List: Top 10 Pre-Code Horror Films


For anyone who doesn’t know, ‘Pre-Code’ refers to a period in American film starting in 1930 and ending in 1934. While ‘Pre-Code’ suggests a time in film before the Production Code, a set of censorship guidelines created by advocate for morality Will Hays, the title is misleading. The Production Code was created in 1930 but was not enforced until 1934. Once it was, it became nearly impossible to get your film seen without being passed by the Code. But between 1930 and 1934, studios found they could get away with quite a bit, making for an entirely idiosyncratic batch of films that carried an incomparable attitude and swagger that was heavily diluted once the Code kicked in.

A number of different genres found their claim to fame within the studio system. These include but are not limited to the gangster film, female-dominated films (usually focusing in part on women’s freedom to casually sleep around without being criticized or punished for it; something entirely lost come Code enforcement), the musical and of course the horror film. Universal may be the primary studio known for their output in horror during this time, but almost all of the major studios dabbled in the genre. Pre-Code horror has a number of recurring traits; tendency towards novelistic adaptation, spill-over influence of German Expressionism, dependence on showcasing breakout stars by building films around them, streamlined run times, throwaway filler characters, prioritization of visualized atmosphere and most fun of all, a running streak of morbid sadism that prods at Pre-Code boundaries.

Note: I used a very broad use of the horror genre for this list. There are several films on this list that do not fit comfortably in the horror genre, but do contain horror in some fashion. Also, I do not like claiming ‘best’; I can only account for what I personally find to be good or bad, interesting or uninteresting.

All summaries taken from Internet Movie Database.

10. Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, Curtiz)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Summary: In London, sculptor Ivan Igor struggles in vain to prevent his partner Worth from burning his wax museum…and his ‘children.’ Years later, Igor starts a new museum in New York, but his maimed hands confine him to directing lesser artists. People begin disappearing (including a corpse from the morgue); Igor takes a sinister interest in Charlotte Duncan, fiancée of his assistant Ralph, but arouses the suspicions of Charlotte’s roommate, wisecracking reporter Florence.

When it came down to picking between this and Svengali, I realized either film could have been in this number 10 spot. What made me choose ‘Mystery’, the second Curtiz-directed two-toned Technicolor (Doctor X being the first), is that it’s a surprisingly fun ride…so much so that it sets itself apart from the other films on this list (except for number 5 but they are both such different beasts). It retains just enough for it to pass the horror test, but more importantly, it plays out like a light female-fronted detective film. Front and center is Glenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey, a firecracker of a reporter who presents herself as a hardworking ace and a casual party-goer with zingers to spare (and she can run circles around her male coworkers to boot). She may get a tad annoying from time to time, but I was impressed by how refreshing her character is even now, in that her agency drives the entire picture.

The highlights of ‘Mystery’ come from the non-horror elements; the audience is tricked into buying into one love interest, before it throws an entirely different and successful match at us in its final 30 seconds! A scene between Farrell and roommate (and catalyst for Lionel Atwill’s nefarious deeds) Fay Wray shows a casual air between two female friends that, even in its touch-and-go sparring, feels like it captures something authentic about two young women rooming together in a big city.  Between all this, there’s Lionel Atwill, who gets a much better chance to shine here than he did in Doctor X or Murders in the Zoo.

Pacing issues prevail throughout mainly because the scenes with Farrell are jarring in their rapidity when placed against anything else. But this took me by surprise; it’s underrated and more than deserves a look, and not just because this is where the origins of House of Wax lay.

9. The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Pichel)
Studio: RKO
Summary: An insane hunter arranges for a ship to be wrecked on an island where he can indulge in some sort of hunting and killing of the passengers.

A precursor to King Kong if you will, with RKO, Fay Wray and an island setting all in test-drive mode. The earliest filmed incarnation of a Battle Royale-esque concept I can think of, this is based on a 1924 short story where the humans become the hunted. As its placement here indicates, I prefer this to King Kong. Seeing the cast of characters slowly realize their predicament is well-executed. The existence of a 1932 film with this plot makes for an automatic treat. The dialogue is solid and Fay Wray is, again, divine. My big problem is that Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff does not work. He is far too artificial and hammy in his performance (even by early talkies standard) to register and this hinders the entire film.

8. Frankenstein (1931, Whale)
Studio: Universal
Summary: Horror classic in which an obsessed scientist assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses.

