The Horror Honeys: Hollywood Horror History: Classic Horror of the 1930's

Hollywood Horror History: Classic Horror of the 1930's

The institution of the American horror film was officially created in the 1930s, most notably by the Universal Horror film productions. A number of Hollywood actors made a name for themselves in horror films of this decade, in particular the classic icons Bela Lugosi (Dracula, 1931) and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein,1931). Films of this era frequently took their inspiration from gothic horror literature and more often dealt with themes of science versus religion.

A new rating system was introduced in the early 30s - The "H" rating for films labeled "horrific"for "any films likely to frighten or horrify children under the age of 16 years."

In the 1930s America was suffering through the Depression, making the need for escapism a very necessary luxury. The silver screen starlets of the 30s were all about glamour, furs, diamonds, and champagne flowing, and the monsters were about the darkness within, and the age old tale of beauty confronted with the proverbial beast.

Many horror films of this era provoked public outcry and censors cut many of the more violent and gruesome scenes from films like Frankenstein and The Black Cat.

1930 - 1934

The Cat Creeps (1930) - Girls! You'd Better Hang On to the Boy Friend's Arm...for here is the weirdest, most mysterious and icily thrilling picture of this year, last year, and all the years! Its drama will rip down all of your poise and and test your bravery...laughs turn into shrieks...and shrieks into's a wow! Although the film itself has been lost, The Cat Creeps is a classic slasher film complete with strange disappearances and creepy activity as the inhabitants of the house are stalked by a killer. The Cat Creeps is a "talkie" version of an earlier silent film, The Cat and the Canary (1927), and even by early talkie standards is slow to develop. Another attempt was made at this film in 1939 with better results and with the original title.

Dracula (1931) - Based on the novel by Bram Stoker (film rights were acquired for $40,000), Dracula was shot in sequence due to budgetary constraints, and a Spanish language version was shot on the same set, at night, with Spanish speaking actors. The studio did not want the scene where Dracula attacks Renfield to be filmed due to the perceived homosexual subtext of the situation. A memo was sent to the director stating "Dracula is only to attack women". Dracula also marks star Bela Lugosi's first English speaking film role, and one that would define his entire career.

Frankenstein (1931) - The quintessential warning about the dangers of science and "Playing God," Frankenstein is another iconic Universal Monster that came to life during this era of horror films. The lessons of Frankenstein are similar to those of Mary Shelley's original gothic novel - acceptance, betrayal, and fear of the unknown. Like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff's career would be forever haunted by his role as the Monster, and while it brought him a lot of screen time, the Monster was never really separated from the man.

Freaks (1932) - Tod Browning's examination of the brutality and cruelty of man in the face of the unexplainable and the different was banned from theatres around the world because viewing audiences weren't ready to be presented with the images and emotions of people who were not perceived to actually be people. If you haven't seen Freaks, it's a tale of revenge and heartbreak that depicts the "normal" humans as disgusting creatures and the "freaks" as gentle and sympathetic - director Tod Browning's social critique of intolerance in the modern world. Backlash against this film was strong, and bans in some countries continued will into the mid-60s.

White Zombie (1932) - Widely considered to be the first zombie movie ever made, White Zombie is the story of a young man who turns to a witch doctor to lure the woman he loves away from her fiance, but instead turns her into a zombie slave. Traditional voodoo chanting and other "authentic" details make White Zombie a favorite among zombie "purists" and is one of Bela Lugosi's more interesting roles outside of his Dracula appearances.

The Mummy (1932) - Woken by ancient texts, a living mummy stalks the beautiful woman he believes is the reincarnation of his lover. The word iconic is tossed around a lot in this era, especially in the case of The Mummy. Another of the canonical Universal Monsters, makeup artists Jack Pierce based Karloff's makeup on the face of Rameses III and spent 8 hours a day applying the painstaking layers of product to create The Mummy's terrifying face. Boris Karloff was virtually unknown when he appeared as the creature in Frankenstein. Karloff's appearance and performance created such a sensation that only a year later, Universal only had to advertise "KARLOFF....'The Mummy'."

The Invisible Man (1933) - Another cautionary tale about "playing with science," The Invisible Man tells the story of a scientist who finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane. The darkness within is a popular topic for horror movies, and continues to be so in the modern era. Monsters are one thing, you can run away from a monster - but you can't run away from the monster within yourself. Spurring modern remakes, like Hollow Man, The Invisible Man is on par with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in terms of the terror in battling the demons within. While Dr. Jekyll became his inner evil, The Invisible Man manifests those evils and cannot be separated from his murderous tendencies.

