Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Three – Horror

Approaching the halfway point of 1958 Watchlist and finding myself largely distanced from the content so far. My appreciation for individual films is defined by larger contexts i.e considering where cinema was at this point in time, tracking formal and narrative emergence, established modes and the increasingly outdated. I’ve a long way to go, but true immersion in the cinematic universe of 1958 is, as of right now, a rarity.

attack of the 50ft womanAttack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958, Juran) (US)
Starting off with a brief trip into sci-fi. Equivalent to an average albeit stretched out “Twilight Zone” episode (every one of its 60 some odd minutes are felt) with its hearty helpings of melodrama and noir. A peculiar little item that never becomes much of anything, but the effects transcend bad to become simultaneously riotous, nonsensical, and even haunting.

The Blob
(1958, Yeaworth Jr.) (US)

Youth: the newly favored benefit-of-the-doubt perspective of 50’s American cinema. The Blob is a very early example of teens taking center stage in horror. Of course, we now recognize them as a predominant demographic for both onscreen slaughter and off-screen viewership. And try as I might, it’s difficult to think of earlier examples of growing pains and pleasures at the center of horror. Scientists, fully formed mad men, and unsuspecting women held the reins in decades previous. This fusion between sci-fi/horror and the new teen cinema of the 50’s sounds far more promising than it is. Essentially a feature length reminder of the communication gap and inherent distrust between adults and kids, The Blob is a ‘but you gotta believe me’ story of supposed troublemakers crying wolf and a bunch of adults and idiot cops that just won’t listen. Perhaps it would have been more engaging if the supposed troublemakers in question actually had a renegade streak running through their veins. Instead, age and bad situational timing are the sole markers of invalidation.

The Blob is one of three films in this post that help introduce Technicolor to the horror world. Until this point its visual language was exclusively expressed in blacks, whites, grays; the unknowable shadows. Hammer Horror in the UK changed that, splattering untapped possibilities of color to the genre with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. The immediate impact in America can be seen with both this and The Fly (which takes things one step further, being shot in CinemaScope). The crimson red of blood is replaced with the crimson red of the blob itself, a gelatinous being with no rationale or character, only the patient drive for sustenance.

The Blob peaks early with its kooky title song and the first scene between Steve McQueen and his lady friend in a car with an entirely black background, dislodged from visible surroundings.

The Fly 1958The Fly (1958, Neumann) (US)
A standard 50’s don’t fuck with nature B-story, but not a B-movie, as illustrated by the atypical presentational pairing of lux Cinemascope. Also atypical is its structure, starting as a domestic murder mystery and segueing into a lengthy cautionary tale flashback. The Fly misuses its time in some pretty egregious ways (ten minutes are spent trying to catch a fly), but the moments of screechy pleas and kaleidoscopic perspectives break through the dryness in ways that elicit shivers.

No doubt about it, body horror is the most unnerving kind out there. While David Cronenberg’s far superior take details the vile minutiae of bodily transformation, the emphasis here, when it strives to be, is on change after the fact, particularly the sudden loss of will and the self. But since Andre (David Hedison) is and remains a remote presence (to us and the film) married to science, his wife’s (Patricia Owens) experience is foregrounded, the aforementioned will and self taking a back seat. The real tragedy is that Andre’s mistake doesn’t alter the household’s norm. He’s still always in the basement, still closed off to the world. By the end, Helene never seems quite appropriately saddened by the loss of her husband, because, well, Andre never contributed much to his family in the first place. His commitment to scientific breakthrough is so absolute that he doesn’t even have the time to be the protagonist of his own story. Once the flashback begins, that honor is, thankfully (in the sense that Hedison is a wet blanket), handed off to Patricia Owens by the irreplaceable Vincent Price as brother-in-law. Her marital commitment ensures that shock gives way to pragmatism, and she does what needs to be done. Once he transforms and loses himself, she sees him as being already gone, 100% Other. The loss of Andre’s identifiable features such as voice and face gradually overpower his ability to still communicate through knocks, typed letters, and increasingly scrawled chalkboard writing.

