1930: The Unholy Three
It’s years like 1930 that make our Century of Terror a genuinely challenging project to undertake. Put simply, this is one of the weaker overall years in horror history, and probably the weakest year for horror in the (mostly) pre-sound era.
It’s funny to think that such a fallow year would fall now, of all times—a true calm before the storm, one year before a bumper crop completely transforms the genre in 1931. Had Universal’s Dracula but arrived a month and a half earlier (it was released Feb. 12, 1931), it would be the obvious pick for this year, blowing the rest of the competition out of the water. Instead, things get a lot more obscure, and there really isn’t any classic offering. Several of the films we discuss this year are tenuously “horror” at best.
Old Dark House movies at least have some representation in 1930, although Rupert Julian’s The Cat Creeps, one of several remakes of The Cat and the Canary, is now considered lost. The most notable of the other films is The Bat Whispers, another by-the-books Old Dark House yarn about a masked bank robber/potential monster named The Bat who terrorizes the inhabitants of a country house on a dark and stormy night. Although a serviceable example of the genre, the film is remembered by many today as being a potential inspiration for Batman, as cited by the character’s co-creator, Bob Kane, rather than for its other merits.
Ingagi, meanwhile, is mostly just notable as an example of the era’s incredible racial insensitivity, as the tale about African women (white actors in blackface) breeding with monstrous gorillas was indicative of the purportedly “ethnographic” films of the time, which were in reality largely excuses to deliver nudity and sexual suggestiveness on screen under the guise of “education” on foreign/savage cultures.
1930 Honorable Mentions:
The Bat Whispers, The Cat Creeps, Ingagi
The Film: The Unholy Three
Director: Jack Conway
The Unholy Three is noteworthy for a few reasons, although in truth it’s more of a crime thriller or melodrama first, with horror elements second. It’s a sound remake of a silent film made only five years earlier, by future Dracula and Freaks director Tod Browning, and the two films are actually quite similar, although the silent precurosor is a bit more polished. Of the titular “three,” two of the more important players return: Lon Chaney and little person actor Harry Doll Earles.
The rather implausible plot of The Unholy Three involves a trio of circus performers—a ventriloquist ringleader (Chaney), a strongman (Ivan Linow) and “20-inch man” sideshow act Tweedledee (Earles)—who go on the lam and disguise themselves as pet store proprietors in a scheme to rob their customers. This involves adult little person Earles posing as a baby, and Chaney’s character posing as a grandmother, among other things, and the hijinks quickly escalate from petty larceny all the way to murder. There’s mayhem, double-crossing and a literal gorilla on the loose at one point, making the story sound like a farce, but it’s all played fairly straight.
Today, the film is remembered for a few reasons—the presence of Earles, who would go on to be one of Hollywood’s most visible little person performers, including a member of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz, but mostly for the fact that it proved to be Chaney’s final feature film before his death from throat cancer only a month after its release. As a result, the film proved to be Chaney’s only talkie performance.
With that in mind, The Unholy Three remake actually goes a long way in bolstering Chaney’s legend by showing that he did indeed have the chops to make the transition into the sound era. His presence is considerably more natural and magnetic than anyone else in the film, and he seems at ease with a new style of performance. It’s certainly enough to make you wonder what kind of character he would have brought to Count Dracula, had he survived and been cast in the part, as Universal fully intended. To think of how different vampire film history might have turned out, if it was Chaney, rather than Lugosi, playing Dracula! It will forever remain one of horror’s biggest “what-ifs.”
Stay tuned, because 1931 is the year that changes the horror genre forever.
Finally, the big one—the most groundbreaking and influential year in horror history, as the genre goes from being a minor sideshow attraction to one of the biggest tickets in Hollywood. Slow as it was to embrace the sound era, this is the year when sound films finally become the norm for horror, and our conception of the classical Universal monster movie is truly born, despite the presence of Phantom of the Opera in 1925.
It’s also one of the first years of our Century of Terror project in which it’s genuinely difficult to choose a “best” film, and strong arguments could be made for any number of iconic stories. The year starts out strong with Tod Browning’s Dracula, giving us the Hollywood discovery of Béla Lugosi, who filled in for what was intended all along as yet another Lon Chaney role. Lugosi would go on to play countless sinister foreigners and mad doctors over the next two decades in Hollywood, oftentimes alongside Boris Karloff, but he would never shed his image as the soft-spoken but hypnotic Count. The film establishes so many archetypes that continue to dominate (or be knowingly subverted) in vampire cinema to this day, from world-weary and grizzled vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing to Dwight Frye’s ravenous familiar Renfield, whose character outline persists all the way into FX’s current serialization of Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows. Almost 90 years later, quotes from Dracula are still immediately recognizable to even casual cinemagoers, a feat that few films of the era can match.
And yet, it’s really not Dracula that stands as the strongest Universal contender of 1931—it’s the crown jewel of the studio’s golden age of monster movies, Frankenstein. Technically superior, and with the benefit of more lively, engaging direction from James Whale, who seems a bit more comfortable working in the sound medium, Frankenstein is an unchallenged masterpiece, albeit one that is perhaps surpassed several times by its first two sequels. Its heart is of course the all-time great performance from Boris Karloff as “the monster,” perhaps the first time that many audiences had seen such a role swimming in obvious pathos for a creature designated in the collective imagination as the film’s “villain.” Unlike sequels Bride of Frankenstein or Son of Frankenstein, one can say that there really is no true antagonist to the first film—the monster is a pitiable figure lashing out against a world that instinctively condemns him the moment they lay eyes on him. Rather, it’s humanity’s own failings—both our hubris and our lack of empathy—that are highlighted. Thematically, it made for much richer horror fodder than many of the lesser monster films that would follow.
