Four 1930s horror flicks -and one early 40s -that really *are* scary

In another thread, I held forth at length about how the classic “horror” movies of the 1930s aren’t particularly scary for the most part, and weren’t really scary to begin with. This one is to acknowledge that there were, indeed, some exceptions to that generalization. These are the ones that seem to have actually been made with the intent of giving the audience a good scare or two, and they can still deliver. Interestingly, most of the effective shockers of their day seem to have run into censor trouble when they were released, been banned in some localities or entire countries and triggered aghast denouncements from critics and moralists in their day.

Here’s my list:

Freaks – this movie is just insidious the way it twists itself out of shape and plays with a viewer’s sympathies. At first we react to the performers --actual “physical prodigies”,performers from the circus sideshows of their era -with shock and uneasiness. Some of them are horribly deformed, others (like the male and female midget romantic leads, the playful puppylike micros and the hokey but still otherworldly half-woman-half-man) strangely charming, all are both Us and Other…and then as we watch them go about their lives we let our guard down. Like the Fey, they weave a glamour over our vision until the normal people in the background are the bizarre ones, with their greed and mean-ness and jealousies. When proud, temperamental little Hans falls for the beautiful viperess Cleopatra, we feel for him. Their wedding party is perhaps a warning that something’s awry, with its ominous voodoo chant and grotesque floorshow…and the instant we realize Hans is onto his bride’s scheme to murder him by slow poison, the whole tenor of the movie swerves into nightmare as his baby face knots up with malevolence. Suddenly even the friendliest and most helpless-looking freaks are the hostile eyes of the Other and weapons come out. Then it moves inexorably to the ghastly dreamlike pursuit… and the grim fairy-tale close.

**Island Of Lost Souls **–my very favorite old movie, and one of the most creepy and frightening flicks of the pre-Hammer era, this adaptation of an HG Wells novel just crackles with shocks and unsettling resonances. Charles Laughton obviously had a blast playing Dr. Moreau as a fey sadist in an ice cream suit, queening it up outrageously in the faces of censors who didn’t realize he was queening it up, He’s usually the only one who’s smiling on this remote tropical island where he and another scientist have devised a way of transforming various animals into men-of-sorts who they control through terror and a stern religion consisting mostly of strictures against their atavistic behaviours. The chance arrival of a shipwreck survivor gives the vicious old queen a great idear for how to test just how human his most recent, most perfect-looking project is…the full horror of the notion of animal-human hybrids is subtly and unnervingly explored here, and you see some phjysical manifestations of the wrongness and metaphysical uncleanness of such chimeras that are truly gruesome. Plus, they hurt their whole lives, both physically and with the awareness that “you made us…not man! not beasts! THINGSSSSS!” There are the momentary shocking visuals like man-mutt M’Ling’s canine ears and the way he leaps for the throat of a tormentor early in the flick…the first glance we get of the distorted piglike face of an islander…a brief flash of man-leg ending in cloven hoof…the way Lota the sexy panther-girls human facade is shattered when cat claws rip out through her fingertips,and of course the two set-pieces: the religious ritual of The Law, a call-and-response led by a hideously convincing Bela Lugosi wolf-satyr and echoed by a hundred beast throats mangled to travesty man-speak (“Vhaat ees…the LAAWWrr?” Not to speel blaahd, tzad ees the Law…are we not MEN?" “Ah ee na MENnnnnghh?” --and the climactic revolt of the whole hideous throng once they realize creatures like Moreau can die, too and drag their creaor into his own lab to die screaming (and then presumably turn on each other in a riot of resurgent zoological carnage)

Murders in the Rue Morgue --I didn’t know they could make movies that were this fucking sick in the 1930’s! Bela Lugosi stars as Dr. Mirakle, a demented, atheistic pervert of science who tortures prostitutes to death on a St Andrew’s cross in order to prove his own distorted theories on human evolution, accompanied by an ape he calls Erik who seems to be a combination experimental animal, partner in crime and servant, and who he none too subtly intends to have fuck human women to further those theories. It’s such a perverse, lumpen-Sadean farrago that you can’t help but respond with tremors.

The Black Cat --Two strange and terrible men come into strange and terrible contact in a land smouldering and reeling from unspeakable warfare and destroy each other body and soul. Boris Karloff is the super-rich aesthetic libertine architect of nightmare cities and grandmaster of a Satanic black-magick order versus Bela Lugosi as an aristocratic Old European scientist ruined by war, torture and the loss of his family…traumas he holds Karloff responsible for. A charismatic, evil man and another who seems the broken rubble of brilliance with bad blood to spill. It’s totally brutal and impressionistic. It’s frboding from the opening scene, building up to some moments of flat-out terror. And it reveals that Boris Karloff was acually a damned attractive man when he appeared sans the Jack Pierce monster makeup, as he does here, playing uber-serpentine Dr. Vitus Vertigast.