haunted stranglerThe Haunted Strangler (1958, Day) (UK)
A stuffy affair with Boris Karloff is its sole partially saving grace (even the unnerving face contortions are all his). Shows its hand halfway through when it repositions into a Jekyll and Hyde take that soon finds its own static mold. An intrusively shot hanging at the start contains a tangible dirty perversity that sadly isn’t approached again. This is the second 1958 film I’ve seen (the other being Cairo Station) that uses soaked breasts as a censor-pushing weapon. Unexpectedly contains perhaps the highest ratio of can-can dancing (due to the film’s short length) I’ve ever seen.

horror of draculaHorror of Dracula (1958, Fisher) (UK)
Since this is a go-to exemplary representative of Hammer Horror by many, I question if Hammer is for me. A transitional marker for horror, it arrives after a primary focus on atmospherics and the unseen, during censorship testing, but before transgressions that endure as transgressions on the screen today (this caused quite the stir in the UK upon release but doesn’t retain that sense). Hammer became a 50’s equivalent of the Gainsborough Melodramas of the 40’s in the UK, but not as salacious or intriguing, at least to my eyes.

Of the films in this post, Horror of Dracula makes the most effective use of color, favoring admittedly overlit compositions that nevertheless embellish and flaunt the aristocratic digs. Giallo would eventually run with the horror/color combo, but Terence Fisher lays the foundation for what would become the expressive status quo.

Most admirable are the audacious ways the source material is toyed with, shredded, and effectively pared down. Bram Stoker’s novel becomes enticing mincemeat in the clutches of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. For example; when Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) meets Dracula (Christopher Lee) in the opening minutes, I was thinking about Harker’s unavoidable dopiness. For audiences, Dracula is synonymous with vampire, so we can’t help but unfairly resent him for not knowing the mythos he’s stepped into. Unfair, but true. Just as I think this, it is revealed that Harker already knows who Dracula is, and has willfully entered his headquarters in order to stealthily conquer him! Putting aside the largely dry investigative elements (helped greatly by the velvety dapper presence of Peter Cushing), there is a fixation on what people do in solitude. Harker writes in his journal, Lucy waits for Dracula to ravish her at night, Van Helsing stews in his own thoughts, etc. For a film this short, considerable time is spent showing characters in rooms by themselves.

Christopher Lee’s take on the titular character is widely accepted as iconic. There is a truly frightening use of close-ups starring bloody eye contacts posing as jump scares and the smart use of Lee as a silent-but-growling manifestation (all of his dialogue comes in the first act). But Lee has always come across as a strictly hackneyed presence. Miles above Bela Lugosi whose theatrical stiffness is much worse, he nevertheless lacks the charm, sexuality or danger that supposedly so appalled censors. For all that, one only has to look slightly stage right to Carol Marsh as Lucy, whose brief appearance of clear-eyed sexual menace wafts over everything. Fear bleeds into desire and her anticipatory bedroom stares tell us everything we need to know.

Other Recent Viewings:
The Zero Theorem (2014, Gilliam) ***
L’Intrus (2004, Denis) ***
God Help the Girl (2014, Murdoch) * ½
The Double (2014, Ayoade) ***
Neighbors (2014, Stoller) ** ½
Raze (2014, Waller) *
Gone Girl (2014, Fincher) **** ½
The Boxtrolls (2014, Annable, Stacchi) ****
White Bird in a Blizzard (2014, Araki) ****
Manhunter (1986, Mann) ****
Body Bags (1993, Carpenter/Hooper) ***


Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #50-60

Oz the Great and Powerful

#50. Oz the Great and Powerful (2013, Raimi):


#51. Dreamscape (1984, Ruben)

There’s a reason Dennis Quaid was a star. Every time I see him in a film from the 70’s or 80’s (or hell, even The Parent Trap), I always manage to fall for the guy. He’s a boyish Jack Nicholson without the hard edge or long-range versatility but he can always sell the hell out of smarmy charm. Dreamscape predates the basic idea of Inception by over 25 years. It starts out strong but runs out of steam quickly. It’s got an overreaching conflict, but the screenwriters don’t know how to fill it out, so they make mildly interesting episodes in the meantime. With a nauseating romantic subplot and a pale central through line, the reason to see Dreamscape is the cast and seeing how dreamscapes are interpreted with the 80’s palette at hand. In addition to Quaid you’ve got the legends that are Max Von Sydow AND Christopher Plummer. And as a bonus treat, David Patrick Kelly, the go-to skeevy character actor playing a psychotic dreamlink rival of Quaid’s. He turns into a freaky-deaky stop-motion snake at the end. There’s a short scene where he’s mid-transmutation and it will haunt my nightmares. Kate Capshaw continues to be the worst.