When describing Kong to Fay Wray, Director Merian C Cooper said, 'You'll have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." She thought it was Cary Grant.

King Kong (1933) - Although not "officially" classed as a horror film of the day, one cannot leave King Kong off of this list. Movie magic, gorillas and monsters on film owe a lot to King Kong.
When a film crew goes to a tropical island for an exotic location shoot, they discover a colossal gorilla who takes a shine to their glamorous star. A "beauty tames the beast" story, King Kong is another journey into the unknown, and society's response to that unknown force.

The Black Cat (1934) - Universal's biggest hit of 1934, The Black Cat tells the story of American honeymooners in Hungary that become trapped in the home of a Satan worshipping priest. The Black Cat was the first film collaboration of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, who at the time were unquestionably the two biggest stars of horror film, and the biggest stars at Universal. While sold as being informed by Edgar Allen Poe's short story of the same name, the film bears no similarity to the story, but keeps to the 30s theme of gothic horror based films.

1935 - 1939

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - A vehicle for one of the most loved characters in the horror community, especially female ones, The Bride was created by Universal makeup artist Jack Pierce and although she only appears in a few minutes of the film, she is undeniably one of the more famous members of the cast of this film, and is also the only Universal Monster with no victims.
Mary Shelley reveals the main characters of her novel survived: Dr. Frankenstein (goaded by an even madder scientist) builds his monster a mate.

The Raven (1935) - Another 30s era film based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe -there were at least 4 made during this era and more to come - Lugosi as a Poe-obsessed mad surgeon with a torture chamber in his basement and Karloff as a fugitive murderer desperately on the run from the police. The Raven was another Universal collaboration between Karloff and Lugosi, and as you can see from the poster below, both actors were fully typecast in their previous roles. Boris Karloff is billed only by his last name, and Lugosi with the Dracula name attached - and even though Lugosi has the lead roll, it's Karloff who gets top billing on the promotional material. With its themes of torture, disfigurement and grisly revenge, the film did not do particularly well at the box office during its initial release and indirectly led to a temporary ban on horror films in England. (Source)

Werewolf of London (1935) - While on a botanical expedition in Tibet, Dr. Wilfred Glendon is attacked in the dark by a strange animal. Returning to London, he finds himself turning nightly into a werewolf and terrorizing the city, with the only hope for curing his affliction a rare Asian flower. The well-known "Wolf Man" makeup used on Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941, was created by Universal makeup designer Jack Pierce this film. After makeup tests, Henry Hull declined to wear the makeup. A "less hairy" version was devised by Pierce, and it is this version that is seen in Werewolf of London. While not the first werewolf film ever made, Werewolf of London sparked public interest in this beast and paved the way for the werewolf films of the 40s.

Dracula's Daughter (1936) - Taking place immediately after the events of Dracula, Dracula's Daughter tells the story of Countess Marya Zaleska, the daughter of Count Dracula and herself a vampire. Following Dracula's death, she believes that by destroying his body she will be free of his influence and can live as a human. A story of betrayal and revenge, modern critics have noted the strong lesbian overtones of the film, overtones that Universal acknowledged from the start of filming and which they exploited in some early advertising. While not a successful release, the 1936 re-release of Dracula gave Universal the funds to make this sequel and renewed interest in the immortal Count.

The Cat and the Canary (1939) - When an eccentric family meets in their uncle's remote, decaying mansion on the tenth anniversary of his death for the reading of his will, murder and madness follow. The Cat and the Canary was a remake of the 1930 early talkie The Cat Creeps. The first remake of a remake, the original film bearing the same name was a silent feature released in 1927. Played for laughs instead of scares, and thanks to advances in filming and the experience of studios churning out hundreds of features in the 30s, this newer remake of The Cat and The Canary was much better received than its earlier counterpart and remained faithful to the original in most areas.

Son of Frankenstein (1939) - The theatrical re-release of Frankenstein (like Dracula) renewed interest in "classic" horror films and gave the studios the ability to make sequels like Son of Frankenstein - One of the sons of Frankenstein finds his father's monster in a coma and revives him, only to find out he is controlled by Ygor who is bent on revenge. Playing the role of the vengeful Ygor, this role is considered by many to be Bela Lugosi's best theatrical performance. Son of Frankenstein also marks the last time that Boris Karloff would don the iconic makeup for a feature film.

How many of these classic screen gems have you seen?  
Next up - Horror's "golden age" hits in the 1940s