Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1930s

This is the decade where movies officially came into their own, narratively speaking, with the advent of sound, and horror movies were right there from the beginning. In fact, the studio that became synonymous with horror, Universal, produced a whole slate of horrific features whose creatures were so impactful that they remain recognizable icons nearly a hundred years later.

Universal was carrying on the tradition of ghastly sights on the silver screen that started in the 1920s during the silent era; Lon Chaney and his grotesqueries were not far from the public’s minds, and many of the silent stars transitioned over to the talkies and continued to thrill audiences. Horror came into its own as a new kind of spectacle that only movies could deliver at the time. Now that sound was possible, the audiences could not only see the sepulchral crypt, but they could also hear the chains rattle, the coffin lid creak open, and the helpless young women in gossamer, diaphanous white gowns could all scream.

Within reason, that is. In the middle of 1934, the Hays Code was enacted, Hollywood’s first attempt at self-regulation of their content. “Pre-Code” movies sometimes showed bare breasts (artfully, mind you) or other “shocking” scenes that were deemed grotesque and unsettling. And while there certainly some movies that benefitted from a lack of restraint, several movies listed below were made after the Hays Code was adopted and their impact was not diminished in the slightest. Most of these movies would also have a place on the cult classics list, and it’s that combination of transgressive and outré that sets them apart from other films of the decade.

The thirties were fueled by the Great Depression, providing a relatively inexpensive escape from reality of the bread lines and doing without. Science and scientific progress are hallmarks of the era, as magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics routinely featured experimental vehicles and buildings on their covers. It’s also noteworthy as the decade where Hitler rose to power overseas, producing an undercurrent of unease that wouldn’t fully be understood by the population at large until America entered World War II.

The Old Dark House (1932)

A pair of young lovers and their gadabout friend find themselves in a torrential downpour in the Welsh countryside, when they spy a dark and foreboding mansion with a single light on. Hoping for shelter from the storm, the trio meets the strange family that lives there and are reluctantly allowed to stay the night. Two more water-logged travelers arrive during dinner, and the five strangers spend the evening talking, falling in love, sleeping, and also fighting for their lives as all of the eccentric family secrets inside the house come out at once.

Boasting an A-list director (James Whale, hot off of Frankenstein) and an all-star cast that included Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Boris Karloff, and Elspeth Dudgeon in drag, playing a bedridden and bearded old man, this gothic horror-comedy is based on the novel Benighted, by J.B. Priestly. I think much of the book got lost in the translation, but what we’re left with is laugh out loud funny in places, with engaging, quirky performances from everyone,  

This movie has achieved cult status over the years, as it was thought to be a lost film. With renewed interest in director James Whale’s career, The Old Dark House got a new negative and restoration some years ago, and more recently a 4K transfer to sharpen and define the picture. The movie manages to both celebrate the gothic tradition as much as it pokes fun at it and it would wind up as a kind of touchstone for “creepy old house” films and TV shows. Rocky Horror Picture Show, anyone? Don’t bother with the 1963 remake; not even William Castle’s direction and penchant for ballyhoo could salvage it.

4. Mad Love (1935)

A gifted concert pianist’s hands are ruined in a train crash, and a strange doctor agrees to perform experimental surgery to graft new hands onto his wrists. But these hands belonged to a convicted killer, and they begin to act out their murderous impulses. But the pianist’s wife is also being persecuted by the odd doctor, who is obsessed with her. The mad doctor has elaborate plans for both of them, and it will not end well, for “each man kills the thing he loves…”

Peter Lorre’s first American production established him as one of the go-to guys for insane characters, but to be fair, they courted him after watching him in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931). It wasn’t quite typecasting, but when you’re Peter Lorre, what else are you built for, honestly? He’s compelling to watch, and this performance in these two movies is what forever typecast him as “that guy” in thrillers and mysteries. Director Karl Freund and cinematographer Gregg Toland borrowed heavily from German Expressionism to frame shots and most especially light the actors, which enhanced Lorre’s androgynous appearance and emphasized his bizarre disguise to great effect.

The screenplay was loosely based on a novel, The Hands of Orlac, and was a remake of a silent film of the same name. What’s really significant about this movie is that it’s one of the early (and one of the best) examples of body horror, specifically dealing with mutilation and the Frankenstein-esque tendency to reuse the anatomy of the dead. These willful mutilations performed by mad scientists may seem silly today, but soldiers returning home from World War I with missing limbs and other disfigurements didn’t think so. Peter Lorre’s crazy rigging, used to fool young Orlac, looks a lot like some of the medical instruments and contraptions used to affix prosthetics onto shoulders and legs for the veterans of trench warfare. Other movies would explore and remake this story over the years, but never with such style and aplomb as Mad Love.

What makes Mad Love work are the many things merely implied. Dr. Golgo, Lorre’s deranged surgeon, has an unhealthy fixation on Orlac’s wife, and his solution to that condition is, well, for 1935, obscene, at the very least. Several of the more suggestive elements that the newly formed Hayes committee categorically wouldn’t allow to be shown onscreen got shuttled off into the subtext, but the movie manages to get the point across, all the same. A near-perfect example of 1930s horror, Mad Love has become a classic on its own merits.