It could definitely be said that Frankenstein is a better film than a few of my higher choices. I used to place this in the same overrated pile as Dracula, but over the years I have come around on it. The source material is one of my favorite books and while the themes are truncated to the point of near evaporation (outside of the critical element of Karloff’s yearning which allows the film to ultimately work), the poor script is overcome by Whale’s glorious direction and Karloff’s magnificent performance. It says a lot that Karloff’s work makes up for the disappointing removal of his character’s ability to speak (my favorite aspect and section of the novel). How great would that have been to see with his glorious voice?

In a Gothic Literature class I wrote a response paper on the decision to change his character’s name from ‘The Creature’ as it is in the book, to ‘The Monster’ as he is represented in the film, and what it says about the thematic prioritization in each. That essential element of yearning on the part of Karloff is retained, allowing the entire film to pay-off beautifully. The famous scene in which Karloff murders the young girl is a milestone scene in Pre-Code cinema. Truncated as the film may be, it keeps the all-too important question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ and, taken as on its own terms, the film works even today.

7. The Black Cat (1934, Ulmer)
Studio: Universal
Summary: American honeymooners in Hungary are trapped in the home of a Satan- worshiping priest when the bride is taken there for medical help following a road accident.

If you need any further incentive to see this, just know that Karloff and Lugosi’s characters are named Hjalmar Poelzig and Dr. Vitus Werdegast, which serves as a hint for what you are in for. The Black Cat is a thoroughly bizarre and nonsensical trip featuring the first Karloff/Lugosi onscreen pairing and boy oh boy do they get to face-off. Their dialogue exchanges drip like a poison-tipped pen as they out-act each other. There is even a chess game with sky-high stakes. Classical music plays over almost every scene, an unheard of gesture at this point. The setting is an art director’s wet dream; an art-deco haven complete with digital clocks! And the title? The Black Cat has nothing to do with Poe; Lugosi’s character just happens to be deathly afraid of cats! Seriously; this film makes next to no sense, which is why a bit of surrender to it is necessary to appreciate it. For every bit of confusion and/or scene with the dull as doornails central couple, we are given highlights like the memorable trip into Karloff’s mausoleum containing the suspended body of Lugosi’s long-dead wife. This is one of the more twisted titles on either list.

Pre-Code Goodies: Lots. Karloff shown sleeping in the same bed as another woman (breaking the absolutely forbidden one-bed rule) and who can forget that flaying?

6. The Mummy (1932, Freund)
Studio: Universal
Summary: In 1921 a field expedition in Egypt discovers the mummy of ancient Egyptian prince Im-Ho-Tep, who was condemned and buried alive for sacrilege. Also found in the tomb is the Scroll of Thoth, which can bring the dead back to life. One night a young member of the expedition reads the Scroll out loud, and then goes insane, realizing that he has brought Im-Ho-Tep back to life. Ten years later, disguised as a modern Egyptian, the mummy attempts to reunite with his lost love, an ancient princess who has been reincarnated into a beautiful young woman.

If it isn’t clear by this point; I am a *huge* Boris Karloff fan. He was a master at his craft and one of the few actors who I would gladly watch in absolutely anything and everything he has done. He instantly elevates anything he appears in. My favorite performance of his is in 1945’s The Body Snatcher, a vastly underrated film (one that I rank up there with Cat People and The Leopard Man as far as Val Lewton produced fare goes). Just like Lon Chaney, his work goes so far beyond the makeup. That voice alone.

Getting back on track, The Mummy satisfies on every level. It has shivery moments, such as that prologue with the man-gone-mad pay-off. Karloff is all over this film barely concealing his character’s ulterior motives with a transparent soft kindliness. Then we have director Karl Freund who, in all honesty, is one of my favorite people ever to exist in the film industry. You know how some people have their favorite historical figures? Well, in the world of film history, Karl Freund is one of mine. The film moves along at a click and is consistent throughout (not something I can say for a lot of the films seen for this list, even some of the ones I really like). The leading lady here often gets overlooked but Zita Johann is a strong in both performance and character. Considering the number of other films with insufferable female leads (Mask of Fu Manchu, The Black Cat, White Zombie, Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue), this is a major plus. Finally, we get a short silent film within a film as a special treat.

Pre-Code Goodies: Zita Johann’s wardrobe for the climax is quite revealing.

5. The Old Dark House (1932, Whale)
Studio: Universal
Summary: Seeking shelter from a pounding rainstorm in a remote region of Wales, several travelers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the extremely strange Femm family.

