< Horror Film History — Horror Films in the 1930s

Horror movies of the 1930s: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Dracula, Frankenstein, Freaks, The Mummy, King Kong, Bride of Frankenstein

Horror Begins To Talk... And Scream

Horror movies were reborn in the 1930s. Sound revolutionized cinema across the board and had a huge impact on the horror genre— and not just in the form of dialogue. Sound effects added an extra dimension to terror, from creaking doors to echoing footsteps to the rumbling of castle thunder. Music cues built suspense or signaled the presence of a threat. As screen storytelling moved away from symbolism towards realism, the dreamlike wraiths of silent cinema were replaced by monsters that grunted, groaned and howled.

The horror films of the 1930s tended to be exotic fairy tales, invariably set in some far-off land peopled by characters in period costume speaking in strange accents. Producers continued with the practice of looking backward for inspiration, drawing upon the literary classics of the 19th century for their source material. These fantastical and supernatural elements also offered some much-needed escapism to audiences tiring of their Great Depression reality: horror movies, despite some costly special effects, generated serious coin at the box office.

This was also despite the initial struggle that many of the major players — such as director Tod Browning — had to adapt to the new medium. Making talking pictures was a very different process to producing silent movies and, watching today, some of the first efforts seem somewhat creaky. Even though the new talking pictures prided themselves on realism, audiences flocked into cinemas to be scared by largely supernatural monsters wreaking havoc on largely fantastical worlds, events far removed from the everyday realities of the Great Depression and political turmoil in Europe and Asia. Horror, then as now, represented the best escapism available for those precious few cents it took to buy a ticket. And cinema was an American national obsession — 80 million people attended the cinema on a weekly basis in 1930, some 65% of the total US population.

Universal Monsters and Carl Laemmle Jr.

Universal forged its identity as a studio around horror pics in the early 1930s, largely thanks to the efforts of Carl Laemmle Jr., son of the studio's redoubtable founder. "Junior" as he was known was given the job of head of production in 1928 at the tender age of 21. He was never going to be a visionary hustler on a par with his father and, indeed, many of his co-workers despised him (actress Mae Clarke called him "retarded"). However, he did demonstrate a certain gift for picking intellectual property and assigning talent to productions. He spent a lot of money on the right things (the horror cycle), but, unfortunately, his instincts were inconsistent. By 1936 he had bankrupted the studio by financing a series of wildly expensive flops.

Carl Laemmle Jr at his desk

Junior was on a roll in 1930-31, however, when he put together two Gothic horror adaptations, Dracula (released on Valentine's Day 1931) and Frankenstein (released at Thanksgiving) that came to define the nascent horror genre. He hired seasoned director Tod Browning for Dracula— Browning had been making spook tales and lurid thrillers since the late 1910s and was known for his collaborations with Lon Chaney— and James Whale, an English expat who'd recently scored hits with wartime dramas All Quiet On The Western Front and Waterloo Bridge for Frankenstein.

Junior also approved the casting of two lesser-known actors in the leading roles: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, who brought Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster respectively to the screen. Their personifications of these characters are still synonymous with 1930s horror.

Dracula (1931)

In the days before Dracula was such a well-worn story, it could be dealt with with originality and panache, as Tod Browning does here. The concept of Dracula is taken from the stageplay as opposed to the novel, and the results are highly theatrical. Lugosi laughs evilly throughout; no wonder, his depiction of the Count-as-seducer is aeons removed from the feral creature represented in Nosferatu and is definitive - not until Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1994 were there any real variations on the theme. Although Lugosi is never less than watchable, his opera cloak billowing behind him as he stalks the innocent, the rest of the movie creaks to the modern viewer. The supporting cast use their stage training to ham it up (this was the very first talking horror film and no one, least of all the director, was sure how to pitch it) and come across as grimacing and grotesque. The mise-en-scene are fine however - the movie practically invented the concept of "Mittel-Europe", land of swirling mists, howling wolves, frightened peasants and crumbling castles owned by heavily accented individuals with strange eyes and an interesting taste in evening dress. It was very very successful for Universal and paved the way for a series of high profile horror classics.

