The 1930s were a sort of Golden Age of weird, spooky, offbeat Hollywood productions. But it's hard to call these "horror flicks"; while they may have elicited a few screams from grandma, their actual content was obviously far less gory or terrifying than horror films today. Thus I'll call them "chillers" instead. Note that most were made after the concept of multiple soundtracks was introduced to the filmmaking process; during the early sound era, you only heard what was recorded live on set: no musical score, no sound effects, just a few lines of dialogue and long stretches of silence. Which is why I am not including classics like Vampyr (1932), White Zombie (also '32), or even the original Frankenstein and Dracula (both '31): absent the rich sound and music used later in the decade, the films are frankly boring, in my opinion. Not so with the following nine freakouts:
- The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, Nick Grinde). Today, Boris Karloff is remembered for having played the monster in the Frankenstein movies. But in the '30s, Karloff far more frequently played mad scientist types. The Man They Could Not Hang is an excellent example of a Karloff programmer: he plays a doctor who, before he can revive a man he meant to "briefly" kill for an experiment, is arrested for the man's murder. Karloff escapes the hanging (as you might discern from the title) and plots revenge against the judge and jury who convicted him. Some gruesomely inventive deaths and Karloff's wonderful voice elevate this B movie.
- Mad Love (1935, Karl Freund). This sound remake of The Hands of Orlac, a silent hit, stars a bonkers (and bald!) Peter Lorre as a mad scientist whose obsession with an actress leads him to graft the hands of an executed murderer onto the arms of the actress's husband. Worth watching for an especially bizarre disguise that Lorre dons, involving a neck brace, welder's glasses, metal hands, and ghoul teeth.
- The Devil-Doll (1936, Tod Browning). Browning was one of the leading genre directors of the decade. Though better known for Dracula and the cult classic Freaks (1932), this fascinating oddity may actually be his best. Lionel Barrymore stars as a vindictive banker who gets hold of a formula that can shrink people down to one-sixth their original size. But when a wicked widow uses the formula to her own ends, Barrymore goes full-on Mrs. Doubtfire, dressing in drag in order to save his daughter. Wild stuff! And the special effects in this film are incredible, even by today's standards.
- The Clairvoyant (1934, Maurice Elvey). Claude Rains plays a stage magician whose claims to read minds suddenly become real when he espies a beautiful woman in the audience. He then begins having specific visions that come true, including that of a horrible train crash and a mining disaster. Naturally, the police are skeptical, and believe that Rains himself is causing these catastrophes for self-promotion. The Clairvoyant isn't a chiller so much as a psychological drama, but it's still quite interesting.
- The Invisible Man (1933, James Whale). By the time The Clairvoyant was released, Claude Rains was already a superstar, thanks for his over-the-top villainy in The Invisible Man. You've got everything here: A mad scientist character, impressive visual effects, an iconic performance, and James Whale, who even more than Tod Browning was the top '30s genre director.
- The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale). Speaking of Whale, who also helmed the original Frankenstein, this stunning sequel remains perhaps his signature work. Far livelier, campier, and more moving than its predecessor, The Bride of Frankenstein proves how much of a difference music and sound effects made during the early sound era.
- Island of Lost Souls (1932, Erle C. Kenton). The first of many attempts to adapt H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau to the screen, and still perhaps the most successful, this film rises above its sound limitations thanks to Charles Laughton's eccentric performance and the moody atmosphere. This is where a fur-faced Bela Lugosi, in a small but pivotal role, chants "Are we not men?" – a line which, forty years later, would inspire a new band called Devo.
- The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Irving Pichel & Ernest B. Schoedsack). Not the greatest entry on this list, but still entertaining, this adaptation of Richard Connell's 1924 short story introduced the oft-repeated gimmick of a wealthy madman (Leslie Banks) hunting humans for sport. I even borrowed the idea for my own would-be third feature, Dial 9 to Get Out.
- King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack). How could I overlook the biggest thriller of the 1930s? Surely you know all about King Kong, but if you haven't seen the original, or haven't seen it in a while, you should: it holds up remarkably well. It should be noted that Cooper and Schoedsack also produced The Most Dangerous Game, the success of which may have led to Kong. Legendary '30s sex symbol Fay Wray also starred in both films, and in The Clairvoyant too.