A celebration of pre-code horror

Jim Lundstrom

Dr. X from 1932 was shot in a two-strip Technicolor process.

If you like to pack as many horror films in as you possibly can during the month of October, the Criterion Channel has just what you want.

This year they have outdone themselves with almost 70 movies to choose from in four different collections that include 30 arthouse horror films, 14 techno-thrillers, 11 horror movies from the 1990s and, my favorite of this year’s collections, 13 pre-code horror movies.

Pre-code refers to movies made before July 1934, when the industry bowed to numbskulled conservative influences that required filmmakers to adhere to moral codes as set forth by something called a Production Code Administration, led by an uptight, anti-Semitic, Nazi-admiring, Catholic censor by the name of Joseph Breen. All movie proposals had to pass through him before being made.

So, pre-code movies got away with murder. Or if not murder, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the time. Post-code Hollywood movies had to hide things from Breen until his retirement as Hollywood censor in 1954.

The pre-code series begins with Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, starring Frederic March as the titular character. March won the first of two Best Actor Oscars for his performance (the second was for William Wyler’s poignant 1946 story of WWII vets coming The Best Years of Our Lives).

Next up is Archie Mayo’s 1931 Svengali, starring John Barrymore as the hypnotist who puts beautiful Trilby under his control. Is it horror? 

I started with the 1932 Doctor X, directed by Michael Curtiz, who a decade later would make Casablanca. I was curious about Doctor X because it was originally released as a two-strip Technicolor film. The two-strip process was first used in 1924. Warner Bros. grudgingly produced Doctor X in Technicolor, as well as another with Curtiz helming and most of the same actors the following year, Mystery of the Wax Museum, because they had a contract to produce a certain number of color films with Technicolor.

However, studio head Jack Warner had Curtiz also shoot the film in black and white, which is what most theatergoers saw. The color version only went to major markets, and after the run, the Technicolor version disappeared until 1978, when, after the death of Jack Warner, a Technicolor version was found in Warner’s personal vault.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive restored that found version in 1985, and then in 2021 used new digital tools to bring the movie back to how it must have looked upon its release 81 years ago. It stars Lionel Atwill as the title character, along with Fay Wray, who the following year would make Mystery of the Wax Museum with Atwill but also the movie for which she would be most remembered – King Kong. The premise is that a serial killer is on the loose in New York City, killing people by the full moon, hence he is referred to as the Moon Killer. The killer also cannibalizes his victims.Atwill – Dr. Xavier – is the head of a research institute populated by an odd assortment of research scientists, one of whom (Preston Foster) has studied cannibalism. He is immediately ruled out by police because he is missing his left hand and the killer strangled his latest victim. Lee Tracy stars as an annoying reporter will go to any lengths to solve the Moon Killer mystery.

Of course, Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks is included in the collection. Starring many real sideshow carnival characters, Freaks remains a shocker to this day.

The great Charles Laughton makes the first of two appearances in this collection as Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls, based on H. G. Wells' much-filmed novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Richard Arlen stars as the hapless sailor marooned on the island with mad scientist Moreau and his menagerie of experiments. I read somewhere that Arlen's acting career began when he was working as a delivery boy who broke his leg delivering something to the Universal studio. Rather than settle an insurance claim, they gave him an acting job.

That is followed by a somewhat similar story – a sailor stranded on the island of a madman – but this is the 1932 The Most Dangerous Game, starring Joel McCrea as the sailor and Fay Wray as another strandee on the island. The director is Ernest Shoedsack, who went directly from this film to working again with Fay Wray on King Kong.

Next in line is Murders in the Rue Morgue, the first of three movies in this collection that are very loosely based on Edgar A. Poe stories.

Murders features a badly costumed ape as the monster. Bela Lugosi stars in the first of his many mad scientist roles as Dr. Mirakle, who is trying to create a mate for his ape Erik. The best thing about it is Karl Freund's lighting and camera work – he had previously worked on Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Tod Browning's Dracula.

Coming off his hit from the previous year, Frankenstein, James Whale insisted his next project would be the horror comedy The Dark Old House, based on J.B. Priestley's 1927 novel Benighted. It remains a delight and full of surprises.

I had never heard of the next in the lineup, Thirteen Women from 1932. It stars Myrna Loy as a murderous Eurasian "half-breed" who sets out to kill the sorority girls who shunned her at college. She is positively spooky as she kills her way through the list of women who aggrieved her.

We move into 1933 with the next movie, another horror comedy called Murders in the Zoo. It begins with an absolutely ghastly set piece that illustrates the insane jealousy of big game hunter/zoologist Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill again). Randolph Scott, before he became a cowboy, is the hero.

Michael Curtiz returns to direct Fay Wray and Lionell Atwill in the second Technicolor offering in this collection, Mystery of the Wax Museum. This was the last movie to be made using Technicolor's two-strip process.

The collection concludes with two Poe-based films, Edgar Ulmer's stylized The Black Cat, featuring Karloff and Lugosi as mortal enemies, and The Raven, a movie that caused the British Board of Censors to say it would pass no more horror films for British viewers.