But wait, there’s more. 1931 also plays host to what is perhaps the most iconic version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Fredric March in the title role, as well as the Spanish language version of Universal’s Dracula, which sadly loses Bela Lugosi’s performance but instead gains what is arguably more dynamic eye for shot composition and cinematography. As others have since observed, the perfect Dracula might very well be a combination of the two films.
The legacy of 1931 on the horror genre was felt deeply for the next several decades in U.S. and world cinema. With the smashing box office success of Dracula and Frankenstein in particular, horror entered a boom period that resulted in both quality offerings and a flood of cheap schlock, but the genre rarely fell out of vogue ever again.
1931 Honorable Mentions:
Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Svengali
The Film: M
Director: Fritz Lang
The choice of Fritz Lang’s M over the likes of Dracula or Frankenstein ultimately boils down to the inventiveness the film’s director displays in adapting to a new era of cinema. Lang, the creative force behind the ambitious silent masterpiece Metropolis, does not simply adapt his shooting style to the presence of sound during the talkie era—rather, he becomes fascinated by the possibilities presented by synched sound on screen. Whereas one could say that Dracula and Frankenstein play like classic stories that just so happen to be presented at the beginning of the sound era, M has considered the dramatic possibilities offered by the new technology on a much deeper level. Some of this comes across as a bit cheesy or ostentatious when watching the film today, as with the clamorous street noises in many scenes, but other aspects of Lang’s use of sound—such as the presence of film’s first leitmotif in the tune whistled by Peter Lorre—were groundbreakingly effective.
Indeed, there are few sequences in cinema that more effectively establish a setting, a villain, and an air of constant suspense than the first 7 minutes or so of M. It begins with a chorus of children on the playground, chanting one of the more disturbing nursery rhymes you’re going to hear in a film: “The man in black will come for you, and with his little chopper turn you into ground beef.” Already, we know that a killer stalks the streets, with little girls as his target. When little Elsie comes across the silhouette of a man who offers to buy her a balloon, we know where things are headed, but it makes the following shots of deserted city streets, an abandoned laundry room and her empty place at the dinner table no less chilling, as her mother’s calls plaintively ring out over each static image. Lang uses the new medium of sound to expert effect, contrasting largely silent, suspense-building sequences with startling clamor and tumult, one right after the other.
The killer in question, Hans Beckert, is played by the great Peter Lorre in the first major role of his career, and it cemented his image as a villain for the vast majority of the next three decades. It’s a beautiful, vulnerable performance, but one that is used only sparingly—Lorre is almost completely absent from the first half of the film, as it intensely focuses on the mystery of the killer’s identity and the scale of the manhunt and dragnet over the city. Lorre, shown only in small flashes, is a cipher who doesn’t really receive a characterization at first, purposefully allowing the audience to condemn him and come to conclusions about their moral superiority, before Lorre’s final, impassioned plea before a kangaroo court turns the film completely on its head. Together, Lorre and his appointed criminal “lawyer” make startling arguments about the nature of free will, culpability and the right of any man to judge his fellow man, opening the viewer’s eyes to the considerably more complicated nature of “evil” than the black-and-white dichotomy we’d prefer to exist. It’s these final 15 minutes that cement M as a masterpiece among psychological thrillers.
With 1931 in our rear view mirror, the floodgates have now opened on the horror genre in American film, only rarely to slow up ever again. 1932 is marked by a preponderance of solid genre efforts, even if few of them really ascend to the iconic stature of either Dracula or Frankenstein. The volume, however, is pretty impressive.
On the Universal front, we’ve got Boris Karloff portraying arguably the most complex of the original Universal monsters, Imhotep, in The Mummy. A more languidly placed and character-driven film than either Dracula or Frankenstein, the romantic melodrama nature of The Mummy tends to surprise viewers who expect it to revolve around a shambling, strangler of a mummy wrapped in bandages. Indeed, Karloff is only truly bandaged for the first sequence of the film—for the rest of its run, he’s portraying the crafty Imhotep as he attempts to blend in with modern Egyptian society, complete with some beautifully subtle and intricately detailed makeup from Universal monster designer Jack Pierce. The “shuffling around and killing people” mummies, on the other hand, are a fixture of the film’s five sequels, which descend in quality fairly rapidly.
Elsewhere, Karloff appears again as another disfigured monster in the zenith of the Old Dark House genre … The Old Dark House … while his contemporary, Lugosi, is not to be left out of the fun, appearing in both influential “voodoo zombie” film White Zombie and in the essential early telling of The Island of Dr. Moreau, titled Island of Lost Souls. That film starred Capt. Bligh himself, Charles Naughton, in the role of the preening Moreau, in a screen adaptation that no other version of the classic H.G. Wells story has successfully approached—Lugosi himself is stuck as the absurdly hairy “Sayer of Law.”
