Sunday, October 9, 2011

Golden Horrors: The 15 Greatest Horror Films Of The 1930s

In my estimation of the genre, the 1930s saw the most creative and imaginative films within the realms of terror cinema. This was the birth of horror, ushered in with the arrival of the two most iconic horror pictures, Dracula and Frankenstein, both in 1931. These made quite a mark in popular culture and became huge hits, which led to several sequels and rip-offs throughout the years, along with an onslaught of material from other studios, wishing to cash-in on the new boom. That pre-code era from 31'-34', saw the most diverse and challenging offerings, ranging on a variety of topics that would soon become tabbo. Two of the most notable genre offerings, Freaks(1932) and Island of Lost Souls(1933) were banned outright for several decades and many more would be edited and unseen in their original forms for years. Frankenstein(1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1931) and King Kong(1933) were among these hallowed titles. The post-code era saw fewer horror pictures, though 1935 proved very impressive with several horror releases, climaxing with James Whale's masterful, The Bride of Frankenstein. Unfortunately, the party came to an end in 1936, after a British embargo was placed on the genre and production ceased for two years. A re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein was hugely profitable however, and led to a second wave in 1939 with an entirely different flavor, that would carry on into the 1940s, the product from Universal never achieving the same kind of success that was found in those 30s classics.

Horror was a controversial new genre in Hollywood, as American audiences had resisted the supernatural throughout the silent era. Despite the stellar work of the German film industry and our own homegrown boogeyman, Lon Chaney, horror was not an accepted genre until the arrival of Frankenstein, which gave the genre it's name. This was an age of experimentation, where anything was possible. Most of the classic cliches would be invented within a few years of it's inceptions, including everything we know about vampires, the Frankenstein Monster, mad scientists, mummies and dinosaur/monster on the loose movies. Only the werewolf would really have to wait for definitive treatment with The Wolf Man(1941), as The Werewolf of London(1935) would do little to propel the myth of the lycanthrope forward.
Many of the great names in horror would come from this era, notably from Universal Studios, who made a name for themselves with horror pictures. MGM had their lavish musicals, Warners had gangsters and Universal had monsters. The names Karloff and Lugosi would become synomynous with the genre, and are still the benchmark for all to follow. Directors like James Whale, Tod Browning and Karl Freund would create the landscape we know so well, in a way so definitive, that it's become the subject of imitation and parody ever since.

All the templates that were set in the silent era would be increased tenfold and what was unleashed in this decade can only be described as indelible. This was an age of kings and an era of masterpieces. Despite, what some may claim, no other decade would prove as creative or powerful as the thirties. Usually, when I compile a list of the greatest horror films from each decade, i'll choose the genre's lucky number, 13. However, this decade was so powerful that fifteen felt more suitable.

1. The Bride of Frankenstein(1935)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester

One of the few terror films that really breaks free from it's genre limitations, The Bride of Frankenstein is completely unique and well on par with it's brilliant original. This film is several things, including the best Frankenstein film, best horror sequel, and the pinnacle of Universal's horror cycle. It also may be the greatest film in the genre's history, period. The combination of fantasy, terror and pathos was never bettered and likely will never be. Karloff returns as the Monster, after burning in the windmill at the conclusion of Frankenstein(1931). He learns to speak in this one, which the actor lamented, even though it adds immeasurably to his characterization. He's brilliantly touching in this film, spewing several quotable lines, including that classic closer, "We belong dead", but is just one of many great things. Karloff is backed by a brilliant cast including Colin Clive, returning as Henry Frankenstein, more tormented and neurotic than ever. Ernest Thesiger hams it up as possibly the best mad scientist ever. Elsa Lanchester supplies the dual role of playing both Mary Shelley in the picture's prolouge, as well as the Bride of the Monster, seen only in the film's finale, which is unforgettable, along with everything else.

