10 great horror films of the 1930s

It was the decade that gave us defining versions of King Kong, Dracula and Frankenstein's creature, but the 1930s were more than just a monster mash. How many of these have you seen?

The Old Dark House (1932)

The horror film didn’t begin in the 1930s, or in Hollywood, but it’s where it got its big break. The previous decade had seen a number of productions from both sides of the pond that set out to send chills down the spines of audiences – and the genre found its first megastar in Lon Chaney with adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).

Both of those films proved huge hits for super-producer Carl Laemmle, prompting his graduation to head of production at Universal in 1928. On the lookout for a property that could replicate their success, Laemmle snapped up the rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which had recently been a smash on Broadway.

A box-office sensation, Tod Browning’s resulting film turned Hungarian unknown Bela Lugosi into a star, setting the stage for a slew of imitators. Horror soon proved a license to print money, with Laemmle snatching literary rights and greenlighting films left and right. A core production unit was established, with directors new and returning keen for a slice of the hottest gigs in town.

One such director was British émigré James Whale, responsible for the best of the Universal run. Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) are rightly considered among the top-tier of the Universal catalogue, but it’s only now that his one outlier has been restored and reconsidered.

As witty and macabre as any of its more famous siblings, The Old Dark House (1932) sees Whale subvert and lampoon the haunted house subgenre even as he helps to invent it. It’s a technical marvel that casts an ironic eye on horror tropes before they were even tropes – you can imagine those responsible for the late-90s glut of postmodern horror wincing in the face of a film that got there nine decades ago, before there was even anything to deconstruct.

The 1930s were truly horror’s golden age. Here are 10 of the best to get you started…

Frankenstein (1931)

Director: James Whale

Frankenstein (1931)

Dracula may have kickstarted the 1930s horror boom, but it’s James Whale’s Frankenstein that’s stood the test of time as the moment’s first stone-cold masterpiece. With the exception of perhaps Mickey Mouse or Chaplin’s tramp, it’s hard to think of a more iconic creation in the annals of 20th-century cinema than Boris Karloff’s flat-topped, bolt-necked monster. It was a star-making role for the actor (helped along by the peerless work of make-up maestro Jack Pierce), despite the part almost going to Lugosi and the fact that he’s credited only with a question mark.

Taken from a successful stage adaptation rather than directly from Mary Shelley’s novel, the film succeeds over Browning’s Dracula by virtue of Whale’s roaming camera and expressionistic design. Like Shelley, his sympathies lie with the creature, and the film still stands tall nearly 90 years on as cinema’s evergreen champion of the other.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

We’re lucky this definitive adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic survives at all. When MGM released their own, Spencer Tracy-led version a decade later, they bought and destroyed all available prints of the 1931 film. Armenian émigré Rouben Mamoulian’s film was already the ninth such adaptation, the earliest dating back to 1908. It’s a pre-Hays Code marvel of groundbreaking special effects work, the transformation scenes seemingly captured without a cut. It remains shockingly violent nine decades on, with its lurid sexual content needing substantial cuts when re-released at the tail end of the 30s.

Mamoulian goes to town with his split-screen wipes and first-person POV shots, implicating the audience in Jekyll’s experiments on the twin aspects of the psyche. “It’s the things one can’t do that always tempt me,” the doctor tells his pal, but a barfly sums him up best when faced with his toothy, twitchy alter-ego: “He’s a wrong ’un.”

Vampyr (1932)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Vampyr (1932)

If there’s one film on this list that’s guaranteed to give you nightmares, it’s this early sound feature from Danish master Carl Dreyer. The first film in the UK to receive an ‘H’ certificate (for horrific: “Films which are likely to frighten or horrify children under the age of 16 years”), Vampyr was adapted by its director from a pair of short stories by J. Sheridan Le Fanu.

Originally conceived as a silent film, before being shot for French, German and English releases concurrently, it’s use of sound is primitive at best, not that it matters a jot. The images are the thing here, through which Dreyer sculpts a haunting dream-world more indebted to experimental, surrealist cinema than American horror of the time.

Shadows unattached to their source, reverse-run film and disembodied superimpositions all contribute to the hallucinatory formal design, shot through gauze by The Passion of Joan of Arc’s DP, Rudolph Maté. This is an erotically-charged one-of-a-kind: if Vampyr’s early tableaux don’t haunt you, the live-burial and suffocation sequences will.

Freaks (1932)

Director: Tod Browning

Freaks (1932)

If it came as a shock in 2017 to see a film like Darren Aronofsky’s mother! released by a major studio, rest assured that the stunned reaction from fans and critics alike had nothing on Tod Browning’s Freaks. Cut by almost a third following a disastrous test screening, then pulled from distribution entirely (it was banned for 30 years in the UK), Freaks effectively ended the career of its director, who’d earned a loose reign following the success of Dracula. “There is no excuse for this picture,” wrote one contemporary critic, while an apocryphal tale tells of an audience member accusing the film of causing her to miscarry.

