This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
Although 1927’s The Jazz Singer was a big hit at the box office, sending audiences into a tizzy about the possibilities of cinematic “talkies,” it surprisingly wasn’t followed up by an immediate rush of sound pictures. Indeed, the majority of theaters weren’t equipped to exhibit talkies until the end of the decade, and a number of studios simply waited for the “fad” to pass before green-lighting their own sound pictures. Not until 1929 and 1930 did it become clear that the “fad” was soon to replace the old way of life entirely.
The horror genre, too, was a bit slow to adapt, and there are few works of note from 1929 or 1930—one imagines that the industry was busy grappling with more existential horrors in the face of its changing landscape. The few 1929 horror talkies that exist, such as The Unholy Night—which happens to contain an uncredited role by a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff—are both ponderous and unnatural feeling, with stilted performances that highlight the industry’s unfamiliarity with an emerging technology. For now, at least, the best pictures are still of the silent variety. Notable among them is the very first of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” series, The Skeleton Dance, with skeleton animation from pioneering cartoonist Ub Iwerks that would be re-used countless times in the years to come.
1929 Honorable Mentions:
The Last Warning, The Unholy Night, The Skeleton Dance
The Film: Un Chien Andalou
Director: Luis Buñuel
This is the only entry in our Century of Terror project to highlight a short film rather than a feature, which speaks both to the lack of quality horror features in 1929 and the enduring status of Un Chien Andalou as a foundational entry in the history of film surrealism. Is this project, conceived by director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí, really an expression of “horror,” per se? Well, not exactly—not in the classical sense, anyway. But the intent of the piece, according to its creators, was to shock, anger and unsettle, and ultimately that’s a horror film in our books. The fact that the film’s most famous shot involves an eye being sliced open with a razor only adds to its horror legitimacy.
Un Chien Andalou is a loosely constructed series of vignettes, some of which are implied to involve the same “characters,” but the film never deigns to name anyone, and the same actors portray multiple, distinct people—choices presumably made to advance a sense of befuddlement. Even the title is meaningless, translating to “An Andalusian Dog.” Intertitles offer up time stamps like “once upon a time,” “eight years later” and “around three in the morning” without any impact on plot, setting or the appearances of the characters, leading the audience to question why it was given this information at all. The easiest way to sum up anything regarding “plot” and Un Chien Andalou is to say that it involves a man and a woman … and that they don’t exactly get along.
The actual imagery, meanwhile, isn’t for the squeamish. Beyond the infamous eyeball-cutting sequence (it was actually a calf’s eye, which doesn’t make it any less gross), the 20-some minutes of footage include such sights as a man’s hand crawling with ants, a woman being run over by a car and a man dragging a pair of grand pianos that are stuffed with the decaying bodies of two donkeys. Modern viewings of this kind of footage benefit also from the otherworldly sort of quality that tends to be afforded when one views a strange silent film in a world of smartphones and YouTube videos—what was decidedly weird in 1929 only seems all the weirder now, given our modern standard of entertainment. Watching Un Chien Andalou in 2019 feels like you’re picking up on a strange transmission from an alien world—one where film scenes are placed in no particular narrative order, and the general goal is maximum disorientation. Although “dream-like” is a term that often gets thrown around in film description, this is one film that actually operates with the irrational logic of a fever dream, and the sense that one is an unwilling passenger who has been shanghaied into the audience.
In its time, Un Chien Andalou represented a new method of visually conceptualizing the prominent psychological philosophy of Freudian free association—today, it’s more of a novel, disconcerting diversion. But considering that it’s one of the few films on this list you can view on YouTube in its entirety, over a lunch break, we encourage you to do so.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.