Dracula (1931)

Directed by Tod Browning [Other horror films: The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), Freaks (1932), Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Devil-Doll (1936)] & Karl Freund [Other horror films: The Mummy (1932), Mad Love (1935)]

So this is one of those movies that I grew up with. My parents owned this on VHS, and I saw it multiple times as a child. Watching it nowadays, it doesn’t really stand out as being an absolute classic as far as the story goes, but I can’t get past just how much I enjoy Bela Lugosi in his role.

Obviously, whether you think the film is overrated or not (and in recent years, it seems that people are veering that way – the review of this film in my copy of Horror!: 333 Films to Scare You to Death is absolutely scathing), the opening is pure greatness. A scared village, an eager young man ignoring warnings being fired at him. That carriage ride. That bat. That music they make. That Dracula.

The opening is just fantastic. As Dracula, Bela Lugosi really gave a fantastic performance which, while certainly corny in some aspects, leads to some great lines (among them, “Listen to them – children of the night. What music they make” and the simpler yet still effective “Come here,” with that fun hand configuration). Nowadays I find Frankenstein a better film, but Lugosi is charming and entertaining in ways that no one in Frankenstein can compete with.

Playing Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan (who also had roles in both Frankenstein and The Mummy) was pretty good, and a solid antagonist for Dracula. Loved his mirror trick (and it was unnecessary too, as by that moment, Dracula didn’t know that Helsing knew, so Helsing lost out on surprising him), and how Dracula just slapped it out of his hands. Sloan was confident throughout and a pleasure to watch.

Otherwise, the best performance goes to Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, The Vampire Bat, and Bride of Frankenstein), who played a crazy guy with endless mirth. He also is rather quotable (though in what situations, I shudder to think), and gives an all-around fun performance. The other central performances, such as David Manners (The Mummy, The Black Cat, and Mystery of Edwin Drood), Herbert Bunston, and Helen Chandler (who had a somewhat weak character, and a pretty sad life post-Dracula) were all reasonable, but without Lugosi here, I doubt any of them would be remembered.

With quality settings (such as the final basement with the coffins spread around, or the initial castle in Hungary), quality music (I’m a fan of Philip Glass’ score), and some really memorable scenes, Dracula is a good late-night movie. It’s not amazing, it’s really not. It is good entertainment, though, and I adore it for that.

7.5/10

Svengali (1931)

Directed by Archie Mayo [Other horror films: N/A]

I don’t necessarily think that this is a great film, and were it not for John Barrymore’s great performance as the titular Svengali, I doubt I’d rate this as well as I’ll end up rating it.

By no means a bad film, the problem is too little happens for quite a lengthy period at the beginning. Sure, we get a solid sequence near the beginning when Svengali, with his powers of hypnotism, causes a woman to commit suicide, but afterward, we get a lot of build-up (with a few creepy scenes, but not enough) and not enough action, which was problematic.

Luckily John Barrymore (of the more popular Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1920, along with a similar role in 1931’s The Mad Genius) puts in a great performance as Svengali. The beautiful Marian Marsh (who was also in The Mad Genius, along with 1935’s The Black Room) was solid too, though didn’t have much character due to her being hypnotized throughout a large portion of the film. I’ll admit I found Bramwell Fletcher (1932’s The Mummy) underwhelming, but I loved both Lumsden Hare and Donald Crisp (who I literally just saw in The Uninvited and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

The ending is decent, and surprisingly tragic for some involved, but it’s an 80 minute movie with pretty much only Barrymore to support it (I loved Hare and Crisps’ characters, but they didn’t have enough to do with the conclusion to greatly help matters), and for early 30’s horror, there are better movies out there.

6.5/10

The Mad Genius (1931)

Directed by Michael Curtiz [Other horror films: Alraune (1919), Doctor X (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Walking Dead (1936)]

Very much a light addition to the horror genre, The Mad Genius is a decent romantic drama with a few splashes of horror thrown in toward the conclusion. As a whole, I don’t think the movie’s great, and nowhere near an undiscovered classic, but it’s okay, just arguably unmemorable.

The story here is okay, though, what with a crippled individual (John Barrymore of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Svengali) trying to vicariously live through a nimble protégé (Donald Cook), forcing the young man into a life of dancing, and when he’s distracted by love (in the form of Marian Marsh, who also appeared in Svengali, along with The Black Room), he stops at nothing to keep his control over the young man.

As such, John Barrymore does really well as a controlling, somewhat egotistical, individual. Donald Cook and Marian Marsh make a decently cute couple, and manage to hang on to each other through much of their hardships, but I couldn’t help but feel that, during these two’s scenes, the movie was drifting dangerously close to a romantic drama of sorts, and problematically (at least to a fan of horror, primarily), that’s a feeling felt throughout the film.

The conclusion here is certainly good, but I don’t know that it’s entirely worth watching the first hour of the movie for. Really, this works better as a drama than it does a horror, and though the elements are there come the ending of the film, I don’t think The Mad Genius can compete with most other horror films from the 1930’s, and ultimately, while the movie’s okay, it’s not much more.

6/10

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

Murder by the Clock (1931)

Murder by the Clock

Directed by Edward Sloman [Other horror films: N/A]

I have to admit, while this early 30’s flick is still pretty good, and a much overlooked classic, I didn’t quite love it as much as did when I first saw it.

