The Ninjabot

Top 10 Horror Films of the Golden Age

Posted on October 1, 2013 at 11:19 am by Jess Hicks

Kicking of this October extravaganza I thought I would start with a list of my personal favorite horror films from the Golden Age of cinema, in other words black and white! Now now, don’t let that discourage you because as much as I love the over the top visuals of the 70s and 80s there is something about black and white that really gets under my skin. I’m hoping that this list will be the gateway for some of you who may be new to this era. After all black and white is where my love for the genre started, I remember staying up late to catch a Universal monster flick on TV. So her they are! My top 10 favorite horror films of the 30s & 40s!

10. King Kong (1933)

King Kong PosterAlright, so I have to be honest and say that I used to find this movie really really boring. After doing some research and getting films together for this list I decided to give it another shot. Turns out, though it’s still not terribly exciting, I have a new appreciation for it. King Kong essentially made way for the American giant monster movies that came a couple decades later and for that it has to be recognized.

It’s use of stop motion animation (a personal favorite technique of mine) wowed audiences when this was released and should really continue to amaze audiences today. The time and effort put into this kind of work is incredible and really set up the film world for giant monsters. It’s safe to say that films like Pacific Rim and Godzilla wouldn’t exist without everyone’s favorite misunderstood ape. We can also thank Fay Wray for being the original scream queen!

Fun facts:

  • The model of Kong was known as “Giant Terror Gorilla”
  • In 2004 after the death of Fay Wray the lights on the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes
  • Carl Denham becomes caught on a branch during a chase sequence in the jungle but originally he was supposed to duck behind a bush. Apparently that was thought to be cowardly so they reshot it to him being snagged on the branch

9. Dead of Night (1945)

Dead of Night PosterDead of Night is a film that is fairly new to me, I only just watched it about a year ago in my attempt to watch every anthology horror film ever made. It centers around a man who invites his friends up to his house on to tell them he has had a premonition that Death will be visiting them shortly.

Sure, every story isn’t a winner in this film but what really gets this flick on my list is the story it is most remembered for: “Ventriloquist’s Dummy”. Aside from a film called The Great Gabbo that came out in 1928 the “killer puppet/toy” sub-genre had been a virtually untouched market. So I owe a lot to this movie, killer toys are a guilty pleasure and without this film I wouldn’t have the multitude of evil toy movies to choose from! It’s really a shame that there isn’t a legitimate DVD release of this film, maybe for it’s 70th anniversary we will get something!

Fun Facts: 

  • Dead of Night was one of the few horror films made in Britain at that time. During the war there was a ban on horror films throughout the country.
  • Martin Scorsese ranks Dead of Night on his list of 11 scariest movies of all time.

8. Dracula (1931)

Dracula PosterThe first of my many Universal films on this list and probably my least favorite but none the less, it’s a great movie. Vampires are something that will never die, pardon the pun, in film. They are mysterious and young and everything we as humans cannot be. Werewolves are great but who wants to go through all that pain every time the moon is full? It’s not a surprise that there are, quite literally, hundreds of movies featuring Dracula. 

What this movie lacks in good pacing, it makes up for in atmosphere and one of the best portrayals of Dracula ever. Bela Lugosi was known to be difficult and pompous but he pretty much owned the role and created the image of the vampire that we still hold dear to us today. He was charismatic, terrifying, mysterious, and everything else that a good vampire should be. Next Bela, my favorite Dracula performance is that of Christopher Lee…but we’ll get to him in another decade.

Fun Facts: 

  • The original film did not have it’s own original score so in 1998 composer Phillip Glass was commissioned to compose one.
  • There was an epilogue in the original cut of the film that was removed because it told viewers that there really were such thing as vampires, which in 1931 would probably have been a legitimate worry.
  • There is a Spanish version of the film from the same year that used the same set and script because subtitles were extremely difficult to do back then.

7. The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat PosterRevenge. One of the driving forces among horror films and boy does this one take the cake. Bela Lugosi plays a man who went to war and spent 15 years in a prison camp enduring terrible tortures. He soon discovers an old friend of his, Karloff, has been committing terrible crimes against people including his wife and daughter.

This film has one of the most cringe worth scenes that has inspired many a torture film after it. Though done off camera the scene in which Lugosi starts peeling off Karloff’s skin is absolutely nerve racking. Karloff is basically a living skeleton and his presence throughout the entire film makes me feel like taking a shower. One of many, loosely based, Edgar Allen Poe stories to be adapted into film and probably in my top 5.

Fun Facts:

  • Was the biggest box office hit of 1934.
  • Loosely inspired by the life of Allister Crowley, the famous occultist.
  • One of the first films to have a continuous score throughout the entire film.

6. Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein PosterWhat’s to be said about this classic that hasn’t already been said? It’s beautiful and heartbreaking with equal parts horror and probably Karloff’s best performance. While Lugosi made us fear the undead the Monster made us sympathize and feel conflicted. He wasn’t simply the bad guy, he was just made out to be.

