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“Too dreadfully brutal”: In Conversation with author Jon Towlson

Mad Love (1935)

“The type of picture that brought about censorship.” Review of Mad Love, Motion Picture Herald, 1935

“Quite the most unpleasant picture I have ever seen […] it exploited cruelty for cruelty’s sake.” Review of The Raven, London Daily Telegraph, 1935.

“Too dreadfully brutal, no matter what the story calls for […] It carries gruesomeness and cruelty just a little beyond reason or necessity.” Review of Frankenstein, Motion Picture Herald, 1931

Is the 1930s horror film more akin to graphic modern horror than is often thought? In his recent book, The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films, 1931-1936 (McFarland & Co), film critic and author Jon Towlson vividly explores the misconception of 1930s horror as safe and reassuring. While ground-breaking titles such as Frankenstein (1931), Island of Lost Souls (1933) and The Black Cat (1934) frequently depicted the vanquishing of their monsters and a return to the normative status quo, their truly graphic nature was fully exposed during the home video/DVD era. Throughout the Great Depression, horror films, along with gangster movies and ‘sex pictures’, attracted audiences with sensational and remarkably explicit screen content. Exploiting a loophole in the Hays Code, which made no provision for on-screen ‘gruesomeness’, studios produced films that had drastic recuts imposed upon them when the Code was more rigidly enforced from 1934. These cuts vastly altered the creative vision of the films’ writers and directors, and cast the titles in a misconstruing light that eventually led to their current, unrepresentative reputation.

Towlson’s book reveals the 1930s as a decade that not only helped shape the nature of the horror genre, but one that continues to influence cinematic violence to this day. The author is set to give a lecture at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in London on 16th March, to discuss the subject and share his research. Synthetic Flesh/Rotten Blood: The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films, 1931-1936 will examine ‘happy ending’ horror in relation to industry practices and censorship, and detail how the likes of Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Raven (1935) may be more akin to the modern Grand Guignol excesses of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Hostel (2005) than many critics and audiences believe. Towlson’s discussion will be reinforced with memos, letters and censorship reports from the studio archives and other research conducted for his book.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting to Jon about his work, the misconception of 1930s horror cinema and how it helped shape the genre…

Diabolique: Your book paints a very different picture of 1930s horror cinema compared to how critics and audiences have thus far considered it. What would you say to those who view 1930s horror films as safe, tame and full of happy endings?

Towlson: That view has persisted for a number of reasons. Firstly, pre-Code horror films were re-censored after the Production Code was tightened up from 1934 onwards; so if a film was reissued it was often cut for re-issue even if it hadn’t been censored before that – and sometimes censored even more than it had been on first release. So, for decades, films like Frankenstein (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1931), King Kong (1933) and many others were shown in censored versions. It’s really only in the DVD age that we have been able to see most of these in their full glory with cuts restored. Secondly, some influential historians and critics have perpetuated this idea of tameness, often lumping together the thirties and forties films into one classic era.

However, as I said, the thirties films were more gruesome, whereas Universal went family-friendly in the 40s with the monster rallies. But we still look upon the two eras, thanks to historians like William K. Everson and Denis Gifford, with a rosy glow of nostalgia. They’ve become mythologised. Nothing against these historians – they’re important writers – but the thirties pictures are not as safe and reassuring as they were made out to be. Lastly, the ‘Monster Kid’ generation saw these movies mainly on TV in the 50s and 60s, PCA-cut versions, and, again mixed together with 40s horrors, which kind of jumbled both eras up in people’s minds. Plus, a number of key titles like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Murders in the Zoo (1933) weren’t included in the Shock Theatre showings, and some remained unseen altogether for many years. This also led to an incomplete picture of the 30s cycle.

Diabolique: Can you tell me about the genesis of your book project? I recall you wrote about the subversive nature of 1930s horror films in an issue of Paracinema Magazine back in 2012.

Towlson: That’s right. I wrote that piece about the endings of 30s horror pictures, mainly to argue against the idea that 30s horror is inherently conservative because the endings always restore the status quo. It struck me when I was watching these films that the endings of so many of them, from Frankenstein onwards, were tacked–on by the studio, often after disastrous previews, and were just unconvincing. Often the happy endings were there to placate censors. So, can thirties horror films be truly defined by this idea that they restore the status quo? As I began to research further, I started to think to myself, ok, if we need to redefine thirties horror – what is its primary characteristic if not its reassuring ending? And what came up again and again in the censorship notes, the marketing and the studio memos of these films was the word ‘gruesomeness’.

