Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Storyteller

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Top 15 Horror Films of the 1930s & 1940s

I am a horror fan. Always have been. Always will be. I grew up on a steady diet of late night horror films in the bygone era of late night horror hosts. I wanted to write a blog about my Top 10 Horror Films, but I had far too many favorites to choose from. Therefore, I am writing a series of blogs dealing with specific decades. Now we're looking into the classic era of the 1930s and the 1940s.

These films were the bread and butter of my youthful fascination with horror movies. The late night films seemed to fall into two groups: Universal Pictures or American International Pictures. As a reasonably young child, I learned that if the film started with the Universal logo that it would probably be good. If it started with the AIP logo, I knew it could be a bumpy ride. My only confusion was when Universal Pictures changed their name to Universal International.  I assumed that meant they had teamed up with American International.

The 1930s were the classic era of big studio horror pictures, mainly as a result of the influence of Universal Pictures. The genre saved them from bankruptcy. Their films, and the stars they developed, obviously dominate this list.

I added the 1940s to this list as well because otherwise I would have a hard time finding ten films that achieved true classic status from that decade. Blame it on the horrors of World War II that made the genre redundant. Universal contributed a series of monster mash-ups, which, while often entertaining, reflected a general lack of imagination. They were strictly playing it safe. Only producer Val Lewton's unit at RKO advanced the horror genre. Sadly, the best film in his imaginative series, the Robert Wise directed The Body Snatcher, starring Boris Karloff, in his best performance, doesn't quite fit the definition of horror I had been using in these blogs. But don't worry. Boris will be all over this list, and Robert Wise will make his greatest contribution to the genre with 1963's The Haunting, the best ghost story ever.

In many ways, the horror films of this period can be viewed as a competition between stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Although Lugosi is arguably more fashionable today among fans, if only for his more interesting character arc as a human being, I definitely fall into the Boris camp. Bela had a imperious, otherness that played well within the genre, but Boris was the better actor. He almost always imbued his characters with an empathy often absent from the scripts. One of the failure of the 1940s was the inability of the studio to develop a dynamic new generation of actors in the genre.  Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein monster? Sorry, he was just make-up. Lon Chaney, Jr.? He had the genes, but not the genius. A lumpen presence at best.

Once again, according to the ground rules I laid down in my first list, I do not include crime films about torture or murder, such as Psycho or Silence of the Lambs, that do not feature a supernatural aspect. Nor do I include films about animal attacks like Jaws, unless said animal is gigantic as a result of nuclear radiation or genetic manipulation.

Here's the list:*

15. THE WOLF MAN, 1941
Directed by George Waggner
Screenplay by Curt Siodmak

Strangely-American Lawrence Talbot, Lon Chaney, Jr., returns home to his native England, and finds himself turning into a beast during the full moon after he was attacked by a wolf. 

The Wolf Man is included in the pantheon of classic Universal horror films, but this film is simply not in the same class as The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula or even The Creature From The Black Lagoon. The production and art direction tries but fails to capture the style of the classic films from the 1930s. Everything is a little too slick and streamlined. More importantly, I simply didn't buy Lon Chaney, Jr., in the title role. It isn't that I didn't find him sufficiently angst-ridden. He was. He efficiently conveyed the torment of the doomed. I simply couldn't buy Chaney as Claude Rains' son, a scion of British nobility. He was too American, and too contemporary to fit into the mode. That said, I had a much easier time accepting him in the sequels, particularly Frankenstein meets the Wolfman, which removed his character from the original social context. I don't mean to be too hard on the film. It is an effective film - just not a true classic.


Directed by Charles Barton

Two inept deliverymen find themselves in the middle of a monster mash-up with the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and the Wolfman, not to mention a brief cameo by the invisible man.

In an early example of attempting to create a Marvel-style cinematic "universe," Universal Pictures combined their money-making monsters in a series of combos including House of FrankensteinHouse of Dracula and Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman. If you are a fan of Hollywood horror of this period, you will find something to enjoy in each of those pictures. I included this film because it was my favorite mash-up of my youth. Although I have much less patience for them now, I really loved the comedy team of Abbott and Costello when I was young. Because I also loved monster movies, this was my favorite of their films. I also included this film over the others because this was the only time Universal allowed Lugosi to revisit the Dracula character on screen. Sadly, one of the drawbacks of this film is that the Dracula character has none of the otherworldly menace of Lugosi's original incarnation. His dialogue and motivations are too 1940s, if you know what I mean. Still, it is a sentimental favorite, and a massive hit at the time at temporarily revived Abbott & Costello's sagging fortunes at the box office.


