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.
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
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.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.