The Black Cat (1934)

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer [Other horror films: Bluebeard (1944), The Man from Planet X (1951), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)]

This is another of those classics of the genre that I wished I liked more. Having seen The Black Cat twice now, while I admit the film has solid tension, along with a good atmosphere, and even better potential, I’ve felt lukewarm toward this both times the credits have started rolling.

What is it about this movie that causes that?

A somewhat big reason is the Satanic aspect which pops up out of nowhere with about 15 minutes left in the movie. I don’t really think the addition was at all necessary, nor did it add that much in any sense (aside from explain why Boris Karloff was adamant on refusing the couple their leave). The Satanic cult also don’t do anything, and the whole plot just seemed shoehorned in there at the end, which I’ve found disappointing both times I’ve seen this.

Of course, the presence of both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi can’t be denied, and they really work well off each other here. Both possess a deep intensity, and their conversations, though they never devolve into shouting, certainly are tense and rather filled with hatred. Personally, I was on Lugosi’s side throughout the film (his backstory is definitely more sympathetic), and the dark ending was very solid.

David Manners (Dracula, The Mummy, and Mystery of Edwin Drood being the rest of his horror output) and Julie Bishop (also in Torture Ship) composed themselves well here, but when you’re in a movie that co-stars both Lugosi and Karloff, you don’t really have much of a chance to stand out. I did enjoy Manners’ heroics, but I can’t truthfully say either of these two really struck me as that memorable. Great honeymoon, though.

Had the movie left out the Satanic aspect and just focused on the tension and atmosphere already present in the relationship between Lugosi and Karloff’s characters, I think I would have liked this movie quite a bit more. I just can’t help but feel that conclusion could have been tightened up. The torture scene was fantastic (though obviously not much was shown, it maintained a certain brutality), and I just wish the rest of the finale had the same effect.

6.5/10

Freaks (1932)

Directed by Tod Browning [Other horror films: The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), Dracula (1931), Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Devil-Doll (1936)]

This film may have a long and sometimes uncomfortable set-up, but I think the ending more than makes up for it, and allows it the status of a deserving classic that is has.

Focusing on a failed love between a dwarf and an acrobat, Freaks takes it’s sweet time setting the finale up, which might bother some fans of the genre. Watching a black-and-white love story featuring carnival sideshow attractions might not be everyone’s idea of a fun time.

Still, the fact the film used real performers in their roles really adds a little something special to Freaks. Obviously, some of the people here just look naturally unsettling (through no fault of their own, to be sure), and I can imagine that audiences in the 1930’s could easily be turned away by this (and I’ve also heard that the ‘deformed’ cast members ate separately from the ‘normal’ cast members during the filming of this, which is pretty damn awful).

The ‘freaks,’ though, aren’t the enemies here, despite what some might at first believe. Their actions toward the end of the film aren’t necessarily great, but really, who could blame them? Their revenge here is fantastic, and leads to possibly one of the most shocking scenes in a 1930’s horror film.

A few names warrant a mention here. Wallace Ford (a somewhat well-known name who was in other, mostly low-budget, horror films from the period) did pretty well playing the clown, and seemed to possess the most feeling. Angelo Rossitto was also fantastic, especially during the intimidation sequence. Also, playing the main dwarf, Harry Earles put a lot of emotion into this one, and he certainly stood out. Others very much worth mentioning are Johnny Eck (the guy with no legs, who walked on his hands), Henry Victor (Hercules), and Leila Hyams (Venus, also of Island of Lost Souls).

Freaks isn’t a long movie, being just over an hour long, and I was never bored despite the bulk of the movie being a romantic drama. Truth be told, though I’ve seen this once or twice before, it’s never really been a favorite, but seeing it again did hit the right spot, and I can certainly imagine this shocking the audiences of the time.

8/10

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Directed by Irving Pichel [Other horror films: N/A] & Ernest B. Schoedsack [Other horror films: The Monkey’s Paw (1933), King Kong (1933), Dr. Cyclops (1940)]

This is one of those classics that I don’t often think about, but after seeing it again, I think it’ll go up in my rankings of 30’s classics.

Based off a short story of the same name written by Richard Connell, the simple story (a hunter becomes the hunted upon arriving on an island following a shipwreck) here contains a hell of a lot of suspense, and that, mixed with some pretty memorable characters, makes this a movie to be aware of.