Finally, 1932 also offers up one of many adaptations of human-hunting tale The Most Dangerous Game, and one more strong contender for the #1 spot: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s expressionist masterpiece Vampyr. That film, although more than a little bit inspired by the box office success of Dracula, shares more in common with the German expressionist classics of the decade before it, especially in its uniquely soft focus and fuzzy, dreamlike visuals. Critical esteem for Vampyr has only continued to rise in the 2000s, ultimately making 1932 a toss-up between the painterly weirdness of Vampyr and the transgressive story of Tod Browning’s Freaks.
1932 Honorable Mentions:
Vampyr, The Mummy, The Old Dark House, Island of Lost Souls, The Most Dangerous Game, White Zombie
The Film: Freaks
Director: Tod Browning
There are few films of the 1930s, no matter how shocking their intent, that can still claim to possess any kind of taboo aura—except for Freaks, that is. The film is unique among those of its time in the disturbing nature of both its imagery and its all-too-true indictment of human misanthropy. You can call Freaks exploitative all you want—and let’s be honest, it really is—but it’s simultaneously one of the era’s most daring pieces of outsider art. Which is funny, considering it came out of MGM, of all places.
Freaks is the story of supposed lovebirds Cleopatra and Hans, circus performers who are due to be married. Cleopatra is a beautiful but penniless trapeze artist. Hans is a “sideshow midget” played by Harry Earles of The Unholy Three, and you can’t deny he gets much more of a plum role here—he’s not a man standing in for a baby again, at the very least. The only problem with the upcoming nuptials is the fact that they’re a sham—Cleopatra is only interested in the diminutive Hans for his money, and is planning to have him killed by her true lover, circus strongman Hercules. The only people standing between Cleopatra, Hercules and the fortune possessed by Hans are the latter’s small army of “freak” friends, from the Human Skeleton and the Bearded Lady to “Pinhead Zip” and “Koo-Koo the Bird Girl.”
The horror of Freaks comes on several levels. There is, to be sure, plenty of surface-level revulsion here. Its real-life performers come in an array of disturbingly unusual physiologies, sufferers of various genetic and developmental disorders that surely made their lives much more difficult. A modern audience (and indeed, the contemporary audience as well) is both repulsed by some of the faces on screen, and contrite about their own repulsion. These were human beings; many of them lifelong circus sideshow performers, totally out of their element appearing in a Hollywood film. There’s no way to make a horror film with these kinds of performers without it being at least moderately exploitative.
At the same time, though, the more lasting contribution of Freaks to horror cinema is its scathing criticism of society’s instinct to demonize and dehumanize those who are different. Cleopatra is of course an audience proxy in the way she looks at the freaks as sub-human specimens who exist to enrich her and bring her the things she’s always wanted in life—the things she believes she deserves, as a “normal” person. It’s little wonder that the status of Freaks as a horror classic began with the 1960s counterculture, as those who chose to turn their back on popular society, likely being labeled “freaks” themselves, rediscovered Browning’s film as a lost time capsule of similar sentiment. Of course, one wonders how much more shocking it all could have been had the original, 90-minute cut of the film had remained intact, rather than the surviving, 64-minute edited cut, which MGM produced in an attempt to salvage their losses after terrible test screenings.
Not that it helped Freaks at the box office. The film was a huge disappointment to its studio and for its director, and even in its edited state it remained so infamous in the years to follow that Browning—the man who had made Dracula only one year earlier—was practically blacklisted afterward. And yet Freaks, despite being less famous than his defining vampire film, is arguably the more vital work in 2019. After all, how many midnight, art theater screenings of Dracula have you ever seen? That’s the flip side of infamy: cultural permanence.
1933: King Kong
The momentum of the early 1930s keeps rolling in 1933, as a variety of studios celebrate the newfound profitability of the horror genre. Thanks to King Kong, this is a formative year for the idea of the “giant monster” movie, which you can argue exists somewhere outside of horror—but we think it, along with its progeny, belongs here. Certainly, nearly every “creature feature” for the next several decades is deeply indebted to King Kong, and few come anywhere close to matching up with it.
In Germany, operating under the watchful eye of the Nazi party (which would later ban the film), Fritz Lang produced The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, his last German-language film before emigrating to France and then the U.S.A. A crime drama with touches of the supernatural, it continued the story he first told in the silent, Expressionist classic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. In only his second sound film, Lang showed his ability to grow and thrive with the change in technology, opting for a more naturalistic (but still thrilling) visual style than his earlier Expressionist work. It was experience that would serve him well as he went on to direct numerous film noir classics in the U.S. throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
On the Universal side of the spectrum, 1933 is home to The Invisible Man, which always stands as one of the more underrated entries in the original Universal Monsters canon. Claude Rains delivers a classic performance as the imperious and haughty Dr. Jack Griffin, who is turned invisible by a botched science experiment and slowly descends into delusions of grandeur. Less focused on atmosphere and gothic frights than Dracula or Frankenstein, and somewhat less concerned with its melodramatic love story than The Mummy, The Invisible Man is more like a madcap crime caper with horror elements, thriving on Rains’ hilarious vocals and surprisingly emotive, almost vaudevillian performance while wrapped in yards and yards of bandages. It’s not among the scariest classic entries in the history of Universal Horror, but it’s absolutely one of the most purely entertaining.
