Like all the greatest actors, you couldn’t pin Charles Laughton down to a single genre. Horror was just one of many in which he excelled. (John Barrymore was another about whom that could be said). Today, we amplify Laughton’s Travalanche footprint just a tad with a look at the murderous monstrous villains he played over his career.
The Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Wonderfully spooky and atmospheric—definitely the best version of this H.G. Wells story (not hard to beat the Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando ones). The movie gives off a vibe as scary as that of White Zombie, which I consider the gold standard. You need those torch lit nighttime black and white scenes. Laughton chews the scenery as Dr. Moreau, who doesn’t care how many creatures he tortures, makes miserable, or kills in his experiments. He rules them all as a God, and one can’t help think Wells is making a comment on British Imperialism. A furry faced Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. (Devo used his phrase “Are Not Men?” in their theme song). The monster rebellion at the climax of the film is one of the most nightmarish scenes ever put on film).
The Old Dark House (1932)
James Whale (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein,The Invisible Man,) directed this absolutely delicious spook comedy. Various travelers are forced to stay at a spooky country house during a terrible storm. The film has a dream cast. From one car, Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart emerge as a couple, with Melvyn Douglas as their friend. A creepy brother and sister live at the house. He is a frightened old man who doesn’t believe in God. She is a religious fanatic who is deaf but bossy. Their butler is Boris Karloff. In case we doubt it, a title tell us at the beginning of the film, in case we were expecting (and hoping) that he would look like Frankenstein’s Monster and get confused because he doesn’t. Soon Charles Laughton shows up with his chorus girl girlfriend. The climax comes when we eventually meet the creepy people upstairs: the brother and sister’s 100+ year old father, and their insane, pyromaniac brother, who gets loose and tries to burn the house down. Douglas stops him, but not before the two of them tumble off the balcony, killing the nut job and putting a massive bump on Douglas’s head. Next morning, they go on their merry way. Oh and Douglas and the chorus girl are going to be married.
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Think it shouldn’t be lumped with horror? Tell that to the London Dungeon museum, where 20 years ago I saw a swell display of Henry and the ghosts of all his decapitated wives!
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
We give this one honorable mention, because Laughton’s Captain Bligh became one of his most iconic characters, a cruel and bloodthirsty tyrant who seems to live to whip and hang people. Not worlds away in conception from the callous and iron fisted Dr. Moreau.
Jamaica Inn (1939)
A meeting of two great once and future pirates in Alfred Hitchcock’s last British film. Laughton plays a degenerate 18th century Cornish aristocrat who supports his lifestyle as the secret mastermind of a gang of cut-throat pirates who lure ships onto the rocks, kill the crews, and pick the vessels clean of booty. Robert Newton (later to work Laughton’s side of the street as Long John Silver) is the undercover hero, and Maureen O’Hara, an innocent relative of one of the gang members, both of whom are trapped in the nightmarish predicament of being in the monster’s clutches. Laughton’s death scene is as spectacular as any Disney villain’s.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
There is a kind of Hollywood magic to this version of the Victor Hugo classic, produced at the height of the studio era. The sets are absolutely gorgeous, among the largest ever created for a studio film. And the great Laughton is terrifically moving as the hunchback, with a make-up that, while equally grotesque, allows him more range of expression than Lon Chaney’s in the original silent version. And what a cast! Cedric Hardwicke! Thomas Mitchell! Edmond O’Brien! Walter Hampden! George Zucco! And in her first Hollywood role, Maureen O’Hara as the Gypsy Girl Esmerelda! While I love this film (and even own a copy), I will say that I have not yet seen a screen version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame I have found as enjoyable as reading the book. It is one of my favorite novels.
The Canterville Ghost (1944)
This updating of the Oscar Wilde story is of course more of a spook comedy, but it is wonderfully atmospheric, is set in a castle and gives us plenty of ghost action, even if Laughton’s Medieval spirit is harmless and cowardly.
Captain Kidd (1945)
Laughton drives the Crown insane as the famous sea-going cut-throat. You know how I know it’s okay to include the pirate roles with the horror ones? I’ve been to Salem Massachusetts, where there’s a pirate museum amongst all the witch museums, and some of the wax museums include hefty contingents of both, with no apparent thematic clash to speak of.
The Strange Door (1951)
A Robert Louis Stevenson story, set in 18th century France. Laughton plays a cruel, insane nobleman who traps a guy he judges to be a worthless, cruel rake at his castle and forces him to marry his niece (in revenge for his brother having stolen his sweetheart 20 years ago). The brother is alive and apparently mad, living in a cell in the dungeon. The rake actually turns out to have a good heart and character. He and the niece fall in love and try to escape. Finally Laughton puts his three victims in a cell, the walls of which are connected to a mechanism on a water wheel, that pushes the walls of the cell in, trash compactor style. Boris Karloff as a sympathetic serving man rescues them. Laughton dies a spectacular death in the gears of the water wheel. Laughton’s acting is over-the -top spectacular in this movie.
Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952)
Just as Abbott and Costello had earlier met Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and the Invisible Man, here they meet the notorious bloodthirsty pirate. Laughton’s performance here is closer to his more famous screen character Captain Bligh (a sort of terrifying monster) than his earlier turn as Kidd, which was more refined. Abbott and Costello work at an inn in Jolly Old England although they are plainly and inexplicably American. They find a treasure map for skull island and scheme to go there but they don’t need to, as they are shanghaied by Cap’n Kidd anyway. Laughton is vastly funnier than either Abbott and Costello are, effortlessly demonstrating what real talent and craft look like while they shiver in his shadow. There are a couple of boring nameless lovers who are supposed to be the main plot; waiting through their songs is interminable torture. Lots of battle scenes. Between the songs and the battles there’s about 5 minutes’ worth of comedy – exceedingly poor .