Best Horror Movies of the 1930s
With an informative piece of dialogue about the Carpathian Mountains spoken by Carla Laemmle, niece of Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle, the horror genre entered the era of sound. With this change came a change for the genre in the United States, beforehand the monsters in movies were humans who either suffered some kind of deformity or were using some kind of act to fool people. But in 1931, Dracula gave American moviegoers their first taste of terror from the realm of the supernatural. Universal Studios elevated itself from a B-studio to a Hollywood power player thanks to their now legendary Universal Monsters during this decade. Given the profitability of the genre other studios, both major and independent, tried their hand at scaring audiences. Paramount in particular also put their own spin on the genre with a number of classic horrors. Given that Hollywood censorship lacked any power during the Pre-Code era of the first half of the decade filmmakers could pull out the stops in terrifying moviegoers. Directors like Tod Browning, Karl Freund, and James Whale defined horror for the new era. Actors like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye, Peter Lorre, Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill cemented their reputations as immortal icons of terror. This was the decade that solidified what the horror genre would be as it went mainstream in a big way.
Dracula (1931): When it came to adapting Bram Stoker’s classic, Universal was in new territory. Not only were they introducing a supernatural horror to the big screen, but doing it in the early days of sound. Luckily, offbeat director Tod Browning was up to the task. Taking influence from the Dracula stage play, the studio cast its lead Bela Lugosi as the powerful vampire for this film in the process making movie history. Travelling from Transylvania to England to find new prey, the vampire Count Dracula sets his sights on Mina who he wishes to sire into the ranks of the undead. In order to save her soul, Professor Van Helsing is brought in to battle the Count but will that be enough to stop the immortal monster? As mentioned before Lugosi all but defined the popular image of the vampire in this performance singlehandedly making it one of the great films of all-time.
Frankenstein (1931): After the success of Dracula came, the next Universal monster solidified that horror was here to stay. Driven by a mad desire to defy God and create life on his own, Dr. Henry Frankenstein, along with his hunchbacked assistant Fritz, embarks on a campaign of stealing body parts from the dead and stitching them together into his own creation. With the right lightning strike on a stormy night, his monster is given life. Unaware of what he is or why he was made, Frankenstein’s monster begins to terrorize the community forcing the creator to confront his creation. James Whale, the director of this gothic masterpiece struck gold when he cast then-unknown actor Boris Karloff in the role of Frankenstein’s creation.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931): Adapting the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale, Dr. Jekyll wants to prove anyone has the capability to unleash evil and concocts an elixir to prove this. Upon drinking this formula he is transformed into the monstrous Hyde who terrorizes the streets of London. A particular target of his is the singer Ivy who he delights in tormenting. While Jekyll tries to atone for the evils of his alter ego, controlling Hyde becomes increasingly difficult. Aided by groundbreaking visual fx for his transformation, actor Frederic March won an Academy Award for his duel performance in this film.
M (1931): This German thriller was the legendary director Fritz Lang’s first talkie, and the great filmmaker proved he would be just as great now as he was in the silent age. Peter Lorre plays the chilling serial killer Hans Beckert, in what would be his first starring role. He preys on the children of Berlin, and his horrific crimes are pushing the city to the brink as they try to uncover his identity. A witness marks Beckert’s coat with him, clearly identifying him to both law enforcement and a citizenry who is not above dishing out mob justice on the child murderer. The combination of Lang’s stunning visuals and Lorre’s performance has cemented M as one of the all-time great psychological horror films.
The Ghoul (1932): After the blockbuster success of Frankenstein Boris Karloff had a contract dispute with Universal which saw him leave Hollywood and return to England for a while. While back in his home country he made this film with frequent co-star Ernest Thesinger which saw Karloff play Egyptologist Professor Morlant. He claims to have discovered the fabled jewel “Eternal Light” which will give him the power of rejuvenation. Before Morlant dies he predicts the jewel will return him to life when moonlight hits the door of his tomb. Upon his death, the Eternal Life is stolen and people descend to find the jewel. As you may predict Professor Morlant is resurrected to have his revenge on those seeking his treasure.