Though Joel McCrea no doubt does a solid job as the protagonist, it’s Leslie Banks as Zaroff who really steals the show. He feels very much like the madman that he probably is, and while he’s not quite as memorable as Charles Laughton from Island of Lost Souls, he’s still very much the fun character here. For comedic relief, we have Robert Armstrong, who plays a somewhat hilarious drunkard here. Fay Wray is great too, as McCrea’s romantic interest. For her part, she knows a bit more about Banks’ character than McCrea does, so she’s pretty useful also.

The idea of hunting humans (calling them ‘the most dangerous game’) isn’t really something that would bat an eye nowadays, but it was done really well back then, and the hunt through the jungle-like environment, especially near that boggy, misty area, was thrilling from beginning to end.

In the early 1930’s, there are so many classic horror movies that The Most Dangerous Game can easily get overlooked, and like I said, despite having seen and enjoyed it before, I too sort of forgot about it. It’s a good movie, though, and definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of the classics.

8.5/10

Vampyr (1932)

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer [Other horror films: Prästänkan (1920)]

Sometimes called a German classic, Vampyr is a rather interesting film with unique stylistic choices. I don’t think any of it makes the film particularly good, despite the strong, often eerie, atmosphere, however.

The main issue with this film is that it’s rather incomprehensible at times. It’s experimental and dreamy, but despite the somewhat simple plot, not really coherent, so while you get some memorable sequences and rather interesting cinematography (especially regarding shadows), it’s possible that such design will fall flat if the style of the film doesn’t much enamor you.

One somewhat fun thing about the film is the sparse dialogue. The film was filmed much like it would have been during the silent era, and there are even plenty of title screens present, so the film really feels older than 1932. The dialogue they do have is generally inconsequential, and I don’t think it really helps make the story clearer.

Unfortunately, that’s my biggest problem with the film. Vampyr often feels incoherent, and while the skeleton outline of a story is there, it definitely isn’t explained well. Some may argue this helps induce a dreamy atmosphere, and it partially does, but when there’s atmosphere at the expense of story, I sometimes have problems.

As such, I can think of so many more classic horror films from the 1930’s that I’d rather watch again than this one. In fact, I might have liked this one more the first time I saw it, because it really didn’t gel with me upon my most-recent viewing. Vampyr has it’s fans, and it probably should, but I will admit to not being one of them, and despite some decent scenes and a solid aura, I don’t come close to loving the film.

5/10

This is one of the films covered on Fight Evil’s podcast – listen below as Chucky (@ChuckyFE) and I discuss this film.

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Directed by Tod Browning [Other horror films: The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), Mark of the Vampire (1935)]

While occasionally more fanciful than I’d have preferred, The Devil-Doll is a great film with an intriguing story, solid cast, and overall a lot of fun.

As the lead, Lionel Barrymore is great as a man who would go any lengths to clear his name of a crime he was framed and locked up for. At first, Barrymore seems simply vengeful, but as the movie carries on, you can still see he cares deeply for the well-being of his family, so much so he does all he can to see his daughter taken care of, despite the fact he can’t be there for her. His performance here is not only fantastic, but also casts a very sympathetic light onto a man who much wrong was done to.

Others who stand out include Rafaela Ottiano, who does great as a rather unbalanced, mad woman, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton (especially his scene at the end), and Henry B. Walthall, who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of screen-time (this was his second-to-last film, and he died the same year this was released), it’s worth noting he starred in one of the first full-length American horror films, The Avenging Conscience: Or, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ back in 1914, so it’s great to see that he could be in another solid film for the genre before his early death at 58.

The story here is really solid, and like I said, you really feel a lot of sympathy for the main character, despite his somewhat murderous actions against those who framed him. Miniaturization was done very well here, and though sometimes the special effects don’t look great, I think a very good attempt for the time period was pulled off. Also, I really enjoyed the investigation side of the story, and the fact that few characters really cooperated with the police warmed my heart. Nothing warmed my heart more, though, than the ending, which was surprisingly rather emotional for a movie like this. O’Sullivan and Barrymore did great in that scene, and Lawton’s presence didn’t at all hurt.

