Censorship is always a deeply hideous thing. It’s certainly not new, and if recent news is any indication, it isn’t going away anytime soon. The same as books, movies aren’t immune to censorship; in the early days of cinema, the odious Hays Code dictated what was and wasn’t allowed on the screen, eliminating much of the creativity and the daring, meaningful storylines that directors and writers wanted to produce. However, prior to the full enforcement of the Code in 1934, films were much wilder, weirder, sexier, and even more gruesome.
So in celebration of this wonderful and freewheeling era of cinema, here are five fabulous pre-Code horror movies to put on your watch list.
The Old Dark House
Growing up, I watched most of the Universal horror classics, but I somehow missed out on The Old Dark House until adulthood. And what a treasure it was to discover. The setup is hilariously simplistic: a storm waylays a couple and their best friend, forcing them to take refuge in one of the biggest and eeriest mansions ever to appear on the silver screen.
What follows is a terrifying and at times amusing evening of uncomfortable meals, chase sequences, dangerous family secrets, and even more unexpected guests. Stars Boris Karloff, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, and Charles Laughton all turn in some of their very best work, and the incredible one-liners remain quotable almost a hundred years later. Not bad for a film that was once declared lost and was only re-discovered in the late 1960s.
Death Takes a Holiday
This one isn’t entirely horror per se, but since it features the literal manifestation of Death arriving at a family’s doorstep, it easily crosses the line into dark fantasy, which qualifies it for this list. There’s something so whimsical yet subtly malevolent about this bizarre and beautiful film. Starring Fredric March as the eponymous Death who’s on a mission to understand why humans fear him, this is one of the last pre-Code films, released a mere five months before the rigid enforcement of the Hays Code.
Years later, the Brad Pitt vehicle Meet Joe Black borrowed heavily from Death Takes a Holiday, but the original is absolutely still worth seeking out if you haven’t already seen it in all its strange wondrousness.
While horror aficionados probably don’t need to be reminded of the existence of the classic Universal Horror films, at least one of the original fan favorites does belong on a pre-Code film list. But the question, of course, becomes, which one? Tod Browning’s Dracula is a fantastic movie that set the stage for all vampire films to come. Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde and The Invisible Man are also unforgettable classics, and even the eccentric (if not highly problematic) Dr. Moreau adaptation, Island of Lost Souls, has plenty of fans.
But there’s something about the 1931 Frankenstein that still gets to me. And yes, I already have another of James Whale’s films on this list with The Old Dark House, but Frankenstein remains the first classic horror film I ever saw, and with its elaborate sets and tragic storyline, it remains one of the best. If you haven’t seen it lately, seek it out. It’s worth a re-watch.
Confession time: prior to this article, I’d never actually seen Doctor X. I’d heard of it in passing, but I somehow didn’t know Oscar winner Michael Curtiz even made any pre-Code horror films. Needless to say, I was utterly delighted to learn the director of Casablanca was at the helm of a very unusual little horror movie complete with a gothic mansion, outlandish experiments, and a masked serial killer on the loose.
Truth be told, the plot is a little uneven, in particular the film’s uncertainty about whether it wants to lean more into horror or into comedy. That being said, there’s still a lot to love in Doctor X. Fay Wray of King Kong fame co-stars as the eponymous doctor’s daughter, and her performance is a major highlight. The pre-Code era of horror was a breeding ground for mad scientist films, but this one might be the most prolific, featuring no less than five mad scientists prominently in the cast.
Doctor X also holds a distinction of being one of the earliest Technicolor horror films—so early in fact that it’s only the two-strip Technicolor process, which lends an odd, yellowish hue to everything. With some incredibly gorgeous use of light and shadows as well as beautiful practical sets filled with gothic trappings and an Art Deco-style laboratory, this is a film that definitely belongs on your watch list.
First off, as with a lot of early cinema, there are certainly many problematic elements in the 1932 classic, Freaks. However, for all its exploitative elements (and there’s no denying it’s uncomfortably exploitative), director Tod Browning somehow balanced the unseemly aspects to create a film that does still give a tremendous amount of compassion and inner life to the sideshow performers of the title.
In fact, it’s the outside world that poses the greatest risk to the characters; xenophobia and cruelty ultimately become the biggest dangers as well as the biggest villains of Freaks. There’s no way a film like this could have been made even a few years later once the Code was fully enforced, so it’s fascinating and surprising to see exactly what Hollywood was able to produce during this unique yet fleeting era of cinematic history.