Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). 77 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Lionel Atwill (as Ivan Igor), Fay Wray (as Charlotte Duncan), Glenda Farrell (as Florence Dempsey), Frank McHugh (as Jim), Allen Vincent (as Ralph Burton), Gavin Gordon (as George Winton), Arthur Edmund Carewe (as Professor Darcy), Edwin Maxwell (as Joe Worth), Matthew Betz (as Hugo), and Monica Bannister (as Joan Gale). Art direction by Anton Grot.
Mystery of the Wax Museum is a notable pre-Code horror film about a mad sculptor and his menagerie of ghoulish statues. While less well known today than its contemporaries Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), nevertheless it was a commercial hit in its time and has since made a place for itself in history as one of the best of the two-strip Technicolor movies. This limited but spirited color scheme infuses the wax museum setting with beauty, vivacity, and even a certain amount of sex appeal. True, the kitsch and … Read the rest
Frankenstein (1931). 71 minutes. Directed by James Whale. Starring Colin Clive (as Henry Frankenstein), Mae Clarke (as Elizabeth Lavenza), John Boles (as Victor Moritz), Boris Karloff (as Frankenstein’s monster), Frederick Kerr (as Baron Frankenstein), Dwight Frye (as Fritz), Edward Van Sloan (as Dr. Waldman), Lionel Belmore (as the Burgomaster), Marilyn Harris (as Little Maria), and Michael Mark (as Ludwig). Based on the novel by Mary Shelley and the play adaptation by Peggy Webling. Make-up by Jack Pierce.
Frankenstein is an iconic pre-Code monster movie released by Universal Studios—the film studio that, with the release of Frankenstein, Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), and a slew of other movies, would become the premiere horror workshop of Golden-Age Hollywood. Like many of those early 1930s films, Frankenstein is more than just a scary movie: at times profoundly psychological, it explores complex identity issues, tortured family relationships, and the thin line between order and chaos as it questions what defines us as … Read the rest
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). 98 minutes. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Starring Fredric March (as Dr. Henry Jekyll/Mr. Edward Hyde), Miriam Hopkins (as Ivy Pierson), Rose Hobart (as Muriel Carew), Holmes Herbert (as Dr. Hastie Lanyon), Halliwell Hobbes (as Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carew), Edgar Norton (as Poole), and Tempe Pigott (as Mrs. Hawkins).
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a terrifically creepy movie about a man who splits himself through chemical means into two distinct personalities with horrific results. Actor Frederic March plays both the tepid scientist Dr. Jekyll and his demonic alter ego, Mr. Hyde, who leers, threatens, assaults, and murders his way through the back alleys and palatial drawing rooms of nineteenth-century London. March’s Jekyll transforms into the malicious Hyde through elaborate makeup and camera techniques, but the film offers a great deal more than special effects-related thrills. As a pre-Code film, its content is daring, particularly its dark sexual undertones, which are largely absent from … Read the rest
The Mummy (1932). 73 minutes. Directed by Karl Freund. Starring Boris Karloff (as Ardath Bey/Imhotep), Zita Johann (as Helen Grosvenor/Princess Ankh-es-an-Amon), David Manners (as Frank Whemple), Arthur Byron (as Sir Joseph Whemple), Edward Van Sloan (as Dr. Muller), Bramwell Fletcher (as Ralph Norton), Noble Johnson (as the Nubian), and Leonard Mundie (as Professor Pearson).
The Mummy is one of the classic Universal monster movies, which also include Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Invisible Man (1933). Directed by Karl Freund, who worked as a cinematographer for such silent landmarks as The Last Laugh (1924) and Metropolis (1927), as well as for the Universal Dracula, The Mummy is atmospheric and visually pleasing, even though it is staged using only a limited number of sets. Part of the reason for its success is no doubt owed to actor Boris Karloff, who manages to infuse the titular character with both creepiness and, perhaps unexpectedly, a fair amount of rebel chic. Although Karloff’s … Read the rest
The Devil-Doll (1936). 79 minutes. Directed by Tod Browning. Starring Lionel Barrymore (as Paul Lavond), Maureen O’Sullivan (as Lorraine Lavond), Frank Lauton (as Toto), Rafaela Ottiano (as Malita), Robert Greig (as Emil Coulvet), Lucy Beaumont (as Madame Lavond), Henry B. Walthall (as Marcel), Grace Ford (as Lachna), Pedro de Cordoba (as Charles Matin), Arthur Hohl (as Victor Radin), Juanita Quigley (as Marguerite Coulvet), Claire Du Brey (as Madame Coulvet), and Rollo Lloyd (as Detective Maurice).