Vampyr (1932): Allan Gray is a traveler who checks into a small inn in this Danish classic, and the horror unfolds. A scholar in all things supernatural and involving the occult, Gray finds himself in the middle of the supernatural. With an elderly man’s ominous warning that “she must not die” he is thrust into encountering the creepy and supernatural as the curse of the vampyr lingers. This disturbing film was quite ahead of its time and the special fx are still astounding.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932): While this film bears little resemblance to its source material, director Robert Florey gives the film its own life as a strange and visually arresting gothic expressionistic style. At an exhibition hall, Camille and her lover Pierre Dupin encounter the shocking beliefs of Dr. Mirakle who touts that humanity evolved from apes and plans on proving this through his research. They laugh this off and go on their way, oblivious to the fact when night falls Mirakle stalks the underworld of Paris kidnapping prostitutes to be the subjects of his horrific experiments. He attempts to match their blood with that of his pet ape Erik, but their “unclean” nature dashes his planned results. But Erik has taken a liking to Camille and her innocent nature may prove to be the key. Read the Retro Review HERE.
Island of Lost Souls (1932): Based on the HG Wells novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, a shipwrecked traveler named Parker finds himself on a mysterious island run by the enigmatic Dr. Moreau. He begins to fall for Lota, a panther/human hybrid created by the doctor in his “House of Pain”. Parker discovers the island is home to a community of animal/human hybrids created by Moreau who used his “Sayer of the Law’ as an emissary to keep them in-line. But there is only so long that these creatures will remain subjective to the mad doctor before they rebel. Despite stellar performances from Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi, Island of Lost Souls was banned in a number of states upon its initial release.
The Old Dark House (1932): The follow-up to Frankenstein from director James Whale brought a good deal of his trademark sharp dark humor to the gloomy scares. In the midst of a heavy storm in the Welsh countryside, a group of travelers seek refuge in the home of the eerie Femm family. As this dark and stormy night unfolds, a strange aura lingers over all of the various character interactions until a troubling secret about the Femm’s is revealed. Despite Whale helming an all-star cast, The Old Dark House was not truly appreciated in its time, but its reputation has become greater in the ensuing years thanks to it influencing a number of other films.
White Zombie (1932): While today’s zombies are founded on the imagination of George A. Romero, the tradition of these creatures has its roots in Hattian voodoo. In this movie, the soon-to-be-wed Madeleine is thrown into this world of zombies and black magic when she cross paths with the Voodoo priest Murder Legendre played by Bela Lugosi in one of his most iconic roles. She is unaware that he has been hired by a plantation owner who is madly in love with her to bring her into the ranks of the living dead to serve as his slave. He soon learns a lesson in dealing with the nefarious voodoo priest when Murder uses his powers to get the upper hand. This atmospheric film is largely recognized as the first zombie film.
Freaks (1932): From the legendary horror director Tod Browning, Freaks, has gone down in history as one of the most controversial films of all-time. A sideshow midget named Hans finds himself the center of affection to the seductive trapeze artist Cleopatra. He even leaves his own fiancée Frieda to be with her as Hans introduces Cleopatra into the freak show community who accept her with a strange chant. When Frieda uncovers that Cleopatra is actually conniving with the strong man to steal Hans’ money, then the freaks turn on her and in a truly disturbing finale, they will make her “one of us”. Browning’s use of real life circus freaks in this era truly made this film too shocking for audiences, but Freaks is now recognized as an important and groundbreaking piece of cinema.
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933): While it’s remake House of Wax may be far more well remembered and turned Vincent Price into an icon of horror, this Pre-Code original is an incredibly memorable film in its own right. Skilled wax sculptor, Ivan Igor, is horribly burned after his patron sets fire to his work. It is not until years later he reemerges with a new wax museum. His return seems to coincide with a monster who is now stalking the city, and for Charlotte Duncan this is too much of a coincidence and his Joan of Arc statue is far too life-like.
