Posted on December 17, 2020

Ten Classic Movies to Unlock the Uncanny

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Seemingly normal, yet subtly menacing surroundings, anticipations of looming evil, the creeping notion of something or someone being not quite right – perhaps you … A new heyday of sophisticated horror, led by the likes of The Babadook, The Witch, Midsommar and Get Out, brings back a cinematic conception which not only predated the horror genre but helped incite it. The uncanny is rising to new screen prominence. Even before Freud wrote his eponymous essay about it in 1919, movie theaters had already begun to capitalize on its captivation. Uncanniness or Unheimlichkeit shaped a number of early European movies which are psychologically twisted and phantasmagoric. Unheimlich is a weird, complex perception, not simply a milder touch of fear. To be unheimlich something has to appear basically nice, comfortable and familiar while at the same time feeling a bit off. Better than listening to explanations of the uncanny is the experience of it. This list takes a closer look at the cinematic roots of the uncanny.

The Student of Prague (1913/ 1926) – dir. Stellan Rye/ Henrik Galeen

There are two students, the later a close remake of the first. Employing motifs of German Romanticism where portraits, reflections and shadows hold mysterious powers, both set out on melodramatic love adventures. The pay-off comes when once-poor student Balduin (future director Paul Wegener/ prolific Conrad Veidt) who sold his mirror image to a mephistophelean stranger, is pursued by his evil alter ego. This dead ringer is uncanniness personified: a familiar subject – actually the most familiar of all, the self – transgressing physical and logic confines. Experienced by Balduin as “other,” the double also represents a possible metaphor for his declining sanity. This ambiguity constitutes another uncanny trope. While Galeen’s version dives into expressionist paranoia, Rye’s theatrical take closes with a macabre shot considered so disturbing, the remake avoided it.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – dir. Robert Wiene

 Embodiment of expressionist cinema, this mind-bending account of murder, madness and mesmerism is a carnival of disturbed souls. There are understated shocks, such as Somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) opening his eyes. But, even more fear-inducing is the climate of normalized insanity, presided over by deranged authority. Uncanniness lurks all over the place in distorted sets and bizarre make-up that are taken as a matter of course by the characters, thereby questioning the viewer’s own sense of reality. This deliberate uncanny alienation is highlighted by intersections of perceived opposites: Cesare is sleeping, yet awake. Dr. Caligari (future Nazi collaborator Werner Krauß) is a mad-doctor, yet a madman. The framing plot reinstalls Caligari as caring scholar but his final close-up is far from reassuring, dismissing viewers with enduring uncanny doubt.

The Golem, how He Came into the World (1920) – dir. Paul Wegener, Carl Boese

 Cinematographer Karl Freund went on to direct The Mummy, which shares intriguing themes with this multilayered take on the Jewish legend. Made from clay by benevolent Rabbi Loew to save Prague’s Jews from an impending pogrom, the golem evolves a will of his own. Gloom accompanies this hulking figure whose uncontrollable anger relents in the face of innocence and beauty. Unfree and shunned, not lifeless but denied true life, the gargantuan being is kin to Frankenstein’s creature. From his multileveled ambivalence accrues the uncanny, which builds up in proportion to the humanity of the golem’s acts. For it is humaneness rather than uncontrollability that defines his overstepping of the natural divide between an individual and an automaton. Compared to the golem’s unfathomable intermediate existence, the chimerical creation scene is literary just smoke and mirrors.

The Phantom Carriage (1921) – dir. Victor Sjöström

 Sjöström’s adaption of Selma Lagerlöf’s novel is a cautionary tale about a grim reaper figure leading the protagonist on a Dantesque tour through his personal heaven and hell. A wraithlike carriage, driven by a different dead man from year to year, serves as ominous allegory of belated regret about ruined lives. What was a dazzling special effect at the time, upgrading the moralist melancholia with a welcome frisson, seems simple today. Nevertheless, the moody scenery combined with harsh social themes elicits uncanniness by blurring the boundaries between life and death, past and present, reality and visionary (or drunken) imagination.

Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror (1922) – dir. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau

Full of iconic shots, Murnau’s unauthorized Dracula-adaption is a brilliant nightmare. Sinister symbolism and dark-romanticist scenery are crowned with a ghoulish lead performance by Max Schreck. His made-up appearance, ingrained in popular culture, might not be as frightening anymore but the ghostly atmosphere and morbid metaphors distinguishing the uncanny certainly are. Another marker of uncanniness is the deviant sexual desire aroused in Biedermeierian wife, Ellen. Nosferatu (whom she awaits instead of her husband) and Ellen are linked by discrete traits of necrophilia. This subliminal moral infraction defines both figures and their mental bond as uncanny. Throughout the movie nature is coded as insidious, with pestilence (an allusion to then-recent Spanish flu) being brought on by Nosferatu. The eroding distinction between normalcy and reason amplifies the uncanny atmosphere.

