The decade of the Great Depression has always held great fascination for me, and one of the reasons is the proliferation of excellent films during the era. In fact, I'd go so far as to say with the possible exception of the 1970s--my personal favorite movie decade--the 1930s may have been the greatest era for movies, ever. And for the purposes of this blog, it goes without saying that the horror films of the era were among the finest ever produced, benefiting from a time of true experimentation in filmmaking. Here are my ten faves...
10. White Zombie (1932)
There may not be any flesh-eating yet, but this Bela Lugosi classic is the very first zombie film, and deserves a special place in every ghoul-lovers' heart because of that. It was a bomb in its own time, but has since grown to mega cult-status, even inspiring the name of a band the adoration of which seems to be a requirement of being a modern horror movie fan...
9. The Mummy (1932)
While not one of my very top Universal gems, there is a certain austere terror to this Boris Karloff vehicle. Truth be told, I actually prefer the later Kharis Mummy series of the 1940s (blasphemy, I know), but the great Karloff is still riveting as the immortal Imhotep.
8. Werewolf of London (1935)
For my money, superior to the much better-known Lon Chaney Jr. film The Wolfman, this was Universal's first crack at lycanthropy. Excellent Jack Pierce makeup and a fine performance from Henry Hull certify this one as required viewing for anyone who thinks werewolf flicks begin and end with AWIL.
7. The Black Cat (1934)
Classic monster titans Lugosi and Karloff team up in this, arguably their finest collaboration, about a newlywed couple terrorized by a Satanic cult. Very daring for its time, squeaked through just as the Hays Code was being instituted in Hollywood, signifying an end to everyone's fun for the next 30 years...
6. The Invisible Man (1933)
It all comes back to the iconic performance of Claude Rains in the title role, as a scientist whose great discovery comes with the price of homicidal madness. Much funnier than it gets credit for, it also features some ass-kicking special effects that are still mighty impressive some three-quarters of a century later.
5. Dracula (1931)
It's such a given that this is a horror classic, that you don't often realize how truly great it is. I recommend re-watching if you haven't seen it in a well. Stagey as he is, Lugosi commands your attention from beginning to end, and Dwight Frye is a god among men. Their scenes together in the Transylvania portion of the movie are easily the highlights of the picture.
4. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931)
The finest of all the various adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's 19th century literary classic. Just as good as anything put out by Universal during the period, this Paramount production--directed by Rouben Mamoulian--contains an Oscar-winning performance from Fredric March, and some rare pre-Code nudity from Miriam Hopkins. Fleshofthestars.com take note!
3. Freaks (1932)
Reviewed recently right here in The Vault, this is one of the true bizarre gems of horror cinema, the mad creation of a post-Dracula Tod Browning with an entire troupe of real life sideshow carnies at his disposal. So vastly different from 90% of the rest of the movies made during this era, Freaks is a movie that will stay with you always.
2. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Yes, I did it. I made Bride number 2, not number 1. I may catch flak for this, but so be it. Still and all, Bride of Frank is easily one of the finest-made horror films of all time, perfectly mixing healthy doses of dark humor and jarring Christian imagery. Ernest Thesiger is delightful as the insidious Dr. Pretorius, and the cabin scene--Young Frankenstein notwithstanding--is still extremely moving.
1. Frankenstein (1931)
I've always preferred James Whales' original to the often more-lauded sequel. Its stark simplicity, its engaging set designs, and best of all its unbelievable mime performance from a then-unknown Karloff. He fleshes the monster out into much more than a monster, but rather a creature to be pitied. Colin Clive is also frenetically excellent as the creature's tragic creator.
* HONORABLE MENTION *
Dracula's Daughter (1936)
This one was just barely edged out, to the point that I just had to give it a quick mention. Gloria Holden is magnificent in this oft-overlooked, sexually daring sequel to the Lugosi original.
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