King Kong (1933): On the remote Skull Island, legend holds there is a land of mysteries and monsters. This attracts huckster filmmaker Carl Denham who takes his new leading lady Ann Darrow out there to film his new production. The locals of Skull Island kidnap Ann and send her over an ominous fence to meet the ruler of the island, King Kong. The massive develops a liking for the scream queen as he brings her into his dense jungle full of dinosaurs and peril. When the crew of the ship inevitably rescue her, Denham sees Kong as box office gold. He brings the mighty creature back to New York, but once he gets free King Kong wreaks havoc in the city leading to one of the greatest climaxes in movie history as he takes Ann to the top of the Empire State Building and prepares to defend against the oncoming planes. Even all of these years later, the power of King Kong is undeniable and the special fx from Willis O’Brien are still a marvel to witness.
The Invisible Man (1933): James Whale continued his streak of commercially and critically successful horror films at Universal with this adaptation of the HG Wells classic. While experimenting, Dr. Jack Griffin concocts a chemical which turns his invisible. Shrouded in bandages to hide his new transparent state, Griffin retreats to a small English village to continue his work in hopeful solitude. But the chemical which has rendered him invisible is slowly driving him mad, and while his fiancée Flora may try to help him she may not be able to. Not only did the Invisible Man feature groundbreaking special fx, but proved to be a starmaking performance for the raspy voiced Claude Rains. Read the Retro Review HERE.
Murders in the Zoo (1933): This strange and gruesome film proved to be an excellent star vehicle for a favorite actor of classic horror fans Lionel Atwill. After a strangely cheery intro, we immediately get a shocking opening scene where Atwill’s character Gorman is sewing a man’s face up before riding off on an elephant. This should clue you in to the kind of madcap horrifying movie this is. The famed big game hunter, Gorman, has been busy capturing animals to become exhibits at a financially troubled zoo. Being a sociopath it is only a matter of time before he begins to rack up a body count culminating with feeding his own wife into the crocodile pit. The zoo’s resident vet is determined to get to the bottom of the case. This strange B-movie is a curious combination of gruesome psycho-sexual horror, dashing mystery, and slapstick comedy.
The Mummy (1933): Centuries ago the Egyptian priest Imhotep was condemned to a horrible fate and mummified alive. He remained in this state until an errant archeologist accidentally resurrects him. He has now reemerged as “Ardeth Bay” a strange and mysterious man using his knowledge to aid the adventurous Egyptologist Frank Pearson uncover the tomb of his past love Princess Anck-su-namun. The evil mummy’s reasoning for this is to get closer to Frank’s girlfriend Helen, who is the reincarnation of the princess. Imhotep plans to be reunited with his beloved for the rest of time, he simply has to sacrifice her in her current form.
The Black Cat (1934): There was no doubt that Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were the two biggest boogiemen in Hollywood. Using that box office appeal, Universal put both actors together and to amplify to horrors made it a film (very) loosely inspired by an Edgar Allen Poe story. Helmed by the great auteur Edgar G. Ulmer, Lugosi plays, Dr. Werdegast a man returning to his ancestral homeland following a war in order to get revenge on the one who took everything from him. This is monster happens to be a powerful Satan worshipper played by Karloff. Welcoming Werdegast into his stunning art deco home kicks-off a match of wills and intellect between two men both of whom are dangerous. Caught in the middle of this is a young honeymooning couple has his sights set on. It all leads to an end with one of the most disturbing scenes in horror history.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935): Recognized by fans and critics as the crown jewel of the Universal Monsters franchise and one of the best films of any genre of the decade. Shortly after the events of the original movie, now Baron Frankenstein reunited with his sinister former mentor Dr. Pretorius. It seems the sinister disgraced scientist has been conducting his own experiments in the creation of life and wants to collaborate with Frankenstein to create a female equivalent of his monster. While this is going on Karloff reprises his iconic role as Frankenstein’s monster who survived the events of the first film and begins a quest of self-discovery. As he tries to grow as a being mentally, emotionally, and spiritually he learns of the evils and intolerant ways of humanity. This brings him into Frankenstein and Pretorius’ plans to build a being to end his loneliness.