1933 Honorable Mentions:
The Invisible Man, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Mystery at the Wax Museum, The Ghoul
The Film: King Kong
Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
King Kong, along with Star Wars: A New Hope, is likely one of the two biggest watershed moments in the history of cinematic special effects, and that’s just the beginning of what makes King Kong such an enduring classic. It’s a film that inspired entire generations of would-be filmmakers to first seek out the tools that would lead them to careers in the motion picture industry, and there’s no bigger praise you can laud on it than that.
There had been monster movies or “creature features” before Kong, but it became the key reference point for that entire film demographic from the time of its release until the genre underwent an atomic-age reimagining with the likes of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 and Them! in 1954. Likewise, it set the bar on its special effects at such a high level that in many instances, shots and sequences from King Kong weren’t suitably duplicated for decades to come. Much of the credit belongs to pioneering stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, who was inventing new techniques on the set of Kong on a daily basis, laying a foundation for an entire field of visual effects that are still being refined by studios such as Laika (the makers of Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings) today. Those techniques were likewise carried on and further refined by O’brien’s arguably more famous protege, Ray Harryhausen, who used them to great effect in the second golden age of the monster movie, throughout the 1950s-1970s.
Kong, though, still stands as an unparalleled achievement for its time period—far grander and more ambitious in scope than most anything you can compare it to in the same time frame. On one hand it’s a rollicking adventure film, with a classic “journey into the unknown” plot that is still being recycled for modern monster installments like Kong: Skull Island. At the same time, though, it was likewise an interesting experiment in genre-blending—an FX-driven adventure-drama film with horror elements and no clear-cut, traditional “antagonist.” Carl Denham might fit the bill, but he’s better described as a naive dreamer with stars in his eyes, oblivious to the ethical quandary of shanghaiing a huge beast to display in the middle of New York City. Kong, meanwhile, is a misunderstood creature, operating on the sense of self preservation he learned in a home where he’s only ever known a daily fight for survival against a neverending stream of monsters. The film’s empathy for Kong, and its condemnation of the hubris that led to his ascent of the Empire State Building, are what helped make the story such an emotionally affecting classic.
Given that cultural potency, sequels and remakes have always followed in Kong’s wake. Only nine months later, RKO released the hastily assembled Son of Kong, made on a smaller budget and featuring an adolescent ape, but it unsurprisingly failed to generate the same kind of fervor. Subsequent efforts have ranged from the embarrassing (1986’s King Kong Lives) to the admirable efforts of Peter Jackson’s 2005 Kong epic, which came the closest that any film ever has to recreating the combination of adventure and emotion seen in the original. Even now, Godzilla vs. Kong still lurks on the horizon, implying that the great ape may yet see his 100th birthday, still in the popular eye.
1934: The Black Cat
Heading into 1934, the horror genre and the first golden age of the monster movie are on a roll, but a sudden change to the filmmaking landscape throws everything into flux at this particular moment in Hollywood history. The Motion Picture Association of America had chosen to adopt the so-called Motion Picture Production Code back in 1930, largely as a response to repeated populist criticism of the motion picture industry as tawdry, morally suggestive and repeatedly scandalous. There’s some truth to this, as films of the time period were considerably more risque and sexually suggestive than in the years to follow. The Code, popularly referred to as the “Hays Code” after MPPDA President Will H. Hays, put strict limits on behaviors, imagery and subject matter that could be presented by studios in the American film industry, but its enforcement since 1930 had been effectively minimal. That is, until the ascent of Joseph L. Breen to head of the Production Code Administration, which began a sudden, rigorous enforcement of the existing code in June of 1934, requiring all films to obtain a certificate of approval before release.
The result was a huge overhaul of the process by which films could be released in the United States, which happened practically overnight, throwing the industry into disarray. In particular, the “crime,” melodrama and horror genres were most affected, given the Code’s restrictions on sexuality, language, depictions of “perversity,” and “brutality and possible gruesomeness,” to quote the Code directly.
Unsurprisingly, then, the horror genre sees something of a dip in volume and notable films in 1934, although some pre-Code films are released before enforcement suddenly begins in earnest. The only minor classic from the year is The Black Cat, largely notable for being the first film to team Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff together, although it would hardly be the last. After this point, the horror genre does recover pretty quickly, although all films in the next two decades are informed on some level by its requirements.
For film geeks, it’s always a source of curiosity to wonder how horror films might have continued to evolve, had enforcement of the Code not become serious in 1934, but ultimately we should be glad it didn’t become an insurmountable hurdle for the genre.
1934 Honorable Mentions:
Two Monks, The Phantom of the Convent, Black Moon
The Film: The Black Cat
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
The complete filmography of movies that claim to be adapted from the works of Edgar Allen Poe range from experimental, short art films, to slavish feature-length adaptations, to quite a few in the mold of The Black Cat: Horror-thrillers that swipe the names of famous Poe stories for their visibility in marketing otherwise unrelated films. You’ll see it throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and again under the watchful eye of Roger Corman in the 1960s—the Poe name must be one of the most exploited in horror history, although H.P. Lovecraft would likely give him a run for his money these days.
