We’re jumping back into the time machine folks and heading back to the Frightening ’30s. A decade that introduced us to some of the best horror films ever made, and the most iconic characters to ever grace the silver screen. So that said… Thirty, Flirty, and Frightening! Let’s get into it! 1930s Horror!
5. The Monkey’s Paw – 1933
Where better to start our 1930s Horror than a story about a monkey’s paw using which three wishes can be granted but with negative consequences. Still Mr and Mrs White used it to get what they needed. They also lost something very valuable as a punishment for tampering with fate.
Surely everyone knows the short story about The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs. Well, this was not the first attempt to bring it to the screen but for me, it was one of the more memorable ones. Especially since the film was considered to be “lost” until 2016. A contemporary review in The International Photographer considered it “greatly handicapped by its unrelenting sombre mood. Even the inevitable happy ending that wags its tail at the end is hardly sufficient to dispel the gloom. The cast is uniformly capable, but the lack of a dominant screen personality is keenly felt…The photography is an example of what can be done with the new supersensitive emulsions using very little light.” You have to think that the movie was trying its best to capture the mood of the story and I think it did a surprisingly good job with it. Not as memorable as some of the other films I’ll talk about, but it is one of the most enduring stories to be told.
4. The Mummy – 1932
An ancient Egyptian mummy named Imhotep is discovered by a team of archaeologists and inadvertently brought back to life through a magic scroll. Disguised as a modern Egyptian named Ardeth Bay, Imhotep searches for his lost love, who he believes has been reincarnated into a modern girl… 1930s everybody!
One of the five most iconic Universal monsters graces us at number four today and that is because of the performance by the legendary Boris Karloff. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports an 88% score, based on 42 reviews, with an average rating of 7.9/10. The site’s consensus states: “Relying more on mood and atmosphere than the thrills typical of modern horror fare, Universal’s The Mummy sets a masterful template for mummy-themed films to follow.” The Mummy has been decried for “othering” Eastern culture, especially portraying it as being more primitive and superstitious than Western culture. In one scene, Helen Grosvenor longs for the “real” (Classical) Egypt, disparaging that she is in contemporary Islamic Egypt. This is viewed by critic Caroline T. Schroeder as a slight against Islamic culture at the time. Understandable, since it was the 1930s after all, but dude.. the Mummy is one of the most memorable movie monsters ever created. Sure, it had the terrible reboot with Tom Cruise and the more memorable run in the Hammer series but you can’t argue the legacy and enduring intrigue that the Mummy gives us.
3. The Invisible Man – 1933
Dr Jack Griffin (Rains) who is covered in bandages and has his eyes obscured by dark glasses, the result of a secret experiment that makes him invisible, taking lodging in the village of Iping. Never leaving his quarters, the stranger demands that the staff leave him completely alone until his landlady discovers he is invisible. Griffin returns to the laboratory of his mentor, Dr Cranley (Henry Travers), where he reveals his secret to Dr Kemp (William Harrigan) and former fiancée Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart) who soon learn that Griffin’s discovery drives him insane, leading him to prove his superiority over other people by performing harmless pranks at first and eventually turning to murder.
Based on H. G. Wells’ 1897 The Invisible Man and produced by Universal Pictures, the film stars Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, and William Harrigan. On the film’s release in the 1930s, it was a great financial success for Universal and received strong reviews from several trade publications, including The New York Times, which placed it among their Best in Film for the year 1933. The film spawned several sequels that were relatively unrelated to the original film in the 1940s and a remake in 2020. The film continued to receive praise on re-evaluations by critics such as Carlos Clarens, Jack Sullivan, and Kim Newman, as well as being listed as one of their favourite genre films by filmmakers John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and Ray Harryhausen.
In 2008, The Invisible Man was selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Retrospective response to the film includes it being listed on several “Best-of” genre lists. In the book The Variety Book of Movie Lists, The Invisible Man is listed among the best films of certain genres by artists in their respective fields. This included directors Joe Dante (Best of Horror), John Carpenter (Best Science Fiction) where he referred to the film as “brilliant”, and Ray Harryhausen (Best of Fantasy) where Harryhausen stated that, “Where do science fiction and so-called horror films begin and fantasy films leave off? Surely they must overlap.” If you’ve never seen this masterpiece, get off your ass and watch it!
2. Frankenstein – 1931
Dr Frankenstein dares to tamper with life and death by creating a human monster out of lifeless body parts.
Though inevitably dated and primitive by modern standards, the 1930s Frankenstein remains a tremendously impressive film and a tribute to its still somewhat under-rated director, the eccentric Englishman James Whale. Where so many early talkies were static and wordy, Frankenstein skips unnecessary dialogue and exposition and drives through its plot at a speed that seems almost indecent nowadays. Compared to overblown remakes like Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 version, Whale’s work now seems like a masterpiece of brevity and minimalism. The constantly moving camera, incisive editing and dramatic use of close-ups are a mile ahead of anything far more prestigious directors were doing at the time.
Expressionist photography and eccentric set designs lend atmosphere, menace and help augment some rather ripe performances; a foretaste of the paths Whale would tread in the sequel Bride of Frankenstein four years later. And then of course there’s Karloff. With comparatively few scenes and no dialogue he nonetheless manages to create a complex, intimidating, yet sympathetic creature – one of the great mimes in talking cinema and thanks in no small degree to the freedom given to him under Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up. A historic piece of cinema, and one that still stands the test of time as both art and entertainment.
1. Dracula – 1931
After a naive real estate agent succumbs to the will of Count Dracula, the two head to London where the vampire sleeps in his coffin by day and searches for potential victims by night.
Come on, if you’ve never seen Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula then you are not a horror fan. Period. This is the movie that set the horror genre into action. Sure there may be a few campy scenes that look like they might be out of some high school play production (the rubber bats and armadillos in Dracula’s castle come to mind), but there is unmistakable suspense and eerieness about the film. If you are lucky enough to find the DVD reissue from 1999, you have three great versions: the original 1931 version with basically no background music, 1999 rescoring of the movie by composer Philip Glass, and the extremely interesting Spanish version, made at the same time as the original (with totally different actors).
If you have this DVD, watch the movie twice: once with no soundtrack and once with the Glass rescoring…. totally different movie. Glass’ score is great, but it doesn’t really help the movie at all (it actually hurts it in many cases). The acting is actually quite great (Lugosi is, of course, phenomenal as is Dwight Frye as Renfield). The fear, the suspense, and, believe it or not, the sexuality, combines for a great movie that was an unbelievable success in its first release ($700,000 in its first US release, $1.2 million worldwide). There are few monsters as iconic as Count Dracula, and you can thank Bela Lugosi for that. The man is a legend for a reason, and this is one of his most must-see films.