Random Observations:
George Wendt with sinister music; never going to work


#52. Hopscotch (1980, Neame):

Strips away the gadgetry, paranoia and flash of the spy genre, opting for a playfully sly comedy about governmental incompetence and getting even by using secrets as a weapon, not guns. In fact, Walter Matthau’s self-retiring spy never carries one. Really adored this; memorable characters, smart script and Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson’s lived-in, natural repartee.

Random Observations:
Such a memorable introductory scene for Glenda Jackson
“You remind me of my Dad”
“That’s always been my problem”
Sam Waterston added so much to his character too.

Ivan's Childhood Birch Trees
#53. Ivan’s Childhood (1962, Tarkovsky)

A poetically stark debut that unifies nature and the destruction of war as one desolate mass of landscape. Tarkovsky uses the idyllic happier times of Ivan as spatial dream sequences to inform the whole of the narrative. He could have depicted these memories as simply memories, but smartly filtering them through the subconscious makes the journey between the two fluid and makes the linkage further bonded. It also sets the stage for Tarkovsky’s future output, where his penchant for both linking images and exploring and sustaining a metaphysical dreamlike state becomes fundamental. The cinematography is hauntingly carved-out with Yusov’s use of shadow and soft beams of light within angled architecture and his outdoor ruins (and who will ever forget those birch trees). But the sound design really impressed me too, especially the dripping water that uses aural evocation to link back to Ivan’s mother and his childhood. I’m seriously lacking in other Soviet war films that came before and after that similarly highlight the ordeal of the individual; The Cranes Are Flying (Tarkovsky told Yadim Yusov to recreate Sergey Urusevsky’s camerawork) and Ballad of a Soldier being the obvious examples.

Random Observations:
– Even though I’m not sold on the Kholin/Masha subplot being necessary, it’s more than worth it for the visual structure of that scene.
– Loved how subtly off-kilter the dream sequences are, like the vertical level of Ivan moves up and down seamlessly.

Three Kings

#54. Three Kings (1999, Russell)

An original anti-war film that thought-provokingly surprised me. Set in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War during the ceasefire, Three Kings starts as a war comedy but continuously scrapes away until it becomes a war drama. Accompanying the transition is stylistic spectrum that starts kinetically and gradually sobers up. The more conventional final third is supported by what came before to make it successful. Russell employs a ton of different filmmaking techniques to give the film a bleached out high contrast look; an environment with no easy answers but lots and lots of bloodshed.

Random Observations:
– Judy Greer and a very young Alia Shawkat. Arrested Development people!
– Also Judy Greer and George Clooney, who would appear in The Descendants together 12 years later.
– Spike Jonze in a major role is both surreal to see but so welcome.


#55. Time After Time (1979, Meyer)

I’m so happy this is in my life now as it’s one of the best times I’ve had watching a film in a while. See Dark Shadows? This is how you get humor out of time-travel. That’s not to say the film is a comedy, but Malcolm McDowell as H.G Wells is not only adorable but knows how to make his time displacement funny in the first half. The character is scientific and curious, so McDowell never overplays.

Time After Time takes a very silly premise and makes it work by taking turns I didn’t quite expect, establishing a former friendship between Wells and Jack the Ripper (David Warner is, as always, very reliable as a creepy villain) and building a central romance that I was actually invested in, wholesale. This is a rarity folks.

The film gets it right on so many levels. Nicholas Meyer uses the camera to view 1979 San Francisco as Wells sees it. Wells’ first car ride is a great example. I also love how it plays off of Wells and his confident vision of utopia against how he really finds the future and the idea that Jack feels he belongs there. My only complaint is that the climax isn’t quite as interesting as everything that came before.

Oh, and Mary Steenburgen is serving fierce Kate Bush realness.
It’s a new film for me to cherish.