The Black Cat, however, really doesn’t need the Poe embellishment to stand out—all it needs is the names of its two stars, meeting here in their first of eight pairings. Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff were the two preeminent horror genre stars of their day, for obvious reasons. In portraying the two most important Universal monsters, each actor ensured both fame and typecasting that would last throughout their careers, but in 1934 it’s still early enough that neither seems to resent having to appear primarily in horror fare. Here, these two icons just seem to be having a great time, portraying two equally mad (although not quite equally heinous) doctors with vendettas against one another. Our protagonists are technically the newlywed couple who get swept up in the diabolical game of cat and mouse playing out between Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast and Karloff’s Dr. Poelzig, but Universal knew damn well the audience had no particular interest in the story’s ingénues. They were here to see Karloff vs. Lugosi, and in that respect The Black Cat does not disappoint.
Make no mistake, this is very much a pre-Code horror film, with plenty of content that would not have flown if it had been completed just a few months later. From the implied rape of Karloff’s stepdaughter to the film’s sacrilegious Satanism angle and hints at deeper perversions on the part of Poelzig, The Black Cat is about as depraved as horror films of the era get.
Both leads ham it up, determined to destroy one another. Lugosi is playing the lesser of two evils this time around, a wild man who wants revenge on Karloff after spending 15 years behind bars. He’s completely unhinged, his mind having been left behind with the body of his dead wife. Karloff, on the other hand, is playing the sinister mastermind archetype he does so well, grinning with arrogant self-satisfaction and letting others do his dirty work for him. It all builds to a conclusion where even the implied violence is surprisingly grotesque.
Unfortunately, The Black Cat represents a high point of the Lugosi-Karloff team-up pictures, which would slowly ebb in quality, with one very notable exception—Son of Frankenstein. But we’ll get to that at the close of the decade.
1935: Bride of Frankenstein
After taking a moment to adjust to the sea change represented by actual enforcement of the Hays Code, Hollywood studios return to producing a steady stream of horror films in 1935, led by one of the greatest horror sequels of all time in the form of Bride of Frankenstein. Sequels being more of a novelty at the time, it took four years to revisit Universal’s monster mega-hit, and it would take another four years to return for the third go-round.
This is a pretty balanced year for horror overall, with notable entries in a number of sub-genres. Prominent is Peter Lorre’s excellent starring turn in Mad Love, one of several remakes of The Hands of Orlac, our top film from 1924. Lorre, still newly arrived in Hollywood, is in the midst of being typecast as a psychopath or murderer here, probably stemming from his initial appearance in Fritz Lang’s M, but he would escape that sole characterization before too long when he took on the long-running (but racially questionable) role of Japanese detective/secret agent Mr. Moto. Regardless, he’s wonderful as Orlac, once again fearing that his hands are not his own.
1935 also yields another solid Karloff/Lugosi team-up/Edgar Allen Poe rip-off in the form of The Raven, notably less grotesque than The Black Cat a year earlier thanks to the Production Code, along with influential early werewolf yarn Werewolf of London, which blessed us with the sight of a dapper werewolf in a smoking jacket. Lastly, 1935’s Tod Browning-directed Mark of the Vampire is notable for the fact that it’s the only other film outside of Dracula and Return of the Vampire where Lugosi played a vampire character, although the enthusiasm is somewhat tempered by the fact that the twist ending reveals that the film’s vampires are simply actors pretending to be vampires. This is a bit of plot anachronism you would have expected to see in the 1910s or 1920s, rather than the 1930s, when monsters were being treated as more literal threats, but it makes more sense when you consider that Mark of the Vampire was more or less a sound remake of the famously lost silent horror film London After Midnight.
1935 Honorable Mentions:
Mad Love, The Raven, Werewolf of London, Mark of the Vampire
The Film: Bride of Frankenstein
Director: James Whale
The idea that Bride of Frankenstein represents a sequel “even better than the original!” is one that has become so common in the circles of internet film criticism that it almost borders on a modern critics’ cliche, but that doesn’t make the observation any less accurate. In fact, one can point to Bride as evidence of just how far the talky studio system had come in the space of four years, from 1931 to 1935—it’s a significantly more polished, more ambitious movie, made all the stronger by James Whale’s confident and dynamic direction, coming off the likes of The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. It’s the director’s magnum opus, completed several years before his reluctance to remain in the closet likely contributed to the early end of his career. Much has subsequently been made of the possible homoerotic subtext of Whale’s films, and Bride of Frankenstein in particular, but that’s enough for a separate essay all its own.
Bride picks up directly where Frankenstein left off, as villagers celebrate the supposed death of Henry Frankenstein’s (a returning Colin Clive, better here than in the original) creature in the burning windmill climax of the original film. The monster, of course, is not dead—it survives in a flooded pit under the windmill, although the burn scars it now bears take Jack Pierce’s already impressive makeup to the next level. It soon emerges, scaring the bejeezus out of Frankenstein’s maid Minnie, played with hilariously shrill excess by character actress Una O’Connor. This sort of gallows humor is just one aspect that makes it stand out in a different way than Frankenstein.
After his experience in the first film, Dr. Frankenstein has become disenchanted with the thought of playing God and creating life, and vows to set his work aside to enjoy the peace of married life. That is, until the reemergence of an old colleague, the beguiling Dr. Pretorious, who has been exploring research that runs parallel to Frankenstein’s. With the cunning of a snake, the exceedingly arch Dr. Pretorious—in an all-time villain performance by British actor Ernest Thesiger—succeeds in first tempting and then forcing Dr. Frankenstein into doing his bidding, because “the monster demands a mate!” As Pretorious, Thesiger steals practically every scene, turning the monster into another one of his pawns to be used in pursuit of knowledge and power.
