Friday, February 10, 2017

'Hollywood's Pre-Code Horrors ...' a breezy recap of a golden era

Review by Doug Gibson

On the cover of BearManor Media's enjoyable new offering, "Hollywood's Pre-Code Horrors 1931-1934," is the infamous still from "Freaks," the one where the murderous trapeze artist Cleopatra, played by Olga Baclanova, is seen post-mutilation by the sadistic, vengeful carnival freaks. She's turned into a type of duck woman, and can only quack.

That "end scene" jarred me as a child watching the only version of "Freaks" then available in the 1970s, at least for TV consumption. It reminds that for decades the Hollywood pre-code horrors were seen on TV only in truncated versions, victims of the mid 1930s censors. "Freaks," by the way, has an epilogue beyond the duck woman. * However, like "Dr, Jekyll and Mr Hyde," and "Mystery of the Wax Museum," "Freaks" and other films, were even pushed out of circulation by the studios; a few were thought lost.

The films you could see: "Dracula," "Frankenstein," "King Kong," etc. were missing memorable scenes, such as the vampire's death groans, the Frankenstein monster tossing a child into a lake, or men being eaten by spiders on Kong Island. It's been about 20 years ago that fans finally began to see these films as they were presented in the pre-code era; first in video, later on DVD and now the Internet and streaming offer options.

With this comes more genre books on the pre-code era and its movies. BearManor's author, Raymond Valinoti Jr., provides an entertaining, informative look at these early '30s horror films. It's not as deep a dive into the pre-code horror era as McFarland's "The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror ...", but its breezy, one-film-after-another style makes for an easier read for genre fans. And the chapters are packed with information despite the slender several-pages chapters. I'd wager that the average genre fan will learn at least one fact about each film that he or she didn't know before.

Cast and crew, plot summary, the background of each film, why it was released, an explanation of the pre-code elements of each film and how they were received; audience and critics' reactions; recollections by principals and the financial fortunes of the films are popular topics in the chapters. All the essentials are covered, including "Doctor X," "Island of Lost Souls," all the Universals, including the delightful "The Old Dark House"; "White Zombie," and the grisly "Murders in the Zoo." In all, 19 films are profiled, including "The Mask of Fu Manchu" and even "Supernatural," an obscure pre-code horror directed by Victor Halperin with Bette Davis. It's the sole movie featured that I have yet to see.

Valinoti is a fine writer, and the book features a valuable introduction to the genre as well as an epilogue discussing post 1934 genre films. Frankly, I think "The Raven," "Mad Love" and "Bride of Frankenstein" should have chapters in this book. However, "Dracula's Daughter" and "The Walking Dead" are appropriately noted as films that were somewhat sanitized due to the code's renewed strength.

The author overdoes it a little in pointing out the sexism, racism, nativism, and other isms of some of the films. I don't disagree but these are 1931-1934 films, and need to be assessed in that context.

But there is little to complain about. "Hollywood's Pre-Code Horrors ..." is another fine BearManor Media offering to satisfy those whom delight in the minutiae of film genre.

* The TV version of "Freaks" I saw may have been the roadshow version that was peddled by exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper long after the film was removed from general release by MGM.

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