Monday, August 26, 2013

Classic Horror From the 1930s and 1940s

Now that I’ve finished a complete series on just about every classic horror film made by Universal up through the Creature with the Black Lagoon series (minus any atomic creature features of the early ‘50s, which deserves its own series), it seemed like a good idea to go back and cover some classic and forgotten non-Universal horror films that I missed. Earlier this year I also did a complete Val Lewton horror series and I’ve already written about Carl Dreyer’s experimental and effective Vampyr (1932), so those will not be included.  

The 32 films below are mostly American, though there are some exceptions, namely movies that I thought were interesting or particularly influential. I tried to stick to classics, but rounded out the list with some bizarre, neglected little films that represent some of the odd sub-genres being explored during those two decades. While some of these are not strictly horror films - there are a few suspense films and crime movies - I included them because they were either influential or a key example of the growing popularity of cult/B films in general. And of course there is some absolute trash on the list, because why not.

Fritz Lang is indisputably one of the greatest directors of early German and American cinema. One of his classics, M (1930) is more of a drama or thriller than an outright horror film, but it concerns the fate of child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) and his effect on the local community. The Hungarian born Lorre became a star of German cinema before fleeing the Nazis and relocating to the U.S. (along with Lang), where he appeared in a number of cult horror films, often alongside horror legends Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. 
Though Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) was preceded by 8 silent adaptations, this remains one of the finest versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved horror novel. Directed by Armenian-American Rouben Mamoulian, known for his successful Broadway career and musical films, the transformation effects he used in this film were considered ground breaking. Lead Fredric Marsh won an Academy Award for his excellent dual portrayals of the troubled Dr. Jekyll and the monstrous Mr. Hyde. This film is also notable because it was made before the enforcement of the Hays Code and contains a surprising amount of sexuality for the time period. 

Murder by the Clock (1931) is a thoroughly bizarre, atmospheric early horror film from Paramount that concerns a wealthy old woman who has a horn installed in her crypt to make sure that she is not accidentally buried alive. When the future of the family fortune is up in the air, a femme fatal appears on the scene and bodies begin to pile up. The visuals were influenced by German expressionism, along with many early American horror films, and the plot is a weirder, darker version of “old dark house” horror-comedies from the period like The Cat and the Canary (1927). 
Erle C. Kenton, director of some of Universal’s more questionable horror sequels (House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein), was also responsible for Island of Lost Souls (1932). The first adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, this stars Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff in an eerie tale of human-animal experimentation and the trouble that ensues when an outsider is stranded on the island. This is an early example of the mad scientist/science gone wrong genre that would grow in popularity over the next two decades and nearly overtake horror in the ‘50s. 

Freaks (1932) is unique, unforgettable film from one of Hollywood’s most bizarre and independent directors, Tod Browning (Dracula). Freaks could surely have only been made in a Pre-Code environment. Though many of Browning’s films with silent legend Lon Chaney involved circus themes, there is absolutely nothing like Freaks. A beautiful trapeze artist marries a sideshow midget and plans to murder him so that she and the strongman can make off with his money. But the other circus freaks discover her plan and have something else in mind. 
Another Pre-Code horror classic, White Zombie (1932), features one of Bela Lugosi’s most memorable performances as Murder Legendre, a voodoo master. This is the first full-length American zombie film, though the zombies are a product of voodoo rather than any kind of unexplained reanimation. A plantation owner in Haiti becomes obsessed with Madeleine, who is there visiting her fiancé. Desperate to marry her himself, the plantation owner convinces Legendre to give her a potion with predictably disastrous results. 

Doctor X (1932) is another horror film from the period with elements of mystery and comedy, and is an example of the growing cinematic interest in serial murder. A reporter is investigating a series of linked murders that occur during the full moon and include elements of cannibalism. A local specialist, Dr. Xavier (Universal horror regular Lionel Atwill) is called in for his expert opinion, but is also considered a suspect. Due to its Pre-Code release, the film including a number of unpleasant elements like cannibalism, rape, and voyeurism. 
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) will no doubt be an example of somewhat appalling racism to modern viewers, but the villainous Chinese criminal mastermind, Fu Manchu, was a surprisingly popular character and a number of films were made throughout the ‘30s, and later when the series was revived by Hammer Studios. Boris Karloff stars as the titular Fu Manchu, in a race to reach the legendary tomb of Genghis Khan and retrieve a sword that will allow him to start a war between Asia and the West. He bribes, murders, kidnaps, brainwashes, and tortures his way there, desperate to find the sword at any cost. 

