I’ll cut right to the chase. 1932.
I’ve taken a decent survey of history to back up this claim. Please feel free to disagree with me and offer whatever evidence you can, but I don’t believe 1960, or ’87, or 2015, or even 1922 could hold a candle to 1932, undoubtedly the best year in horror cinema’s history.
1932 saw the released of Karl Freund’s The Mummy, of James Whale’s The Old Dark House, and Carl Dreyer’s seminal Vampyr. This was the year that saw Bela Lugosi turn over a new level of creep in White Zombie and Murders in the Rue Morgue. (And parting from the horror genre, 1932 saw so many other gems like The Sign of the Cross, Tarzan the Ape Man, Grand Hotel, Scarface, A Farewell to Arms, and the especially wonderful and largely overlooked I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.)
In 1932, filmmakers went about their business unhampered by the censorship of the Hays Code (1934-68), and boy howdy, did they get up to some stuff. For all those films I listed before (yes, film students, even Vampyr), I would venture to declare 1932 the best year for horror for three films in particular.
First) The Most Dangerous Game
As Universal Studios’ horror dominance was settling in with Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Bride of Frankenstein, some of 1932’s most iconic and disquieting genre entries avoided monsters and the supernatural altogether. The three films I’ve selected have some elements of the “unknown” or the “other”, but their darkest demons are, simply, human beings.
The Most Dangerous Game sees a world-famous big game hunter shipwrecked and marooned on a remote tropical island. To his surprise, he soon encounters an opulent stone fortress and, inside, all the fixings of high society (as well as a few other recently shipwrecked people). The island is owned by Russian Count Zaroff—an avid hunter himself. Having slaughtered every animal he’s pursued, Zaroff began to grow bored. He set aside his rifle and tried hunting with primitive weapons, but even this proved too simple. Then, he found the answer. Here on his island he has discovered a new prey, the most dangerous game: man.
Many adaptations of the iconic short story simply leave it at that. Zaroff hunts for sport and there’s no higher meaning. 1932’s adaptation subtly gets at the heart of the matter. Zaroff, like so many people and nations, is driven by some deep-rooted need to be top of the food chain. The problem he encounters, though, is that with each successive conquest, he feels there’s more to do. Zaroff will never be fully satisfied with his own supremacy, and that’s what makes him dangerous. Confronting that as a recognizable human trait, therein lies the horror.
Second) Island of Lost Souls
Much of The Most Dangerous Game does, admittedly, play out like an adventure film or a thriller. It’s scary if you think about it, but doesn’t slap you in the face with its horror elements. One cannot say the same about Island of Lost Souls. The film is based on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. It aptly replaces the sinister doctor’s name in the title with “Lost Souls”, because director Erle C. Kenton populates his island with so many woeful, damned, dispirited, and unfortunate characters as to create a hellish sense of purgatory, over which an inimitable Charles Laughton rules like Satan himself.
Laughton is Dr. Moreau. To call him a mad scientist would be a disservice to his victims; he is quite sane and quite genius. One may initially presume his creations—the half-human/half-animal abominations that populate his island—would serve as the film’s monsters, but there is no question who the true evil is. Laughton’s Moreau is perhaps the perfect Movie Scientist archetype. He has made tremendous discoveries, but is indifferent to those who suffer for his experiments.
The Most Dangerous Game shies away from any real R-rated violence. Island of Lost Souls does not. Kenton pushes the limits of pre-Code decency in the most artful and impactful ways imaginable, but even in 2020, Island of Lost Souls is not for the weak-kneed. People vomited and fainted in the cinema upon its initial release. There’s a vivisection.
Show me a movie more upsetting than Freaks. I dare you. Neither Island of Lost Souls or The Most Dangerous Game could compete with Freaks.
Tod Browning takes the director’s chair a year after his game-changing Bela Lugosi Dracula hit theaters, and he ups just about every ante there is. The Most Dangerous Game and Island of Lost Souls explore the highest reaches of human dominance in terms of physicality (Zaroff) and intellect (Moreau). Both films are about mankind trying to push past his God-given limitations. They are about modernity, progress, supremacy, and the likelihood of evil to follow. Both films present these themes with larger-than-life characters. Zaroff and Moreau are possibilities. Freaks is by far the more upsetting film, because it deals not with possibility, but with reality.
The film follows the stars of a traveling carnival’s freak show. Instead of favoring makeup and special effects, Browning populated his cast with real sideshow performers who suffered from equally real disabilities. But of course the monsters of the film are not these so-called “freaks”, but the people who would dare label them that way. Browning touches upon real-world horrors of dehumanization, and where The Most Dangerous Game and Island of Lost Souls explore supremacy in its most extreme iterations, Freaks holds the mirror up to the common person.
The villains in Freaks, who toy with and exploit these sideshow performers, are normal people who believe their normalcy makes them innately superior. The evil Browning illuminates in Freaks is everyday evil and it’s not even limited to the physical attributes depicted in the film. He shows us as we are. We use our differences—be they physical or ideological—to convince ourselves we’re better than those who differ to us. That is an unfortunate fact of human nature that long predates 1932, that lingers around in 2020, and that will continue on until the species is extinct.
And that’s what the horror of 1932 was all about. Cinema so often holds up a mirror to timely social anxieties. How many monsters of the ’50s and ’60s came from outer space or resulted from nuclear testing? In 1932, as the world descended deeper into the Great Depression and geared up for the Second World War—with the First still so fresh in the memory—these films showed us what, out of everything, we need fear the most: ourselves.