Doctor X (1932)

Directed by Michael Curtiz [Other horror films: Alraune (1919), The Mad Genius (1931), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Walking Dead (1936)]

This has long been a movie I’ve found interesting. The story in Doctor X itself isn’t amazingly before it’s time (though references to cannibalism are welcomed), but the fact that the movie’s in color – in 1932 – is very much a stand-out. I don’t think it necessarily needed to be in color – it’s not like it made a big difference in any way – but the film is probably easier to get into for those who shy away from older movies, and I’ve always found it a hoot.

Certainly the film is far from perfect, but I appreciate how the story focuses on a very human killer as opposed to a vampire, a monster made up from dead body parts, or a mummy. We have, like any quality horror movie from the golden years, a plethora of potential suspects, and of course, a wise-cracking newsman out to get a story.

Lee Tracy isn’t a big name in the genre, and as far as I’m aware, this was his only role in a horror film, which is a shame, as he does pretty decent here. Maybe he comes across a bit generically, and many people in the industry would have been able to take on this same role without problem, but Tracy does well nonetheless.

Lionel Atwill is no stranger to the genre, appearing in films such as The Vampire Bat, Murders in the Zoo, Son of Frankenstein, Secret of the Blue Room, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Mark of the Vampire, among others, and does great here as one of the lead scientists. He’s just suspicious enough at times to make for a good suspect, and it’s nice seeing an old hand wear a new (and colored) glove.

Elsewise, we have Fay Wray (King Kong, The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Black Moon), who plays the very attractive daughter of Atwill, and has some rather amusing lines as well, matching Tracy with ease. Preston Foster was the only other one who really stood out, and that’s more due to the fact he looked like a good lead man than anything else.

I always loved the opening atmosphere of Doctor X, taking place on the misty docks next to a morgue with an ambulance coming in. It’s a solid opening, and I think the story is pretty entertaining, especially once they move to the admittedly cliché castle. Still, it’s overall a decent movie.

7.5/10

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.

White Zombie (1932)

White

Directed by Victor Halperin [Supernatural (1933), Revolt of the Zombies (1936), Torture Ship (1939), Buried Alive (1939)]

Often regarded as the first-ever zombie film, I have to admit, I liked this flick more the last few times I saw it as opposed to this last viewing.

Make no mistake, White Zombie is still a classic film – there are some great sets (both the crypt/graveyard and the castle at the end), some solid performances, quite a bit of creepy imagery, and an overall good story. At the same time, despite running for just over an hour (hour and seven minutes, to be exact), I still felt a bit bored at times.

Made a year after the classic Dracula, Bela Lugosi does really well as the antagonist. Related, Robert Frazer also has a solid presence, and his final act really brings his character arc together. John Harron was an interesting lead actor, mainly because he has a smaller physique than I’m used to seeing, but it still worked well. Lastly, playing his wife, Madge Bellamy does well as both a young, enthusiastic woman and as a zombie, so props to her.

Given the movie’s shorter, whenever I felt the plot drag, it was rather disappointing. What probably made it a little worse is the fact that while the visual print I saw was impeccable (very crisp black-and-white, which isn’t at all like the commonly available print of this one), the audio quality suffered a bit, and because of that, it wasn’t uncommon for it to be difficult to pick up some of the dialogue.

Like I said, though, this movie is still a classic. It was never my favorite of the 30’s horror output, but it was always an acceptable film. It still is, though like I said, I liked it more during previous viewings. Definitely worth a watch, my issues notwithstanding, if you’re a fan of classic horror.

6/10

The Monster Walks (1932)

Monster Walks

Directed by Frank R. Strayer [Other horror films: The Vampire Bat (1933), The Ghost Walks (1934), Condemned to Live (1935)]

Maybe I’m an easy guy to please. This film is entirely pedestrian, even for the time period. A dark and stormy night. A reading of a will. An old, creaky house with secret passages, moving picture frames, and a gorilla. A hand reaching out to an unsuspecting victim’s neck. And more than a few red herrings.

I’ve seen this film three or four times, though, and I still absolutely love it.

The movie was made cheaply – it’s pretty obvious. But the creaky atmosphere, mixed with the constant storm and clues and someone trying to figure out what’s going on, it’s all so fun. I don’t know if I can explain it any more than that – I’ve always had a very fun time with this movie.

There’s not a performance here that isn’t decent. It is extraordinarily unfortunate that black actor Willie Best (who, I kid you not, is credited in this movie as Sleep ‘n Eat) was given the role of a cowardly black chauffeur, who is used purely for comedic purposes (as was so common in those racially disgusting days). He does a good job despite the racist role he was given. Martha Mattox (who was also in 1927’s The Cat and the Canary, Murder by the Clock, and a horror-western with John Wayne called Haunted Gold from 1932) was pretty fun here, though her role wasn’t really too far removed from her previous works.

Mischa Auer (who was also in the serial King of the Wild, along with 1931’s The Drums of Jeopardy) was quite threatening in this one, and had a very solid presence. Playing an invalid man, Sheldon Lewis (who was not only in the less popular Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1920, but also Seven Footprints to Satan, a favorite silent horror film of mine) had a decent role, though I sort of wish a bit more was done with him. Rex Lease, our main protagonist, was pretty cookie-cutter, but did a fine enough job as to not warrant any complaints.

In total, this movie clocks in at an hour long, which doesn’t give it much time to play around with. I think, for the budget, they do a good job here making an entertaining and enjoyable movie. I’ve seen this film quite a few times, and I still find myself enjoying it. Maybe that means I’m an easy guy to please, but whatever the cause, I find this a movie that, despite it’s pedestrian nature, fans of 30’s horror would enjoy.

8.5/10

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Island

Directed by Erle C. Kenton [Other horror films: The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), The Cat Creeps (1946)]

This is one of those classics that I enjoy, but don’t absolutely love. I’d say, though, if you’re a fan of 30’s horror, then this is one that you should definitely give a go, as it certainly hovers around average, if not a bit better.

Based off a novel by H.G. Wells, the story here is pretty interesting, and the film has some ominous undertones due to it. The setting, a house in the middle of a jungle, on an uncharted island, was suitably insular, and it had a pretty creepy vibe to it. The ‘natives’ and their restlessness, too, enhanced the film’s tension, boiling over at the end in a fantastic finale.

It’s a great cast all-around. Charles Laughton does amazing as the smooth-talking, suave mad scientist. Absolutely loved his performance here. Richard Arlen was your generic 30’s protagonist, but got along just fine. Leila Hyams (also in the classic Freaks from the same year), Kathleen Burke (also in Murders in the Zoo from 1933), and Arthur Hohl were all good additions also. Lastly, Bela Lugosi, though it’s a bit hard to tell it’s him, does pretty good also, as you can imagine.

This movie is darker than you might expect from the 30’s, and the ending is downright brutal, which only makes it better. That said, I don’t love the movie – it’s a good way to spend some time, and it certainly is a classic of the genre, but there are plenty of other early 30’s horror films I’d rather watch. Still, it’s certainly worth at least one watch, and having seen it twice or three times now, it’s still easy to attain enjoyment from it.

7.5/10