More of a creature feature/adventure film than an outright horror movie, Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong (1933) is one of the most enduring and popular films of the period. A desperate filmmaker convinces a down on her luck young actress to travel to a mysterious island to make a movie. They land on the previously uncharted island, unprepared for its inhabitants: dinosaurs, other prehistoric creatures, a tribe of natives, and Kong, a giant gorilla. He falls for Ann, the actress, and saves her from the other creatures on the island. Using her as bait, the director tricks Kong on board their boat and subdues him, determined to parade him through Manhattan as the “Eight Wonder of the World!” Kong rampages through the city and is tragically destroyed while trying to escape and protect Ann. King Kong remains one of the greatest giant monster films and is the first movie that ever made me cry. 
King Kong’s star, Fay Wray, was in another horror film the same year, Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), directed by Doctor X’s Michael Curtiz. A sculptor (Lionel Atwill) is badly injured when his business partner sets their wax museum on fire to collect the insurance money. Several years later the crippled sculptor reopens the museum, but pretty young women turn up dead and a reporter notices that the newest additions to the museum strangely resemble them. This was later remade with Vincent Price as House of Wax

Director of The Mummy (1932) and highly influential cinematographer Karl Freund directed Peter Lorre in Mad Love (1935), an adaptation of German expressionist classic The Hands of Orlac. Lorre plays the nefarious Dr. Gogol, who is obsessed with a young actress and is devastated to learn she is moving away with her pianist husband. After the husband’s hands are disfigured in a train crash, she pleas for Gogol to help him. He gets his revenge by grafting the hands of a murderer onto her husband and things take a horrific turn.
Mark of the Vampire (1935) was one of Tod Browning’s final films and stars Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, and Lionel Barrymore in Browning’s remake of his now lost silent film London After Midnight. When a local aristocrat is found dead with two marks on his neck, vampires are blamed. The mysterious Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter are suspected, but things are not as they seem. This somewhat satiric film represents a semi-popular trend in early horror — to explain away the supernatural by naming human perpetrators —  and also represents some of the limitations of the newly enforced Production Code. 
Lionel Barrymore returned for Browning’s odd final horror film, The Devil-Doll (1936), about a man wrongly accused of murder and robbery and imprisoned on the infamous Devil’s Island. He escapes with the help of a mad scientist who has been working on a formula to shrink people down to one-sixth their size. When the scientist dies, his widow and the escaped convict use the formula to get revenge on the people who have wronged them. 

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) is important, because I had to include at least one Tod Slaughter film on this list. Though the prolific film and theater actor is largely ignored today in favor of his contemporaries Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, he was known for portraying a number of over-the-top melodramatic and horror villains. Sweeney Todd was his career making role and he played Sweeney almost 2,000 times on stage. This is his most famous work with director George King, Tod’s regular collaborator.
The Return of Doctor X (1939) is a sequel to Doctor X in name only and surprisingly features Humphrey Bogart in the titular role. When bodies are found murdered and drained of their blood, a doctor and a reporter visit the doctor’s old mentor and discover a disturbing secret. He has brought the infamous Dr. Xavier back from the dead, but Xavier didn’t come back quite right... This sci-fi horror blend is an example of some of the ridiculous, low budget mad scientists films still being produced into the end of the decade. Bogart felt this was his worst film and tried to disassociate himself with it as much as possible. 

The Devil Bat (1940) is one of the better late period star vehicles for Bela Lugosi for Poverty Row, where he was given much more interesting work than Universal in the '40s. This film is all about Bela, his oversized bat, some mad science, and a dollop of revenge.
The star-studded, Oscar nominated version of Stevenson’s horror classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) is a direct remake of the 1931 Fredric Marsh film. Spencer Tracy starred alongside Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, and Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind) surprisingly took the director’s chair. Though not as successful as Mamoulian’s 1931 film, it still performed decently at the box office.
The Face Behind the Mask (1941) is another collaboration between director Robert Florey and star Peter Lorre. This dark crime film is about an immigrant whose face is horribly scarred upon his arrival to New York. His new appearance forces him to turn to a life of crime, but he meets and falls in love with a blind woman. Believing he has betrayed them, his gang accidentally kills the woman instead of him, and he sets out for revenge. 

The neglected The Undying Monster (1942) is a horror-mystery blend, but is also one of the forgotten werewolf films made in the ‘40s. A family has been suffering from a curse since the medieval era, with its members dying off in suspicious ways through the centuries. Recently, it seems a strange creature has emerged to do the curse’s dirty work, but when a wolf hair is found on the body, a local man suspects the truth. 
The Corpse Vanishes (1942) is a creepy, if somewhat ineffective tale that is an example of one of many films where Bela Lugosi plays a mad scientist. He stars as a doctor and orchid expert who kidnaps young virgins and drains their fluids in order to inject them into his aging wife and restore her youth. A young reporter follows the clue of a rare orchid left with one of the bodies and it leads her right to the sinister doctor. 