Karloff, meanwhile, initially opposed the idea that the Monster learn to haltingly speak in Bride of Frankenstein, but it turns out for the best, deepening the creature’s sense of loneliness and loss, particularly in the oft-parodied sequence when the Monster befriends a blind hermit in the woods, with ruinous results. Pretorius later uses this turn of events to further needle Dr. Frankenstein, taking credit for his “education” of the Monster, even as he uses the situation to further his own ends. In the end, Bride completes the process of humanizing the creature that is begun in the first Frankenstein, bringing its tragic arc full circle. The only other Frankenstein sequel that can stand in the same company is 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, but it functions more as top-notch popular entertainment than Bride’s sublime examination of the existential agony of existing as a perennial outsider.
1936: The Devil Doll
Looking back on the Hollywood of yesteryear, it’s funny to see how much more quickly a supposed fad was apparently expected to run its course. Whereas a genre like the modern “superhero movie” has been going strong since the beginning of the 2000s, showing absolutely no signs of slowing down, studio executives by 1936 seemed to believe that audiences were getting fed up with all this horror and monster malarky, only five years after Dracula and Frankenstein first invigorated the genre in 1931. Obviously, anyone who thought horror was a passing novelty turned out to be wrong, but the genre now cools off for a few years, before coming roaring back at the end of the decade.
With that said, 1936 is still relatively strong in terms of volume of horror—certainly much stronger than 1937-1938 will be. It’s notable for giving us the first true sequel to Dracula in the form of the unexpected, still-confounding Dracula’s Daughter, a rare female-fronted horror feature for the era that has generated countless film essays in the years since for its nebulous lesbian overtones—themes that would reappear again and again in the 1970s, in films such as The Vampire Lovers. The year is also home to a few Karloff features, such as the Michael Curtiz-directed The Walking Dead, and another Lugosi/Karloff team-up in The Invisible Ray—both decidedly B-pictures at best.
Still, it’s a better slate than what was to come, as horror entered one of its most fallow periods in the late 1930s.
1936 Honorable Mentions:
Dracula’s Daughter, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Walking Dead, The Invisible Ray
The Film: The Devil Doll
Director: Tod Browning
A few years earlier into this decade, The Devil Doll would have been an entertaining dalliance that ended up in our honorable mentions, but for 1936 it’s the best option based on its weirdo novelty alone. Combining elements of crime films, science fiction and horror, it almost feels more like a 1950s sci-fi horror film—especially The Incredible Shrinking Man—than it does like a horror film from its own period.
Lionel Barrymore stars here as Paul Lavond, a man who has spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Making his escape with the help of a scientist who has perfected a formula for shrinking down human beings to the size of a toy—a scientist who conveniently dies along the way, passing on his knowledge to Barrymore—Lavond decides to use his new knowledge, along with the scientist’s widow, to take revenge on those who set him up and ruined his life. And, as they say in the famous expression, revenge is a dish best served in the form of human doll murders.
The film’s modern infamy and cult status comes from the fact that in order to do this, and get close to his victims, Lavond decides to take on the disguise of an old woman—meaning that Barrymore spends the vast majority of the film in rather unconvincing drag, planting tiny accomplices in the homes of his targets, where they pose as dolls until it’s time to strike. This is absolutely as ludicrous in practice as it sounds in description, and one gets the sense that the only way the cross-dressing aspect of the film got past the Hays code is that it’s treated with total absurdity rather than any sense of sexual satisfaction.
Still, The Devil Doll is notable for its very competent effects work, essentially taking the same “miniaturization” effect seen in Pretorious’ creations in Bride of Frankenstein and making it the lynchpin of the plot. The tiny people here interact with their environments in ways that are considerably more realistic and creative than the short segment featuring miniatures in Bride, so Devil Doll does deserve credit for doing at least one thing better than one of the most beloved horror films of all time. In the end, though, Devil Doll is less a film classic and more of a quaint piece of cinematic camp, still fun to see in the context of a snarky midnight screening.
1937: Song at Midnight
It’s strange to think that only 6 years after the horror genre first saw its highest highs in America, it began to see one of its lowest lows. There were a number of reasons for the slowdown—for one, the Laemmle family, which had founded Universal, lost control of the studio in 1936 and it spelled a temporary end to the company’s horror focus, as the new management didn’t find horror worth the trouble of dealing with the increasingly stifling Production Code. At the same time, the important American film market of Great Britain instituted tighter restrictions on horror film ratings—not a death knell in and of itself, but spun that way by Joseph Breen and his Production Code Administration, who wished to suppress the production of horror films in general, given that they didn’t jibe with the Code. All in all, Breen and co. almost seem to have convinced American studios that horror
A. Wasn’t worth the trouble of producing, and
B. Had lost the popular support of the masses, and would no longer be viable at the box office.
This, of course, was fallacy, which is easy to see now, but would not have been that hard to believe at the time. The genre would come back in a big way in 1939, but for now the world production of horror films is as minimal as it’s ever been since before 1920. Only the presence of China’s first horror film, Song at Midnight, gives us something notable to write about for 1937.