Frankenstein (1931)

After Lugosi turned the part down, screen legend has it that Boris Karloff was plucked from obscurity in the studio canteen to play the Monster. Studio execs thought his character was so peripheral to the movie that they did not even invite him to the premiere, yet it is his lumbering, pathetic creation that is now synonymous with Frankenstein. James Whale, still numbered amongst the best horror directors of all time, directs with great attention to both spectacle and detail.

  • FilmSite.Org - another exhaustive review 
  • Overview
  • Frankenstein's Castle - the definitive Frankenstein site gives a comprehensive overview of the whole Universal series of Frankenstein pics (includes info on The Bride of Frankenstein).

Once these men had proved their mettle, Junior kept them steadily at work on the Universal lot churning out more horror-themed movies. This was the studio system production line at its finest, with individual projects able to tap into the Universal storehouse of materials, ideas and expertise. Large-scale sets could be recycled from one production to another, and there were teams of experts available in every department, most notably makeup, headed by Jack Pierce. The above-the-line talent was similarly kept in use. Karloff and Whale followed Frankenstein with The Old Dark House (1932) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). In between, Whale directed Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933) while Karloff depicted another lumbering creature in The Mummy (1932) and a Hungarian Satanist in The Black Cat (1934). Lugosi was busy too, appearing alongside Karloff in The Black Cat after The Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932). Tod Browning alone failed to profit from the monster movie mash-up — he made Freaks for MGM, which single-handedly destroyed his career.

The runaway success of Dracula, Frankenstein and the followups made on Junior's watch between 1932-36 generated a series of movies that continues to this day, as Universal Studios continues to exploit the popularity of these iconic monsters with its plans for the Dark Universe. However, the glory days couldn't last. Universal's B-movie successes couldn't compensate for their heavy losses on A-list pics and in 1936 the studio had to be sold off to pay its debts. Junior — and his monsters— fell out of favor with the new regime.

The Mummy (1932)

The Tutankhamen Exhibition toured the world in the 1920s and 1930s, and the concept of Egyptologists suffering the effects of an ancient curse was part of contemporary urban legend. Audiences were fascinated by the concept of 3000 year old remains, and the Ancient Egyptians' rituals that ensured immortality. The film, which may seem overly slow-moving to modern viewers, introduced the concept of the desertscape and terrible, ancient evil to movie audiences. The main action takes place in Cairo (or the Universal backlot's version of that city) and revolves around a mummy who is brought to life by the accidental reading of a spell. He then hunts down the reincarnation of his lost love, only to be thwarted, and reduced to the dust from whence he came. The storytelling is slow and atmospheric, and, as with all Karloff characters, the monster is imbued with a sense of pathos. Its influence can be seen in assorted films like The English Patient (The Mummy revolves around a similarly tragic love story) and... um... Stargate.

The reboot of the franchise in the 2000s focuses more on blockbuster action sequences, but it's interesting to note that both Clive Barker and George A. Romero were attached to the project as directors at some stage. It would have been interesting to see this property regenerated as low-budget horror rather than a multi-million dollar special effects festival.

Freaks (1932)

Freaks is a rarity, a horror film that horrifies rather than frightens.    It was slated on its release in 1932, has been blamed for the downhill career trajectories thereafter of the key players, and was banned in many countries for more than thirty years.  Yet in 1994 it was selected for the National Film Registry’s archives, and now enjoys both cult and canon status.  It is a film both of its time (starring a strata of freakshow performers who no longer exist on a public stage) and ahead of its time, extending the definition of 'sympathetic characters’ way beyond a 1932 audience’s limits

Its influence has been immeasurable on a diverse range of texts

King Kong (1933)

"I am about to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a King and a God in the world he knew. But now he comes to civilisation, merely a captive, a show to satisfy your curiosity."

Merian C Cooper, the visionary behind the chest-thumping giant gorilla atop the Empire State, was a remarkable man. An old school adventurer, he could list World War I flying ace, POW, journalist, explorer, airline owner and Oscar-nominated documentary-maker on his resume before he came to make King Kong, and he continued his adventuresome ways until his death in 1973. He was part of the first generation of US film-makers, those who saw creating a movie as the latest in a line of thrilling technological challenges. These pioneers of the Machine Age seized movie cameras in the 1920s with the same enthusiasm as they had grabbed the controls of airplanes a decade earlier. King Kong shares the dashing spirit of its producer, and eptiomises his fascination with technology. After all, Cooper plays the pilot of the plane that kills Kong, the very embodiment of twentieth century machinery's triumph over Nature.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