13. WHITE ZOMBIE, 1932
Directed by Victor Halperin
Story & Dialogue by Garnett Weston

A Haitian plantation owner covets the newlywed bride of another and convinces Voodoo doctor Bela Lugosi to turn her into a zombie so that he can possess her.

Bela Lugosi turned down the role of the Frankenstein monster for this?  Really? Well, in his defense, this role certainly had more lines. Bela was somewhat indiscriminate in his acting choices. He would follow up a big studio picture with a poverty row production -- ultimately devaluing himself in the process. This film falls into the later category. However, it is perhaps the best of Lugosi's low budget films. Although little over-the-top at times, Lugosi is perfect for the role an evil sugar mill owner who knows the secret of bringing back the soulless dead. It is a great vehicle for his distinctive presence and mannerisms. The scene of the bride preparing for her wedding reveals this is a pre-code film. The film also sadly displays some causal racism of the time when the grieving husband, told that his bride might have been turned into a zombie by a "native," replies, "Better dead than that."

Here's the whole film:


12. SON OF DRACULA, 1943
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Screenplay by Eric Taylor and Curt Siodmak

Count Dracula arrives in the American Deep South at the invitation of an heiress who wants to be his bride. However, little does the Count realize that he is but a pawn in her larger game plan.

This film features an unusually sophisticated plot for the time. The heiress, an occult enthusiast, brings Dracula to America to make her a vampire. Then, she plans to destroy him so that she can make her fiancĂ© a vampire so that they can enjoy unending life together. Not only is the plot interesting, the film is also extremely well-executed. Dracula and the Old South are an effective mix. The sets are atmospheric, and some of the visuals, like the coffin in the swamp, are quite memorable. There is only one drawback: Our Dracula:  Lon Chaney, Jr. It isn't that he's bad. In fact, at moments, he gives the Count an interesting if unexpected physicality. But, once again, he's just too American. 

Come on.... Why couldn't they just get Bela back! It isn't like he was trying to distance himself from the character. He had himself buried in the cape! And it isn't like Universal didn't want to use Lugosi in 1943. They used him as the monster in Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman that same year! This film is quite good by Universal's 1940s horror standards. However, had it starred Bela Lugosi, I honestly believe it might have been an all-time classic.


11. THE BLACK CAT, 1934
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay by Peter Ruric
Story by Edgar G. Ulmer and Peter Ruric
Suggested by the story by Edgar Allan Poe

Two honeymooners traveling in Eastern Europe find themselves pawns in a battle of wits between a Satanist, Boris Karloff, and a disturbed doctor, Bela Lugosi, seeking revenge for the death of his wife and daughter.

This is perhaps the best equal teaming of Karloff and Lugosi. (The best film they appeared together in was The Body Snatcher, but Lugosi was relegated to a small supporting role in that one.) This film, while having essentially nothing to do with the Poe story, is demented enough in its own right. It is practically pre-code in its storyline. Satanist Karloff steals Lugosi's wife, and, after her death, marries Lugosi's daughter as her replacement. (Karloff also keeps mom's body on display in the basement.) This film also proves a role reversal for Karloff and Lugosi. In their early pairings, Karloff usually plays the more sympathetic character. The victim. Here, however, Karloff is the villain. Still, Karloff manages to deliver the deeper performance. He plays his character with a sense of resignation. He appreciates Lugosi's desire for revenge, although he certainly plans to beat him.

This is probably the most underrated film on the list. If you like horror films of this period, you should definitely check it out.



Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath
Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson

In this adaptation of the classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, conscientious Dr. Jekyll develops a drug that allows him to separate the good and evil aspects of his personality, thereby unleashing Mr. Hyde.

