Article by Geoff Fogleman
Welcome to 1932 – a year that gave us some truly gruesome horror. After bringing Dracula to the screen in 1931, Tod Browning got his Freaks on in a major way and proved beyond a doubt that he and James Whale were the go-to early horror directors. Speaking of James Whale, his The Old Dark House showcased the often comedic side of horror, and the film allowed him to show his versatility behind the camera. We were also terrified (yet again) by Boris Karloff in Universal’s The Mummy, became a captive on The Island of Lost Souls, and were sucked in to a wonderful low-budget take on vampire lore in Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr.
Of course, this weekly editorial is only one person’s opinion, and my reasons for creating it are two-fold: 1) to hopefully introduce you to some early horror films that you may not be aware of, and 2) to foster discussion about classic horror. I’m hoping that if you have a dissenting opinion (which you surely do!), then you’ll comment on my lists and post your own in the comments section. Happy watching!
(D) Tod Browning
(W) Clarence “Tod” Robbins
(S) Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, and Olga Baclanova
If you’ve never seen Freaks then stop reading this and go watch it right now. Seriously, the list will be here when you get back . . . finished watching yet? Good. Freaks is not only the best horror film of 1932, it’s one of the best horror films of all time. Cleopatra (Baclanova) is a lovely circus trapeze artist who professes her love for Hans (Harry Earles). What’s the big deal, right? Well Hans is a midget in the circus side show, and, despite his fellow freaks’ insistence that Cleopatra is using him, Hans falls for her. As it turns out, Cleopatra doesn’t want Hans – she’s having an affair with circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) – but she does want the large sum of money that he’s set to inherit. The story climaxes with Hans and Cleopatra’s wedding party, where she drunkenly confesses her disdain for the freaks. At the risk of spoiling anything, let’s just say that the freaks get their revenge in chilling fashion (you have to love Pre-Code horror!). I’ve watched Freaks about a dozen times, and it still gives me nightmares, which is exactly what the best horror is supposed to do.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS
(D) Erle C. Kenton
(W) Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie
(S) Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, and Bela Lugosi
This is one of several film adaptations of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, and it’s also one of the best. After being shipwrecked, Edward Parker (Arlen) is rescued by a freighter filled with animals and headed toward an island owned by Dr. Moreau (Laughton). A disagreement with the captain of the boat (Stanley Fields) ensues, and Parker is left with little choice but to accompany Moreau to the island, where he quickly becomes aware that all is not what it seems. The atmosphere of dread, the excellent make-up, and outstanding performances by all involved are what make Island of Lost Souls stand out. If you want a fun double bill, watch this one and then Don Taylor’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) – just stay away from the awful 1996 version!
THE OLD DARK HOUSE
(D) James Whale
(W) Benn W. Levy
(S) Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, and Charles Laughton
Based on the novel by J.B. Priestley, The Old Dark House is one of the earliest (and finest) examples of the horror comedy genre. The story revolves around a group of five travelers who seek shelter from a storm at the titular manse. Little do they know that the house belongs to the decidedly crazy Fenn family and their mute butler, Morgan (Karloff). After some ominous exchanges between the travelers, things really heat up when a drunken Morgan releases Saul (Brember Wills), a pyromaniac who attempts to set the house on fire at every opportunity. Once again Karloff plays a role in which he must act under heavy makeup and grunt a lot, and he’s wonderful.
(D) Karl Freund
(W) John L. Balderston
(S) Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, and David Manners
Speaking of Karloff being under heavy makeup and grunting a lot, we get yet another stand out performance from him in The Mummy. Karloff plays Imhotep, a former Egyptian priest who was mummified while still alive for sacrilege. Imhotep is resurrected when an archaeological team finds his body and recites the spell from The Scroll of Thoth (don’t these guys know you should never read aloud in horror movies?). All Imhotep wants to do when he is resurrected is find his former lover, the princess Ankh-es-en-amon, and he escapes to the streets of Cairo to do so. Fast forward ten years from his resurrection, and Imhotep, who now goes by the name Ardath Bay, is living comfortably in Cairo yet still searching for his lost love. The plot culminates with Bay finding Helen Grosvenor (Johann) – the woman he believes is the modern incarnation of Ankh-es-en-amon. Bay wants to mummify Grosvenor then resurrect her so that the two former lovers can be together forever. There’s really nothing quite like a quiet evening of mummification and resurrection to really set the mood. Karloff proves the bromide, as he did in Frankenstein, that you can’t keep a good man down.
(D) Carl Th. Dreyer
(W) Christen Jul and Carl Th. Dreyer
(S) Julian West, Maurice Schutz, and Rena Mandel
You want creepy? This little gem from Danish filmmaker Carl Theodore Dreyer fits the bill nicely. The visuals in Vampyr alone are enough to recommend this film – think German Expressionism meets Gothic architecture – but we are fortunate to get an intriguing story line as well. While staying at an inn, Allan Gray (West) receives a small package with a note containing the cryptic instructions “To be opened upon my death.” His curiosity aroused, Gray follows a series of shadows to a looming castle, where he witnesses the murder of the man who gave him the parcel. After some eerie events Gray decides to open the package, and he finds a copy of a book on Vampyrs. Gray becomes convinced that the mysterious goings on in the castle and surrounding village are due to vampire activity, and it’s up to him to save the day (not to mention the damsel). As an added bonus, the Vampyr DVD and Blu-ray are available on Criterion, so now the iconic cinematography is much clearer than in previous versions.