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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Tuesday Top 10: Favorite 1930s Horror Movies

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.

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.


Robert Ring said...

So glad to see The Black Cat on this list.

elfwithagun said...

great list

Jon said...

What? No love for The Island of Lost Souls? But I agree with you 100% on Freaks. It's still as subversive and downright creepy today as it was in 1932.

Samuel Wilson said...

Hard to argue with this list. I agree with you at the top, but I might rank White Zombie higher and I might trade in one of the Universals for Island of Lost Souls.

RayRay said...

Great list, buddy. A veritable filmography of must see films for any aspiring horror fan.

Soap Magic said...

I have only seen four movies that are on this list (Freaks, Dracula, Frankenstein, and Bride of Frankenstein). Horror movies from the 1930s are very well made, but in my opinion, they are not as scary as movies from other decades. They just don't have the atmosphere that other movies like The Innocents and Faust has. Also, they tend to not focus on the horror.

The only scary parts in The Bride of Frankenstein were in the beginning and end. The rest of the movie was either comedy or drama. I think that only the last 10 minutes of Freaks were scary. The rest of the movie seemed more drama-ish than creepy. I'm sorry to say that I didn't enjoy watching Dracula.

In my opinion, Frankenstein was the only movie from the 30s that seemed the most straight-out horror. This is just an observation that I noticed. Can anyone understand where I'm coming from?

B-Sol said...

Soapy, I do get part of what you're saying. I will have to disagree with you on the atmosphere part of your comment, though--I think '30s film, particularly early '30s films, are quite rich in atmosphere.

Bride is indeed a dark comedy, which is why I too prefer the first Frank for straight-out horror. I agree with your take on Drac in that the first half is far more effective than the second.

But I think you should give some of the other flicks on this list a try to see what you think, such as The Black Cat and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. I might also suggest other flicks that didn't make the list, including The Old Dark House and Mark of the Vampire.

Pierre Fournier said...

Excellent list, B-Sol! Only one thing: You must reassess Island of the Lost Souls. I’d rank it No. 2, just behind Frankenstein. It’s a transgressive, harrowing film.

I agree that Frankenstein belongs, by far, in the No. 1 spot. Understand, I adore Bride, it’s brilliant, it’s one of the best films — period — ever made in America, but it’s not horror. I don’t believe it was even meant as horror. It’s a fantasy with humorous macabre overtones. It doesn’t compete with Frankenstein, Lost Souls or Freaks.

The original Frankenstein suffers from overexposure, it’s an icon, it’s one of the most famous motion pictures ever made, perhaps too familiar by now, but if you sit back, watch it and let it do its work, it’s still a pretty nasty, scary film.

Ms Harker said...

Just got my hands on Dracula's Daughter am quivering with excitement. I want to be like Gloria Holden when I grow up! (Too late she cried!)

B-Sol said...

Pierre: Agree on Frank. It's still a scary film, suffers from overexposure, but if you can block that out, then the concept is still terrifying.

Jess: You are in for a treat! I guess all the hype it's been getting lately here and on DotW must've piqued your interest. Let me know what you think!

Anonymous said...

A good, solid list. It's fortunate that people tend to remember these classic films and not the more common "safe" horror that permeated the decade.

For every Frankenstein, there were at least ten "the Monster Walks," "Doctor X," or the like.

I was also surprised by the dearth of Old, Dark House type movies. There were at least fifteen of those around every freakin' week.

Fungii said...

Good list B-Sol, I'm glad to see Jekyll & Hyde on there. I saw it just recently and was totally blown away by how good it was - a classic without a doubt. And the lead actor won the academy award, how often does that happen with horror movies? I would probably try to fit in the 1939 version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" with Charles Laughton in there somewhere though, it's such a great film.

B-Sol said...

Not sure I'd consider Hunchback to be horror, Fungii. And I think March and Anthony Hopkins would have to be the only two to win Best Actor for a horror movie...


I would have put the Black Cat in my top ten and it is the only one I think could actually work as an updated remake considering all the post WWI subtext in the film

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