The film also contains the single most poignant sequence in any horror film,with the Monster coming across a blind man's cottage and befriending him. Credit must be given to Whale for his sensitive handling of this scene, which has proven unforgettable. The creation of the Bride is the mother of all lab creations, heightened by brilliant camerawork and a lush score by Franz Waxman. With Dwight Frye, Una O' Connor and Valerie Hobson lending able support, this is a perfect monster movie and the apex of the genre. An absolute cinematic essential. Forgive the rant, seek this out immediately.

2. King Kong(1933)
Director: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedesack
Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot

The definitive monster movie, not enough can be written about this all-time classic, one of the most iconic in the history of the cinema. With landmark effects that would inspire generations of filmmakers and a sense of imagination that would inspire even more, King Kong is an American legend. Bred out of a pipe dream by filmmaker, Merian C. Cooper, Kong was shaped into an extension of The Lost World(1925) with a better emphasis on characters and effects. Willis O Brian's groundbreaking stop motion work is still impressive and never fail to dazzle audiences. While, King Kong is undoubtably one of the finest adventure movies, some are confused by it's horror tag, though it's a mystery to me. The depiction of Skull Island is like that of a nightmare, with dinosaurs ripping people apart(including the plant eaters) and Kong's brutality, fairly disturbing, coupled with Fay Wray's screams, the best heard in any film!
The power of the film does lie in it's Beauty and the Beast theme, to which this has to be Hollywood' finest depiction of the story. You really do feel sorry for the big guy, when he gets blasted off the Empire State Building in that unforgettable climax, and i'll be damned, if I don't get watery-eyed,every time Robert Armstrong says that immortal line, "It was beauty killed the beast."
Like so many on this list, this is far from being one of the finest horror movies, it's one of the greatest movies in any genre.

3. Frankenstein(1931)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clark

The most famous horror movie ever made and the one that gave the genre it's name, is also one of the most brilliantly existentional films ever made. Frankenstein is certainly not to the letter of the Shelley novel, by any stretch, but is able to capture the emotions better than several "faithful" adaptions could ever hope to. Colin Clive is the maddest of all movie mad scientists, being both manic and determined, while also gaining sympathy in the process. Karloff became a star and would go on to become the genre's chief horror creator. His characterization has never been equalled for both terror and pathos and remains the single finest performance in the history of the horror film, despite so much controversy at the time, the picture still can fascinate and the chills do linger long after the credits have rolled. The depiction of the Monster as man deserted by his own God, and seeking compassion in an increasingly hostile and unpredictable world is just as relevant today for audiences as it was in 1931. If you haven't seen this one yet, shame on you!

4. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1931)
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Cast: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart

The finest screen adaption of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, opts for a more Freudian and emotional approach to it's protagonist(s), ultimately changing the face of the character in popular culture, much like Universal did with Dracula and Frankenstein. March is superb as the good doctor, who wishes to rid himself of his primal urges, but only ends up giving in to them, in the form of Hyde. He rightfully deserved an Oscar for this, as his Hyde is one of the most brutal and fascinating screen villains ever, complete with Perc Westmore's brilliant makeup.
Miriam Hopkins lends genuine sympathy to the prostitute, who becomes victimized by Jekyll's alter ego and should have been nominated as well. Mamoulian directs this film with loads of unforgettable imagery, utilizing a clever filter process for the transformation scenes that still feel far ahead of their time.

5. Island of Lost Souls(1933)
Director: Earl C. Kenton
Cast: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Kathleen Burke, Bela Lugosi

For my money, this is the scariest horror film of the decade, and the best adaption of H.G. Well's The Island of Dr. Moreau. Banned in Britain for 30 years, this wild film depicts a mad scientist(Charles Laughton) who wishes to turn animals into man, succeeding with his one perfect creation, a panther woman(Kathleen Burke), whom he wishes to mate with a shipwrecked man(Richard Arlen).
Unforgettably disturbing, with Laughton as the most chilling of all classic mad doctors, seeming to have no empathy for the pain and terror he has created, foreshadowing in a way, the measures taken by later real-life mad doctors like Josef Mengele. The scenes in the House of Pain(where the animals are vivisected) and the chilling, "Are we not men?" chants, led by Bela Lugosi as a wolf man, are among the best scenes in horror history. And that ending is not to be missed! This is a film that stay with you, long after it has concluded.

