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.
Fredric March's "strenuous" portrayal of the dual roles of Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde in this 1931 adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel won him an Oscar, one of a handful for which the film was nominated. Also in the running was the cinematography, including an infamous transformation sequence achieved by cinematographer Karl Struss using red filters that let the actor's makeup slowly "appear" in the black-and-white shots.
The in-camera transformation effect was sold by March's performance, in which he seems to be in genuine pain. Describing his approach to the role, March said that, "Hyde was [ending] Jekyll physically as well as mentally." March portrayed this in subtle ways, while the makeup artist increased the "lines and shadows of Jekyll's makeup as the picture progressed, until, in the last scenes, he looked as though he already had one foot in the grave."
One of only a few surviving movies filmed in what is widely (but inaccurately) known as "two-strip Technicolor," Doctor X is also a film filled with all kinds of pulpy thrills that would be prohibited by the restrictive Hays Code a few years after its release. This dark house/mad-scientist-on-the-loose mash-up has references to indecency, cannibalism, and prostitution aplenty, but perhaps its biggest shock comes in the reveal of its "monster."
In the film, various characters gather in a scientist's big, spooky mansion on a seaside cliff to determine the identity of a slayer who is probably someone among their number. The potential suspects (and potential targets) include horror stars Lionel Atwill and original scream queen Fay Wray.
Of course, those of us in the audience have already seen the monstrous visage of the suspect, making it difficult to identify them among those gathered since everyone looks fairly ordinary. One of the scientists, however, has pioneered the creation of "synthetic flesh," which he memorably applies to himself from a steaming vat while a voiceover purrs the words "synthetic flesh."
The Leopard Man was the third and final collaboration between director Jacques Tourneur and legendary horror producer Val Lewton. Along with their crew at RKO, the two "were adept at transforming cheap underlit sets into the stuff of nightmares, where every darkened nook housed a potential menace," and The Leopard Man is no exception. Filled with shadowplay and vividly black pools of darkness, the film is adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich and has been called one of the first cinematic attempts at a realistic portrayal of a serial offender - though the actual term wouldn't come into common use for several decades.
One of the film's most memorable sequences comes early on when the eponymous stalker claims his first target. Along with her mother and brother, we hear the incident from the other side of a locked door, the only visible sign of the horror is the slow seeping blood that comes in under the edge of the door.
"If you wish to see strange things, I have the power to show them to you." So says the titular character of the 1926 silent film The Magician, and he isn't exaggerating.
Helmed by Rex Ingram, who was once called the "world's greatest director" by Erich von Stroheim, The Magician is adapted from the book of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham. The eponymous magician is named Oliver Haddo, but he was inspired, at least in the original novel, by real-life occultist Aleister Crowley, who was famously called "the wickedest man in the world." Crowley may have been someone who reveled in his bad reputation, but he wasn't exactly fond of Maugham's portrayal of him in The Magician, penning a scathing review in Vanity Fair in which he accused Maugham of plagiarism (written under the pen name Oliver Haddo, no less) and seeking to prevent the French premiere of Ingram's film through legal means.
In the film, Haddo is played by silent film actor and director Paul Wegener, who may be more familiar to horror fans for his portrayal of the titular creature in the 1920 German film The Golem. Prefiguring the Frankenstein films that would come in just a few years, Haddo has as his goal the creation of life, but to do so he needs the "heart's blood of a maiden." Enter Margaret Dauncey, played by Ingram's wife Alice Terry.
In one of the film's most striking scenes, Haddo takes Dauncey to some sort of Boschian rite of Pan, where we see a "dancing faun" ravish a woman in front of a decidedly yonic archway. While it isn't exactly graphic by modern standards, it is suggestive enough to make even the most jaded of modern audiences take notice.