The Many Colorful Perversions of Pre-Code Horror (Movies)

In the early 1930s, American horror movies were less explicit than we are accustomed to today, but they were by no means tame. By no means. Torture, flaying, maiming, necrophilia, zoophilia, bestiality, rape, satanism, sadism — all of these horrors and more await you among the horror films of the Pre-Code Era (1927-1934)!

“Only after the kill does man know the true ecstasy of love.”

That’s how Leslie Banks explains to Faye Wray that he plans to ravage her against her will after hunting down Joel Mccrae and hanging his head in the trophy parlor in The Most Dangerous Game, 1932 — Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s first fictional film. Note: No ravaging is shown, but you do get to see that parlor.

“Pre-Code” — Whuh?

[more complete explanation after the film descriptions]

There was a period at the beginning of the “talking pictures” era, before the film industry began self-censoring, during which American movies were full of titillating content: extra-martial sex, crime, violence, substance abuse, etc. The horror genre of the early 1930s took this leniency and ran amok with it.

When watching these films, you have to pay attention. Ominous dialogue often flies by, and strategic fades to black leave you to imagine what went on in the dark. You are expected to “get it.” Once you have seen a few of these films and become more fluent in this cinematic dialect, you will discover that pre-code horror contains a smorgasbord of kink, violence, and naughty wit.

Here’s a nice Buzzfeed user list of…

“10 Frightening Pre-Code Horror Movies You Need to Watch”

I highly endorse her list which includes clips, quips, and “why it’s awesome”: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Mamoulian, 1932) , Dracula (Browning, 1931), Frankenstein  (Whale, 1931), Doctor X (Curtiz, 1932), Freaks (Browning, 1932), Island of Lost Souls (Kenton, 1932), The Mask of Fu Manchu (Brabin, 1932), The Most Dangerous Game (Schoedsack & Pichel, 1932), The Invisible Man (Whale, 1933), and Murder in the Zoo (Sutherland, 1933).

If “Murder in the Zoo” sounds silly to you, check out this opening scene…

YIKES!! Anyway, here’s a few she left off…

The Old Dark House (Whale, 1933, Universal)

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What do you get when you put James Whale, Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Ernest Thesiger, Arthur Edsen (cinematographer, Frankenstein, Casablanca) and Charles D. Hall (set designer, ) on the same film? GENIUS. (Multiple Oscar nominations in store for that crew in the future, but not on this film, of course).

Creepy, hilarious, risqué, The Old Dark House is a ton of fun. Three friends (Massey, Stuart and Douglas), caught in a storm, seek shelter at a creepy old house belonging to a really scary old family headed by Thesiger with Karloff as the mute butler. Often imitated but never duplicated, this must have been one of the funnest film set of the 30s!

Horace (Thesiger): Mr. Pendrel, I give you a toast that you will not appreciate, being young. I give you illusion.

Pendrel (Douglas): Illusion? I am precisely the right age for that toast, Mr. Femm.

Douglas gets to deliver most of Whale’s signature wit with his own irresistible cheek (as in Ninotchka) until Laughton shows up as raucous Sir William Porterhouse with a shady lady in tow. Then things really get wild. Massey is the straight man, but even he is armed with hilarious deadpan sarcasm. Poor lovely Stuart is the target of most of the pre-code naughtiness, with the house spinster lecturing her about enjoying her young white skin which will rot some day along with the flimsy silk she’s wearing. That scene is ominous, creepy, and a naughty laugh all at once; that’s Whale for you. While I love Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, this might be my favorite Whale horror because it’s so perfectly, consistently balanced throughout: great cast of colorful characters, fun dialogue, wry humor, fantastic sets, and brilliant cinematography at play with shadows and angles.

Mystery of the Wax Museum (Curtiz, 1933, Warner Bros.)

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Another of my favorites is the second 2-strip Technicolor horror helmed by the great Michael Curtiz, which means elegant tracking shots exploring large and complex spaces (think of the shots that introduce Rick’s in Casablanca), and a general visual classiness. I admit it’s a frankenstein’s monster of sewn-together disparate parts. Warner Brothers in the 30s was a “streetwise” studio, whereas horror of the time was rather gothic. So here we get our goth filtered through a pair of streetwise reporters — Frank McHugh and Glenda Farrell — on the trail of a crime. As one would hope, their dialogue is priceless. For example:

(Farrell) … have you ever heard of such a thing as a death mask?

(McHugh) I used to be married to one.

(Farrell) Then it came to life and divorced you, I know all about that.

And there’s a junkie thrown in for good measure! The wacky hodgepodge aspect makes it a heck of a lot of fun. It was remade in 3D as House of Wax (de Toth, 1953), which a lot of people love, but which has no such hodgepodge and in my opinion is not nearly as fun despite Vincent Price and Charles Bronson. I find this version far superior, and, come to think of it, Curtiz’s visual exploration of space makes a strong case for the 3D-ness of regular old 2D.