Eta: I’ve just been reminded that Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen fell in love and were married for ten years as a result of working together on this film, something I knew at one point but completely forgot about. That makes it even better!

Monkey Business

56. Monkey Business (1952, Hawks)

A 50’s screwball comedy by Howard Hawks that didn’t quite work for me. Hawks said he never found the premise believable and I have to agree. The film never convincingly establishes its own reality and it nagged at me the whole time. Other films have gotten away with much more outlandish stories, but the effect the formula has on Grant and Rogers is a misstep and played too broadly to boot. It needed to come up with more imaginative and/or interesting ways to depict the de-aging process. Instead, we’ve got Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers acting like they are on drugs. The film comes to a halt each time the formula is taken. At times it’s fun and it starts out strong to be sure, but Monkey Business either needed to commit to anarchy or come up with a less distracting conceit.

Random Observations:
– I still enjoyed quite a bit of this despite large chunks that got on my nerves.
– Little dispiriting George Winslow pops up again, making him one of the three recurring cast members from Hawks’ next film for 20th Century Fox, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The other two are of course Marilyn Monroe and Charles Coburn.
– Watching Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers act like toddlers just put me in the mood for the I Love Lucy episode “Lucy Fakes Illness”. “ON MY TRICYCLE ON MY TRICYCLE”

Ariel 2

#57. Ariel (1988, Kaurismaki)

This shot says it all. Taisto (Turo Pajala, resembling Nick Cave to the point of distraction) and company, part of the proletariat class that makes up Aki Kaurismaki’s ‘Proletariat Trilogy’, are having a picnic on a bed of rocks in Helsinki. Uncomfortable looking to us, but they are perfectly content. Just cover the rocks with a blanket. The first half of Ariel shows Taisto as passive, acclimated to accept every curve-ball that gets thrown his way. There’s no shortage; in the opening minutes, the mine he works at shuts down, his father kills himself and he loses all his money. In other hands this would be miserablist, but the Finnish filmmaker has embedded a droll and wry sense of humor into everything. It’s a world where major decisions are made at the drop of a hat, where one trudges along leaving behind the pointlessness of dwelling. This attitude allows Kaurismaki to get through a lot of material in 76 minutes.

The second half shows Taisto as active; desperate times call for desperate measures. Lined with variable tunes, Ariel is modest and fine if a bit forgettable. The second half wasn’t as interesting as the first, taking a broad shape. But it did have Matti Pellonpää, so points for his memorable presence.This is only the second film by Aki Kaurismaki I’ve seen, and The Match Factory Girl is a personal favorite of mine.

three outlaw samurai 2

#58. Three Outlaw Samurai (1964, Gosha)

Three Outlaw Samurai depicts a world where double-crosses are everyday, loyalty is untenable and there’s compromise and consequence no matter which side of the fence you land on. An impressive debut and a solid film overall, Hideo Gosha shows us relatable archetypes and has them engage in swordplay and side-switching. Gosha and Tadashi Sakai really know how to use and show space and there’s a lot of pay-off in the black-and-white widescreen photography. There’s a kinetic hard-to-keep-up energy to the swordplay scenes. I loved the diagonal tilt the camera would flow into at times, taking on the direction of a sword through movement. Not in my top-tier of chanbara I’ve seen but still well worth checking out. Sword of the Beast, Goyokin and Hitokiri are all on my watch list now.


#59. Bedlam (1946, Robson)

The last in Val Lewton’s run at RKO is a message picture disguised as a horror film. It captures the world of William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, with slate 8 featuring the infamous asylum serving as the inspiration for the film. Nell Bowen starts as a superficial jester and ends as a caregiver in desperate circumstances. Boris Karloff, playing the sadistic apothecary general, treats his patients appallingly and gets his justified comeuppance. Definitely not the genre picture I was expecting but still decent, with an effective exploratory focus on human cruelty.

#60. Housewife (1934, Green)


List: Top 30 Favorite Classic Actors

edit: June 6th, 2013:
I figured it was about time for an update. It’s only been a year and a half since I posted this list but already some major changes have taken place.