I liked the creative murders and attacks in the film. Many of them had a creepy vibe, and some of them were even somewhat disturbing for the age that this film came out. Obviously, if you can’t get over what seems to be the ludicrous idea of shrinking people and using them as assassins, then many of the attacks may not do much for you, but I thought it was done in a rather solid manner.

The Devil-Doll is a great movie, and not just due to the rather terrific horror sequences (I loved the suspense during the final banker’s seemingly last minutes), but due to the emotion this film can, at times, illicit. It’s not quite my favorite film of the 1930’s, but it is a very strong film that is well-worth seeing at least once, especially for fans of classic horror.

8/10

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Directed by Tod Browning [Other horror films: The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), The Devil-Doll (1936)]

Having seen this twice now, I wish that I could like it more. The problem is, though, that the finale seems to come out of nowhere, and there’s a certain incoherence when it comes to the ending of the film. Many comment that it seems some scenes where removed, and it’s easy to see why.

Ignoring that for now, the rest of the movie is decent. The atmosphere is solid, what with a decrepit mansion (it doesn’t look too dissimilar from the mansion in Dracula, from four years earlier), some mystery, a village afraid of vampires, and all that stuff.

The cast is solid, but generally unmemorable. You have big names such as Lionel Barrymore (1926’s The Bells and 1936’s The Devil-Doll), Bela Lugosi (Dracula, The Black Cat, and many others), Lionell Atwill (Doctor X, The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Secret of the Blue Room, and others), and a few unknown names who did decent also, such as Elizabeth Allan, Henry Wadsworth, and Carroll Borland.

Problematically, because of the mess of the plot, I don’t really think many of these actors really get to shine. Lugosi, of course, is good, but while I appreciated Atwill and Barrymore, neither really blew me away.

Apparently this film was originally an hour and 15 minutes, but 15 minutes were cut, which was, from my understanding, mostly comedic additions. If, instead of an hour, this had been 75 minutes (with the additional 15 minutes being plot-orientated, finale information), Mark of the Vampire wouldn’t feel as disjointed as it sometimes does. Make no mistake, this isn’t as bad as Vampyr, but most definitely this could benefit from some explanation, given how the ending, again, seems to come out of nowhere, and felt utterly convoluted.

A final note, this is generally considered a talkie remake of the unfortunately-lost London After Midnight from 1927. That film, too, had something of a surprise ending, but I suspect it was probably laid out better than it was here. There was a reconstruction using still photographs by TCM, released in 2002, so in some form, the original story is out there.

As for Mark of the Vampire, I appreciate some of what it was going for, but otherwise, having seen it twice, I find it underwhelming.

6/10

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Directed by William Dieterle [Other horror films: 6 Hours to Live (1932)]

Whether this one is horror is someone’s personal decision. I think there’s a decent amount of dark sequences and the like to throw this in, allowing that it’s included with the caveat that it’s primarily a drama.

And what a damn good drama it is. The story is overly engaging (I’ve not actually read the original novel, but I do own it, so perhaps that’s something I’ll endeavor to do within the next fifteen years), and it gets somewhat involved toward the end (both groups at the church, the Beggars and the Craftsmen, basically wanted the same thing, yet utilized different methods), and the characters here are really complex, especially for a time that many might consider more simple in terms of plot.

Obviously, without a doubt, Charles Laughton’s performance as Quasimodo is the stand-out here, and it’s an emotional roller-coaster of a flick, watching Quasimodo get whipped for reasons beyond his comprehension, to see him save another in a most heroic fashion, only to end with a great line, ‘Oh why could I not be made of stone as thee,’ when speaking to a gargoyle. Laughton is no stranger to horror films, appearing in classics such as The Old Dark House, Island of Lost Souls, and The Strange Door (1951), and his dramatic performance here is just amazing.

There’s a lot of great actors and actresses here aside from Laughton, though. Cedric Hardwicke was amazing as the rather devious and horrid Frollo. Blaming and allowing another person to be tortured because he’s too weak to admit his culpability in a crime, Hardwicke definitely was a worthy antagonist in the film. Playing King Louis XI, Harry Davenport played his character with such ambiguity. At times, he was a progressive, forward-thinking monarch, at others, latching onto archaic, meaningless tradition (that courtroom sequence killed me a little).