James Whale returned to the Shelley novel and used as his source material all the sections he'd missed out in Frankenstein. This is a stylish and witty film, with many moments of camp humour, and has been described as one of the greatest horror films of all time. The images are dramatically framed throughout, from the burning mill surrounded by pitchfork-brandishing peasants at the start, to the collapsing castle at the finish. Karloff brings his usual wounded dignity to the part of the Monster, which speaks for the first time, in wondrous, mangled syllables. Our villain is Dr Pretorius; Ernest Thesiger relishes his role as the amoral, corpse-stealing former mentor of Henry Frankenstein, who creates miniature people and keeps them in specimen jars. Dr Pretorius is the evil genius behind the new experiments with the creation of life, Henry Frankenstein is reduced to the reluctant helper, who cannot face up to his mistakes of the previous film. Where once he had pretentions to create life, he is here represented as weak, indecisive and bumbling beside the razor-sharp cunning of Pretorius. Elsa Lanchester, in full frightwig and make-up, is touchingly confused and vulnerable as the Bride who simply does not want to exist. The story is treated with delicacy and finess, a far cry from the full-on gore-and-gash prosthetic close-ups that Branagh uses in his 1994 version.

For a touching, thoughtful twist on the James Whale story, seeGods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen & Brendan Frasier. What makes a man make such a set of monsters? It's a lovely film in its own right, and gives an insight to the man who wrote many of the rules of the genre.

Mad Scientists

Dr. Frankenstein wasn't the only man trying to defy God and Nature: mad scientists pop up frequently in this decade's horror films. This reflected the ongoing cultural fascination with eugenics, the idea that the only way to prevent afuture catastrophe for the human race was by selective breeding of the genetically superior and the forced sterilization of those with undesirable genetic traits.

The Nazis weren't the only ones who agreed with this thinking. Many prominent citizens, from leaders at the Carnegie Institution and the WK Kellogg Foundation to President Roosevelt himself, put time, money and energy into the eugenics cause. At the same time, the U.S. Public Health Service felt there was nothing wrong in conducting the now-infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment (which ran from 1932-1972) on 399 unsuspecting black Americans— 128 died, 40 wives were infected and 19 children born with congenital syphilis.

Perhaps there was a reason Hollywood — peopled with immigrants, mavericks, and outsiders rather than Rockefeller-approved bluebloods — was drawn to stories that warned of the consequences of science and scientists run amok? Frankenstein led the charge, tapping into the same fear of human experiments as Caligari and Orlac in the early 1920s. The new generation of mad scientists included Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton in The Island of Lost Souls - 1933), Dr Griffin (Claude Rains in The Invisible Man -1933), Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore in The Devil Doll1936), Dr Mirakle (Bela Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue - 1932), the wheelchair-bound Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwell in The Mystery of the Wax Museum- 1933), and not forgetting Peter Lorre's crazed turn as a lovesick surgeon in Mad Love (1935) see below.

1933, the year Hitler came to power, saw a peak in mad scientist movies; it seems the genre was horribly prescient of the scientific insanity to come in the Nazi-run concentration camps.

The Golden Era of Horror?

It's startling to consider how many classic horror films were made between 1930 and 1934, presenting weird and wonderful monsters and monstrous humans whose struggles still resonate with audiences today. The first half of the 1930s is, quite rightly, known as the golden age of horror, with A-list talent attracted to superbly crafted pictures that frequently connected with huge audiences. Universal weren't the only players in town — RKO had a couple of smash hits with the concurrently-filmed King Kong (1933) and The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Fredric March won the 1931 Best Actor Oscar for Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Filmmakers of the time were drawn to the Genre That Didn't Have A Name Yet because of the opportunities these dark tales offered to break taboos, exploring the lurid and sensational as well as probing deep into the sexual and criminal elements of the human psyche. The characters in these movies lived in out-of-the-way and out-of-time-places, outside the usual boundaries set by moral conventions or even the laws of physics. On screen, they had the freedom to run amok, flirt (even with the same sex), consume all manner of illicit potions, use violence to get their way, kill and— most blasphemously— create new life. It was inevitable someone would come along to spoil the fun.