Even before films were being termed ‘horror’ films, they were being called ‘gruesome pictures’. And that was how the studios sold these movies in the pre-Code era, as gruesome pictures, like machine guns in gangster pictures or sex in sex pictures from the 30s. When the Production Code Administration started to tighten the Hays Code up in the mid-thirties, it was gruesomeness that they looked at in horror pictures, and eventually they took steps to eradicate it. 1940s horror films were less graphic, and relied more on ghostliness and psychology as a result. But gruesomeness makes the thirties films very edgy, and quite brutal.

Diabolique: Horror cinema was really a fledgling genre back in the 30s, indeed, as you say, they weren’t even referred to as ‘horror’ pictures until later in that decade. Was it always obvious to you which films you needed to examine for this project?

Towlson: What was great was being able to go through all of the Hays Code files to see which films had been censored and why. And what I found was that more or less all of the films that we think of as iconic now, from Dracula (1931) to The Black Cat (1934) all had files on them, and were considered, and sometimes vetted, very carefully by the Hays Code officials in terms of their gruesomeness. And it was possible to trace a trajectory from 1931 to 1936 to see how films like Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and The Devil Doll (1936) were affected by the clampdown on gruesomeness as the decade wore on. Then you get lesser known films like Murders in the Zoo which seems to have been conceived almost as a marketing ploy to push gruesomeness. The opening scene, for example, where the guy has his mouth sewed shut, wasn’t even in the original treatment. It was added later after a script conference as a kind of publicity generator, and the film’s marketing played on that scene. But, yes, even the more obscure films, like Black Moon (1934) and Night of Terror (1933) had gruesome stuff eliminated by the Hays Office, either from the finished film or at the script stage.

The Black Cat (1934)

Diabolique: Do you think it’s fair to say, then, that the efforts of the early censorship boards – to suppress certain content in the emerging horror genre – only served to help make it what it is today?

Towlson: The 30s horror film was really a continuation of the tradition of Grand Guignol theatre, so graphic modern horror’s influences extend way back before even the thirties horror films. The idea that horror has become more graphic and gruesome as time has gone on is true, in relative terms. Sure, special make-up effects have become more convincing and to an extent more graphic, but when you see titles like Maniac (1934) it’s clear filmmakers were still gouging the eyes out of cats in the 1930s! The ideas were still horrible and shocking. But, yes, I think censorship – in terms of what you could actually show in any given era – has certainly influenced the way violence in all genres has been represented on screen from the thirties onwards, including in horror films. The Production Code was at its strongest in the 1940s and early 1950s, and that coincides with a lack of gruesomeness in the horror films of that period. The introduction of Technicolor, as well, had a big influence on gruesomeness in later years when you consider how Hammer made use of ‘Kensington Gore’ in the late 50s, and how that led to more graphic content as the Production Code dissolved in the 60s, with Blood Feast (1963) etc.

Diabolique: There were a couple of years towards the end of the 30s when the future of horror seemed highly uncertain – there was one year in which no horror films were produced at all (1937). What would you attribute to its resurrection and eventual inextinguishable appeal?

Towlson: The reissue of Frankenstein and Dracula as a double bill in 1938 was a massive success and suddenly studios decided to go against the advice of the Production Code Administration and start producing horror films again, after a three year hiatus. Horror films were then popular in the Second World War as they were in the Depression. Why do people like horror films? There’s a great quote from a thirties film industry newspaper that basically asks why comedies weren’t popular during the early days of the Great Depression but horror films and gangster movies were: their conclusion – “Misery likes reality for company!”

Diabolique: In your own opinion, which 30s films/filmmakers have had the greatest impact on the genre as it stands today? And in terms of contemporary horror, do you think the influence of 30s horror is still discernible?

Towlson: I would have to say James Whale’s Frankenstein and King Kong probably have had the biggest impact on the decades. Both films were box office sensations, and it’s possible to trace themes from both films to contemporary horror: the abiding attraction and repulsion we feel for the monster, for example. The wider influence of 30s horror can be found in the torture and sadism that seems to pervade much modern horror. Torture and the enjoyment of inflicting pain on others – and the audience’s masochistic enjoyment of inflicting pain on itself by watching – is as big a part of the 30s horror film as it is modern horror movies, and vice versa.

Diabolique: Can you point to any recent titles in particular that bear the influence of 30s horror cinema?

Towlson: Any movie where you have someone strapped down and tortured – you only have to look at the sequence of Murders in the Rue Morgue where Bela Lugosi crucifies a prostitute to see the influence!

The Turn To Gruesomeness In American Horror Films, 1931-1936 is available now, courtesy of McFarland & Co. For more information on Jon’s forthcoming lecture, and to obtain tickets, visit the official Miskatonic London home page here. 

About James Gracey

James Gracey is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books). He has written for Film Ireland, Fangoria and The Quietus, and currently contributes to Paracinema and Exquisite Terror. He waxes lyrical about horror cinema on his blog, Behind the Couch, and likes nothing better than curling up on the couch with a glass of wine, and watching Italian horror films.

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