The Devil-Doll is a horror movie written and directed by Tod Browning, who brought us Freaks (1932), the controversial pre-Code film that effectively triggered the beginning of the end of his career. Thus one reason to view The Devil-Doll is to see Browning’s penchant for lurid plots in its final throes. In some regards, Freaks and The Devil-Doll share much in common, including depictions of deformity, little people (broadly defined), and a revenge plot: the 1936 movie offers us miniature human killers, hypnotically controlled … Read the rest
Maniac (1934). 51 minutes. Directed by Dwain Esper. Starring Bill Woods (as Don Maxwell), Horace B. Carpenter (as Dr. Meirschultz), Ted Edwards (as Buckley), Phyllis Diller (as Mrs. Buckley), Thea Ramsey (as Alice Maxwell), Jenny Dark (as Maizie), Marvel Andre (as Marvel), Celia McCann (as Jo), and John P. Wade (as embalmer).
Maniac is spectacularly bad—pretentious, gross, offensive, and unbearably confusing. I became aware of it because of Michael Adams’s book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astrozombies, in which he details how he spent a year watching the worst movies ever made. To Adams, Maniac is one of the very worst that he screened and by far the worst film director Dwain Esper ever was involved in, even worse than his Reefer Madness (1936). Compared to Reefer Madness, which is a propaganda film, Maniac is not obviously on a mission to persuade us politically through preposterous means, and accordingly, it actually made my head hurt less. But at … Read the rest
I Walked with a Zombie (1943). 69 minutes. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Starring Frances Dee (as Betsy Connell), Tom Conway (as Paul Holland), James Ellison (as Wesley Rand), Edith Barrett (as Mrs. Rand), James Bell (as Dr. Maxwell), Christine Gordon (as Jessica Holland), Theresa Harris (as Alma), Darby Jones (as Carrefour), and Sir Lancelot (as calypso singer). Produced by Val Lewton.
I Walked with a Zombie has a sensationalistic title, but don’t let that fool you—this is not a 1950s atom bomb movie about flesh-eating ghouls. The story follows a strange woman living on a balmy island who wanders around in a kind of trance, whether due to tropical fever or vengeance or voodoo (or all three). The true nature of her condition is never made entirely clear, and rather than prove to us definitively that the woman is a zombie, the movie instead cultivates a moody atmosphere where much is unsaid, sorrow pervades, and we are left to draw … Read the rest
Nosferatu (1922). 94 minutes. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Starring Max Schreck (as Count Orlok), Gustav von Wangenheim (as Thomas Hutter), Greta Schröder (as Ellen Hutter), Alexander Granach (as Knock), John Gottowt (as Professor Bulwer), and Georg H. Schnell (as Harding). Based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker.
We are fortunate to have F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu in any form at all. The movie is based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), but Murnau never obtained permission from the Stoker estate to film his adaptation. Although the names and places were changed in the film from the original novel (this was done as a precaution), Nosferatu was still essentially Dracula. When Stoker’s widow determined that Murnau had made a film of her husband’s novel without her approval, she sued for breach of copyright in Germany and won. A judge ordered all existing copies of the film destroyed. Fortunately, Nosferatu had already been imported to France, and it is … Read the rest
King Kong (1933). Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Starring Fay Wray (as Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (as Carl Denham), and Bruce Cabot (as Jack Driscoll). Special effects by Willis O’Brien. Musical score by Max Steiner.
King Kong is an adventure film about a director (Carl Denham) who enlists a down-and-out actress (Ann Darrow) to join a crew of men and sail to a mysterious island location, where he plans to make a film. He eventually tells his crew that the people who live on Skull Island, his destination, confine themselves to one part of the island, separated from the remaining territory by a large and ancient wall. It is not immediately clear what lives beyond the wall, but Denham plans to film it. We soon learn that the natives use the wall to enclose a monstrous, eighteen-foot-tall gorilla, whom they call Kong.
Early on in the film, Denham and his crew observe that the ancient forefathers … Read the rest
Cat People (1942). 73 minutes. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Starring Simone Simon (as Irena Dubrovna Reed), Kent Smith (as Oliver Reed), Jane Randolph (as Alice Moore), and Tom Conway (as Dr. Louis Judd). Produced by Val Lewton.
For a B-grade horror movie about a woman who can transform into an animal, Cat People is a surprisingly sensitive and human story. This film achieves much more than we would expect from a typical B picture. In fact, it offers a mixture of subtlety, sophistication, and inventiveness that would be difficult for any movie to achieve. All throughout we hear the mysterious, part-feline protagonist Irena Dubrovna Reed articulate her loneliness, her need for warmth, and her fear that something evil resides within her. As she puzzles over her true nature, we watch her marriage to her newlywed husband Oliver deteriorate and see how its demise fuels her longing and isolation. It would appear that her relationship with Oliver is the only substantial … Read the rest