The success of Universal's Dracula in 1931 began a cycle towards horror films that would last until 1935. This boom in horror movies also roughly coincided with the era of Pre-Code Hollywood, a period when the Production Code was not rigorously enforced and as a result filmmakers would have much more freedom than they would in later years. As a result many horror films of the era would be much more intense and even more sophisticated than those released after 1934 (when the Code was more stringently enforced). Quite a few of the horror films faced censorship by state and local boards. Some, such as Freaks, would even prove controversial.
The year 1932 could perhaps be considered the height of the Pre-Code horror film. Not only did 1932 see the release of more horror films than any other year in the early Thirties, but many of the films released that year skirted the Production Code in ways that earlier horror films did not and later horror films would not. Indeed, 1932 was the year that the controversial film Freaks was released. What is more, it would not be the last film released in 1932 that would become a cause célèbre.
Indeed, perhaps the most surprising thing about Warner Brothers' Doctor X is that it was not the source of more censorship efforts. Released on 3 August 1932, in some ways the film seems as if it should have made in a later era. Much of the plot concerns a serial killer who not only murders his victims, but eats them as well (this at a time when cannibalism was unknown even in horror films). At one point reporter Taylor (played by Lee Tracy) uses the nearest available phone to call in his story. It just happens to be inside a brothel. In addition to murder, cannibalism and prostitution, Doctor X also featured dismemberment, synthetic flesh, and even the implication of rape. Seen today in many ways Doctor X seems like it should belong to a later era. Amazingly enough, in the United Kingdom the BBFC passed Doctor X after a few cuts to the film.
Paramount's Island of Lost Souls (an adaptation of H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau) would not be as lucky as Doctor X when it came to the censors. In fact, besides Freaks it was perhaps the most controversial horror film of the Pre-Code Era. Even before it was released Island of Lost Souls would face some difficulties. The Studio Relations Committee (later known as the Production Code Administration) expressed serious concerns over Island of Lost Souls. They warned that the idea of crossing humans with animals would be a risk and even advised that the film "..should be abandoned." They also expressed some concern over Dr. Moreau's line, "Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?" Despite the Studio Relations Committee's concern, Paramount went forward with Island of Lost Souls and Dr. Moreau's famous line remained in the film.
Seen today it is easy to understand why the Studio Relations Committee was worried about Island of Lost Souls. Not only is Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) attempting to make humans out of animals, but it is fairly clear that he wants the hero Parker (Richard Arlen) to mate with Lota the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke). One of Dr. Moreau's "beast men", Ouran (Hans Steinke) also tries to assault Parker's fiancée Ruth (Leila Hyams). Dr. Moreau also has a God complex that makes Dr. Henry Frankenstein seem humble in comparison. Island of Lost Souls is also not without its share of violence. Dr. Moreau performs his operations without anaesthetics. Worse yet, Dr. Moreau wields a whip.
Given the reception it received upon its initial release, it should come as no surprise that Island of Lost Souls would suffer once the Production Code Administration began more strenuously enforcing the Code in 1934. Indeed, when Paramount wanted to re-release the film in 1935, the Production Code Administration rejected it entirely. When Paramount wanted to reissue the film in 1941, the Production Code Administration would only allow it to do so after any references Dr. Moreau made comparing himself to God were cut, as well as the doctor's line "Man is the present climax of a long process of organic revolution. All animal life is tending to human form," and any reference to Dr. Moreau's intention for Parker to mate with Lota the Panther Woman. Sadly, Island of Lost Souls would not be entirely restored until 2011.
For the most part the Pre-Code horror films released in 1933 would be tamer than those released in previous years. Much of this was perhaps because of the reaction such controversial motion pictures as Murders in the Rue Morgue, Freaks, and Island of Lost Souls had received from censorship boards across the United States. It must also be pointed that, then as now, the studios made a good deal of their money overseas. Given that some of the Pre-Code horror films were outright banned in many countries, it should not be surprising if the studios had decided to tone their movies down. Indeed, it was 1 May 1933 that the British Board of Film Classification introduced the "H" classification for horror films. Initially meant only as an advisory, the "H" classification officially became a certificate in June 1937, after which no one under 16 would be admitted.
