Review by Doug Gibson
"The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films: 1931 to 1936," by Jon Towlson, McFarland (mcfarlandpub.com) (800-253-2187), has a provocative thesis. Towlson differs with other scholars that early sound horror films were tamer than the so-called torture porn today. I was skeptical of that claim. I abhor garbage such as the "Saw" and "Hostel" films; conversely, I love the early- to mid-1930s cycle of horrors. However, I must confess that Towlson makes a pretty good case.
While we watch these old movies, with nary a cuss word and the obligatory "good" ending, often with a heterosexual couple embracing, it's easy to forgot what we've seen on the screen is pretty darn gruesome and sadistic. An iconic reminder of such can be glanced above at the book's cover, with Bela Lugosi, as Dr. Mirakle, torturing to death the prostitute played by Arlene Francis in "Murders In the Rue Morgue." She's on a cross, looking a lot like a female Christ.
But work the brain to think of the other classic oldies. The "Frankenstein" monster tossing a child to drown. "Dracula" killing a young flower girl. "Dr. X"'s face melting. The deranged doctor in "Mad Love" played by Peter Lorre seems to achieve orgasm as he watches a faux torture scene in the Grand Guignol. Or a mad wax sculpture artist in "Mystery of the Wax Museum," with tender voice, leading a young lovely to have hot wax poured on her. Or the nymphomaniac daughter and sadistic father in "The Mask of Fu Manchu." Or the "Freaks" turning Cleopatra into a bird. Or implied necrophilia and overt Satanism ("The Black Cat"). Or finally, the scene that sticks with me: the unlucky admirer of a sadist's wife who gets his lips sown together because he kissed the said sadist's wife; such occurs in"Murders In the Zoo." And what about the implicit bestiality in "Island of Lost Souls?"
These are grisly images, and just because they are not as explicit as what we see today doesn't lessen their shock value. It may even enhance it, as Towlson explains, with the use of shadows, sound, symbols, and the force of these things, which can play on the viewers' imagination. As the author notes, many of these films were either locked away for decades or played in heavily censored .versions until only a generation ago.
"Five reels of transgression followed by one reel of retribution" is a quote from the Nation magazine. It's the title of the longest chapter, the one that provides overviews of the films discussed. That phrase probably captures the heart of the book. Towlson claims that having a happy ending, or a side plot with goofy guests or wisecrack reporters, allowed the early horror filmmakers to get a lot of the horror, with sadism and shocks into the films. Is there a 1930's horror film from a major company without a "good" ending? Even "Freaks" has a tacked-on scene with a guilty Hans being consoled after the shocking scene of Cleopatra post-torture.
The book details the many battles, and concessions made with censors, to get the films completed and into theaters. There's a lot of tantalizing what ifs. What if "The Bride of Frankenstein," a superb film, had followed its earlier "Return of Frankenstein" plot where the monster kills his creator and his wife, but still, a character with pathos, draws to his knees imploring a kind word from God. At that point, a bolt of lightning kills the monster. That's a pretty cool ending; I'm sure James Whale would have loved it.
Or what of "Dracula's Daughter," still a fine film -- with pretty overt lesbianism that the prudish censors missed -- which was intended to have a prologue with Dracula and friends both ravishing and consuming captive young women. In fact, screenwriter John Balderston, Towlson tells us, was urging that the film push the boundaries of horror to more shocking levels. Alas, "Dracula's Daughter" was filmed in that mid-30s when the censors were putting more muscle on the horror filmmakers. It's one of the last of the pre-code horrors.
If you don't believe that the earlier films pushed more buttons than the later ones through the 40s, take the test. Watch "Dr. X" and then watch "The Return of Dr. X"; watch the Frederic March "Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde," with an erotic scene between the good doctor and a prostitute (Miriam Hopkins) and watch later adaptations. Watch "Dracula" and compare it to "Son of Dracula." Or "Bride of Frankenstein" and then "Son of Frankenstein." Although still-excellent films, much of the sadism, the lust, the sheer enjoyment of wallowing in wickedness was taken away after 1936.
Towlson devotes chapters to how the filmmakers managed to get around the censors -- it was always a chess game -- with the cheesy endings of love and kisses. MGM in particular would have wisecracking reporters suddenly announce marriage at the end. Universal would have cast members in films such as "The Raven" and "The Black Cat" make wisecracks very soon after experiencing, and surviving, intense horror. Towlson surmises that the these were subtle protests of the directors who wanted to make their "happy endings" as unrealistic as possible. Maybe, but I think that during the Great Depression, weary movie-goers wanted scares that came with happy endings. Real life wasn't ending so well.
Another chapter deals with the film censors, the Breen people, finally asserting their will and "cleaning" the movies up." As Towlson notes, this had an effect on new movies such as "The Walking Dead," "Devil Doll" and the aforementioned "Dracula's Daughter." It also helped bring in the horror ban that lasted a few years until the industry realized the public wanted more monsters, even if they were a little sanitized.
Towlson's book is a brainy one and it may take some careful reading. There's a section on how these films' critics of a couple of generations ago clash with more modern scholarship, and so on. But it's a rewarding read because it brings us to the table of the filmmakers, what they wanted to create, how far they wanted to go and were able to go. We're witnesses to the negotiations with the movie industry and state censors. I was surprised to learn that in the early 1930s, the film studios were often helped by industry censors who argued their cases with more restrictive state censors.
And, this is very important, watch the movies that are described in this book. It will make the viewing a more rewarding experience.