6. The Black Cat(1934)
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners

The first teaming of the genre's most iconic stars, is also they're best, and one of the most unique of all horror films. Lugosi returns from war prison to enact revenge on the man who sold out his company in World War One, as well as stole his wife. Karloff has erected a home over the battlefield where he gave up his men, conducting satantic rituals and keeping his dead wives preserved in upright glass coffins! Lugosi is the closest thing to a hero, likely to be found in this thriller, and he is superb, delivering one of his finest screen portrayals. Karloff is just as good, perhaps better, in his most frightening role. The conclusion is still pretty strong stuff, as Lugosi prepares to flay Karloff, who is tied to an embalming rack! Edgar G. Ulmer creates a marvelously stylish horror film, though unfortunately, this would be his last major studio production.

7. Freaks(1932)
Director: Tod Browning
Cast: Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams

One of the most unique film experiences you'll ever have! Highly controversial in it's day, this was unseen for decades, until the 1960s, when it developed a huge cult following among midnight movie patrons. To this day, Freaks is still strong stuff. The film details the plot of a beautiful trapeze artist(Olga Baclanova) who attempts to swindle a midget(Harry Earles) for his money, trying to poison him, after they become married(the most unforgettable wedding reception in any movie) and ultimately must pay the price at the hands of the freaks.
Alternately, the film is both a compassionate portrayal of regular circus people and a commentary on how people are all the same. It's also a very dark and disturbing film, with a conclusion that has to rank among the most frightening ever made. Director Tod Browning had a fascination with the uncanny and the deformed(look at all his work with Lon Chaney) and Freaks was a dream project for him. He employed real circus freaks for the picture, to add authenticity, and they add a poignancy to the project that was largely misunderstood at the time. Today, this is largely regarded as a film classic.

8. The Mummy(1932)
Director: Karl Freund
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan

A subtle and poetic film, The Mummy was responsible for starting off an entire subgenre of horror films, even though none of the later films were able to capture a sliver of what made this so special. Director Freund captures eerie, dreamlike visuals, reminiscent of his German expressionist days, while borrowing some of the plot from Dracula(1931). The tale of reincarnated love would be copied again, though rarely with as much success. Karloff is brilliant in his portrayal of Imhotep, the ressurected mummy, sporting two of the greatest makeups in screen history, briefly as the Mummy in the opening(which is terrifying) and later as Ardeth Bay. He underplays to perfection and his line readings are among his most memorable. Zita Johann brings an exotic elgegance to her role of Imhotep's love, and her sincerity and maturity, along with sensuality, combine to really make this something special and unique in the genre. A personal favorite, as much as it is, one of the truly great terror films.

9. The Invisible Man(1933)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan

Originally to star Boris Karloff, The Invisible Man became the debut film for another of Hollywood's greatest character actors, Claude Rains. While only seen briefly at film's conclusion, Rains distinctive voice was perfect for the role of Jack Griffin, a scientist who has turned himself invisible and is going increasingly insane. James Whale scores again with yet another masterpiece, in this the best invisible man movie ever. A healthy dose of humor is combined with streaks of sadism(note the black comedy when Griffin kills off his competitor, Kempe, describing all the details of his firey demise as he rolls him off a cliff in a car!). The script by R.C. Sheriff, is one of the best of the 30s horror classics and is full of great lines(my favorite being, "We'll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction.") and the invisibility effects are still awe inspiring, courtesy of John P. Fulton and his special effects wizardy. The moment of reveal for the Invisible Man is one of the great fantasy moments in the cinema.

