Welcome back to Through the Fears, where we reach into history to find the greatest horror films that time has to offer. I’m Matthew O’Leary, a writer out of Columbia, South Carolina, and this is Episode 8: 1934.
This year is a little bit sparser than I would like. There’s some good films from outside of horror, most notably It Happened One Night and The Thin Man. But as for horror, it’s a bit of a dry season. Perhaps it’s due in part to the Motion Picture Production Code, often known as the Hays Code, which forced films to adhere to certain standards of “decency”. The code had been established in 1930 by the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, but wasn’t enforced until 1934. While scream queen Fay Wray was arguably the star of 1933, the rising star of 1934 was Shirley Temple, about as unthreatening as an actor could get.
Adding to the romance of this image of Hollywood’s new face is that Fay Wray starred in her last horror, the voodoo picture Black Moon. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a good viewing of this one. I was distracted the first time I tried to watch it on Youtube, so I resolved to come back to it. Days later, the video had been pulled. I feel bad, since I’m not sure it’s a coincidence. If you get the opportunity to view this one, let me know. I’d like to give it another shot.
As self-imposed punishment for my hubris, I subject myself to a terrible, terrible film. Maniac, also going under the infinitely more charming Sex Maniac, is directed by a madman named Dwain Esper, whose other film credits include Marihuana, the Weed with Roots in Hell, and How to Undress in Front of Your Husband. For the first fifteen minutes, the most horrifying thing about it is the acting. Then the movie tries to act educational, by explaining diseases and showing affected patients. The first is “dementia praecox” which is now known simply as schizophrenia. The patient loses his mind after getting a faulty injection and proceeds to attack and sexually assault a woman who ends up naked. Then the evil doctor rips a cat’s eye out and eats it. Yep. Supposedly the cat only had one eye and the one he removes is a glass one.
Unfortunately, while Maniac is great at pushing the boundaries of good taste, the acting never gets any better. And it doesn’t take long until it’s fully apparently that this is little more than a gussied up fetish film. Also, its characterization of the mentally ill is more than a little offensive. In particular, its claims about manic-depression, which now falls under bipolar, and their claim that the manic phase makes them liable to commit sex offenses. I will not be lectured on sexual morality by the director of this film. I can’t recommend the film by a long shot, but it definitely has a certain value if you’re of a curious nature. I’ll be the first to admit, I have not seen a movie quite like this.
That said, it does, with the horrible cat eye scene and another near the end, provide a reasonable adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat. Which is a particularly interesting coincidence, because the best horror to come out of 1934 is the Universal production of The Black Cat, which has almost nothing to do with the original story. What it does have is Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together for the first time. They would appear together in eight films, six of which were Universal productions.
It’s also an absolute masterpiece. Perhaps Universal’s darkest offering thus far, it also pushes the envelope in terms of what would be accepted by the end of the year, but it’s in the service of a well-crafted story. Lugosi is Vitus Werdegast, a doctor who has spent the last 15 years in prison after being part of a brutal battle. Karloff is architect Hjalmar Poelzig, the former commander of that battle, who abandoned his men to die, and later built his house upon the battlefield. They are reunited along with a recently married couple, whose main purpose is to be the pawns that the two heavies fight over. It’s the rare instance where Lugosi plays a good guy, relatively speaking. He’s still a super creep, but Werdegast is definitely a victim of Poelzig’s. Poelzig is a Satanic priest, who keeps a bevy of preserved women on display in his house, one of whom is Werdegast’s wife.
Without going too much into spoiler territory, The Black Cat is game of brinksmanship between two chaotic forces, less well-defined than good vs. evil. It’s more like justice vs. vengeance, and it reaches a climax in one of the most brutal instances of torture in classic cinema.
Thank you for reading. As previously stated, you’ll have difficulty finding Black Moon anywhere, though there is a fairly old DVD transfer available. Like most of the quality Universal pictures, The Black Cat is available on DVD. Maniac is in the public domain. Next year, one of the all time greatest movie monsters decides to settle down. Next episode: 1935.