“I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality” -Decency Pledge
During the silent era horror movies remained relatively untouched by censorship boards, but once the movie industry could add eerie sounds and blasphemous dialog, everything changed. Pre-code horror movies are a unique bunch. They are transgressive, sometimes even subversive in nature that later horror with, a few exceptions, lacks. This isn’t going to be a comprehensive list, but rather an overview of some movies to watch this month.
I've walked a strange and terrible road.
Many of these films focus on the dichotomy of what impulses humans have vs morality codes of society. One of the most obvious examples of this is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This version explains that Dr Jekyll is so sexually frustrated that he experiments on himself in order to be able to act upon those desires all the while staying pure in his soul. What he doesn’t realize is that the sexual tension is only the surface of his desires. The conversations in the movie are quite frank about sexual needs for both men and women, and the results are quite shocking- rape, torture and ultimately murder is addressed as well as addiction hinted. “Forgive me, my dear. You see, I hurt you because I love you. I want you! What I want, I get!”
Crimes against nature
Movies like Island of Lost Souls, Dr X and Murders in the Rue Morgue come to mind as “unnatural” movies that are particularly gruesome or are transgressive. We will be visiting Island of Lost souls in a later installment, so we’ll look at the other movies. Dr X was recently restored by Lucasarts and they did an absolutely beautiful job on it. The movie focuses on a moon killer that strikes when the moon is full. The police have narrowed down the suspects to a mansion/laboratory full of weird scientists where our newsman hero, Lee Tracy, heads to in order to scoop the competition. There he meets the strange assortment of doctors, professors, staff and the lovely daughter of head professor – Dr Xavier. The focus is on sex crimes, cannibalism and experimentation on humans. Murders in the Rue Morgue is in a similar vein, albeit not as creative or visually stunning. Bela Lugosi stars in this one, with his trained ape Erik, who goes around raping and killing women for the evil doctor so he can do experiments on human and ape blood. One can watch The Vampire Bat with Melvyn Douglas or The Invisible Man for more viewing pleasure.
There are many horror films from the era that can fit into this category: Frankenstein, Island of Lost Souls, White Zombie, and Fu Manchu top the list. Since most people have at least heard of Frankenstein and Island is in an upcoming installment, we’ll skip to White Zombie. This is the first zombie movie to be filmed, in fact it’s likely the first time the audience had even heard of the word which came from a book released only a few years prior. In our movie we have the great Bela Lugosi who absolutely owns this movie. The producers made it on a shoestring budget, hated talkies and still put out a memorable movie. It is one of the few from the era with both a sound track and sound effects, which adds to the strangeness of it all. Story in a nutshell: man works for a plantation owner in Haiti, owner is infatuated with worker’s wife and plans a rue to get her to come to the island. Enter Bela, who’s wonderfully named Murder Legendre, with the solution: make her a zombie so she can not resist the owner. It all falls apart when Murder decides he fancies the owner instead of the girl and begins the zombie process on him only in a slower, more torturous process. Murder enjoys the power he has over people, and enjoys how long the zombification takes on his latest victim. The movie is complete with commentary of slavery, turn of the century capitalism and the possible first homosexual villain. Fu Manchu is worth watching if you have the ability to get past yellow face. It’s a treat to watch Myrna Loy get hot and bothered while having a man tortured, the eye candy of the very beautiful scantily clad slaves and the depravity of Boris Karloff’s titular character. All in all, it’s not a top ten for me, but worth a mention.
There are three pre code movies truly about the undead: Dracula, The Mummy and Frankenstein, which was mentioned above. These three movies are the quintessential horror pics that people think of when they’re asked about classic movies. It’s a testament to Universal’s ability of storytelling, casting, and mood setting. Tod Browning, Karl Freund, and James Whale are the three directors and they made an impression with and without these movies. Not much needs to be said about any of these three since they are still a part of our culture nearly 100 years later.
There are some movies that really didn’t fit into the sections above but are worth watching. The Black Cat is one of my favorite pre-code horror movies that we will visit later in the series. Definitely watch it this season, because you’ll want to experience the craziness of the movie before you read the article. Torture, necrophilia, rape and more! If you have the Peacock streaming service you can view it there. We will also be visiting these at a later date: Murders at the Zoo and The Old Dark House, plus Mystery of the Wax Museum, which will also include some info about Dr X. However, Black Moon and Maniac (aka Sex Maniac) round out our spooky movies that are worth watching.
Aside from the Universal collection of horror films, Freaks is likely the most classic horror movie commented about by horror lovers and cinephiles. The very mention of it brings up controversy about the possible exploitation of the circus performers, the very name Freaks brings up negative connotations, but on further exploration about both the film itself and the background leading to its creation the controversy fades away and the conversation can begin. Tod Browning began planning this movie in the mid 20’s during his collaboration with Lon Chaney, the Man of A Thousand Faces, and had picked Chaney for the role of Dracula, but Lon Chaney died not long after his first and only talkie a remake of the Unholy Three. It is highly likely that Chaney would have gone on to collaborate on Freaks as well, and one has to wonder what the end product would have been and if it would have been better received. Instead of going into what the movie is about or explain what exactly makes it a pre code, it’s interesting to look at what they cut from the original 90 minutes down to an hour. Browning filmed a much more extensive version of what happens to Cleopatra under the wagon including a very terrifying “swamp girl” scene and the castration then humiliation of Hercules singing falsetto at the end. No reconciliation of Hans and Frieda at the end, instead just a bleak view of what happens when you kick the little guy and they finally get tired of it.
A little about Tod Browning (pictured with some of the cast below) before you watch the movie. He had been fascinated by the circus growing up and ran away to join the circus becoming a barker and then later a performer as a clown and in the sideshow. After being paired with Chaney they were able to make a number of films about the downtrodden and circus folk, so this wasn’t just a one off for him. Both he and Chaney stood up for people who weren’t “normal”, Chaney was an advocate for the deaf community as well as trying to portray his characters with sympathy and depth. The viewer can definitely see an advocacy in Freaks, he goes so far as to have frank speech about the Siamese twins having their own personal, separate sex lives, the bearded lady having a baby with the skeleton man, and Madame Tetrallini guarding her “children” from an angry by passer, going so far as to tell them that God loves all his children: that they should not be afraid to enjoy life, showing that each unique life has an intrinsic value. This was possibly the horror movie that transgressed the most against popular scientific thought of the time – Eugenics. To show so-called freaks having children with each other was a bold move after decisions like Buck vs Bell were popular in the main population. We’ll never know just why this movie failed so miserably, there were other gruesome pictures out there like Murders in the Rue Morgue or Island of Lost Souls, not to mention adventure pictures that bordered on the horror genre like King Kong, Kongo, or The Most Dangerous Game and were hugely successful. But instead of accepting the imperfections of humans, these movies were talking about perfecting them- perhaps this is the true horror of this picture: that it depicted real people who had real lives and real babies. It’s hard to judge an audience long dead, but this has often entered my mind when the controversy shows up in conversations about horror movies.