*Cat People[/I] (1942, actually) -the screech of the bus. The trickle of blood oozing out beneath the door. Her eyes. Ooooh. :eek:
Did I miss any?

I just want to say this is one of the best sentences I’ve read recently, even though I’m not totally sure what it means.

Nosferatu isn’t exactly scary, but it does manage to be very creepy. Especially the boat scene.

While even I would not defend Lugosi’s DRACULA as overall scary these days, there are still two chilling scenes- the entrance of the three brides & their surrounding of Renfield, silent like sterile satanic nuns under vows…
and later when the scooner The Demeter runs aground and from the hold emerges the leering laughing loony Renfield.

An added comment about ISLAND…, Dr. Moreau explains the feline origins of the woman, and then ruminates over the possibilities of cross-breeding her with a full human (“I, of course, first considered myself for the experiment…”)- EWWWW!

Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey

I don’t remember a “trickle of blood oozing out beneath the door” from Cat People, but I do remember one from The Leopard Man.

Yeah, was gonna say the same thing. I love The Leopard Man, although I Walked With A Zombie is my favorite of the Tourneur/Lewton collaborations.

If I had to name which Lewton film is the scariest, however, it would be the Robson-directed Ghost Ship.

You guys are both quite right; it’s been quite some time since I saw either one, and I confess to a conflation of the two feline fear films . :smack:

(The DLuxN8R slinks offstage, shredded credibility hanging in rags from his bowed shoulders)

And then on top of everything else, I screw up the quote function in my last post! Damn!

I think the most chilling scene in *Dracula * is where Helen Candler is telling the guys what Dracula did to her. The look in her eyes and the tremor in her voice make her seem so lost.

And if you like that, then you will surely like The Seventh Victim, especially if you watch it alone in the dead of night.

Freaks I thought was sympathetic and understanding, provided that you’re not a scheming trapeze artist.

King Kong did scare me the first time that I saw it, when I was younger and more impressionable. It’s still one of my favorites, and I always enjoy Fay Wray’s swim in the river. Her parents may have been horrified, but she rates a paw if not a maw.

these immediately come to mind:

the haunting of hill house (original)
the entire film still creeps me out deliciously, but the bending door scene near the end is still capable of raising the hair on my arms.

terror is a man
the whole mad scientist turning a panther into a man scenario is friggin’ scary. it owes it’s origins to dr. moreau, but that film can’t hold a candle to the downright scary atmosphere much of this movie possesses. there are a couple of scenes in it to this day i remember as truly frightening.

Even if a lot of Nosferatu appeared hokey to my jaded eye, the iconic scene of the vampire rising straight up out of the coffin was quite chilling.

Curse of the Demon from 1957, also by Tournier, was pretty fucking scary for its time.

Oh yes, and I know Nosferatu was earlier than the '30’s.

The Body Snatcher – Karloff deserved an Oscar nomination for his role, and the climax is quite creepy and scary.

My god, someone else who’s seen that one! I love it; I went into it with no expectations whatsoever, and was pleasantly surprised; I think it’s astonishingly well-photographed and very very effective.
Oh, and I don’t remember the panther-girl’s claws extending inIsland of Lost Souls–is that really in there?

I watched this again recently. Its scariness was fatally mitigated by the producers’ insistance that Tourneur use a rubber demon instead of his usual–and far more frightening–suggestive mist and shadow.

I’m going to guess you are talking about the Robert Wise film, “The Haunting” (1963) based on the Shirley Jackson novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” And heck yeah, is that scary! Especially considering that you never actually see any ghosts. Turn up the sound when you’re watching it to make it extra spooky.

While we’re on the subject of haunted house movies, I concur that “The Legend of Hell House” (1973) and “House on Haunted Hill” (1959) will raise a few goosebumps on a dark on stormy night.

I’ve said this before, in other board discussions of this film, but seeing the demon right at the start really changes the dynamic of the film.

Normally a movie like this would unfold as a gradual journey toward Knowledge Too Horrible To Bear, in which you the audience would share the hero’s initial scepticism, and each creepy event would move you and him toward acceptance of the ultimate evil at the film’s end.

But since you already know the demon really exists, your attitude toward the hero’s initial (and persistent) disbelief is “Wise up, already, bucko, it’s for real. What, are you slow on the uptake or something?” …Which is probably not what Lewton was shooting for.