Mad Love (1935): Under the direction of veteran film worker Karl Freund, Peter Lorre gives an eerie and memorable performance as the mad scientist Dr. Gogol. He is obsessed with, Yvonne Orlac, an actress at the Grand Guignol. She happens to be married to a gifted pianist, but when a train accident leaves his hands mutilated, Gogol steps in to offer “assistance” by performing a hand transplant with hands that once belonged to a serial killer. When gains the ability to throw knives with deadly accuracy and displays a new aggression resembling his hand donor, Dr. Gogol’s true madness begins to come to light.
Mark of the Vampire (1935): One of the most famous lost films in history is Tod Browning’s silent horror film London After Midnight. While the original picture has been lost since 1965, Browning was able to remake it during the era of sound with his Dracula star Bela Lugosi. When it is believed that the daughter of a murdered man is set to be the victim of two vampires, Count Mora and his daughter Luna, an occult expert and others rally to her defense. But things are not as they seem as there is a clever plot twist in store.
Werewolf of London (1935): While The Wolf-Man six years later would cement the werewolf as a cinematic monster, Werewolf of London was the first to give moviegoers a lycanthropic monster. While searching for a rare flower in Tibet, Dr. Wilfred Glendon is attacked by a creature. Returning home to London, Glendon discovers this creature was in fact the cunning Dr. Yogami who has now brought the scientist into the realm of “werewolfery’. Being exposed to the moon beam in his lab confirmed to Glendon that he too would turn into a monster. While he is able to use a rare plant to keep his condition in check, the emotional turmoil in his emotional life combined with Yogami’s pushing him to embrace this new side proves to be too much and soon he is out to terrorize the streets of London. One of the oft-overlooked entries of the Universal Monsters this film features a great performance by Warner Oland as Dr. Yogami and a stunning transformation sequence.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936): Arguably, the most underrated film of the Universal Monsters franchise. After Professor Van Helsing has slayed Dracula, Countess Marya Zaleska, a sire of the Count arrives in England in the hopes of ridding the world of his evil once and for all. Since as far as the authorities are concerned Van Helsing drove a stake into the heart of an actual person he is charged with murder, and enlists Dr. Jeffery Garth to help him prove his innocence. But Garth has his hands full as Countess Zaleska also seeks his help in curing her bloodlust, despite the urging of her servant Sandor. To this day Dracula’s Daughter stands as a landmark of LGBTQ representation in film. Read the Retro Review HERE.
The Walking Dead (1936): For my money this gem is the most underrated film on the resume of Boris Karloff. Directed by the legendary Michael Curtiz, Karloff the Uncanny plays the gifted musician John Ellman. After being framed for a murder he did not commit the power players in the city ensure he receives the death penalty. While this should have been the end, a scientist uses his body to practice his unconventional experiments and returns Ellman to life. Seen as a miracle of modern the science the musician is thrust into the public eye where he discovers that when he lays eyes on the men who wrongfully killed him a luminous aura appears around them. One by one, the formerly dead man seeks out his murderers and one by one, they meet grisly fates.
Son of Frankenstein (1939): When new owners took over Universal Studios they had to figure out how to make their new movie studio profitable. The success of revival screening showed there was still plenty of money left in the monsters so they set out to scare moviegoers once again. Returning to his ancestral homeland Baron Wolf von Frankenstein seeks to reinvest in the community and rehabilitate his family’s name. It is in the remains of Frankenstein’s castle he meets the conniving Ygor the self appointed caretaker of his father’s creation the Frankenstein monster. Naturally, he gives into his family tradition and tries to repair in the monster, little does he know that Ygor is secretly using the creature to carry out a plot of revenge. Son of Frankenstein was the final time Boris Karloff played the role which made him a star, but the movie still reignited the Universal Monster franchise.