Not surprisingly given the climate in Hollywood and elsewhere, those horror films that tended to skirt the Production Code were released earlier in 1933. Among these were Mystery of the Wax Museum. Based on the unpublished short story "The Wax Works" by Charles Spencer Belden, Warner Brothers meant Mystery of the Wax Museum as a follow up to the successful Doctor X, reuniting Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Like Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum was shot in two strip Technicolor. And like Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum virtually ignored the Production Code.
Not surprisingly, Mystery of the Wax Museum would meet with some resistance from state censorship boards. In particular the New York State Censorship Board demanded several cuts to Mystery of the Wax Museum. The Ohio Department of Film Censorship not only demanded cuts to the film, but actually filed a formal protest with Warner Brothers over the film, expressing the opinion "it would be much better for all of us if productions of this type of film would be discontinued." The Ohio Department of Film Censorship was primarily disturbed by its depiction of arson, drug use, and the use of poison in the film. In the United Kingdom the BBFC referred to Lionel Atwill's horrific makeup in the climax of the film as "..the most nauseating and by far the worst of its type" The BBFC did pass Mystery at the Wax Museum, but they gave it an A certificate ("Adult").
Mystery of the Wax Museum would not see the extensive cuts that many Pre-Code horror films did at the hands of the Production Code Administration, but then that was only because Warner Brothers never officially re-released the film. In fact, for many years Mystery of the Wax Museum was believed to be lost, until a print was discovered in Jack Warner's film collection in 1970, along with the two-strip Technicolor version of Doctor X. Its colours had apparently faded considerably, but at least it had escaped the Production Code Administration.
This is not to say that King Kong did not meet with censorship outside of the Untied States and the United Kingdom. In Australia some scenes had to be cut before it could be shown there. In Austria children were restricted from seeing the film. Initially Germany banned King Kong outright. The distributor, Europa-Filmverleih, then filed an appeal. The ban was then lifted, although various cuts were made to the film and children were forbidden to see it.
While King Kong did not raise the ire of most American censors in its initial release, the film would suffer greatly at the hands of the Production Code Administration upon its reissue in 1938. In fact about 29 individuals scenes were cut from the film. King Kong would see further cuts when it was reissued in 1942, 1946,1952, and 1956. Among the scenes that were cut from the film were those in which Kong is shown biting and chomping on Skull Islanders, as well as one in which he bites and chomps on a man in New York City. Similarly, the scenes of the brontosaurus biting sailors was cut as well. As might be expected, a scene in which Kong crushes a Skull Islander under foot was cut, as well as a scene in which Kong takes a sleeping woman from her room and drops her when he realises she isn't Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). Perhaps the most famous scene to be cut was one in which Kong peels off Ann Darrow's clothing and then sniffs his fingers.
Fortunately many of these scenes would be restored in the late Sixties, and the restored print of King Kong would be shown in theatres in 1971. In 1976 an original print discovered in the United Kingdom was used to strike a new print with the missing scenes intact. Further restoration to King Kong was done in 1993 and 2005.
As might be expected, Murders in the Zoo would be a target for state and local censorship boards. The New York State Censorship Board demanded numerous cuts to the film. In Canada the province of Quebec banned it outright. In the United Kingdom the BBFC gave it an "A" certificate, meaning it could only be seen by adults. Murders in the Zoo would be banned in Australia, Austria, Germany, Latvia, and Sweden. Not surprisingly given its content, Murders in the Zoo would not be seen much after the Production Code was more rigorously enforced in 1934. It was released on VHS in the Nineties and was only released on DVD in the Naughts.
The end of the Pre-Code Era would come in mid-1934. Perhaps fittingly, Universal, the studio that had started the cycle towards horror films in the early Thirties, would release the last significant Pre-Code horror film. Released on 18 May 1934 The Black Cat featured the two biggest horror stars of the time (perhaps of all time), Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. What is more, it is perhaps the darkest horror film Universal made in the early Thirties. Bela Lugosi played psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who is visiting an old acquaintance, architect Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff). Along the way he meets a young couple, Peter and Joan Alison (played by David Manners and Jacqueline Wells), who wind up at Poelzig's art deco mansion after their bus crashes. Unfortunately for the three of them, Poelzig proves to be quite mad. Not only does he keep dead women displayed in glass cases, but he also happens to be a bona fide Satanist. As if devil worship was not enough, The Black Cat also included scenes of torture (including a scene in which a man is flayed), drug use (because of Joan's injuries Dr. Werdegast gives her the hallucinogen hyoscine), a chess game to the death (literally), and very strong overtones of necrophilia.