Ever since I was a child, I would make favorite actors lists. When I was around 11 they became as superficial and lovey-dovey as Top Sexiest Actors, and even the nauseating Top Cutie-Patootie Actors….whatever that means. Clearly I was at the age where noting those fellows I was attracted to was became important to me. For the past ten years I would make periodic lists of my favorite ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ actors and actresses. I do 30 for the classics and 50 for the modern. They are only meant to represent the performers I consider to be my favorites at various ages throughout my life. A lot of people end up staying the same, but the more and more I see, the more people shift and make their way on and off the list. ‘Classic’ here includes the silent period through the 1950’s and early 60’s, although several performers made films in later decades. There are a ton of people not on this list that I adore; Gary Cooper, Lionel Barrymore, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Fredric March, William Holden, Toshiro Mifune, Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, Alec Guinness, Gene Kelly, Desi Arnaz, Humphrey Bogart, Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles, etc. I am a fan of all of those names, and getting this down to 30 was difficult. I outright worship many of these people for their talent, presence, persona, and yes in some cases for their looks.

I won’t be giving reasons here, just a picture and a list of what I have seen them in. I wish I could dedicate time to explaining my reasons, but I’ve got 3 more of these to post, and with 2011 lists coming up (which will have reasons), I figure that pictures will have to do. I hope you enjoy this; it is meant to be fun and entirely subjective to who I am drawn to for various reasons. I encourage anyone who reads this to comment on their favorites and feel free to give recommendations of films to watch from those I listed. I realize I’ve still got a lot to see from these men.

Lon Chaney
30. Lon Chaney
Previously: 19

Seen in 5 Films: Ace of Hearts, He Who Gets Slapped, The Phantom of the Opera, Laugh Clown Laugh, The Unknown

29. Anton Walbrook
Previously: 30
Seen in 4 films: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes, La Ronde, Lola Montes

28. Peter Sellers
Previously: 29
Seen in 12 Films: The Ladykillers, Tom Thumb, I’m All Right Jack, Lolita, The Pink Panther, The World of Henry Orient, A Shot in the Dark, What’s New Pussycat?, Casino Royale, The Party, Murder by Death, Being There

27. Burt Lancaster
Previously: 27
Seen in 13 films: The Killers, Brute Force, Sorry Wrong Number, Criss Cross, From Here to Eternity, Sweet Smell of Success, Judgment at Nuremberg, A Child is Waiting, The Leopard, Airport, Atlantic City, Rocket Gibraltar, Field of Dreams

Jack Lemmon
26. Jack Lemmon
Previously: 13

Seen in 16 Films: Mister Roberts, Some Like it Hot, Bell Book and Candle, The Apartment, Days of Wine and Roses, The Great Race, The Odd Couple, The Out-of-Towners, The China Syndrome, Dad, JFK, The Player (cameo), Glengarry Glen Ross, Short Cuts, Grumpy Old Men, Hamlet

25. Takeshi Shimura
Previously: 26
Seen in 11 Films:  Osaka Elegy, Stray Dog, Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, Kwaidan

24. Joseph Cotten
Previously: 24
Seen in 10 Films: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Shadow of a Doubt, Gaslight, Portrait of Jennie, Under Capricorn, The Third Man, Touch of Evil (uncredited), Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, Lady Frankenstein

Robert Mitchum23. Robert Mitchum
Previously: —
Seen in 11 films: Pursued, Crossfire, Out of the Past, Angel Face, The Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Scrooged, Cape Fear, Tombstone, Dead Man

richard widmark
22. Richard Widmark

Previously: 20
Seen in 6 Films: Kiss of Death, Night and the City, Panic in the Streets, Pickup on South Street, Judgment at Nuremberg, Murder on the Orient Express

21. Alain Delon
Previously: 23
Seen in 5 Films: Purple Noon, L’Eclisse, The Leopard, Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge

20. Michael Redgrave
Previously: 22
Seen in 7 Films: The Lady Vanishes, The Stars Look Down, Dead of Night, Secret Beyond the Door…, The Browning Version, The Innocents, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

19. Conrad Veidt
Previously: 21
Seen in 6 Films: Different from the Others, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Waxworks, The Man Who Laughs, The Thief of Bagdad, Casablanca

