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.

categories Cinematical