My Favorite Horror Films: 1931-1939

Bryan Senn’s superb monster film opus Golden Horrors: An Illustrated Critical Filmography of Terror Cinema, 1931–1939 includes an appendix citing celebrity, author and film aficionado picks for the 10 Greatest Horror Films from the 30’s. This has inspired me to make 10 selections with some backup why I picked the film. Ok, here goes:

  1. The Black Cat, 1934, Universal. This is my favorite pairing of Boris and Bela. The casting of Karloff as a satan-worshippping architect Hjalmar Poelzig held up in a Bauhaus-inspired castle built on a graveyard is pure genius. I like Bela as the protagonist Dr. Vitus Werdegast (what a name) who has an all-consuming fear of cats. John Mescall’s photography and Edgar G. Ulmer’s direction elevate this film to the top of my list. Interesting, in Cult Movies 3 (1988) Danny Peary describes The Black Cat as “only a couple whiskers away from the movie loony bin, inhabited by those cuckoo films that we admiringly call the worst films ever made.” The film offers several memorable moments: Karloff and Lugosi play a game of chess for a woman’s life; Karloff rises in bed like an articulate manikin; and Werdegast skins Poelzig alive! My favorite line: “It’s after all better to be frightened than to be crushed.”
  2. The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, Universal. Some folks don’t consider this a horror film. I donno —there’s a monster, his bride (who’s also a monster made up of parts and re-animated from dead tissue), and a loony-tunes mad scientist Dr. Pretorius (played brilliantly by Ernest Thesiger). For my money The Bride of Frankenstein is the finest horror film ever made. It really defies description and improves with repeated showings. Here’s another film lensed with contrast and depth by cinematographer John Mescall. The Bride isn’t just a classic horror film —it’s an all-time great film! My favorite line: “We belong dead!”
  3. The Mummy, 1932, Universal. Jack Pierce’s finest makeup. Karloff was unforgettable not as Imhotep, but as Ardeth Bay. We sometimes forget that the mummified Karloff only appears a few moments in the film! Karloff’s performance still chills me. This is the best Mummy film ever made.
  4. Dracula, 1931, Universal. Lugosi was the definitive Count Dracula. Yes, the film does slow up a bit the second half. I also like the 1931 Spanish version (it’s not in my top 10 because, well —a fat Mexican Dracula is no match for Bela). Stay clear of the Philip Glass scored re-issue. Old is better.
  5. The Most Dangerous Game, 1932, RKO. I’m not including King Kong (1933) on this list because Kong isn’t a horror film. It’s adventure. It’s a jungle film. It’s drama. The Most Dangerous Game is horror, and Leslie Banks as the crazed hunter Zaroff is one of the greatest villains of filmdom.
  6. Island of Lost Souls, 1932, Paramount. Probably the grisliest film of my picks. Karl Struss (collaborator on several DeMille and Chaplin films) provided creepy photography in a jungle setting populated with man-beasts. This film has unbelievable makeup effects. How can you go wrong with Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law? Check out the new Criterion Blu-ray print.
  7. The Mask of Fu Manchu, 1932, MGM. Holy crap 1932 was a good year for horror films. Most people would select MGM’s Mad Love, but I prefer this wacky adaptation of Sax Rohmer’s mega-villain Fu Manchu. Karloff and daughter Myrna Loy ham this one up. I love the nefarious gadgets and devices deployed by the evil doctor.
  8. White Zombie, 1932, RKO-Pathé. Bela Lugosi carries this film as Murder Legendre. This might be the creepiest zombie film ever made. I pull it out ever year or so around Halloween. I like it so much I bought a doll of Legendre.
  9. Murders in the Zoo, 1933, Paramount. Lionel Atwill finds diabolical ways of killing people at the zoo. The opening scene has him sewing a man’s mouth shut!
  10. The Devil-Doll, 1936, MGM. This is one of my favorite Tod Browning films. Lionel Barrymore exploits the secret to human miniaturization and uses the doll-like humans for his own vengeful purposes. Barrymore was terrific as a villain.
  11. The Invisible Man, 1933, Universal.  Ok this is 11 and probably more a kin to sci-fi than horror.  I’m adding it for the horror elements, story, effects and Claude Rains over the top performance.

Well, there’s my 10 [11]. I love Frankenstein and Son of Franky. Also Werewolf of London, Mad Love, and M (I’d consider that horror). Sadly, I still haven’t seen the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. What are your favorites?

One Response to “My Favorite Horror Films: 1931-1939”

  1. good list, added new titles to my watchlist:P

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