Known informally as the Hays Code, the Motion Picture Production Code was officially established in 1930 but not rigorously enforced until 1934. The time before the enforcement of the Hays Code is often called "pre-Code Hollywood" and is responsible for a number of controversial movies, not to mention some of the best horror movies of all time.
While we may think of classic black-and-white horror films as fairly tame by modern standards, there were a few motion pictures released back in the old days, especially during those "Wild West" pre-Code years, that had scenes every bit as vivid, shocking, disturbing, and strange as anything you'd find at the multiplexes today. From the Universal monster movies to silent shockers, there are plenty of weird and wild things waiting in the wings of classic horror films... for those who know where to look.
Following the success of his 1931 adaptation of Dracula, director Tod Browning used his newfound clout to secure financing for a project that he had been working on since 1927. The film that became Freaks was eventually hailed as Browning's masterpiece, but at the time, it all but ended his career. The original cut of Freaks was around 90 minutes long, but when it was shown to test audiences, it didn't exactly go off as MGM hoped. In fact, one woman threatened to sue because she claimed the film caused her to have a miscarriage. So, the studio stripped the movie down considerably and almost 30 minutes of footage disappeared.
One thing that audiences of 1932 may not have been quite ready for was Browning's decision to use actual sideshow performers as the titular freaks. But they may have been equally unprepared for the film's humane treatment of its central cast. The "freaks" of the title aren't the villains of the piece. That job is pulled off by "normal" characters Cleopatra and Hercules, who attempt to dupe the show's little person, Hans, into marrying Cleopatra so the two can then take his life and claim his inheritance.
At a wedding feast, the assembled sideshow performers famously chant, "Gobble-Gobble, we accept you! We accept you! One of us!" But when they learn of Cleopatra's betrayal, they stalk her through the rainy night, ultimately catching her at the base of a tree and making her literally "one of them." While the film's ending reveal of Cleopatra's fate may not be particularly shocking to modern audiences, the scenes leading up to it still are, and we can only speculate on what may have been lost from the film's original, longer version.
Edgar G. Ulmer's 1934 art-deco nightmare was the first film to team up Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. A contemporary review in The New York Times called it "clammy and excessively ghoulish," and studio executives at the time forced Ulmer to re-cut certain scenes in order to tone down the film's horror.
This squeamishness may have been because The Black Cat was one of the first horror films to deal directly with the effects of WWI, almost entirely abandoning the Edgar Allan Poe story from which it takes its name. Lugosi plays Dr. Werdegast, who is seeking revenge against Karloff's sinister architect, Hjalmar Poelzig, for acts the latter committed that left Werdegast a prisoner for 15 years.
Besides a sequence of a Black Mass, we are also treated to implications of necrophilia as Poelzig shows off his collection of embalmed brides preserved in glass cases. The most shocking sequence is saved for last, however. When Lugosi's Werdegast finally gets his revenge, it is by taking the skin off Poelzig, alive - a fate that is still hard to watch even though we see it mostly as shadows cast on the wall.
Considered by some to be one of the worst horror films of the pre-Code era, this movie opens with a "scene so startlingly grisly that it still appalls today," according to Mike Mashon and James Bell, writing for the BFI in 2019. The scene in question features Lionel Atwill, as the film's antagonist, sewing a man's lips together in the depths of the jungle. When Paramount requested a Reissue Code be provided for the film in 1935 so it could be shown again, the censors agreed on the condition that they "eliminate the close-up of the man's lips stitched together," along with a couple of other scenes.
Everyone knows the scene: The Frankenstein monster, played by Boris Karloff under makeup by Jack Pierce, comes upon a little girl who is throwing flowers into a lake and watching them float. The monster picks up the little girl and throws her into the lake, but she doesn't float. The next time we see her, her father is carrying her remains, riling up villagers to hunt for the monster.
While the scene is one of the most famous in the Frankenstein canon, it was very nearly removed from the film. Censors at the time demanded that the scene be excised, and so the moment ended before the Frankenstein monster picks up the little girl, making the later appearance of her lifeless body less clear and even more sinister. The scene wasn't restored until home video releases in the 1980s. Censors also objected to Henry Frankenstein's line, "Now I know what it feels like to be God!"
To find out why censors found this scene so troubling, we must look no further than the often-cited taboo that, even in horror films, you don't take the lives of kids. Though, of course, there are countless effective exceptions to this rule, dating all the way back to Frankenstein itself.