18. Boris Karloff
Previously: 18
Seen in 16 Films: Frankenstein, Scarface, The Old Dark House, The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Mummy, The Black Cat, Bride of Frankenstein, The Raven, The Black Room, The Body Snatcher, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Isle of the Dead, Bedlam, Lured, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (TV Short) (Voice), Targets

Sacha Guitry
17. Sacha Guitry

Previously: 8
Seen in 4 films: Story of a Cheat, Pearls of the Crown, Desire, Quadrille

16. Edward G. Robinson

Previously: 15
Seen in 10 films: Little Caesar, Tales of Manhattan, Double Indemnity, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, The Red House, Key Largo, The Stranger, The Ten Commandments, Two Weeks in Another Town

Jean Gabin15. Jean Gabin
Previously: 9
Seen in 6 films: Pepe le Moko, Grand Illusion, Port of Shadows, La Bete Humaine, Le Jour se Leve, Moontide, Le Plaisir

james mason14. James Mason
Previously: 16
Seen in 9 Films: Odd Man Out, Caught, The Reckless Moment, A Star is Born, Bigger than Life, North by Northwest, Lolita, The Last of Sheila, The Verdict

13. William Powell
Previously: 17
Seen in 12 Films: The Last Command, Jewel Robbery, The Kennel Murder Case, The Thin Man, The Great Ziegfeld, My Man Godfrey, Libeled Lady, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, After the Thin Man, Ziegfeld Follies, How to Marry a Millionaire, Mister Roberts

tatsuya nakadai

12. Tatsuya Nakadai
Previously: 11

Seen in 9 Films: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Harakiri, High and Low, Kwaidan, The Sword of Doom, The Face of Another, Ran

charles laughton
11. Charles Laughton
Previously: 3

Seen in 12 Films: The Old Dark House, Devil and the Deep, Sign of the Cross, Island of Lost Souls, The Private Life of Henry VIII, Mutiny on the Bounty, Rembrandt, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tales of Manhattan, This Land is Mine, The Big Clock, Witness for the Prosecution, Spartacus

Cary Grant
10. Cary Grant
Previously: 7
Seen in 18 Films: Blonde Venus, Devil and the Deep, She Done Him Wrong, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, Gunga Din, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, Suspicion, Arsenic and Old Lace, Notorious, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Monkey Business, To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, North by Northwest

Peter Lorre9. Peter Lorre
Seen in 9 Films: M, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Mad Love, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace, Three Strangers, The Verdict, Tales of Terror

Robert Montgomery
8. Robert Montgomery
Previously: —
Seen in 8 films: The Divorcee, The Big House, The Easiest Way, Faithless, When Ladies Meet, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, Night Must Fall

Charlie Chaplin
7. Charlie Chaplin
Previously: 6

Seen in 7 Films: The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux

6. Buster Keaton
Previously: 14
Seen in 8 Films: Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Seven Chances, The General, College, Steamboat Bill Jr., The Cameraman

5. Claude Rains

Previously: 10
Seen in 11 Films: The Invisible Man, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Now, Voyager, The Wolf Man, Moontide, Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington, Notorious, Deception, Lawrence of Arabia

4. James Cagney
Previously: 5
Seen in 11 Films: The Public Enemy, The Crowd Roars, Footlight Parade, ‘G’ Men, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Angels with Dirty Faces, Each Dawn I Die, The Roaring Twenties, The Fighting 69th, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Heat, Mister Roberts

3. George Sanders
Previously: 4

Seen in 15 Films: Rebecca, Man Hunt, Foreign Correspondent, Tales of Manhattan, This Land is Mine, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Lured, All About Eve, While the City Sleeps, Voyage in Italy, Village of the Damned, A Shot in the Dark, The Jungle Book (voice)


2. James Dean
Previously: 2
Seen in 3 Films: East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause, Giant

1. Jimmy Stewart
Previously: 1
Seen in 18 Films: Wife vs. Secretary, After the Thin Man, You Can’t Take it With You, Destry Rides Again, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Shop Around the Corner, The Mortal Storm, The Philadelphia Story, Ziegfeld Girl, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rope, Harvey, Rear Window, Bell Book and Candle, Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, The Flight of the Phoenix

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.