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.

5. 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.

4. White Zombie (1932)

Young lovers, engaged to be married, rendezvous on the Island of Haiti and hurry to the sugar plantation of Beaumont, a man they just met on a ship, because that’s just what one does in the early 1930s. They pass by a bunch of hollow-eyed, shuffling field hand and are told that they are zombies, under the control of “Murder” Legrange, played with evil-eyed intensity by Bela Lugosi and looking particularly saturnine in the role. But Beaumont is already in love with the young woman he just met (ahh! Haiti!) and he asks the zombie master for help in wooing her. Legrange says the only way to bend the woman to Beaumont’s will is to kill her and bring her back…as a zombie!

One of the most enduring themes in 1930s horror is unrequited (and sometimes forbidden) love. This movie is no exception, and the film borders on melodrama at times. The standout star here is (no surprise) Bela Lugosi as the zombie master whose eyes and intense stare almost qualify as a special effect unto themselves. It’s no Dracula, but Lugosi was already famous for his turn as the Transylvanian count and he steals the show here, as well.

White Zombie makes the list because, for all of its flaws, it’s the first zombie movie. Zombies were an established part of many different folk traditions until the pulps got ahold of the concept and front loaded a lot of anti-immigrant hysteria and fear of miscegenation into the gruesome stories printed in magazines such as Weird Tales. This theme of a woman, helpless against the hypnotic charm and/or strength of the zombie master, would be repeated several times in other, better movies before George Romero rewired everyone’s conception of the walking dead in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Nevertheless, much of the lore and the allure of zombies continues to borrow from White Zombie.

3. The Black Cat (1934)

A young, bright, American couple on their way to (wait for it) their honeymoon in Hungary share a train car with Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who is traveling to see an old friend. Werdegast, played by Bela Lugosi, explains that he’d been interred in a prison camp for the past fifteen years. When the young bride, Joan, is injured on the road, Werdegast takes the couple with him to the home of his friend, the architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).

I won’t spoil where things go from here, but I will tell you that the title of the movie, and the credit for same in the opening credits, is only glancingly related to the Edgar Allan Poe story. But what the movie does have going for it is as follows: It’s the first and best pairing of Lugosi and Karloff in the same movie, satanic cults, psychological torture, black magic, a dash of necrophilia, German Expressionism’s last gasp, human sacrifice, and the creepiest chess game ever played, and that’s all I can list without giving anything cool away. You have to see this film to believe it.

Critics’ reactions were mixed when the movie premiered but audiences loved it; The Black Cat was Universal’s highest grossing film that year, largely thanks to the teaming up of Lugosi and Karloff, two of the biggest films stars of the decade. This movie is the kind of bonkers that will leave you shaking your head at what they managed to cram into the movie, and what they got away with onscreen. One of the more gruesome scenes in the movie is accomplished with mere suggestion and it’s incredibly effective. The Black Cat is a fantastic example of Universal’s non-monster-centric horror output.

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.

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