Sadists and Serial Killers in Early Horror

This post springs out of a previous idea of mine, namely the notion that only supernatural or “weird” horror mattered to me. But I realized as I went back over the genre that there are plenty of films that violate that division that I fully embrace (those included in this post and many others, usually with a Gothic or Victorian setting). So I’ve begun to realize that for me it is largely about the ritual of style. I don’t much care for the matter-of-fact, cold, graphic realism of modern horror. I don’t want realism. I want the melodrama and the superstition that attaches to the old-fashioned, rather vague and dramatic  idea of the “madman”, as a special category. Though the villains in such cases (e.g., Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden) may be real flesh-and-blood people who can be pricked and bleed just like their victims, when we drape them in costumes and shadows and cobwebs and hansom cabs and the night, they become part of the irrational dreamworld just the same as if they were ghosts or witches or vampires. So here are some key films from the 1930s and 40s which fall under this head. Note: we have save some of the cinema’s greatest sadists for our next post — about mad scientists.


The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

This chestnut from the golden age of studio horror has fallen by the wayside a little bit; it ought to better remembered. (The one pop culture reference I know about is a Gilligan’s Island episode).

The title refers not to a game you play but to PREY. “The Most Dangerous Game” is HUMANS. An insane Russian count (Leslie Banks) lives in a castle on an island where he lures ships to crash on reefs so that he can then hunt sailors and passengers for sport and then display their preserved corpses in his trophy hall. Until of course he has the misfortune to trap Joel McCrea, a famous big game hunter, who gives him a run for his money and ultimately wins. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, it is in some ways a dry run for King Kong. (as with the latter project this one is also an RKO film and features the involvement of Merian C. Cooper and Irving Pichel). An early scene on a boat seems almost identical to one in King Kong (same set even?) as do scenes of difficult progress through the jungle. And the casting of both Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong. Banks as the villain is urbane, plays the piano—these should have been the tip off that he was evil! He is also a sick-o: he gets sexually turned on by killing and says as much. But McCrea knows all kind of tricks and traps that enable him to win, despite the greater number of lackeys and great danes on his trail. The scary assistant Ivan is none other than Noble Johnson.

The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Directed by Michael Curtiz. More beautiful in some ways than the better known 1953 remake House of Wax, The Mystery of the Wax Museum sports that delicious mix of art deco and neo-gothic design that defines early 30’s horror. Like so many films of its time, it’s set in a “present day” that somehow also includes dungeons and hansom cabs. Lionel Atwill is the wronged, disfigured wax sculptor, in possession of a mannequin factory below his museum that is simply impossible. The plot suffers from a superfluity of leading ladies/ damsels in distress and boyfriends who fail to rescue them, but like so many of the films from this era…it’s about the atmosphere, not the logic. Treat it like a dream and the dream will take hold…


Murders in the Zoo (1933)

Directed by Eddie Sutherland (usually a comedy director) right in the thick of the vogue for Gothic horror in the pre-code era and it contains some genuine shocks.

Lionel Atwill plays a millionaire/ big game hunter with an insane amount of jealousy concerning his wife. While on safari in Africa, he sews a man’s mouth shut and leaves him to die with his hands tied behind his back in the middle of the jungle…all for supposedly trying to attract his wife.


Atwill then brings several big game animals (mostly deadly predators) on an ocean liner and transports them to the “Municipal Zoo” where a young Randolph Scott works as a scientist and Charlie Ruggles is the comic relief p.r. man. Now there is a serious rival for his wife’s affections and Atwill dispatches him with deadly snake venom. When the wife goes to blow the whistle, he throws her into a pit of alligators. When Scott confronts him about what he thinks is going on, Atwill stabs him with the snake venom too…little knowing that Scott had already invented an anecdote. When revived, Scott sounds the alarm. Cops comb the zoo looking for Atwill. He frees all the animals…but they start to chase HIM, so he crawls into a cage, where, maybe something very bad happens involving a deadly python.


The Black Cat (1934)

An amazing movie—gorgeous. Bela Lugosi meets up with a pair of newlyweds on their way to honeymoon in the Carpathians! (hahahahahaa) Well, the groom (David Manners, from Dracula)  is a mystery writer so I guess it does make a little sense. Their bus crashes. Lugosi brings them to his destination, the home of his former enemy in war, Boris Karloff , who was the commandant of the prison camp where Lugosi was interred. You know you’re in a bad way, when your only protection from Boris Karloff is…Bela Lugosi! And Lugosi, though creepy in the film, is actually the good guy…although he is consumed with revenge against Karloff for his experience in the camp and for either killing his wife and daughter or stealing them—he isn’t sure which. Meanwhile Karloff’s house is a masterpiece of modern art deco design, as are his clothes and even his haircut. He is said to be a brilliant architect.  It turns out he has Lugosi’s wife in suspended animation, and has married his daughter, who looks just like the wife.