Over seventy years have passed since the initial release of this film, but the Fredric Marsh version remains the best depiction of this oft-told tale. Academy Awards are rarely given to actors for roles in horror films. Fredric Marsh won an Oscar for his performance in this film, and deservedly so. However, Oscar probably found itself in March's hands more easily than expected because, unlike the other classic horror films of period, this film is less a monster movie than an universal examination of the human heart.

The average movie-goer doesn't have to worry too much about tampering in God's domain by bringing a corpse back to life or have to worry about someone trying to drive a stake into their heart, but who hasn't found themselves trying to conform their lusts or desires to socially-accepted norms. This film is blatantly sexual for a film of its time in its motivations. Jekyll is engaged to be married to a proper young woman played by Rose Hubert. His fervent but healthy sexual desire is thwarted by the woman's father who demands requires a long engagement. Too much of a gentlemen to compromise his fiancee, Jekyll is pushed over the edge when he meets a seductive prostitute named Ivy, Miriam Hopkins. He then decides to test his drug which will split him into two individuals, one good enough for his fiancee, one bold enough to indulge his unbridled lusts. Unfortunately, his dark personality, Mr. Hyde, isn't easily put away once released.

Director Rouben Mamoulian deserves considerable credit for the film's success. His direction, while not quite as showy as James Whale's direction on the Frankenstein films, is both effective and inventive. His use of subjective camera foreshadowed John Carpenter's steadicam killer in Halloween by forty-seven years. His use of filters to create the first transformation is nothing short of amazing. Too bad he didn't work more in the genre.

Superior to the 1941 version starring Spencer Tracy. Tracy is one of the most skilled actors of the period, but I never bought him as Hyde.

I couldn't find the trailer, but here's the first transformation:


Directed by Eric C. Kenton
Screenplay by Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie
Based on the novel by H.G. Wells

Mad scientist, Charles Laughton, does a little forced Darwinism by creating half-human/half-animal mutants that he rules over.

Paramount's entry into the early horror sweepstakes is a pretty good one. Charles Laughton plays Dr. Moreau, who aims to become a God to the creatures of his own making in The House of Pain. Bela Lugosi also appears one of the half-humans known as the Sayer of the Law. This is another great little pre-code law that actually teases beastiality as a visitor to the island is expected to mate with The Panther Woman. In an age where boundless DNA manipulation is possible, this film should resonant more now than it did on its release.  Are we not men, indeed.


Directed by James Whale
Screenplay by R.C. Sherriff
Based on the novel by H.G. Wells

A scientist, Claude Rains, who discovers a drug capable of rendering a person invisible, goes dangerously insane through its use.

This is another one of my favorite films of childhood. Cemented by a great performance by Claude Rains, in his talkie debut, the film also benefits from the strong direction of James Whales. He was a master of the genre. It is a pity he didn't work more! The film also features then state of the art special effects. A thoroughly entertaining film.


7. CAT PEOPLE, 1942
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen

An American marries a woman from Serbia who avoids intimacy with him because she fears her passion will turn her into a leopard.

This is a great film of understated horror. The monster exists off camera, in the shadows. It was RKO's biggest hit of the year, dwarfing Citizen Kane at the box office, and lead to a highly-successful series of horror films and thrillers from producer Val Lewton. Lewton's films were definitely the best and most influential horror films of the 1940s. Sadly, some of the best ones like The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead don't fit the definition of horror that I hamstrung myself with at the beginning of this series of blogs. Still, all of the Val Lewton films of the time are worth watching. The weakest of them, oddly, is the sequel to this film!


6. VAMPYR, 1932
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Screenplay by Carl Theodor Dreyer and Christian Jul
Based on a book by Sheridan Le Fanu

A young man obsessed with the occult goes to a hotel where he believes the daughter of the owner is a victim of a vampire.

This is a really odd German language film shot with a predominately amateur cast, which feels more like a silent than a talkie. The tone is surreal, dream-like and very eerie with a fluid camera style not usually found in early talkies. I do not think this is a film the modern moviegoer will embrace, but those who do will be treated to some arresting images like the famous burial sequence. The film has a dark, transgressive tone missing from the major studio films of the period. You're never quite sure good will triumph over evil.