The Production Code

Throughout the 1920s, Hollywood both in front of and behind the screen was fuelled by a series of salacious scandals: adultery, drugs, alcohol, murder, rape, homosexuality — you name it. Audiences lapped up the gossip about stars as eagerly as they consumed saucy silent movies featuring nearly-nude actors, debauched love triangles, and heinous crimes, for which the perpetrators weren't always punished. The moral guardians of the nation — led by the Catholic Church — were outraged, firstly that this level of decadence was considered entertainment, and secondly that it was so freely available to the masses.

Then, as now, a moral panic bubbled about the connection between the depravity shown onscreen and what audiences thought, said and did after they left the theater. There was no consistently applied form of censorship: censors at a city and state level could request cuts on a by film basis, but that didn't stop the unedited print being shown elsewhere, often marketed with a "Banned in ______" tagline. The nation's moral arbiters agreed that something should be done.

The studios resisted the idea of government censorship, preferring to go down the path of voluntary self-regulation. Will Hays, a former Postmaster General and savvy Republican politician, was invited to be President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America from its inception in 1922. This organization was founded in the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandal when it became obvious Hollywood needed to get its house in order. Hays was tasked with writing a 'Production Code', laying out the standards of decency to which all Hollywood producers would voluntarily adhere.

It took him eight years (the introduction of talkies in 1927 complicated matters somewhat), but Hays formally unveiled his Code on March 31, 1930. It was written by a Jesuit priest (Father Daniel Lord) and the devout Roman Catholic editor of the Motion Picture Herald, Martin Quigley. It's a fascinating document, driven by some very noble thinking about the power of motion pictures to elevate culture, nurture the young, smash vicious stereotypes and communicate shared social values. It also, predictably for its time, sets very narrow moral standards based on white Catholic heteronormativity. Read the full Code here>>

The producers who pledged to abide by Hays' high-minded list of Do's, Don'ts, and Be Carefuls. They dutifully sent screenplays over to the Hays office to get the stamp of approval, but then either ignored comments or snuck in rewrites before shooting. For the next four years, an era now known as 'Pre-Code', they rode roughshod over Hays' limits. Nothing sold quite like salacious, so they kept crossing the line and most of the deliciously deviant movies discussed above were made during this time frame.

The moral arbiters who had been promised change were very unhappy, particularly when they felt that the ideas espoused in Saturday trips to the movie theater undermined or even directly contradicted what was preached from the pulpit the following morning. Then, as now, they felt threatened by diversity and anyone who didn't look, speak or worship like them. The Methodist magazine Churchman railed against the “shrewd Hebrews who make the big money by selling crime and shame.” The Catholic Church formed the Legion of Decency and, by 1934 was threatening a wholesale boycott of indecent movies.

The prospect of taking a major financial hit made the studios concede. Hays hired another staunch Catholic, former journalist Joseph Breen as his content watchdog and, from July 1934, the Production Code was enforced in earnest. Any picture shown without the Hays office seal of approval was slapped with a $25,000 fine.


The constraints imposed by the Code are generally believed to be responsible for the Golden Era of Hollywood in general: for the next thirty or so years Hollywood was forced to find ever more inventive, subtle and symbolic ways of telling stories, of depicting the dark side of human nature through shadow and allusion, and of hinting at extra-marital sex, drug use and violent death in terms of metaphors that went flying over the heads of any children in the theatre. Lovers had to be married, criminals had to pay for their crimes, and revenge was a dish never eaten, hot or cold.

Romance, melodrama, thriller, war and the nascent genre of film noir all thrived under the Code but horror waned in status as audience expectations shrank. The weird and off-kilter was no longer welcome and the very reasons people had for enjoying horror movies now became reasons to ban them. Post-Code horror movies (like The Werewolf Of London) tended to be guarded, conventional affairs, with none of the inventiveness or arch humor of their predecessors. The Code specifically prohibited the depiction of anything that could be deemed perverse, and any kind of mocking of religion (or religious people or beliefs) or blasphemy was out too, as was nudity. Having got off to such a great start, horror stories (and the filmmakers who were drawn to them) were rapidly relegated to B-productions, made on a shoestring budget if at all. It would be decades before the genre regained the respect and enthusiasm horror movies garnered in these golden years.

Further Reading