Meanwhile, as if that werene’t enough, he plans to use the newlywed bride as a human sacrifice in a Satanist ceremony. For fun, he plays Bach’s Toccatto and Fugue on the pipe organ.  Lugosi, meanwhile, a famous psychiatrist, is afraid of black cats—it turns out with reason—they must play some vague part in Karloff’s Satanic connections. In the end the couple escapes as Lugosi and Karloff do battle. The house explodes behind them. In a jokey button, the groom reads a review of his novel which was based on their real experience: it gets panned for being too unrealistic!


Dante’s Inferno (1935)

An amazing film! With elements of horror, noir and a disaster film and several escalating set pieces. Seems to take place in dream realm…movie logic as opposed to “nature” or “logic” logic. Spencer Tracy is a furnace tender in an ocean vessel. But we already see that he’s a young guy who knows how to work the angles…he dodges work by faking a bad arm, and then bets co-workers that his pal can shovel more coal than they can. When the pal wins the bet, Tracy doesn’t even cut him in.

When next we see him he is working at a carnival. He is hired by a man to be the talker for his “Dante’s Inferno” attraction, which is pretty pathetic…just a lot of paintings and sculptures of sinners through history and preaching about the evils of hell. Tracy falls in love with the owner’s niece and marries her. Tracy is not really a bad guy but he has a bad side. He draws the wrong lessons from the exhibit (for example he makes the ruthless Alexander the Great his hero).

Within a few years, he forces a guy out of his lot on the midway and builds an amazing new Dante’s Inferno attraction…a journey downward through the circles of hell. On opening day the guy he swindles commits suicide by jumping into the ride. Later Tracy bribes an inspector to ignore his concerns about the ride. When it collapses, people are killed and hurt (including his wife’s uncle) and the inspector kills himself, leaving a confession. Tracy is in trouble. The uncle reads to him from Dante’s Inferno (the poem), accompanied by an awesome set piece in which we have visions of the actual hell as envisioned by Dante…caverns of flame and thousands of dead souls.

This still doesn’t sway Tracy to be decent. He allows his wife to lie for him at his trial. She leaves him. In the last scene, he launches a casino excursion vessel. The passengers are a horrible, drunken sinning lot. And so is the crew (hired as scabs to replace striking workers). They are lazy, incompetent and rebellious. We would be glad to see the ship sink with everybody aboard…but then we learn that Tracy’s little boy, one of the few good things in his life, has been smuggled aboard. And of course a fire breaks out. A total conflagration….a General Slocum type disaster. Miraculously the father and son survive, and Tracy vows finally to turn over a new leaf.

poster tower of london

Tower of London (1939)

This movie feels like Universal (which had essentially gotten out of the horror business a couple of years earlier) is surreptitiously trying to grope its way back to that lucrative genre with this “historical” epic about Richard III (Basil Rathbone). When we first meet the executioner (a bald, club-footed Boris Karloff) he is sharpening his beheading ax. On the way out of the room he honors a parched prisoner’s request for water by throwing some on him. Many torture devices in the film and some of the same sort of gallows humor with Karloff. Vincent Price is Richard’s younger brother Clarence, whom we just know is going to get it, on account of his twitchy, cowardly manner. (He is eventually drowned in his favorite wine). The plot is essentially the same as the Shakespeare play: Richard’s various schemes and murders. A great gimmick: he makes his plans and measures his success with a little dollhouse with little figures representing those at court who block his way, almost like voodoo. In the end, he is defeated the honest, wholesome way—in open battle.


The Invisible Ghost (1941)

Bela Lugosi as a somnambulant killer. First we see him having dinner with his wife—who isn’t there. We learn that she disappeared years ago. We learn that she is mad, living at the house of a servant. She is afraid to go home to her husband because she fears he will kill her (she was unfaithful). Unfortunately she goes out at night. When Lugosi sees her out the window he thinks she is a vision or a ghost, then he goes into a trance and kills whomever’s around. After about for people are dispatched, the police begin to get somewhat interested. Eventually the facts come out and Lugosi is properly pinched.


The Bowery at Midnight (1942)

Lugosi is a criminal ringleader with two covers—as the benevolent leader of the Friendly Bowery Mission and as a college psychology professor. But underneath his mission is a lair where he meets with his gang. Unfortunately he always kills the new gang members, very efficiently right on the spot, once they’ve completed their their job. The bottom of the basement is a cemetery. But there is another twist. One of his gang members is a doctor, and he is bringing all his victims back to life!


Bluebeard (1944)

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. John Carradine is a creepy Parisian painter and puppeteer, whom (the film would have us believe) is good looking and attractive to women. A sort of ladies man. But unfortunately he garrotes them all with his cravat and dumps them all in the Seine. (Oddly but conveniently he has a door in his house that leads directly down to the river). Unfortunately he has a bad habit of painting his victims, and his dealer sells the paintings. One is publicly exhibited, providing the police with their first clue. They lay a trap for him and nab him. They chase him to the roof and he falls to his death.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.