Brahm, who directed The Undying Monster, was back for The Lodger (1944), an effective tale of serial murder and mystery in the foggy, shadowed streets of London. A cabaret singer attracts the eye of a killer when they live in the same boarding house and one night he decides to pay her a visit. Though this is inferior to Hitchcock’s silent version from 1926 and completely removes his “wrong man” plot, it is a much better film than 1953 remake with Jack Palance, Man in the Attic, and benefits greatly from the inclusion of George Sanders. 
Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard (1944) is the moody tale of a French strangler preying on the city’s women and is somewhat neglected but deserves to be remembered as a minor masterpiece. Starring John Carradine, this is not quite as gruesome or controversial as Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) with Lugosi and Karloff, but it is an excellent example of the emerging serial killer subgenre. This was followed by Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1948), a more faithful, though modernized version of the French fairytale. 

One of the finest haunted house films of the ‘40s, The Uninvited (1944) follows a composer and his sister, who rent a beautiful house on the English coast for an oddly low price. Their idyll is shattered after some drama with a local girl and they begin to hear strange cries in the house. After a number of unsettling events, it becomes clear that the house is haunted and they are trapped with a mysterious evil. 
Gaslight (1944), a psychological thriller starred Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten was directed by George Cukor, who typically helmed romantic comedies like The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, and My Fair Lady. After the tragic death of her aunt, the young Paula trains to be an opera singer. She breaks off her training to marry Gregory, who insists they live in her aunt’s abandoned house. Gregory begins to isolate Paula and a number of strange things happen around the house. Is it haunted? Is she losing her mind? 

The Spiral Staircase (1945) is an excellent Hitchcockian thriller from director Robert Siodmak (The Killers) that takes another look into the growing fascination with serial killers. A local killer is victimizing disabled young women. It seems that a mute girl working in the neighborhood as a live-in nurse is his newest target. If she cannot get over her trauma and learn to speak - or to scream - in time, no one will save her. 
The noir-tinged Hangover Square (1945) borrows a lot from The Lodger and presents the disturbing tale of a musician who regularly blacks out and suffers from amnesia. Women around London turn up dead, strangled to death, and the police wonder if he is responsible. Though not one of the most popular serial killer thrillers from the period, this is an effective film with some wonderful set pieces. 

Dead of Night (1945), a British anthology film, is one of the forgotten horror gems of this period, though fans have likely seen or heard of it due to the famous segment involving Michael Redgrave and the creepiest ventriloquist dummy ever filmed (granted, I think they’re all pretty disturbing). Horror films were banned during WWII in Britain, so this is one of the few examples and it is certainly a high point for the decade. 
René Clair's And Then There Were None (1945) is not strictly a horror film and is based on a novel by Agatha Christie. It does bear a lot in common with the old dark house horror-mystery genre and is one of the most enjoyable films in that genre. Ten people are invited to a mysterious island and one by one, they are killed, supposedly because they are each guilty of a crime. Can the survivors find the murderer in time?

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) might seem more at home alongside other literary adaptations, but this horror-tinged drama is one of my favorite films from the ‘40s. I also believe this version of Oscar Wilde’s famous novel remains the finest adaptation to date. The young, lovely Dorian Gray has a friend paint his portrait and wishes on it that he could stay young forever. Meanwhile, he falls into a libertine life of callous depravity, but his appearance never changes.
More a moody, atmospheric drama/thriller than an outright horror film, Woman Who Came Back (1945) is an interesting and largely forgotten work that concerns a strange woman who believes she is possessed by a 300 year old witch after surviving a bus accident. She becomes so convinced of this that hysteria eventually breaks out in the small town that she has returned to. 

Robert Florey and Peter Lorre united again for The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), a delightful, delirious horror film about a famous pianist who dies and suddenly leaves his estate to his young, pretty nursemaid. His remaining family members arrive to dispute this and his assistant/librarian (Lorre) is only concerned with a number of valuable occult books. People begin to drop dead, but is the pianist’s disembodied hand responsible or is the culprit more human?
Based on a story by Alexander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades (1949) is a neglected, Faustian horror-fantasy film from Britain that concerns a Russian countess who always wins at gambling. A down on his luck soldier is desperate to discover her secret and will go to any lengths, including violence. But the truth is too horrible for him to imagine. 

I hope you follow along on this month that proves to be a little more exciting than the latter half of Universal horror. While I am mostly covering the classics, there are of course many, many more horror films from this period that I hope to write about at a later time. Paramount made hundreds of films before they were later sold to Universal, including many horror and mystery films. There are also dozens of Poverty Row horror films, where beloved actors like Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, and John Carradine fled to later in their careers. This month of classic horror is also meant to prepare me for my favorite time of year: Halloween and October, where I have a surprise series planned. 

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