For Monster Kids of a certain age, such as myself, the numbers “1931” have a very special meaning; they represent the year that Universal Pictures released Dracula and Frankenstein. Along with pretty much introducing stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff to American audiences, these two films set the tone for the studio’s subsequent genre pictures–and those of Hollywood in general–for years to come. Over the remainder of the decade, Universal would up the fear factor with The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Black Cat, Bride of Frankenstein, Werewolf of London, The Raven, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein…the list of classic “creature features” goes on and on.
Even now, the images of the “Universal Monsters”–a roster that also includes such silent fiends as the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera and later additions like the Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon–are what most people think of when they think of vintage horror cinema. And while I’ve been a lifelong fan (in spite of a few minor annoyances) of the company’s fright franchises, Universal was far from the only studio to dabble in the supernatural over the course of the 1930s. With the Halloween spirit in mind, I’d like to present a list of the top ten horror films not to sport the familiar globe logos. In diabolical…er, alphabetical order, they are:
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) – It’s somehow appropriate that his performance as Robert Louis Stevenson’s title alter egos, the saintly if misguided Dr. Henry Jekyll and the lustful, Neanderthal-like Edward Hyde, earned star Fredric March joint custody of the 1931/32 Academy Award for Best Actor (he shared the Oscar with The Champ’s Wallace Beery). Perhaps the most overtly sexual pre-Code chiller (courtesy of co-star Miriam Hopkins’ turn as “fallen woman” Ivy), the film’s memorable transformation scenes were a carefully guarded secret for years. Director Rouben Mamoulian eventually explained how, during shooting, special color lenses were added or removed to alternately cover-up or reveal March’s simian-inspired make-up.
Freaks (1932) – Anyone watching FX’s American Horror Story: Freakshow should do themselves a favor and check out the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film that inspired it. One thing’s for sure; When the classiest outfit in Hollywood’s Golden Age decided to try its hand at horror, MGM certainly didn’t fool around. Dracula director Tod Browning’s shock-filled look at sideshow life, with a cast of real-life “human monstrosities,” had preview audiences running out of theaters and was banned in various U.S. cities and the U.K. for decades (Check out MovieFanFare’s own Dr. Strangefilm’s review of the film here). “Gooble gobble, one of us!”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) – Adding a level of pathos to the character of Quasimodo which rivaled that of Lon Chaney 16 years earlier, star Charles Laughton’s turn as the deformed bellringer was the icing on the cake of this lavish RKO adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel. Add to that a bewitching (sorry) performance by Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda and one of the all-time great closing scenes (which, like the silent ’23 version, had nothing to with Hugo’s book), and you have not just a great “monster movie,” but a great drama, period.
Island of Lost Souls (1932) – As nice as he ultimately turned out to be in Hunchback, Laughton was nothing but malevolent here as the sinister scientist whose experimental surgeries have turned the title isle into a menagerie of animal-human hybrids. Based on the H.G. Wells tale The Island of Dr. Moreau, this Paramount thriller was also banned in Wells’ home country of England for many years (the author himself was not too happy with the picture, either). Along with Laughton’s Captain Bligh-like turn as Moreau, the film also features a sultry performance by Kathleen Burke (who won a talent contest with Paramount) as Lota, the Panther Woman, and a barely-recognizable Bela Lugosi as another of Moreau’s creations, the lupine Sayer of the Law (whose line “Are we not men?” inspired one of Devo’s first tunes).
King Kong (1933) – Movie producer, beautiful girl, ocean voyage, Skull Island, angry natives, giant ape, hungry dinosaurs, New York City, Empire State Building, airplanes, “It was Beauty killed the Beast”…really, do I have to say anything more about “the Eighth Wonder of the World”? Well, how about the fact that Kong wasn’t nominated for a single Academy Award? Or that RKO, producers Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, and stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O’Brien managed to pull off the sequel, Son of Kong, the same year? (Ever see it? Sure, it’s played more for laughs, but it has great effects and tries to answer the question “Didn’t anyone sue Denham for bringing Kong to Manhattan?”.)