The atmosphere of the film is great, and what with a graveyard, a mausoleum, and a pretty decent old house, there was a rather Gothic feel about this whole affair. Plot-wise, I think it was pretty fun too, with a young woman turning men into killers by just her wiles and intellect. It’s fun, really, seeing her trying and consistently being able to outsmart the police, and funner still to see her plans in action.

As you can imagine, a lot of this movie is driven by the characters. First-and-foremost, Lilyan Tashman (who died just three years after this movie at the age of 37 from cancer) did amazing as the villainess, and you couldn’t help but hate her character upon seeing her trying to emotionally manipulate four different men into doing what she willed. It was an impressive and somewhat captivating performance. William ‘Stage’ Boyd (who, oddly enough, died just four years after this film at 45) did decent as the main protagonist, though I don’t think we really saw enough of him to make that much a positive impact. Another individual who didn’t get a bunch of screen-time was Blanche Friderici (who died just two years after this film; Murder by the Clock seems more like Murder by This Movie), but I immensely enjoyed her as a miserly old woman. Lastly, Walter McGrail (who, gasp, lived until the year 1970) played a convincing mentally-challenged man, and was consistently solid throughout.

As fun as both the cast and story are, though, and even though the movie is just around 72 minutes long, I couldn’t help but feel that it was dragging a bit in the middle. We got some great sequences at the end, but building up to them was a longer process than I remembered it being. Murder by the Clock is still a good movie, and an overlooked highlight of the early 30’s, but it’s not amazing. Still, it may be worth a watch if 30’s horror is your cup of tea.

7.5/10

King of the Wild (1931)

King of the Wild
Poster for Chapter 8 of this 12-part serial

Directed by Richard Thorpe [Other horror movies: Murder at Dawn (1932)]

Prior to touching upon my thoughts on this serial, I first wish to discuss why I included it on this site.

As those who spend a lot of time on IMDb know, there are many films that are listed as ‘horror’ half the time, the other times not. Jaws goes back-and-forth as if it’s a feature of the film. And plenty of movies that should be listed as part of the horror genre aren’t (Stripped to Kill from 1987 wasn’t listed as horror when I first saw it, but is now).

My point being that ‘horror’ is a very malleable genre. The 1918 German film Die Augen der Mumie Ma has been called a horror film so often that, despite it’s more thriller-feel, I think it’ll forever be branded horror (and more so, forever disappoint those expecting horror). Right now, one of the three main genres for King of the Wild is horror on IMDb, so even though horror makes up maybe ten percent of the serial, I still feel it’s worth talking about, and touching upon what horror aspects there were.

With that out of the way, let’s get the obvious done with first – because this is a serial (12 episodes, totaling about three hours and 47 minutes), and because this is a pretty low-quality serial, this does feel as though it drags and drags, pulling out new cliffhangers at the end of each episode to easily be overcome at the beginning of the next one, repeat and repeat. I liked much of it, but boy, did it drag.

There’s a bunch of moving pieces in this serial, which, if you’ve ever seen a serial, you would probably expect. Only a few really stand out, though, including the main character, played by Walter Miller, and a villainous Arab played by *get ready* Boris Karloff. Karloff playing a stereotypical Arab character throughout this serial was something of a treat. It felt utterly ridiculous at times. The other main antagonist, played by Tom Santschi, was a bit more believable. Everyone else did moderately fine, but no one really stood out, aside from maybe Nora Lane, who played Miller’s love interest.

Most of the horror, or what people back then may have seen as horror, comes from Bimi, an ape man controlled by Santschi’s character. He’s powerful, prone to violence, and attacked multiple characters on the orders of his master, and a few episodes ended with his hairy hands reaching down to strangle an unsuspecting member of the cast (in typical 30’s horror fashion). There were some pretty threatening scenes with him, so I’m not too bothered by the inclusion. Though far more adventure in feel, leopards consistently jumping out at characters too was a legitimate worry throughout the serial.

And that’s mainly what this serial is, to be sure – adventure. I’ve never seen anything fit that genre more appropriately than this in my life. You get multiple locations, altercations with savage African tribes, not to mention criminal Arabs (this serial had the racial sensitivities of The Birth of a Nation), leopard attacks, sinking steamers, jungle action, some lava, and a mysterious diamond mine. Action, too, as the ape man and animals were rather fierce, along with constant brawling between characters, and more than a few deaths by gunshot.

There were some fun sequences throughout, such as escaped leopards prowling a ship at sea, causing it to sink, and a great scene with a skeleton and a burning sword, but let’s be real – in total, this serial runs for three hours and 47 minutes. No amount of fun sequences or likable characters can make up for that, especially when it’s primarily an action and adventure serial with horror on the back-burner.

The most widely available version of this serial is beat up. The audio quality isn’t great, nor, for that matter, is the picture quality, and it definitely feels like it’s on the lower end of productions, even for the time. If you know what you’re getting into, though, I think, for the most part, those aspects can be overlooked.

King of the Wild can be an enjoyable ride, but it’s a long and tedious one, and some of the characters don’t quite get the viscous ending you may hope for. I’ve seen this whole thing twice now, and while I still found it an okay experience, unless I’m watching this with a group of friends, it’s probably nothing I’d sit through for a third time.

5.5/10