You can watch the whole film here:


5. FRANKENSTEIN, 1931
Directed by James Whale
Screenplay by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh
Based on the composition by John L. Balderston
Based on the play by Peggy Webling
Based on the novel by Mary Shelley

Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Colin Clive, foolishly ventures into God's domain when he gives life to a creature he constructed from corpses in this classic adaptation of the novel by Mary Shelley.

I am somewhat surprised that this film manages to retain its power over me. If someone were to remake this film with the same script, I would probably complain that it was too slow, lacked sufficient character development, was overly-melodramatic, and veered too far from the source material. Still, despite its problems, this film still works for me. Why? First, this film has something many modern horror films lack: atmosphere. The sets... The lighting.... Of course, there's nothing real about them, but that's part of the fun. Secondly, there are some good performances. Colin Clive is certainly over the top, but wonderfully so. His mad and impassioned "It's alive" is one of the classic moments in cinema. While Mae Clark and John Boles seem to have wandered in from some drawing room drama, Edward Van Sloan manages to provide a sturdy performance. However, the film belongs to Boris Karloff. His Frankenstein monster is more than make-up - though the make-up is magnificent. Karloff imbues the monster with an aching touch of humanity. He makes the film a pleasure to watch. It remains a true classic which only suffers in comparison to its sequel The Bride of Frankenstein.


4. KING KONG, 1933
Screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose

Documentary filmmaker Carl Denham hires a ship to take him and his crew to find a rumored giant, ape-like monster. After many fatalities, he captures the beast and returns him to New York.

This is a granddaddy of all giant monster movies. The stop motion animation absolutely amazed audiences at the time, and it still captures the imagination today. The amount of empathy the giant ape manages to achieve it remarkable. It is one thing to move a doll a little bit frame-by-frame. It is another thing entirely to get an audience to care about it. As exciting as the battles with the dinosaurs on island are, the film really comes alive when the action moves to New York. Kong battling the airplanes from atop the Empire State Building in one of the classic moments in all of cinema.


3. DRACULA, 1931
Screenplay by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston
Based on the play by Garrett Fort 
Based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Bela Lugosi forever captures the role of a certain undead Transylvanian count who takes a trip to London in the first legitimate version of the classic Bram Stoker novel.

Despite many attempts by many talented film makers, I believe this version, directed by Tod Browning, remains the definitive take on the often-filmed novel. But why? Is it simply nostalgia? Granted, I do fondly remember staying up late as a child watching this film on Ghost Host theater and finding myself suitably frightened. However, if I were the same age today, would I find the film as effective? Would a steady diet of more modern and explicit horror films made me too jaded to enjoy the more subtle charms of this film? I hope not, but I could see how it might. The film is slow, and its slowness is further emphasized by the absence of an under score. It is stagey, being as it was more influenced by the play than the novel itself. Also, the story plays itself out too quickly. Van Helsing manages to figure everything out and dispatch the count in about two seconds. There simply isn't much suspense - and even less gore or violence. Yet it remains the champ. Why? The main reason is Lugosi himself. He gives the performance of a lifetime. He truly inhabits the role and is genuinely creepy. The rest of the cast, particularly Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing and Dwight Frye as Renfield, support him admirably. However, when I watch the old Universal horror films nowadays, I find myself really enjoying the atmospheric sets and lighting. Yes, there is still much to love about Dracula today.


2. THE MUMMY, 1932
Directed by Karl Freud
Screenplay by John L. Balderston

Boris Karloff plays Imhotep, a cursed Egyptian buried alive 3700-years-ago, who returns to life to claim the reincarnation of his lost-love in this Universal classic.

Moody, understated and succinct, The Mummy is one of the best films from Universal's classic horror period. Although much of the success can be credited to first time director Karl Freund, who normally worked as a top cinematographer, and the brilliant make-up artist Jack P. Pierce, it is Boris Karloff who gives the film its resonance. As he previously did with the Frankenstein monster, Karloff imbues this character with an aching sense of humanity which was completely absent in the later incarnations of the Mummy character. Credit must also be given to the able supporting cast including Zita Johann and the always reliable Edward Van Sloan. Now here's a question. Is the film scary by today's standards? I guess I'd have to say not really. However, few modern horror films have stuck with me as long as this one.


