A look at some of the horror movies that came out of Hollywood between 1929 and 1934, during Hollywood’s pre-code era.
Welcome to the old movies column at Film Stories, where this week I’m chatting about one of my favourite genres – horror. Specifically, the fiendish films from the 1930s that are so legendary, we still speak of them today. Spanning between 1929 and 1934, there are exactly 37 horrors considered part of the ‘pre-code’ era of Hollywood. And here’s a few of them…
So let’s sink in our teeth to some of these terrifying tales. And let’s start with Universal, and the Universal Monsters? For Universal is prominent when it comes to ghosts and ghoulies and all things that go bump in the night. It produced some of the most iconic creatures to ever been immortalised on celluloid.
It helps that it cast its films right. The Invisible Man (1933) – illustrated in the lead image to this article – would have hardly been seen if it wasn’t for Claude Reins’ delectable and gleeful voice-work.
When comes to being a villain, however, there are two men we remember most: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.
Hungarian-American actor Lugosi was villainous in movies such as White Zombie (1932) and the pictured Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932). Yet Lugosi remarkably brought Bram Stoker’s bity Dracula to the big screen in the 1931 adaptation.
Though the film is slow, it certainly has romance within its blood, bringing the Gothic tale of a vampire entranced with a woman to life once more. As Lugosi chillingly delivers “listen the children of the night, what music they make,” you end up as enthralled and engrossed as the equally deranged Dwight Frye, who, as Remfield, is driven mad upon his first taste of blood. (The crazy-eyed Frye would dabble once more with fanged fiends in The Vampire Bat (1933) which has an inventive use of frame colouring as orange fire practically burns through the grey backdrop.)
Meanwhile, the hulking British born Karloff stalked the screen with his massive frame. His most renowned role, certainly, is as the square-headed, bolt-necked creature in a 1931 screen version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As the creature craves love and understanding, his intentions often lead to murder as a scared mob pursues him with fire. Karloff also is fantastic in The Old Dark House (1932) with Charles Loughton and Melvyn Douglas as the brutish manservant of a mysterious manor, and as the shuffling undead Imhotep in The Mummy (1932)
Lugosi and Karloff would eventually have an immense showdown in The Black Cat (1934) which is based on a story by Edger Allen Poe. To see two heavyweights of horror ham it up and hash it out is epic and it helps that the creepy tale still spooks today. On a small note, The Black Cat storyline was also depicted in Maniac; a 1930 exploitation horror which sees nudity and death in an absurdly bad movie. But more on that another time.
An underrated horror icon is Lionel Atwill. The man is best known for playing the enigmatic doctor who seems above board but has an unnerving evil beneath him. Atwill showcases this in movies such as Murders At The Zoo (1933) and aforementioned Vampire Bat. Mad geniuses were not just confined to Atwill, however, as John Barrymore used his wicked ways to hypnotise young women (mainly Marian Marsh) in Svengali and the aptly named The Mad Genius, both released in 1931,
Horror icons of the time lived and breathed their monstrosities. This could even go as far as the director, with Tod Browning defined by his casting in the legendary Freaks (1931), a movie that shows sympathy and understanding for the lambasted and often maligned characters in the film.
For those who are invested in the horror genre like I am, it’s often dismissed as a silly set of films with copious amount of blood and terrible story-telling. Whilst some of these movies can get stuck in the stereotypes of screaming blonde-haired ingénues and white-coat crazed doctors shouting “it’s alive! It’s alive!”, it’s important to recognise that horror has always been pushing the boundaries of cinema. Technical achievements and special effects are prominent within these movies. Most brilliantly, The Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) and Doctor X (1932) were using the two-colour technique to bring flesh and life to the movies.
The films are not without their criticisms. For a start, they can feel sexist. Wray wriggling on ropes whilst wailing in King Kong (1933) feels antiquated. However, for every weak woman, there’s a strong one waiting in the wings. For example, the spunky reporter Florence Dempsey, played by Glenda Farrell, goes toe to toe with the villain in Wax Museum with snappy one-liners and quips. Although Wray is best known for being in the clutches of Kong, she herself stars in a multitude of horror roles as one of the first Scream Queens, each of them having different levels of agency.
A recent spat on Twitter between film critics and director Lexi Alexander saw the latter bemoan that older movies are racist. It is a sweeping generalisation, sure, but with pre-Code movies it’s an either they are or they aren’t situation. The horror genre, I believe, is worst for it.
After all, movies such as 1931’s The Island Of Lost Souls (with the incomparable Charles Loughton,) Black Moon (1934), and King Kong (1933) all deal with white Americans landing on a desert island that is filled with derange stereotypes and an obscene amount of black-face. The natives are all crazed and into black magic to destroy the white invaders. It’s an exhausting trope to get through, and you are more than okay to skip these movies. Especially The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932). As you can perhaps gleam from the title and knowing Boris Karloff is in the titular role, you can expect an awfully harsh depiction of a man from China – let alone a villain from China.
After you’ve watched the entirety of the pre-Code horror genre, and waded through the highs and lows, there’s certainly one film that feels like an outlier, in the best way – Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1931). Even by the 1930s, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella about a doctor who creates a formula that turns him into an amoral monster had been adapted numerous amounts of times for stage and screen. Yet Mamoulian’s work is undisputed as the greatest.
The director crafts a stunning film (pictured below), blending incredible special effects with inventive cinematography. Even though it was made nearly a century ago, the transformation from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde is impressively done to the point where you have no idea how they did it. Mamoulian utilises symbolism and shadows to give the movie a style with the substance of the story.
Fredric March as the lead is one of two men to ever win an Academy award for a horror film (the other being Anthony Hopkins for The Silence Of The Lambs in 1991.) You can certainly see why March won. His performance as both the over-zealous Jekyll turned into the monstrous Hyde is immense. March strides across the screen and possesses every emotion of the two men with apparent ease. You can immediately understand why Jekyll is drawn to his poisonous elixir as he grapples with demons inside unbecoming of the Victorian era he is in. And as Hyde, he is depraved and amoral. With help from make-up, March is truly the master of the dual roles.
A theme somewhat introduced in John S Robertson’s silent film version (starring John Barrymore) was built upon in Mamoulian’s movie – establishing two women caught between the two people living inside the doctor.
Rose Hobart’s Muriel Carew iss the socialite who Jekyll falls in love with and is engaged to. His eagerness to wed early, against the wishes of her father Sir Danvers Carew, adds frustration and passion to his spirit, enticing the beast of Hyde to come out. When Dr. Jekyll meets Miriam Hopkins’ cheeky bar singer Ivy, she attempts to seduce him, wagging her stocking-clad leg back and forth that hangs over Jekyll like a ticking clock. And thanks to Mamoulian’s inventive filmmaking, this is literal – a fading scene atop another. Unfortunately for Ivy, this brief encounter becomes fixated in Hyde’s mind and his obsession leaves Ivy in grave peril. Yet both here have somewhat of their own autonomy and Hobart and Hopkins play both women excellently.
This format of two women in dangerous liaisons with the two sides of Jekyll would be somewhat a staple for adaptations to come.
I must stop now before we become too focused on one film. Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde is one of my favourites and I’m truly obsessed. As it is celebrating 90 years in 2021, much like many horrors of this list, I’m sure I will take you deeper into the mind and madness of Jekyll in the future. I’ll leave it for now and slink back into the shadows. After all, if there is one lesson the pre-Code horror genre can teach is, it’s that obsession is deadly….
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