Horror Retrospective: 1934 (Editorial)

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THE YEAR: 1934

The previous editorials (years 1931-1933) all contained movies that have come to be considered “Pre-Code.” The “Code” in “Pre-Code” is none other than the maligned Motion Picture Production Code, or, as it’s popularly known, the Hays Code. The Hays Code lasted from 1934 until the late-1960s, when it became the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) which we know and love today. What was the point of the Hays Code? As with so many other forms of censorship, it was meant to save you, gentle viewer, from that irresponsible individual known as yourself. You cannot possibly make a mature decision about what explicit content you deem acceptable, so the censors conveniently do it for you – how nice! That’s not to say the films on this (and future) lists aren’t worthy of your time. In a way, writers and directors had to get more creative and resort to something that is sadly lacking in many modern horror films: the power of suggestion. The five films described below are all excellent examples of what we’ll call “Hays Code Horror,” and I think that you’ll find that they’re every bit as engrossing as their “Pre-Code” predecessors.

THE BLACK CAT

(D) Edgar G. Ulmer
(W) Peter Ruric
(S) Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and David Manners

After several years of starring in their own genre films, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi finally shared the screen in this (loose) adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe tale. Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a psychiatrist who, while spending time in a prison camp in World War I, mysteriously lost his wife. On his way to meet Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), his friend and reclusive architect, Werdegast encounters newlyweds Peter (Manners) and Joan Alison (Jacqueline Wells), who are on their honeymoon. After their bus crashes in the Hungarian countryside and Joan is injured, the three travelers make their way to Poelzig’s home. It is there that Werdegast discovers what has happened to his wife and uncovers Poelzig’s dark plans for the injured Joan. Despite their well-known dislike for one another off screen, Karloff is at his sinister best, Lugosi – in a rare sympathetic role – is quite good, and the screen comes alive when the two icons share it.

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BLACK MOON

(D) Roy William Neill
(W) Wells Root
(S) Jack Holt, Fay Wray, and Dorothy Burgess

Black Moon is an early film about the seductive power of voodoo. The story revolves around a woman named Juanita (Burgess), who had discovered her parents’ corpses as a child. Apparently, Juanita’s folks were the victims of voodoo performed by the inhabitants of a tropical island where Juanita and her family were staying. Now an adult, Juanita (along with her daughter, Cora Sue) has an irresistible urge to return to the island of her childhood trauma. Once she returns, the island’s denizens treat Juanita as a voodoo goddess of sorts, and she is afforded every luxury. Juanita becomes so drunk with power, that she is willing to sacrifice her own daughter in the name of voodoo. Will her husband (Holt) and his secretary (Wray) be able to save Cora Sue (Nancy Lane), or will Juanita claim her prize? Part mystery, part horror, this little-known gem is atmospheric and well-acted – check it out!

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EL FANTASMA DEL CONVENTO (THE PHANTOM OF THE MONASTERY)

(D) Fernando de Fuentes
(W) Juan Bustillo Oro, Jorge Pezet, and Fernando de Fuentes
(S) Enrique del Campo, Marta Roel, and Carlos Villatoro

As so many other horror films are, El fantasma del convento is essentially a morality tale. Adulterous couple Cristina (Roel) and Alfonso (del Campo) become lost one night while attempting to find a good make out spot. Enter a bizarre guide of sorts – is it ever wise to follow a stranger in a horror film? – who leads the pair to a foreboding monastery.  Cristina and Alfonso are treated to a dinner with the Father Superior (Paco Martinez), who relates a story involving a monk overcome by his lust for a woman. After he seduced his friend’s wife, the rest of the monk’s life – and even his afterlife – were cursed. You can probably guess where the story goes from here, but don’t let a little predictability deter you from seeing this beautifully shot and eerie film. For those of you who are fans of Matthew Lewis’ 1796 horror novel, The Monk, you will certainly see the book’s influence in the film.

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THE NINTH GUEST

(D) Roy William Neill
(W) Garnett Weston
(S) Donald Cook, Genevieve Tobin, and Hardie Albright

Based on the 1930 novel The Invisible Host by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, The Ninth Guest is another fine early example of the haunted house subgenre. An anonymous host invites a group of eight disparate strangers to a luxurious apartment for the night. Once the guests are in the apartment and have experienced some fine food and drink, the host – via radio broadcast – reveals the real reason he invited them to the apartment: they have to outwit Death (the titular character) if they want to survive the night. Inventive death scenes and solid acting highlight this rarely seen oddity. I would like to think that the Saw and Final Destination franchises owe a debt of gratitude to this one.

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DOUBLE DOOR

(D) Charles Vidor
(W) Jack Cunningham and Gladys Lehman
(S) Evelyn Venable, Mary Morris, and Anne Revere

Based on the play by Elizabeth McFadden, Double Door is a chilling commentary on family dysfunction. The wealthy but psychotic Victoria Van Brett (Morris) terrorizes the members of her family who still live under her roof. Her favorite method of torture is to lure unwitting family members into the secret chamber, where they slowly go mad from isolation. When Victoria turns her ire to her half-brother’s wife, the only family member capable – or willing – to stand up to Victoria is her sister, Caroline (Revere). The performances in the film are decent overall (particularly Morris), but there is some staginess to the play adaptation. The real reason to see this film is for the setting – a creepy old mansion in New York City that leaves you guessing what’s around every corner.

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