Mad Love (1935) – No less a notable than Charlie Chaplin called Peter Lorre “the greatest living actor” after seeing him as the demented surgeon Dr. Gogol, who grafts the hands of an executed killer onto a concert pianist (Frankenstein’s Colin Clive) who own extremities were crushed in a train wreck and becomes obsessed with his patient’s wife (Frances Drake), an actress in a Grand Guignol-style Paris stage show. It would be imprudent to say much more about the plot to this MGM translation of the novel The Hands of Orlac, except to mention the unforgettable scene of Lorre wearing artificial hands and a neck brace while crying “He shall be shut up in the house where they keep the mad…when it’s I who am mad!” Oh, and also that a little of ex-Three Stooges head man Ted Healy as a wisecracking reporter really goes a long way!
Mark of the Vampire (1935) – You’ve got to give MGM credit. After the brouhaha over his earlier Freaks, the studio still gave Tod Browning the green light for this remake of his silent Lon Chaney thriller London After Midnight. Chaney’s original dual role wound up divided between two actors. Lionel Barrymore plays an expert in the occult who thinks a British nobleman’s death was related to the undead, and Bela Lugosi is the mysterious Count Mora, who’s seen in an abandoned mansion with his daughter Luna. Making her feature film debut as Luna was Carol Borland, whose pale-faced look inspired Morticia Addams, Vampira, Elvira, and pretty much every Goth girl you’ve met in the last 35 years. Be warned, though; This movie’s “twist ending” sharply divides horror fans. Fun Fact: Bela had more dialogue in Mark of the Vampire’s theatrical trailer than he did in the actual film!
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) – Before Vincent Price and (Good grief!) Paris Hilton each made their version of House of Wax, there was this fine little Warner Bros. thriller, the last film the company made in the then-revolutionary two-color Technicolor process. Lionel Atwill (perhaps best known today as the one-armed police inspector in Son of Frankenstein) stars as crippled sculptor Ivan Igor, who somehow manages to survive a devastating fire at his old waxworks and whose new creations seem just a little too lifelike, while everyone’s favorite ’30s damsel in distress, King Kong leading lady Fay Wray, is the heroine trying to avoid becoming one of Igor’s exhibits. Atwill and Wray, along with director Michael Curtiz, were also part of another Technicolor Warners horror picture, Doctor X, the year before.
Vampyr (1932) – The eeriest vampire movie to ever come from Scandinavia (sorry, Let the Right One In), Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s atmospheric suspense tale was made on location in a run-down French castle with a mostly non-professional cast. The arrival at a remote inn of a traveler fixated on the occult triggers a string of bizarre occurrences, including a shadow that seems to move on its own, a scythe-wielding figure, and the young man’s horrifying vision of being buried alive (seen in a memorable point-of-view sequence). Like another, earlier European production, the silent German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Vampyr blurs the line between dreams and reality, letting viewers decide for themselves which they are witnessing.
White Zombie (1932) – As you may have noticed from his previous mentions in Island of Lost Souls and Mark of the Vampire, becoming an instant celebrity thanks to his performance in Dracula didn’t necessarily guarantee Bela Lugosi much in the way of substantial film roles, even in the horror vein. One of his most memorable ’30s turns away from Universal (although the film was shot in part on the Universal lot) came courtesy of this independent chiller. Bela shines as Haitian voodoo master Murder Legendre, who uses his unholy powers to revive the dead and turn them into mute slave laborers for his sugar mill (Yes, kids, once upon a time movie zombies weren’t groaning, rotting, brain-munching ghouls), then sets his sights on a young American woman (Madge Bellamy) who’s come to the island to wed her fiancé (John Harron). By the way, this was the TV “creature feature” that an aged Lugosi (Martin Landau) and his filmmaker pal Ed (Johnny Depp) were watching on Halloween in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. However, at the time of that film’s early 1950s setting, White Zombie was out of circulation and feared lost. It ultimately turned up several years later, back from the dead like a…you get the point.
For a look at one of the best horror movies Universal almost made, click here.
To vote for your favorite ’30s (and ’40s) Universal monster movie, click here.