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