The Old Dark House is Karloff’s follow-up role to Frankenstein with both films directed by James Whale. Funnily enough, Karloff does not get much to do here. Despite top billing, he is a mute butler who I recall mainly lumbering in and out of the frame. Yet the film starts out with this little ditty written onscreen:

Producer’s Note: Karloff, the mad butler in this production, is the same Karloff who created the part of the mechanical monster in Frankenstein. We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility.

Despite the hubbub surrounding Karloff here, and given how much of a fan of his I am, he does not factor into why this shows up on this list. What does account for its placement is that it stands out from the pack as a witty little oddity that crackles with personality and humor, while still being eerie. Whale’s atmospheric ‘old dark house’ uses creaking windows, barren hallways and dimly lit surroundings and allows it to work in tandem with the comedic elements. Our ‘ordinary’ characters find themselves at the house and are surrounded by a peculiar smorgasbord of a family. This collision between ordinary and peculiar characters makes for interactions throughout the film that are consistently weird, and that is where the humor comes into play. It’s almost like a warped sitcom at times and it’s a lot of fun. And that cast; while Karloff skulks in the background just enjoy seeing Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey onscreen together. For a Pre-Code Horror film to have a cast filled to the brim with legitimately talented people is a one-time thing. Savor it.

4. The Invisible Man (1933, Whale)
Studio: Universal
Summary: A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane.

I will not have much to say about The Invisible Man because it has been about seven years since I’ve seen it. That I remember my reaction to the film, proclaiming it to be one of my favorites immediately upon finishing is a strong indicator for its high spot. It is the film that made me fall in love with Claude Rains, an actor who I rank among Lon Chaney, Charles Laughton, Conrad Veidt and Boris Karloff on a list of favorite classic actors. He only has his voice to get characterization across (and what a voice it is).

The effects are still impressive today as they harken back to a time where effects inspired less reactions like ‘how did they do that?’ and more reactions like ‘oh my Lord, Claude Rains is invisible!’. Rains gets himself into pretty muddy waters as he slips further and further from sanity; the joy comes from getting the progressive sense of characterization through only voice and dialogue and not sight. Just writing about what I can recall is making me realize just how badly I need to see this again.

3. Freaks (1932, Browning)
Studio: MGM
Summary: A circus’ beautiful trapeze artist agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.

What hasn’t been said about Freaks, the film that ruined director Tod Browning’s career and is now hailed by many as a masterpiece. This is a one-of-a-kind to be sure and thankfully, due to a rampant following that began many decades ago, no longer an unfairly maligned diamond in the rough. The message here is that monstrosity exists on the inside, not the outside. And in this case, the ‘freaks’ in question are kind-hearted and well-meaning souls, who have learned to take their outcast status and transform it into communal pride. The real ‘freak’ in question is the outwardly beautiful Cleopatra, played by the awesome Olga Baclanova, who manipulates, cheats and attempts murder in order to get rich from Hans (Harry Earles), a sideshow dwarf. Her fate is legendary in film history, a reveal that remains unsurpassed in its effect.

The use of people with various extreme deformities seems exploitative, and on some level of course it is. But on another more important level, Browning treats his characters with empathy and care, making their appearance something that serves as shock value only when it needs to.

2. Island of Lost Souls (1932, Kenton)
Studio: Paramount
Summary: An obsessed scientist conducts profane experiments in evolution, eventually establishing himself as the self-styled demigod to a race of mutated, half-human abominations.

If you haven’t seen Island of Lost Souls, this is the perfect time as the film was just released on Criterion Collection. I have sadly been unable to purchase it due to monetary constraints, but believe it is at the top of my to-buy list.

An adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau, ‘Lost Souls’ is drenched in sadistic perversity and who better to headline such a sentiment than Charles Laughton? There are so many reasons why this film is brilliant; not least that it balances questions of deeper meaning with schlocky goodness. On the one hand there are questions about the line between men and animal, does that line even exist and should we even be so bold as to test it? On the other hand there’s Kathleen Burke as ‘The Panther Woman’, a role cast in a publicized nation-wide search and man-animal amalgams on display as Moreau’s slaves are revealed to our hero Ed Parker (Richard Arlen).

The entire film is unsettling and this is exuded through Charles Laughton whose performance cannot be praised enough. He transcends the early talkie stigma and is transfixing in every shot and with every line of dialogue. Take his cruel plan to get the ‘Panther Woman’ to mate with Ed, in the hopes of breeding between one of his creations and a human. He tells her to go speak with him and as she does he watches, his eyes intent with sick voracity. It is sublimely troubling, even as a viewer, to see Laughton so desperate for control that he must be onsite at every possible moment, subtlety be damned.