The Hands of Orlac (1924) – dir. Robert Wiene

More of Conrad Veidt, once again on the brink of insanity. As the titular pianist, he fears his freshly transplanted hands will continue the crimes of their murderous donor. The lurid plot is enhanced by suggestive directing and an ingenious lead performance. Orlac’s gradual mental disintegration drives his supportive wife to the edge of breakdown. The stifling atmosphere of psychologic ambiguity summons the uncanny just as much as the suggested commixing of two different persons’ impulses via transplantation, pervading what should be the definite border between separate entities. This also casts uncanny ambiguity on the ethics of Orlac who, after all, gets his happy ending thanks to murderous actualization of his subconscious aggressions.

La Chute de la Maison Usher (1928) – dir. Jean Epstein

Epstein’s adaption of Poe’s sepulchral short stories (The Oval Portrait is also woven into the plot) illustrates and imparts ominousness in every frame. Dire portents accompany the protagonist on his way to the titular venue where the familiar and comfortable are inverted by an aura of otherworldly doom. Murky interiors and floating garments have the protagonists appear dead and buried in their own house before they actually are. Faces distorted in cross-fades imply the disassociation of Roderick Usher’s mind. This is quintessentially uncanny–exactly this notion of a supernatural aura and hidden menace unsubstantiated by fact. Bare trees, forsaken roads, and peasants fearfully whispering “Usher” neither pose any danger nor are they unnatural. Still, they educe unease accompanied by a presentiment of peril: this nebulous affright is the uncanny.

Vampyr (1932) – dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer

Despite suffering from financial difficulties, Danish director Dreyer’s only horror foray is as advanced technically as it is visually mesmerizing. Gauzy imagery, surreal scenarios, and trancelike acting convey a story that follows less the cited source by Sheridan LeFanu than dream logic. The early sound effects and production values might be shoddy, but this hallucinatory world combining classic uncanny tropes such as living shadows, everyday occurrences serving as death visions, and parasitic manipulators (beware doctors!) is utterly hypnotic. Every scene and person betray stealth or deviance either in a devilish glance, a skewed perspective, or an oblique comment, shrouding the filmic realm literally and figuratively in uncanny twilight.


The Dybbuk (1937) – dir. Michał Waszyński

Forget whispering wine boxes! This Polish production has the real deal. Shot in Yiddish, the somber story plays out in a shtetl where a young couple’s love is thwarted by the girl’s haughty father. After her beloved’s untimely death, she is possessed by his wandering spirit, leading to a tragic reunion in death. The morbid romanticism of Leje’s longing for her lover turned death wish is a popular token of the uncanny which culminates in the girl’s arranged wedding to another man. During a traditional dance, Leje is courted by a stranger masked as skeleton in whom she sees her dead sweetheart. While the bride sinks into the demon’s arms, the congregation keeps on dancing around them, their incongruous reaction making the tender danse-macabre even more uncanny. Stilted acting and technical constraints hardly diminish the gloomy fable about loss and painful longing, with the very real specter of Nazi terror and WWII haunting the screen.

Dead of Night (1945) – dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer

Multilayered, psychological (an ironic twist has one character being a shrink), and genuinely terrifying, the sole post-war example of classic uncanny film serves as sum and conclusion of the anxieties accumulated in its predecessors. In this elliptic anthology, evil doesn’t come from remote places, mystic rites or peculiar strangers but from mental and physical frailty, from those who are close to us, and even from ourselves. Uncanniness emanates from decorative objects exposing our repressed aggressions, ghosts of the past visiting oblivious youths, and adult toys scorning social inhibitions. As everyday events take a slight turn towards the irrational, the characters end up between two equally undesirable explanations: delusion and the supernatural. In this uncanny borderland the audience is trapped with the protagonists. Instead of waking up from the nightmare, we wake into the nightmare of which the ultimate horror is not terrible things happening but the certainty they will happen again and again.

Here is Lida Bach’s essay exploring the definition of the uncanny and how contemporary cinema is experiencing an uncanny revival.

Lida Bach is a professional movie journalist and critic from Berlin, having been published and publishing in numerous online media. She has written previously for Horror Homeroom on Jordan Peele’s Us and the class system. You can check out her website, Cinemagicon, and find her on Twitter.

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