I can’t say much about Maureen O’Hara, but she did a great job too. Her character was appropriately sympathetic, and during the latter half of the film, your heart really goes out to her. Admittedly, I didn’t love Edmond O’Brien here, as his character was a bit too flighty for me, but he did make some strong points toward the conclusion of the film. Lastly, both Thomas Mitchell and Walter Hampden were both greatly enjoyable, and Hampden in particular was a character worth remembering.

Near the end of the film, there’s a somewhat large battle that breaks out, culminating in the Hunchback not only tossing heavy rocks and large pillars from atop the cathedral, but also dumping quite a bit of molten metal onto the crowd below. I’ve seen this film before, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure I audibly gasped during that act, as I forgot just how brutal the Hunchback was during that sequence (and unnecessarily so, if you realize that pretty much everyone’s on the same side). There were scenes earlier of the Hunchback being whipped (him crying out for water, only to be ignored and jeered at, was exceedingly haunting), and some brief torture of O’Hara’s character. All of this, along with a sequence reminiscence of Freaks, in which beggars pop out of nowhere in a dark and seemingly-deserted alleyway, all lead me to understand the horror label some people throw onto this one.

9/10

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian [Other horror films: N/A]

It has been quite some time since I’ve last seen this, at least ten years, so seeing it again was a bit of a treat. I’ve never been overly fond of the base story, but I certainly think this is a well-done film and, while not my favorite early 30’s horror flick whatsoever, stands out rather nicely.

The amount of melodrama in this movie is rather high, but much of it is actually both compelling and somewhat tragic. The utter struggle that Jekyll has to deal with due to an strung out engagement with Muriel (due to her father’s traditional ways) is shown well whenever both Fredric March and Rose Hobart share a scene. While the horror was quite decent, it’s this very tragic feel (coupled with a somber conclusion) that allow the film to stand out more.

That isn’t to say the cast doesn’t help, though. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s cast all do a commendable job, with Fredric March and, of course, Rose Hobart taking the top spot. The two worked fantastically together, and I definitely felt the sorrow both of them dealt with in due to their constantly postponed marriage. Related, Halliwell Hobbes did good as Hobart’s father, though his character was, to me, rather unlikable. Mariam Hopkins was fantastic in her role, and arguably more memorable than Hobart. Lastly, while his role was minor (the manservant to Dr. Jekyll), I really enjoyed Edgar Norton, who brought surprising emotion to the film.

For a movie from this time period, Mr. Hyde was a well-done, despicable character. Not only does he whip Miriam Hopkins’ character (while the action itself isn’t shown, it’s alluded to), but therein lies also heavy hints of rape and other sexual abuse. Due to his violent and cruel nature, Mr. Hyde definitely stands out as a great counterpart to the rather focused, yet kind-hearted, Dr. Jekyll. I also rather enjoyed his increased agility (especially toward the end – him jumping all over the place and attacking police officers was rather fun), all of which combines to make him a memorably dark, yet occasionally fun, antagonist.

Like I said, I’ve never been a big fan of the story (in part, the idea that science should limit itself to traditional modes of study strikes me as oxymoronic), but this is a good adaptation of a story I’m not overly fond of. The drama and performances come together to create a compelling and pretty captivating movie that I think any fan of classic horror would tend to enjoy.

8/10

The Face at the Window (1939)

Face at the Window

Directed by George King [Other horror films: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936), The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936), Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938), Crimes at the Dark House (1940)]

While certainly not a well-known classic of the genre, The Face at the Window is a rather enjoyable romp from a time when there weren’t many releases in the genre, allowing it to stand out all the more.

The story here is more engaging than the usual old dark house movie (though make no mistake, I love those also), what with a serial killer known as the Wolf murdering people around Paris. After a bank robbery, things get even more involved, and everything ties in nicely at the end, which may not be surprising, given the time this came out.

For a lower-budget movie, The Face at the Window boasts a strong cast. Tod Slaughter (who starred in, among other things, the 1936 adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and 1948’s The Greed of William Hart) does pretty damn well here, with his over-the-top, hammy performance. He was masterful in every scene, and really stood out above all others. John Warwick (who never really appeared in a horror film before or after) did great as the main character, appropriately sympathetic and a solid individual to root for.