Moreau’s desperate thirst for god-like control straddles his very real genius and his equally real sadistic nature. Whip-in-hand. his creations become his slaves where he rules his own world, king of his own self-built island of ‘lost souls’. Bela Lugosi has a small but pivotal role as the Sayer of the Law, leader of the animal-men. He asks the others, and the audience “Are we not men?” Devo’s answer to that is “We are Devo”. What’s yours?

1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932, Mamoulian)
Studio: Paramount
Summary: Dr. Jekyll faces horrible consequences when he lets his dark side run wild with a potion that changes him into the animalistic Mr. Hyde.

It is necessary to appreciate how much Rouban Mamoulian was doing to experiment with the visual language of narrative film in a time where a primary concern was just getting the sound to come out right. Mamoulian, lucky enough to find a studio that encouraged his inventiveness (instead of requiring that he blend in as was done in the studio era), throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. We open with a 5 minute point-of-view shot that must have been hell to get right and stuns in technical achievement alone. Throughout, we also get innovative use of sound, following up on what he accomplished with 1929’s Applause. This goes so far beyond the limits of what could be considered stylized in a 1932 Hollywood film. But I’ll let you discover that on your own.

A really insightful scene-by-scene write-up of the film exists on a blog called And You Call Yourself a Scientist! I suggest you check it out; I read it immediately after seeing the film. I have never read the book, but there is so much that can be discussed from the adaptation choices (that I’ve read about without having read the source material), to how the visuals support the film’s deeper meanings and what those deeper meanings are. The seedy underground of London provides the backdrop as well as a contrast to decadent upper-class London. Hyde is a brute who gives into his violent urges at the expense of poor poor Miriam Hopkins who really kills it as prostitute Ivy Pearson. Her downfall is not easy to watch, especially by Pre-Code standards, because we actually feel like she has been through something severely traumatic. It may not be seen, but everything that is implied suggests humiliation, torture and rape, and it’s tragic once those implications hit the audience in the face.

The film is ambiguous as to just how much Jekyll remembers of his time as Hyde and it makes for a really active viewing from the audience. Our feelings towards him are being yanked in every direction.

What’s more is that the film uses the Pre-Code freedom in a way that revolves everything around sexual urges. In fact, its message implies that letting oneself go sexually is important. Hyde’s emergence is a result of his repression from Muriel (Rose Hobart), both of whom want to push their wedding date up assumedly so they can get at it (let’s also applaud the film’s matter-of-fact acknowledgement of female sexual urges through Muriel). The film’s ‘sexual repression isn’t good’ streak combats with the other side of the extreme; Hyde’s maniacal which clearly isn’t good either. The villains in most of these other films have other motivations of some kind, but Hyde is just pure cruelty. And what makes him so troubling is that he isn’t unhinged to the point of animal. He is calculating and brutal, and giddy about it. He is a creature operating on sadism; that this is his primary function is what makes him stand out from the crowd.

I chose this as my number one because it knocked me on my feet visually and thematically. It is filled with riches that will undoubtedly continue to reward upon repeat viewings and fantastic work from Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins.

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9 thoughts on “List: Top 10 Pre-Code Horror Films

  1. You’ve just enlarged my Blockbuster queue, so thank you. This was awesome. I have to admit I haven’t seen most of these, but the history lesson beforehand made me want to see them even more.

  2. this list is amazing. I haven’t seen Mystery of the Wax Museum or The Old Dark House, but they sound amazing. I love March as Jekyll/Hyde and Rains as the Invisible Man. perfect casting is perfect. I would also switch Bride of Frankenstein for Frankenstein, but that’s just a personal preference.

    1. thank you so much! I actually didn’t count Bride of Frankenstein because it came out in 1935, which was after the Pre-Code period. But I prefer it to Frankenstein too! : )

  3. Bravo on your great choices for your top 10 list! I’ve seen all these films and they richly deserve recognition as pre-Code gems. I admit that I love Leslie Banks’ over-the-top performance in ‘The Most Dangerous Game’; but it’s just a smashing movie, with a great Max Steiner score. And Mamoulian’s experimental techniques in his 1932 Jekyll/Hyde adaptation astonish even today. Thanks for your wonderful write-up.

  4. LJ says:

    I absolutely love Island of Lost Souls. (I recently picked up the Criterion Blu-ray) I have also seen (and enjoyed) The Old Dark House and Freaks. Now I will have to track down some of these other Pre code Classics. Thanks…

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