To say that I’m a sucker for a well-crafted, classic horror tale brimming with salaciousness would be an understatement. And so it was with more than a little glee that I read about Turner Classic Movie’s month long film series devoted to tackling those films which made the Legion of Decency’s hair stand on end. I’ve written about American horror during this time period and I’ve always wanted to compile a short list of recommended pre-code American horror films as a complement. So here is my list of 6 essential films that will give you a taste of what horror was like pre-code. With everything from a killer with a fondness for meat suits to maniacal scientists hell bent on playing God, these films are a showcase for the cinematic perversions that left many audience members clutching their pearls.
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Sure, the idea of hunters stalking human prey is now a mainstay of horror film (and every other episode of Criminal Minds) but back in 1932, the premise was downright scandalous. Based on the short story by Richard Connell, the film opens with Eve and her brother, Martin, shipwrecked on a mysterious island. They soon discover that the island’s owner is a hunter with a penchant for only hunting two-legged prey. And while the camp quotient is high thanks to some truly awful accents and dialogue, the startlingly graphic depictions of death in the wake of the shipwreck make it an excellent example of why the legion of Decency was so gung ho to prevent its rerelease.
The film is now in the public domain and can be viewed in its entirety below.
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Blending science fiction with horror, Island of Lost Souls is not a film I enjoy watching but it is exceedingly well made. Adapted from the H. G. Wells novel, its scenes of animal torture (you may want to close your eyes during the vivisection scene) are explicit, as befitting a film about a mad scientist conducting animal experiments on a remote island. But if that isn’t enough to have you wondering how a film like this saw the light of day in the 1930s, the film also showcases suggestions of bestiality and explicit murder. This is definitely essential viewing for horror fans and is available in pristine form via The Criterion Collection.
Murders in the Zoo (1933)
My personal favorite on this list, Murders in the Zoo is on the surface a fairly straightforward tale of jealousy run amuck that leads to unspeakable violence. But lurking beneath this premise is a wildly provocative look at how repetitive violence starts to look normal to those involved. This film has everything you want from pre-code horror: rape disguised as lust, sympathetic characters meeting grisly ends, and an extreme level of violence that would be at home in horror films made today. Yes, some of the scenes are played for laughs but I defy you to watch and not be the slightest bit creeped out by just how normal everything feels at the end of the film.
Doctor X (1932)
For those of you who are fans of cannibalistic horror, look no further than this 1932 gem that raises the consumption of flesh to delightfully demented heights. With a surprising amount of grotesqueness, this story of a reporter investigating a series of grisly murders in New York is a curious blend of humor and perversion. My sense is that the levity was the only way to make this film, which also features rape, prostitution, and coercion, somewhat palatable to audiences of the time. While the film’s pacing isn’t always the best, Doctor X is a great example of synthetic horror and effectively showcases the themes that initially promoted so much ire in the Legion of Decency.
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
The humor in the film is the cringe-worthy type you’d expect with one on-going joke centering on a woman who was accidentally murdered by her abusive spouse. Clearly, this would be an issue in a film today, but, at the time, it was considered some much needed levity to balance out the film’s scenes of implied violence. I debated putting this title on the list because the film doesn’t ultimately feel like horror but, rather, like a titillating drama (artists enjoy massaging their nude statues) with random moments of shock. But the film does play with notions of monstrosity in ways that were fairly new at the time of the film’s release. Horror fans may find the approach interesting given how the human monster evolved in American horror—but just don’t expect to be scared.
No pre-code horror list is complete without this beloved classic. Frankenstein encapsulates everything I love about early American horror: visual storytelling, a sympathetic monster, and an unflinching depiction of violence. As most horror fans are aware, the film is notorious for its scene in which a little girl is drowned by the confused creature. That the creature was unaware of the consequences of his actions was of little consequence to filmgoers who were scandalized by the child’s death. To be fair, the killing of children on-screen is still controversial but was utterly unheard of at the time of Frankenstein’s release. Aside from that scene, though, there isn’t much other explicit violence. Instead, the bigger controversy was over how the scientist played God and referred to himself as such. This horror classic holds up as an excellent example of horror storytelling. Look for the complete version of the film and not the one that appeared post-code in which the creature’s scene with the girl was cut to show only his lunging at her and not her death…because that isn’t creepy at all.