Directed by James Whale
Screenplay by William Hurlbut
Suggested by the novel by Mary Shelley

Goaded by an evil former instructor, Professor Pretorius, Henry Frankenstein makes a mate for his monster in this magnificent sequel to the 1931 version of Frankenstein

There have been thousands of horror movies since the birth of cinema. Many vie for the title of the best. This film, directed with style by James Whale, gets my vote as the best horror film of all time. Despite its age, this film has lost none of its ability to entertain. It is a vast improvement over the original, if only for the delicious sense of humor, which infuses the entire film. If the original was a dour cautionary tale about dangers of playing God, this film, through the character of Dr. Pretorius, seems to revel in its blasphemies. As Dr. Pretorius, Ernest Thesiger gives one of the most memorable performances in the annals of horror cinema. However, as was the case with the original, this film belongs ultimately belongs to Boris Karloff as the monster. The decision to let the monster speak, though apparently opposed by both Karloff and Whale, was brilliant. The tortured humanity of the monster simply pours out of him. It is a great performance, whose brilliance is further underscored by the fact that none of the actors who followed Karloff into the role were able to make you care about the monster. Before long, the monster would be little more than a prop. There is so much to praise about this film, from the atmospheric sets, the cinematography, the makeup (Elsa Lancaster's Bride also became an immediate cinematic icon) and stalwart work of the supporting actors. This is James Whale's masterpiece. My only complaint is the totally unnecessary introduction. It takes a great film to overcome such a boring, stilted opening sequence. Fortunately, this is a great film.


Honorable Mention:

DOCTOR X, 1932. Technically a crime film. Interesting two strip technicolor. WEREWOLF OF LONDON, 1935. The first werewolf film also deserves an extra nod for inspiring the classic Warren Zevon song. THE RAVEN, 1935. One of the best pairings of Lugosi and Karloff, with Lugosi in the driver's seat, but it is more a crime film than a horror film. DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, 1936. Not a bad film, but I would have preferred to see Lugosi don the cape again in a sequel instead. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1939. Karloff's last film as the monster with Basil Rathbone as the doctor. Yes, please. Should have been in the Top 15, too, but I already had two Frankenstein films. THE MUMMY'S HAND, 1940. This sequel to The Mummy isn't in the same league as the original.  DR. CYCLOPS, 1940. A rare Paramount entry in the horror genre features Albert Dekker as a mad scientist shrinking people. THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1942. Bela Lugosi finally enters the series as Ygor.  FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, 1943. Lugosi turned down the role of the monster in the original film, but plays him here.  Too late.  Interestingly, the monster was supposed to speak in this film but they simply dumped the dialogue. THE MUMMY'S GHOST, 1944. I had this one on Super 8mm, but that doesn't make it a suitable inheritor to Karloff's original. HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1944. Karloff is promoted (demoted?) from the monster to the doctor.  THE BODY SNATCHER, 1945. Karloff gives his best performance in this Robert Wise directed version of the Robert Louis Stevenson story.  Not technically a horror film. HOUSE OF DRACULA, 1945. It's Dracula's house and Bela's not at home? No, thanks. ISLE OF THE DEAD, 1945. Karloff leads a group of people who fall victim to superstition while quarantined on an island. DEAD OF NIGHT, 1945. I really debated putting this one of the Top 15 list, but, although I have seen this anthology film many times, the only segment I really remember was the one with the ventriloquist dummy. That segment, alone, should have been enough...

*I repurposed some of my reviews previously posted elsewhere in this blog.

Other Lists:

Top 10 Comedies of the 2000s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1990s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1980s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1970s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1960s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1950s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1940s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1930s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2010s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2000s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1990s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1980s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1970s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1960s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1950s
Top 15 Horror Films of the 1930s and 1940s
My 10 Favorite James Bonds Films
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My 10 Favorite Laurel & Hardy Shorts
My 5 Favorite Westerns
7 Guy Films
20 Films, or Confessions of a Misspent Youth
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The Chaplin Mutual Shorts Ranked
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My 20 Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Least Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Favorite Rolling Stones Albums
My 5 Favorite Dylan Albums
Halloween Recommends

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