Nitrate Diva has a great blog post with more info and photos about this one.

The Black Cat (Ulmer, 1934, Universal)

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Here we have Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, together for the first time, in an expressionistic art deco nightmare, helmed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Elmer had begun as a set designer for legendary theatrical director Max Reinhardt, and then at Ufa for Murnau and Lang among others. Which explains the beautiful, severe, and threatening interiors of Castle Poelzig. There’s a satanic cult complete with rituals and sacrifices, a necrophiliac’s gallery of corpses, a stollen wife, a lot of WWI baggage, and a torture chamber which does, of course, get utilized in an alarming way.

By the way this film has nothing to do with the Poe tale, except in the title.

Watch it, and you will find yourself saying, “Wait! Did he just imply that he…?” Yes! Yes he did!

More on The Black Cat from TCM

Murders in the Rue Morgue (Florey, 1932, Universal)

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The story is a little uneven, I admit, but as photographed by the great German expressionist cinematographer, Karl Freund, and directed by Robert Florey who’d apprenticed with Louis Feuillade, the imagery is unforgettably scary. There’s a creepy carnival, captured in layers of shadowy deep space, and a mad doctor’s lab that is also a torture chamber — this doc doesn’t work with corpses.

None of that was in the original Poe story; only a few elements were retained. Bela Lugosi is deeply creepy as the mad Doctor Mirakle, and Leon Ames (Meet Me in St. Louis) is the cheeky young hero.

Black Moon (Neill, 1934)

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The plot may sound familiar: white man (Jack Holt) hires lovely young nanny (Fay Wray) to accompany his wife (Dorothy Burgess) and daughter (Sue Collins) to her childhood home on a remote Caribbean island where Burgess turns out to be more than a little familiar with the natives and the local voodoo rituals. I Walked With a Zombie took this and cleverly added the Jane Eyre twist. This version however is more respectful of its women and its natives, both of whom, we are shown, have been oppressed for decades by white patriarchy. I don’t want to give too much away, but when a ritual finally appears, it’s presented with surprising authenticity and dignity, evoking ethnographic documentaries of the era. There’s also an intelligent and wary African American skipper (Clarence Muse), whose presence further demonstrates that vindictive voodoo is not a racial trait. The two men team up, on equal footing, man-to-man. The film’s most intriguing aspects are its navigation of race and gender issues, and its  steamy cinematography is by Joseph H. August (Gunga DinDevil and Daniel Webster). Alas, there are no zombies here.

More from TCM

The Vampire Bat aka Forced to Sin (Strayer, 1933, Majestic)

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Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill had been a winning combination in Warner Brother’s Doctor X (Curtiz, 1932) and had already wrapped on the follow-up Mystery of the Wax Museum (Curtiz, 1932). Poverty Row studio, Majestic Pictures, wisely seeing their chance to get in on the horror craze, contracted Wray and Atwill from Warners and Dwight Frye (Dracula, Frankenstein) and young Melvyn Douglas, fresh from The Old Dark House from Universal, plus their sets from Frankenstein and The Old Dark House (by Charles D. Hall). Thus The Vampire Bat has much higher production value than you’d expect.

People are turning up dead, drained of their blood, in a small European village. Frye, once again the demented weirdo, is roaming the town, obsessed with bats, freaking everyone out, inciting a mob (yes, with torches). Douglas as the young hero has the thankless role, but he has so much charisma he can pull it off. As ever, Wray is darling and Atwill sinister. It’s maybe a little bit slow and chatty in spots, but veteran cinematographer Ira H. Morgan knew what he was doing, dressing things up in inky shadows and fun subjective shots.

What’s this “Production Code Era”?

As I explain to my students, it’s not that earlier audiences were more chaste, unenlightened, or “uptight.” There was no Ratings System until 1968. Movies were conceived as a public forum, open to all ages. This meant adult subjects could not be explicitly portrayed, but were hinted at in ways that children were not expected to comprehend.

Before the Ratings System, the Production Code was  the industry’s guidelines for film content. However there was a period from the beginning of the talkies in 1927 to June 1934, during which there was no enforcement of this Code, so this “Pre-Code Era” was rife with titillating content: extra-marital sex, adultery, crime, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, etc. The horror genre took this leniency and ran amok with it.

When watching these films, you have to pay attention. Ominous dialogue often flies by, and strategic fades to black leave you to imagine what went on in the dark. You are expected to “get it.” Once you have seen a few of these films and become more fluent in this cinematic dialect, you will discover that pre-code horror contains a smorgasbord of kink, violence, and naughty wit.

[Actually, horror after 1934 was still pretty outrageous because the Production Code Administration often did “get” what was being implied. But I’ll save all that for another post.]

NOTE: I hadn’t known, before composing this post, that there are also Pre-Code Horror Comics, and that that industry also had to self-regulate. Their Comics Code Authority was formed in 1954 partly in response to publications of psychologist Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent.

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