10. M(1930)
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut

Star making performance for one of cinema's greatest weirdos, Peter Lorre, who paints the portrait of child killer with stark believability. In many ways, M may be the peak of Lang's artistry as a director, combining realism with his patented expressionist flair. Based loosely on a real incident involving a vampiric killer in Dusseldorf, the chilling plot about a child murderer being hunted by police and criminals alike is compelling and fascinating. Credit must go to Lorre, who delivers one of the finest performances in all of cinema, painting a portrait of tortured mania, illustrating the humanity within the monster. Several serial killer films would follow in the ensuing decades, but none with the amount of artistry and restraint as this classic. Images such as a lone ball bouncing against a curb and a balloon floating away are more subtly terrifying than practically any amount of jump scares could hope to be. This one wil stay with you for weeks.

11. The Old Dark House(1932)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton, Eva Moore, Gloria Stuart,

Probably the best ensemble ever assembled for a horror picture, director James Whale creates the definitive version of the title's namesake, a perfect old dark house mystery! Taking a cue from The Cat and the Canary(1927) and various other silent chillers, Whale injects a healthy dose of humor into the proceedings about a pair of couples stranded at a strange Welsh mansion on a dark and stormy night. Karloff dosen't have much to do, but adds menace as the butler, setting the stagfe for Lurch from The Addams Family, while Ernest Thesiger creates a memorable grotesque, practically on par with his Dr. Pratorious from The Bride of Frankenstein, three years later. Ditto, Eva Moore as his religious obsessed sister and Brember Wills as a pyromaniac, one of my favorite movie madmen. It's also refreshing to see an able leaidng man, in the form of Melvyn Douglas, who will go on to bigger stardom, as well as great performances by Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton and Gloria Stuart. A creepy good time that demands repeat visits.

12. The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1939)
Director: William Dieterle
Cast: Charles Laughton, Maureen O' Hara, Edmond O' Brian, Thomas Mitchell, Cedric Hardwicke

Certainly one of the greatest movies ever made, this is the best adaption of the Victor Hugo novel, even managing to outdo the already classic, Lon Chaney version from 1923. Charles Laughton is absolute perfection as Quasimodo, the deformed bellringer, who falls in love with beautiful gypsy dancer, Esmerelda(Maureen O' Hara, never looking lovelier than in her debut here) . Filmed on a lavish scale, this is one of the most impressive period pictures and contains fine performances by all and several brilliantly executed segments. Quasimodo's public whipping, his rescue of Esmerelda from the gallows and that epic conclusion, complete with that beautiful final line from Quasimodo, resting among the gargoyles atop Notre Dame, "Why was I not made of stone, like thee?"
The horror of the film, like many of the best genre films, is not with the outward ugliness of the character, but with society and it's prejudices. Cedric Hardwicke's Frollo is one of the great screen villains, adding a psychological interpretation of the character that makes him piteous and disturbing. To some viewers, this may not qualify as a horror film, but there's enough elements there to make me consider it as such. This is one of many brilliant films in what was Hollywood's most outstanding year.

13. Dracula(1931)
Director: Tod Browning
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, David Manners, Helen Chandler

Not the classic it's reputation suggests it to be, Dracula is still a genre essential, creating imagery and characters that would inspire all manners of popular culture. Bela Lugosi achieved cinematic immortality as the screen's most famous bloodsucker, teaching us forever how a vampire looks and talks. His dialouge is endlessly quotable, and there are plenty of unforgettable lines, including the classic, "I never drink wine."
The first half in Transylvania is wonderfully eerie, creating some of the most magical moments in screen terror, even though armadillos do seem a bit out of place in Dracula's castle. The second half follows the stage play and is rather slow, save for the fine performances of Edward Van Sloan as the unflappable Van Helsing and Dwight Frye in the role of fly-eating lunatic, Renfield. All flaws aside, this is still fine entertainment and well worth the time of the classic film buff.
It should also be noted that the simultaneously shot, Spanish-language version is actually as essential, providing a much more fast-paced and fluidly directed picture, though sadly, without Bela Lugosi. However, the heightened sexuality and the performance of Lupita Tovar, who easily outdoes her American counterpart, Helen Chandler, make this one of the classic horror pictures and one that feels ahead of it's time. In any language however, Dracula translates as a genre essential.