1937 Honorable Mentions:
Lonesome Ghosts, A Night of Terror
The Film: Song at Midnight
Director: Ma-Xu Weibang
Saving the day in terms of giving us something to write about for 1937 is Song at Midnight, often referred to as China’s first true horror film. This is a loose remake of The Phantom of the Opera, inspired heavily in certain areas by the famous, 1925 Universal version with Lon Chaney, although it also diverges in some interesting ways in terms of representing its own culture. In several aspects, Song at Midnight actually presages creative decisions that would be present in the 1943 Universal Phantom with Claude Rains, such as having the Phantom’s face burned by acid.
Other changes include the character of opera singer Christine, who is gender swapped here into a male performer named Sun Xiao Ou, who is not captured by the Phantom but instead given tutelage by him. Indeed, this version of the Phantom is less the tragic antihero of some other adaptations, and is much closer to being a genuine, sympathetic protagonist instead. He’s played quite skillfully by actor Shan Jin, and there are some wonderful moments with the Phantom in recovery from his attack, such as when he first removes his bandages and is nearly driven mad by the visage of his melted, grotesque face. He’s even given a chance to seek revenge directly for the attack that ruined his life, which certainly isn’t something you see from Chaney in 1925.
In terms of execution, on the other hand, Song at Midnight is a mixed bag, which you can see for yourself in several versions that are readily available online. Most of the English subtitles are a mess, making it difficult to follow the plot in a number of areas, and the sound effects in particular are distractingly amateurish. The music is more difficult for a Western audience to connect with as well, although the makeup effects on the Phantom’s face are actually top notch, and the visuals are shot competently, if grainily. What Song at Midnight could really use, in terms of modern presentation, is an HD remaster, but that seems unlikely given its lack of reputation.
Now we just need to get through one more lean year for horror, before the genre makes it triumphant return.
Well, here we are: The bottom of the late ’30s horror trough. For all the reasons we discussed in yesterday’s post on 1937, the industry had completely bottomed out on the horror genre at this point. None of the major Hollywood studios felt like going up against Joseph Breen’s Production Code Administration in getting their horror stories certified without major revisions and constant nitpicking, and the consensus seemed to be that the finicky public had lost interest in the gothic monster movies that were all the rage at the beginning of the decade.
Suffice to say, everyone was wrong. The first indication came when an L.A. grindhouse theater put on a limited double-bill of 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein, opening to unexpected sold-out crowds who were ravenous to see the films that had so frightened the populace seven years earlier. Universal, paying close attention to what was unfolding, began a national re-release of a Dracula/Frankenstein double bill, and the rest is history. The films did tremendous business, their pop cultural stature having only grown during the years when they were more or less unavailable—keep in mind that this is long before the era of freely available home film screening. Audiences turned out in droves to see the classic monsters, which in turn jump-started Universal’s plans for a triumphant return of Frankenstein’s monster in 1939.
Here in 1938, however, the pickings are extremely slim. There are a handful of crime films or thrillers that border on horror territory, but little that really qualifies in a literal way. The year can at least claim to be home to one of the most notorious of lost monster movies: The Japanese King Kong Appears in Edo, which appears to have been simply ripping off the “Kong” name in order to tell a strange story about a trained ape kidnapping a young girl. Decades later, the supposed content of King Kong Appears in Edo is still hotly debated among kaiju film aficionados, with a lack of agreement on almost everything, including whether the ape in the film was actually a giant. Conflicting reports and confusing, surviving production stills are all that seem to be left, which is par for the course when it comes to the lack of content in 1938.
1938 Honorable Mentions:
The Terror, King Kong Appears in Edo, Kaibyô nazo no shamisen
The Film: J’accuse!
Director: Abel Gance
Anti-war films don’t get much more devastatingly, soul-baringly earnest than Abel Gance’s J’accuse!/I Accuse!, which commits with over-the-top intensity to its single-minded mission to turn the hearts and minds of the proletariat toward pacifism. Arriving in French theaters a year before the outbreak of World War II, it presages much of the coming conflict, even as it reflects with horror upon the still-fresh wounds of the first World War. For director Gance, it’s clear that the previous 20 years have done nothing to dull the outrage he feels toward those who allowed the war to happen at all.
This version of J’accuse! can alternatingly be referred to as either a remake or a reimagining of Gance’s own, better-known silent version of the same story from 1919, also titled J’accuse!. As in the original, it’s the story of two French men serving on the front in WWI, simultaneously embroiled in love affairs with the same woman. This makes the film sound more like a romantic melodrama in its first act, but it then transitions into a harrowing portrait of idealist mania in the 20 years following the war. The survivor, Jean Diaz, leaves the battlefield with a solemn vow: To prevent another such war from ever happening again, largely through sheer force of will. As he becomes increasingly unhinged in his castigation of society, delivering soliloquy after soliloquy on such topics as the need for love over victory, he comes to believe he is somehow spiritually empowered to save humanity from itself. As the mouthpiece of the director, Gance apparently thought much the same, seemingly naive though his hopes may have been.
In terms of horror bonafides, this version of J’accuse! stands out in two areas. First is in its depiction of death and hopeless futility on the battlefield, seemingly taking inspiration from Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front and laying some groundwork for Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. And then of course there’s the genuinely disturbing ending, in which the spirits of the dead slain in the first World War seem to rise from their graves, shambling back into service like Romero’s ghouls, 30 years before Night of the Living Dead. This sequence ends with the showcasing of actual, disfigured former soldiers of the Great War, which is difficult to look at even today. Naturally, it calls into question the nature of exploitation vs. unflinching responsibility to confront the horrors of the past, but it’s guaranteed to leave any audience feeling uneasy, regardless of their opinion on its ethics.