As might be expected of a film that included Satanism and torture, The Black Cat faced censorship even before it started shooting. Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration warned Universal and addressed 19 different points that could create problems for The Black Cat upon its release. Not surprisingly, among these was the scene in which a man is flayed alive. Also among the problems with the film were: the scene in which Dr. Werdegast kills Poelzig's black cat; a photographer at Peter and Joan's wedding who was obviously gay; a shot of Poelzig in bed with a naked woman; and an inverted cross at the Black Mass. Mr Breen also advised that advertising for the film should state that it is "Suitable Only for Adults". Universal complied with some of Mr. Breen's advice, cutting the wedding scene. Universal also ignored much of what Mr. Breen had advised. The scenes in which a man was flayed alive and Dr. Werdegast kills a cat remained in the script.
Joseph Breen was not the only person concerned about The Black Cat. Universal itself was as well. Because studio heads found much of the film objectionable, director Edgar G. Ulmer was forced to film three and a half days of retakes. The character of Dr. Werdegast, who in the original script was nearly as mad as Poelzig, was changed into a much more sympathetic character. Several scenes were ultimately cut from the film.
Even given Joseph Breen and Universal's studio heads' interference in the film, The Black Cat did face censorship from state and local boards. The flaying scene and any reference to the flaying itself were cut in Chicago, Maryland, and Ohio. In Canada, Ontario demanded no less than 15 different cuts. In the United Kingdom The Black Cat was retitled The House of Doom and several scenes were cut, including the scene with Poelzig in bed with a woman, any line referring to devil worship, and any scenes including the dead women kept under glass. The Black Cat was banned outright in Austria.
The Black Cat would be the last significant horror film of the Pre-Code Era. Even as it was taking place, forces were conspiring to bring the Pre-Code Era to an end. Many films of the era had encountered resistance from the various state and local censorship boards, not just horror films but films in genres as diverse as crime and dramas. Religious groups had become increasingly concerned about the content of Hollywood films. In 1933 John T. McNicholas, Archbishop of Cincinnati founded the Catholic Legion of Decency (later renamed the National Legion of Decency), an organisation formed to fight the "immorality" of films. Facing growing opposition from moral watchdogs, an amendment was added to the Production Code on 13 June 1934 that required all films made after 1 July 1934 to be submitted to the Production Code Administration to get a seal of approval before they could be released. The Pre-Code Era was officially over.
The cycle towards horror films that had begun with the release of Dracula would continue even after the Pre-Code Era had ended, but not for much longer. Despite the introduction of the "H" advisory for horror films by the BBFC in the UK and despite the changes to the Production Code in the U.S., the British Board of Film Censorship still had no love for American horror films. In 1935 Edward Shortt, President of the BBFC, expressed his displeasure that horror films were on the increase and said, ".I hope that the producers and renters will accept this word of warning, and discourage this type of subject as far as possible." Given that the United Kingdom was a significant source of box office revenue for them, the Hollywood studios took notice of Mr. Shortt's words. Even Universal, for whom horror films had been their major source of revenue, would cease making them for a time. An article in Variety at the time reported that Dracula's Daughter would be the last horror film released by Universal. The studio had decided to stop making them because, "European countries, especially England are prejudiced against this type of product."
Of course, history shows that Universal and the other Hollywood studios would return to making horror films. In 1938 Universal reissued Dracula and Frankenstein on a double bill and saw enormous success. This persuaded Universal to return to making horror films with another sequel to Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, in 1939. The success of Son of Frankenstein would begin a new cycle of horror films that would last until 1946.
Seen today the horror films of the Pre-Code Era can be downright shocking. They often included content that would be impossible once the Production Code was more strictly enforced in 1934. The Pre-Code horror films would be much more frank in their portrayal of such things as sex and drug abuse, and sometimes included material that could be considered blasphemous or sacrilegious. This often made the Pre-Code horror films more intense and as a result more frightening than their counterparts made in the late Thirties and in the Forties. While there would be classic horror films made after the Pre-Code Era had ended (indeed, IMHO the greatest horror film of all time is Bride of Frankenstein, made after stricter enforcement of the Code), none would be as open about sex and even violence until the emergence of Hammer Film's horrors in the late Fifties.