Karloff doesn’t speak except maybe a few words and grunts, it’s his eyes that do all the acting. Of course, coming from a time when silent films were the norm, acting with the eyes was essential. However, Karloff doesn’t have the camp or overact the way that silent actors usually did. Every move is subtle and calculated, giving him the aura of a child. One of my favorite Karloff performances, if not my favorite.

Fun Facts: 

  • Frankenstein is the name of the Doctor, the monster does not have a name. Please. Remember. This.
  • Dr. Frankenstein’s line “Now I know what if feels to be like God!” was cut and not restored until 1999.
  • The film grossed $53,000 it’s opening week.

5. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein PosterOh, the love for Universal isn’t stopping here folks! The sequel to the aforementioned film is a much more…diverse film. It delves deeper in the Monster’s psyche and the human’s that continue to plague him. James Whale had a lot of fun with this one and it really shows. The darkly comedic aspects are great and coupled against the Monster’s self-aware disappointment makes for a great film.

But what is the movie without mentioning the Bride? Elsa Lancaster, another original scream queen, plays this role perfectly. She is beautiful and her chemistry with Karloff is impeccable. Definitely my favorite of the Frankenstein sequels and really shows off James Whale’s talent as a director with a defined voice. Check out Jason’s review for a more in depth look at this classic.

Fun Facts:

  • Karloff broke his hip while taking over for a stuntman on the first day of shooting.
  • Elsa Lancaster modeled her hiss sound after the hissing of swans.

4. The Invisible Man (1933)

Invisbible Man PosterI’ve gushed before about this film in a Week End Horror segment so I won’t take too much time on this. The Invisible Man is an amazing movie. Claude Rains owns the entire movie with his performance and really makes you love and hate him at the same time. The film does lag in parts but it makes up for it with the main character, he channels everyone’s inner-self by making us ask what we would do in the same situation. Claude Rains is the best and if you haven’t seen this go now and don’t try to reason that Kevin Bacon atrocity Hollow Man to me.

Fun Facts: 

  • Claude Rains was claustrophobic.
  • This was Claude Rains’ first American appearance in film.
  • Because of issues with the script the film was temporarily called off in June 1932.

3. Cat People (1942)

Cat People PosterThe movie that made me buy the entire Val Lewton box set without having scene any other movies in it! Cat People tells a story of a young woman who is grappling with her family “curse” and her own coming of age. The entire time we have no idea what is actually happening to the people dying but we know it’s horrific.

This film also can be credited with the creation of the overused technique, the jump scare. During the film there is a scene where the young girl is walking down the street, possibly being followed, that ends in a loud screech of a bus stopping for her. The bus is now known as “The Lewton Bus”. This movie really stands out for the time because it, essentially, deals with a young woman’s grasp on her sexuality. This wasn’t a topic considered appropriate to talk about during the time so it really came out controversial. Jacques Tourneur directed this picture with such elegance and suspense.

Fun Facts:

  • John Carpenter thinks this film is overrated because it doesn’t show the monster.
  • The film saved RKO from financial ruin.

2. The Wolf Man(1941)

The Wolf Man PosterAlright, alright this is the last Universal monster classic on the list! Lon Chaney Jr. plays  Larry Talbot, the estranged son who has come home to patch things up with his father all while falling in love and being bitten by wolf. What a week!

The Wolf Man, like Frankenstein, plays the misunderstood monster incredibly well. Sure, he is a murdering animal but deep down there is still a man. Perhaps the greatest thing to come from this film the transformation of Talbot into the Wolf Man. It’s kind of silly now but when you think about how it opened up the future for transformations such as An American Werewolf in London and The Howling it’s entirely deserving of it’s hype. Not only that but it is just a great story, its got horror/romance/comedy and blends all of them together into a nice package.

Fun Facts: 

  • The poem read in every Wolf Man film was created by screenwriter Curt Siodmak.
  • The original Wolf Man doesn’t use the full moon as a trigger for the transformation, that comes in the sequel.

1. Freaks (1932)

Freaks PosterYou’ve heard the expression “One of us! One of us!” well, here is the origin. Todd Browning’s Freaks, his best film and, presumably, the reason his career went downhill after that. It’s a simple story of love and betrayal set within a traveling carnival and the residents within.

So what’s the big deal? The premise is simple, a story we have seen thousands of times, boy loves girl but girl only loves boys money. Sadly for girl, she picked the wrong carny to mess with. The reason this film is so well remembered is it’s use of real people, every strange ailment you see in this film, except for the last scene, is a real person. The man with no arms or legs is a real guy, the “pinheads” all real. This was incredibly shocking and disturbing to audiences in the 30s, even after many cuts audiences still reacted badly to it. It was too real for them. I picked this as my number one of the time because it’s not only a good movie but it legitimately gets under my skin every time I see it. The final scene in particular. Sadly for Todd Browning, he was about 40 years a head of his time on this one.

Fun Facts:

  • Freaks began filming on Halloween
  • A woman threatened to sue MGM after seeing a test screening.
  • The film was originally 90 minutes but after being cut numerous times it ended being 62 minutes.


You can follow Jess for more October fun on Twitter @DangerJess_





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