14. Vampyr(1932)
Director: Carl Dreyer
Cast: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rene Mandel

A haunting, nightmarish film that is completely apart from what was produced at the time, Vampyr is an abstract horror film with it's emphasis more focused on it's style than substance. While, this would surely be a debit normally, the atmosphere achieved here is genuinely frightening and no other film has quite been able to channel the realms of the nightmare as well. The creepiest moments include the main character(Julian West, who financed the film) staring into his casket, witnessing his own funeral, the strange, ghostly shadows created by the vampyr and the fate of one character, buried alive in flour. Not for all tastes, with it's slow pace and bizarre plot structure, but for those that can take it, this is a genuinely unnerving and unforgettable film-going experience.

15. Son of Frankenstein(1939)
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill

Produced under a new regime in the second wave of the horror film, after two years of inactivity, Son of Frankenstein is like an homage to all horrors of the past, utilizing both Karloff and Lugosi, as well as a look borrowed from German expressionism. Basil Rathbone portrays the son of Frankenstein, who returns to his family home only to discover that his father's creation(Karloff) is alive and well! This was Karloff's final time as the Monster, and he is still able to evoke sympathy, even as his character is being turned into a prop. The moment where he discovers his friend, Ygor(Bela Lugosi) dead, and his scream of pain, sums up what was so magical about his characterization.
Lugosi may have delivered his very best screen performance in this film, completely devoid of all trademark gestures and suave nature, instead relying on sly humor and subtle deviousness, creating a wonderful character. Lugosi was so memorable as Ygor in this film, that his name would become synomynous with all mad scientist assistants, as Karloff's Monster would become linked with the name Frankenstein.
Lionel Atwill and Basil Rathbone are also excellent, each turning in their finest genre work, Rathbone chewing the scenery with aplomb, and Atwill's inspector with wooden arm, unforgettable.
A classy well made picture that would mark both the beginning and end of an era in screen horror. This is one of the finest horror sequels ever made and a worthy title to sum up this list

Gosh, this was a difficult list to do. Besides, the rankings(several are so good, as to be interchangeable), it absolutely pains me to leave out masterpieces like White Zombie(1932), Mad Love(1935) and The Black Room(1935), all of which are genre masterpieces. The 1930s was just such a fantastic decade, that virtually every genre piece is perfectly wonderful and worthy of analysis. Universal clearly dominated the horror film, setting down the standard for much of what was to follow, and all but a few making the list, and even those that did not(The Raven(1935), Dracula's Daughter(1936), Werewolf of London(1935), Murders in the Rue Morgue(1932) are still worth seeing. Other studios contributed several classics as well, helped build the genre, though it's clear that the most creative period was between 1930-1934.
It's no surprise that the 30s is considered the golden age, really. It was a period of magic and invention, when monsters were still the stuff of nightmarish fantasy, and not the tired spooks of the following decade, which would be known as the "silver age", nonetheless, though that credit rested less with Universal, than it did with a low budget outfit from RKO and led by producer, Val Lewton. That's another article for another day.
As I look back upon these golden horrors, I do so with affection. I am so far removed from that era of cinema, and yet I can still find much to admire and love from these wonderful fright-fests. Filmmakers today could learn a lesson from the early horror classics, when subtley and emotion won out over shock and gore. The imagination was a far scarier tool and still is today. Yet, these monsters will never perish from our memories, for there will always be new audiences to frighten and inspire.
 As Dr. Pratorious toasted to the future of creation in The Bride of Frankenstein(1935), "To a new world of Gods and Monsters!"


  1. A superlative list with little to carp about. "Bride of Frankenstein" takes its appropriate place at no. 1. I would draw special attention to "Island of Lost Souls," "The Black Cat," "The Mummy" and "The Old Dark House," and I share your regret for the absence of "White Zombie" and "Mad Love."
    Nevertheless, a commendable list of marvelous films, the true canon of classic horror.

  2. You certainly know your classic horrors. 👍

  3. Good list, but you really ought to learn how to use apostrophes properly.

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