Marjorie Taylor was solid, too, in her role, though, as one can guess from the time period, she wasn’t given a whole lot to really do. Robert Adair (who appeared in classics such as The Invisible Man and 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, uncredited in both) was good as the police chief, and really helped bring things together during the conclusion.

And what a fun conclusion it is. The ham-fisted way they threw in the mystery behind *cue dramatic voice * the Wolf was no doubt ridiculous, but was it fun? Very much so. And the laughable experiment with electricity, in which a dead body would incriminate his murderer, along with a twist, was rather enjoyable also.

The Face at the Window isn’t aiming to be in the leagues of such classics as Frankenstein, Doctor X, or Mystery of the Wax Museum, but for a cheap addition of late 30’s horror (one of the driest periods of the genre), I think this one is both deeply amusing and pretty fun. I love the whole terrifying face appearing at the window, followed by one getting stabbed in the back. Quality beginning. This movie, in my view, had style, and Slaughter’s performance was fantastic.

8/10

The Terror (1938)

The Terror

Directed by Richard Bird [Other horror films: N/A]

This British adaptation of an Edgar Wallace play has many of the elements you would hope from an old dark house mystery, but falls just a bit flat due to some comprehension issues.

The story starts out more a crime movie than many other examples of the subgenre, what with a clever robbery of a rather large shipment of gold. Before long, though, we meet a large cast of characters, each one somewhat suspicious, including a drunkard who seems to have quite an interest in the grounds of an inn, a butler who seems to know far more than he says, and a parson who definitely doesn’t seem what he is, along with others.

It’s a good story with multiple red herrings and an enjoyable mystery, while also throwing in some delightful wit (much of it rather amusing) and characters that are rather memorable, such as Bernard Lee’s inept drunkard.

In fact, Bernard Lee, while being far from the main star, was probably my favorite performance of the bunch. Linden Travers did pretty good, but much of the time fell into the generic ‘hysterical woman’ that these movies always seemed to rely on. Wilfred Lawson didn’t make much an of impression until the end, and Arthur Wontner never really does. Iris Hoey’s character was pretty funny at times, but is representative of my main issue with the film.

Beforehand, I want to state that I know this may not be a necessarily fair criticism, but it was still a prevalent issue. Being a British movie of not the highest quality, some of the dialogue was hard to follow, especially from Hoey’s character, who had a rather rapid-fire delivery. I caught most of what Lee’s character said, slurred as it almost always was, but some character’s accents, mixed with the audio present, led to more than a few incomprehensible lines of dialogue. I still caught most of the story, but I know I missed some amusing quips, and even once, a whole conversation went over my head.

It didn’t help any that this movie had a rather staged feel, partially, I suspect, because it’s based off a play. A lot of conversations with different characters lead to increased opportunities of missed snatches of conversation, which happened multiple times. It’s not the fault of the movie, but it still impacted how I felt about it toward the end.

Otherwise, this is a delightful little film. I liked the ghostly monk, and his ghoulish chuckles, though he should have appeared more. The creepy organ music of mysterious origin was fun, and there were some desolate ruins too that played a part. Generally-speaking, the setting was pretty solid, as were the characters. It’s just the language barrier, as it was, that presented a problem.

I first saw this film some years back, though I don’t remember much about how much I enjoyed it. It probably came across as a somewhat generic old dark house mystery, which I guess it sort of is. Still, re-watching it certainly increased my appreciation of it, and were it not for the problem I had with it, I think it’d be getting a higher rating easily.

There was an American version of this play made in 1928, but unfortunately, it’s lost. It was apparently one of the earliest horror talkies, which makes it all the more a shame that it can no longer be seen. Elements of the film were then used in Return of the Terror, which came out in 1934. While this film does survive, it can only been seen from the Library of Congress, and as such, hasn’t had many words said about it.

As for the 1938 version, though, it certainly has it’s charm, much of it coming from the wit throughout, and if you’re a bit better at catching some fast-moving dialogue, you’ll probably get a bit more from the movie out of me. Still, by no means a bad movie, The Terror is an enjoyable late 30’s mystery/horror hybrid during a time when horror films were rather hard to come by.

6.5/10