Filmmakers dabbled in horror during the silent era, but it wasn't until the 1930s that studios realized how much money was waiting to be made in the genre. The short period between 1931 and 1934 heralded a mini-horror renaissance, highlighted by several potent new stars (Karloff, Lugosi, etc.) and by extraordinary black-and-white cinematography and set design. Two things happened to eventually kill it. Will Hays came in and began regulating morals in Hollywood movies, no longer allowing the more intense factors that made horror films interesting. And producers got greedy and began repeating successful formulas, cranking out increasingly anemic sequels to the dark originals. To be fair, I decided to choose only one film each from the era's two masters, Tod Browning and James Whale, otherwise they could have engulfed the entire list. I regret not being able to include anything by the great cinematographer-turned-director Karl Freund, whose The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935) are key works of the era. I also regret the exclusion of two underrated Bela Lugosi works, White Zombie and Island of Lost Souls (both 1932). That said, let the old-timey scares begin.

1. Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Oddly, the best and spookiest film of this era came not from Hollywood, but from a Danish filmmaker working in Germany. Baron Nicholas De Gunzburg helped finance the film and plays the lead role (appearing under the name "Julian West"). A traveler arrives at a quaint chateau and checks in, only to find himself in a world of nightmarish occurrences. The plot has something to do with a vampire preying on women, but the main thrust of the film is its quiet, eerie effects, such as a shadow moving of its own accord, or a man unexpectedly appearing in a corner of a room. It's one of the best films ever to capture a dreamlike state, and indeed it's so intangible and elusive that you might remember things you didn't actually see.

2. The Old Dark House (1932, James Whale)
This is the least known of Whale's four masterful Universal horror films -- the other three are Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) -- but it's my favorite. Whale had a unique sense of humor combining the ghoulish with camp, and this collection of disparate characters forced to spend the night in a creepy house during a storm allowed him to use the full range of his skills; it moves from great quotable dialogue ("have a potato") to moments that are chillingly off-balance. The cast is superb: Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stewart (later in Titanic), Ernest Thesiger, Lilian Bond and Raymond Massey, but Boris Karloff stole the spotlight from them all. As the twisted, mute butler, he impressed everyone as a master of makeup and transformation.

3. The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer)
Director Edgar G. Ulmer had been a set designer in Germany and he brought a taste of Expressionism to this utterly bizarre film, the first official teaming of superstars Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Following an accident, a young, honeymooning couple and their traveling companion Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) are forced to spend the night in the house of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). Poelzig has some strange things going on in the lower levels of his house, and his old rival Werdegast has come to exact revenge. This amazing, surprising movie gets away with some pretty vicious stuff.

4. Freaks (1932, Tod Browning)
Purists would probably insist that Tod Browning was at his peak in the silent era, working with Lon Chaney on several films. But he's best known for his work in the 1930s, starting with his moody Dracula (1931) and finishing up with his amusing Mark of the Vampire (1935) and his twisted, quasi-comic The Devil-Doll (1936). Freaks, however, is probably his most sustained and accomplished work. After moving past its bizarre setting and characters, the movie is basically a simple tale of romance, betrayal and revenge. Few other filmmakers have been so comfortable dabbling in the macabre; Browning is not so interested in shocking the audience as he is in indulging his own curiosity.

5. The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932, Charles Brabin, with uncredited assistance from Charles Vidor)
This one is almost an accident, coming from a practically random assortment of writers and filmmakers at MGM, which was baffled by the success of the horror genre and had no idea how to compete. Boris Karloff stars as the infamous villain Fu Manchu (or his reincarnation?) who kidnaps and tortures archeologists searching for Genghis Khan's tomb. The movie consists of crazy dialogue, odd torture devices and other off-key and off-color moments. Last year Warner Home Video released the restored version on DVD, with even more bizarre stuff. Myrna Loy co-stars as Fu's sexy daughter.

6. King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)
Everyone knows this movie, and it just gets better and better (not so much with the remakes). Even though the monster animation is primitive, I'm always impressed by the realistic quality of the movement. But my favorite thing about it is the way it builds wonderful, terrible anticipation during its first half hour as the ship approaches Skull Island. In one of the best scenes, the filmmaker character (Robert Armstrong) films Fay Wray acting scared... but of just what no one knows.

7. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, Rouben Mamoulian)
Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella has been filmed many, many times, once even by Jean Renoir (without credit, as Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier), and many versions get too heavily into the spiritual, moral and psychological connotations of the tale (i.e. too much talk, not enough mangling). This is arguably the best version -- or at least the most intense. Frederic March won an Oscar for his portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde, and his astonishing onscreen transformations are still spookily effective. The wonderful comic actress Miriam Hopkins co-stars as the dodgy saloon temptress.

categories Cinematical