The excised footage may be lost, but the available release version of Freaks has matured to rightly canonised status today. Browning drew on his own itinerant youth with a sideshow circus for his story of love, betrayal and revenge, crafting a humanist masterpiece that remains unapologetically confrontational to this day.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Director: Erle C. Kenton

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

While Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had been mounted as a prestige production (winning Fredric March the best actor Oscar in the process), there’s no mistaking the studio’s subsequent literary frightener as anything of the sort. Spun out of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls is about as fantastically perverse as pre-Code horror gets. Shot by the great Karl Struss (winner of the first cinematography Oscar for F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise), it’s described by Simon Callow on Masters of Cinema’s essential Blu-ray as a film that seemed to come “from another place”.

Charles Laughton is Dr Moreau, the maddest of the genre’s mad scientists and poster boy for the psychotic transference of warped and repressed sexual urges. Banned in the UK through every attempt at release up to 1958, its Darwinian horrors run a subversive gamut from vivisection to cannibalism, right up to its shockingly violent conclusion.

King Kong (1933)

Directors: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

King Kong (1933)

RKO’s bet on beating Universal at their own game hinged on going big, and movie monsters don’t come much bigger – in reputation, at least – than Kong. The brainchild of producer-director team Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who called on legendary Lost World (1925) special effects wizard Willis O’Brien to bring Skull Island’s grumpiest inhabitant to life, King Kong smashed through the box-office competition in the spring of 1933.

Like so many of its contemporaries, King Kong followed the ‘humans-are-the-real-monsters’ thematic template, casting the giant ape as a tragic, even romantic figure. It’s up to modern viewers to decide exactly how dodgy its racial politics remain. The Skull Island sequences may be wholly problematic (and unresolved by Peter Jackson in his 2005 take), but there’s an allegory at play in the islander’s kidnapping, display and subsequent rampage that’s at odds with straightforward readings of colonial fantasy.

The Black Cat (1934)

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

The Black Cat (1934)

Bela Lugosi’s stature as figurehead of the horror boom may have faltered in the wake of Karloff’s star-making turn in Frankenstein, but The Black Cat pits him toe-to-toe for the first time with his professional adversary. Death hangs heavily over Edgar G. Ulmer’s film, the story of two American honeymooners who become trapped in the castle of Satan-worshipping Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). An architectural marvel, Poelzig’s strikingly modernistic domain is typical of Ulmer’s stylistic audaciousness – this is also one of the first films to use an underscore of music throughout.

Despite the presence of Edgar Allan Poe’s name on promotional materials, Ulmer readily admitted to purchasing the rights to the author’s work to lend a literary cachet. In fact, there’s little here that bears much resemblance to Poe’s story. Yet that hardly matters when faced with such skilful remixing of genre tropes.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Director: James Whale

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

It was a no-brainer that Universal would want to cash in on the monstrous success of Frankenstein with a sequel. Director James Whale wasn’t keen at first, but then seized the opportunity to double-down on the original film’s thinly veiled subtext.

Probably the greatest of the 1930s cycle of horror films, Bride of Frankenstein stands as an iconic text in the annals of queer cinema – an unapologetic assault on conservative, heteronormative values, delivered with immaculate wit. It’s not hard to picture Whale and his Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) uproariously cackling at what they’d managed to smuggle past studio bigwigs and audiences alike. Thematic content aside, it’s a film of seductive surfaces, all building towards the final set-piece, which sees the monster gain – and swiftly be rejected by – his mate. Another cinematic icon is born: Elsa Lanchester’s immortal, shock-haired Bride.

Mad Love (1935)

Director: Karl Freund

Mad Love (1935)

Karl Freund is best remembered for his extraordinary work as a cinematographer. He shot some of the great German pictures of the silent era, including The Last Laugh (1924) for F. W. Murnau and Metropolis (1927) for Fritz Lang. His work behind the camera on Tod Browning’s Dracula led to him directing The Mummy for Universal in 1932, his first feature after some dozen shorts.

Before he returned exclusively to cinematography, Freund delivered one of the great 1930s horror pictures with Mad Love, a remake of the Conrad Veidt-starring silent from 1924. In one of his most iconic roles, Peter Lorre stars as Dr Gogol, a surgeon who replaces the hands of an injured pianist with those of a murderer – all in order to get closer to the man’s wife, a performer he watches obsessively on the Grand Guignol stage. Lorre cuts a sympathetic figure as the mad, lovelorn doctor, but it’s Freund’s dazzling direction (coupled with Gregg Toland’s masterful cinematography) that elevates this from B-movie gothic to expressionist masterpiece.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Director: William Dieterle

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

With its dazzling recreation of 15th-century Paris, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of RKO’s most expensive productions to date. From the extras-crowded streets to the towering cathedral set – built by Citizen Kane’s production designer Van Nest Polglase on stages left over from the 1923 Lon Chaney version – it stands as one of the most strikingly inhabited visions of medieval Europe to grace the screen.

While Maureen O’Hara dazzles as Esmeralda, Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo is the main attraction, giving what biographer Simon Callow deemed his greatest performance. In the villainous Frollo’s (Cedric Hardwicke) bitter distaste for Paris’s gypsy community, it’s not hard to read both Dieterle and Laughton’s rage against the Nazi uprising and the poisonous nature of religious authority. The New York Times called it a “freak show”, but – 80 years later – The Hunchback of Notre Dame looks like an ever-powerful plea for the humane treatment of immigrant communities.

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