3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dr. Henry Jekyll, dashing man about town, has it all; a fiancée, a nice position at the hospital, a lecturing gig on the side, the works. But he’s also got this pet theory about how the good instincts in man are separate from the evil tendencies, and it may be possible to separate them from one another—to cast out the evil in mankind to make him overwhelmingly good. His colleagues think he’s daft, of course. Whilst chafing at these roadblocks to his personal life and his professional career, he sets out to prove them all wrong. First, he mixes a special chemical formula…

This movie was a tour-de-force when it premiered, several years before the Hays code was in place. Re-screenings over the years forced the studios to cut a whopping 8 minutes’ worth of footage to bring the film in line with more genteel sensibilities. The prints were gathered up in 1941 when the movie was remade (with Spenser Tracy, and no, it’s not better) and destroyed in a moment of caprice and hubris. Only in the last few years has Warner Brothers meticulously restored the movie, adding back in the excised and censored footage, some 17 extra minutes in all, and the blu ray version of this film is exceptional in every way. If you’re not going to buy or rent the 4K restoration, don’t bother. You’ll be missing out.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is widely considered the best film version of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella. Whichever academic theory out you subscribe to that states what Stevenson was really writing about (repressed homosexuality, the id, ego, and super ego, public morality, private addiction,, the film chooses to lean into its message of bestial savagery being an overtly sexual trait, even though Wally Westmore’s Mr. Hyde make-up is grotesque. But it’s Fredric March that does the real work, turning in an inspired performance that won him an Oscar. Between March’s simian leaps and bounds and the inventive camera work and startling visual transformation scenes, you’ll find yourself sitting patiently through the high melodrama of the drawing room scenes and squirming uncomfortably whenever Hyde is onscreen.

2. Island of Lost Souls (1932)

A survivor of a shipwreck is deposited onto a small South Pacific Island, along with some live animal cargo delivery addressed to the resident Mad Scient—er, doctor, one Doctor Moreau, played to perfection by Charles Laughton. He welcomes the newcomer, Parker, to his home and introduces him to some of the other inhabitants of the island, including a shy, beautiful woman named Lota. What Moreau fails to mention is that Lota (and the others) are engineered humans, comprised of various beasts and jungle animals. Parker is understandably shaken by this and he tries to escape, taking Lota with him, and not quite realizing that she’s also one of the animal-people, too, and that’s when things start to fall apart on the island of Dr. Moreau…

This movie remains the best version of the H.G. Wells classic novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. A remake from the 1970s features Michael York and make-up by John (Planet of the Apes) Chambers and it’s middling at best. The less said about the 1996 film, the better. You know the one I’m talking about; the version that starred Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando and is so bad, there’s a separate documentary that goes into great detail about just how bad it is.

Island of Lost Souls also features Bela Lugosi in beast-man make-up as the lawgiver, and it’s from him that we get the classic line of dialogue, “Are we not men?” Laughton is fascinating to watch in the role of Dr. Moreau, gleeful in his genius, and also mercurial in temperament.

Most interestingly, the film was censored when it premiered, with many small towns refusing to show it. Not for the beast-men, or the implied sexual relationship between Parker and Lota, but for its tacit endorsement of evolution. Those small towns that did show it raked it right over the coals for this transgression. But the movie had the last laugh; the cultural impact of the film is significant, from the various lines of dialogue quoted and repurposed, the reference to Moreau’s punishment room, the “House of Pain” and Laughton’s and Lugosi’s performances all push this movie into cinematic history.

1. Freaks (1932)

Hans and Frieda are little people, working in a traveling circus sideshow, alongside a host of other freaks. They are engaged to be married, but a beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra starts making goo-goo eyes at him after learning of Hans’ grand estate and inheritance. Cleopatra and the circus strongman, Hercules, hatch a scheme for her to marry into Hans’ family, and shortly thereafter she would kill Hans and assume control of the fortune, and then she and Hercules could be horrible people together forever. Hans is blinded by Cleo’s grace and beauty and scorns Frieda. Cleo plays her part in the scheme for as long as she can, but eventually her revulsion for Hans and the rest of the freaks comes out, and what happens after that…well, it’s the reason why this movie is considered a horror film.

Tod Browning is widely associated with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, which he directed, but he will forever be remembered as the director of the cult classic Freaks. This pre-code gem bombed at the box office, and it’s easy to see why: here were circus “freaks,” shown living normal lives, being friends with their fellow carnies, and even (gasp!) falling in love, getting married, and having children! Oh, heaven forbid! The horror! This humanizing aspect of the film (as opposed to treating the performers as mere oddities) may well have been the reason for its lack of a draw at the box office; this was the period of time when eugenics was the fashionable science, and such people who were born this way would have no place in the so-called utopia that the proponents of eugenics were peddling (and this included the nascent Nazi party). Freaks is clunky in places, and teeters on the edge of being exploitative in a couple of scenes. It was also heavily censored, coming in at just over 60 minutes (the original cut was rumored to be 90). But the film still holds up, and the denouement, after Cleopatra’s treachery is revealed, is quite macabre and unsettling.

Updated 10/3/23 to include Old Dark House and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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