There are film fans who point to this J’accuse! as a lesser product than its silent, 1919 predecessor, but the presence of prolific French actor Victor Francen gives it an emotional identity that stands distinct from Gance’s earlier effort. His wild-eyed pontifications on the futility of war may strike a modern audience as somewhat self-aggrandizing, but it’s difficult not to be drawn under Jean Diaz’s spell, all the same. Just try not to feel a little guilt, when he points in your direction and says J’accuse!
1939: Son of Frankenstein
After one of the driest periods in the history of horror cinema, from 1936-1938, the floodgates finally open in 1939, spilling forth all those pent-up cinematic nightmares. The unprecedented success of the re-release double bill of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938 convinced Universal that there was more blood to be had from this particular stone, so they put Son of Frankenstein into production right away. That film, fortunately enough, turned out to be a classic, standing alongside Bride and the original Frankenstein as the third chapter in a near-perfect trilogy. More on that below.
The rest of the industry was not far behind, releasing a slew of new chillers that proved audiences hadn’t grown sour on horror—far from it. Basil Rathbone has the notoriety of starring in not one, or two, but three of this year’s films of note—the aforementioned Son of Frankenstein first and foremost, along with Tower of London and the horror-tinged Hound of the Baskervilles, one of Rathbone’s many appearances playing Sherlock Holmes.
Also recommended is Boris Karloff’s classic supervillain appearance in the low-budget Columbia horror flick The Man They Could Not Hang, which essentially puts Karloff into the same “scientist playing god” position he’s playing opposite to in Frankenstein. This time, Karloff’s Dr. Savaard is sentenced to death for conducting a dangerous experiment that results in a man’s death, and then swears he’ll return from the dead in order to avenge himself upon the judge and jury. This he does with the aid of his own scientific device, eventually trapping those responsible for his execution in a house full of deathtraps. Karloff is at his imperious best here, proving that within the space of a single year he could portray both a sympathetic creature and a genuinely devious human monster, in a role that would anticipate “horror revenge” tales such as Vincent Price’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
1939 Honorable Mentions:
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Man They Could Not Hang, The Cat and the Canary, Tower of London.
The Film: Son of Frankenstein
Director: Rowland V. Lee
The grand return of Universal’s monster series, following a four-year hiatus, could hardly have hoped for a better film to represent it. Son of Frankenstein doesn’t quite have the sheer pathos present in the original, or in Bride, but in many ways it surpasses either of the first two installments, especially when it comes to production value. This is a sumptuous gothic horror film, arguably the most beautiful of any that Universal produced in its golden era of “gods and monsters”—it’s a shame that it was also the last true “A” picture for the Frankenstein series, which would drop sharply in budget afterward. Either way, we get one last hurrah, and one more great Frankenstein film, cementing this series as the crown jewel of Universal’s horror franchises.
This time around, our de facto protagonist isn’t Henry Frankenstein but his son, Wolf Frankenstein, as played by top-billed Basil Rathbone. Wolf has lived a life of shame, away from his family’s ancestral homeland, due to infamy caused by his father’s experiments. Determined to reclaim his dynasty and family reputation, Wolf moves his family back to the ancestral Frankenstein castle, only to find that there are more than ghosts waiting for him in its abandoned laboratories and crypts. Many of the film’s plot points will indeed seem familiar to those who have seen Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, which draws on this movie even more heavily than it does the previous two. Yes, even the inspector with the mechanical arm is here, grimly informing the audience that he lost it as a boy when the monster “tore it out by the roots.” Yikes.
Karloff has one last go-round in him as the monster in this film—the last time he would ever don the makeup until an episode of the TV series Route 66 in the 1960s. Sadly, his characterization is somewhat reduced from the growth he experienced in Bride—rather than building upon the monster’s dawning consciousness and ability to speak, he’s instead regressed to being a mute again, which robs him of some pathos. Regardless, this disappointment is made up for by the presence of Béla Lugosi in one of his most charmingly wicked roles, as the hunchbacked servant “Ygor.” Yes, this is the introduction of the concept of an “Igor” into the Frankenstein mythos, if you were wondering, the assistant in the original film having been named “Fritz.” As Ygor, Lugosi practically steals the entire film, playing a coldly calculating psychopath who was sentenced to death by hanging years earlier, but somehow managed to survive, with the neck scars to prove it. Wielding influence over the revived monster, he uses the creature as a tool to seek his own particular brand of revenge. He’s fabulous from start to finish, really showing off what Lugosi was capable of in a role that was tailored to his strengths.
More than anything while watching Son of Frankenstein, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the incredible, expansive sets, the Expressionist-inspired backdrops and the classically creepy presence they help conjure. Laboratory scenes full of arcing Jacob’s ladders don’t get any better than this, at least until the British revival under Hammer in the 1950s and 1960s, which would bring the story of Frankenstein alive in lurid color. For its time, though, Son of Frankenstein feels like an apex in horror being treated as a truly populist, blockbuster enterprise. It may very well be the most purely entertaining Frankenstein movie ever made.