Horror is a genre that comes in waves, where different sub-genres will become extremely popular at certain times, leading to an influx of films. Look no further than the host of slasher style horror movies produced in the 1980s. These times can sometimes make it seem like they’re the only time that horror is popular, and people can sometimes miss the times where decent, competent horror films were being steadily released with little to no fanfare.
One era that tends to get overlooked for horror is the 1930s and 1940s. Yes, they were incredibly famous for producing the Universal Monster movies, but most people couldn’t name you a single film from that era outside of that series. For Creeping Horror, Eureka Entertainment has scoured through the forgotten vaults of cinema to gather together four horror films from the time to reintroduce to audiences in new HD presentations.
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The first film in this set is the earliest, Murders in the Zoo. Made in 1933, the film predates the infamous Hays Code, a set of censorship guidelines introduced only a year later that would affect the way a lot of films were produced. As such, Murders in the Zoo is one of the more violent and gruesome films in this set, though would still be considered rather tame in comparison to modern horror movies.
Murders in the Zoo opens with big game hunter and wealthy zoologist Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) on an expedition to gather animal specimens torturing his wife’s secret lover. Tying the man’s arms behind his back, and sewing his mouth shut, he leaves the man in the jungle to die at the hands of the animals that call it home. Back in the US, the zoo he works with is having difficulty with generating business for itself. Hiring a new publicity agent, the team try to figure out a way to drum up interest. When Gorman returns with his latest haul of animals, it’s decided that they’ll put on a gala inside the zoo, where wealthy patrons get to eat and party surrounded by wild animals. However, Gorman has other plans for the event, as he wishes to use it as cover to kill his wife’s new lover. Thus begins a series of events that will see multiple murders take place at the zoo, and a mad man begin to unravel.
Murders in the Zoo is an odd film for horror fans of our time, and the issues with it embody many of the issues with all of the films collected in this set: namely, that it hardly feels like horror at all. Times have changed, tastes have developed, and what society classes as horror now is very different to the 1930s. If this film were produced today it would likely more fall into the category of thriller than horror, but Murders in the Zoo also throws some attempts at comedy and slapstick into the mix that further make it feel like an odd choice for a horror collection. Thankfully, the sheer level of cruelty that Atwill brings to the role of Gorman, and the scenes that depict some gruesome animal attacks, help to keep it from falling into too light a feeling.
Atwill is disgustingly misogynistic and cruel as Gorman, punishing any man who even dares to interact with his wife; a wife that he’s more than willing to abuse and rape himself. His outward veneer of being the charming gentleman adventurer is at odds with the cruelty that lies beneath, but Atwill manages to make both sides of the character convincing.
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Other actors do well here too, with Charlie Ruggles playing an almost bumbling promotional manager whose fear of animals is used for comedic effect, and Randolf Scott coming off well as the heroic Jack Woodford, a doctor at the zoo whose investigative skills put him in a position to figure out that Gorman is a killer. Perhaps most impressive, however, are the final moments of the movie, where a huge boa constrictor kills someone. I looked at this scene a couple of times, and still don’t know how they did it. I’m not sure if the snake is attacking a dummy, if the actor was there for the whole scene, or if it was a very elaborate fake snake at times. It’s an impressive moment, and one that showcases the kind of things that were essentially eliminated by the Hays Code.
The second film on the set is Night Monster, from 1942, and is perhaps the most unusual of the four, as it actually contains elements of the paranormal. The film feels like a classic whodunnit at times, with a large stately house filled with interesting characters, unusual staff, and murder. The large manor belongs to Curt Ingston (Ralph Morgan), who since becoming sick with a degenerative condition now relies on the use of a wheelchair and a complicated prosthesis for a hand. He’s called a number of doctors to his home to help him with his condition. This happens at the same time as the arrival of Dr Lynn Harper (Irene Harvey), a psychiatrist who’s been called in secret to help prove that Ingston’s wife isn’t crazy in order to help her get away from her husband. There’s also a local celebrity, a mystery writer, who gets caught up in the events, along with several suspicious staff, and an ‘eastern mystic’ called Agar Singh (Nils Singh in brown-face).
Murders begin to take place at the remote estate, where various staff and guests are found strangled, beaten, and hung in their rooms, with strange bloody trails leading from the bodies into solid walls. As the group try to figure out the culprit for the murders, the possibility of otherworldly means are raised when Singh demonstrates his abilities to materialise matter, summoning an Egyptian skeleton from ‘the beyond’. The skeleton leaves behind physical objects that seem to prove the mystic’s claims. With the bodies continuing to mount, and the possibility that something more than human might be at play, the race to find the killer intensifies.
Night Monster is the weirdest film here, and there were times when the plot became quite confusing and ridiculous. It wasn’t clear whether the materialisation demonstrated by Singh should be taken seriously or whether it was some kind of sham, until the final parts of the film where the mystery was solved. The constant guessing of whether there is a human killer or some kind of supernatural force means that you’re never quite sure if you can trust what you were being presented with.
Added to this, almost every character in the film is presented as a pretty broad caricature, ticking off boxes for who needs to be present for a murder mystery. There is the butler who comes down on anyone not acting ‘proper’; the overbearing and controlling maid; the lecherous driver; the no-nonsense maid; and the shifty gatekeeper. There are times that the film feels like a bit of a parody of the genre, because most of these characters never evolve beyond these basic descriptions. That being said, all of the performances are enjoyable enough to watch. Eagle-eyed horror fans will also spot that the butler is played by a familiar figure, Bela Lugosi, aka Dracula.
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Horror Island, released in 1941, might be the most enjoyable of the bunch, thanks to the fact that it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, and has more of a comedic adventure tone to it. It tells the story of Bill Martin (Dick Foran), a guy who’s a bit of a wheeler-dealer who happens to own a small island off the coast of Florida. Bill thinks that there’s nothing of worth there beyond an old castle, but when a peg-legged sailor brings him half of a treasure map he thinks there could be a chance to make money off the island. Bill starts putting together a ‘treasure hunt’ tour of the island; one where fake scares and spooky happenings will transform the castle into a haunted tourist spot. However, a mysterious figure known as The Phantom (Foy Van Dolsen) has the other half of the map, and will do anything to get the treasure – even kill.
Of the four films in this set this is perhaps the most unusual, as it really doesn’t fit into the horror genre. It’s a comedic drama, with a dash of adventure flair, and a few killings and deadly traps thrown into the mix, with a shadowy figure running around causing chaos. For the audiences of 1941 a remote island castle with spooky voices telling people to leave, and a figure skulking around at night may have been enough to make a film frightening, but looking at it with modern eyes it’s an incredibly tame experience. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad one. The film feels more like a 1940’s take on something like The Goonies more than a horror film, and that sense of fun and promise of adventure with a hint of danger is definitely present here. If you go into it wanting a horror you might be disappointed, but it might be one of the more entertaining films in this set because it goes against those expectations.
The final film is 1946’s House of Horrors, and is perhaps the film that most feels like a horror film. The story centres on sculptor Marcel de Lange (Martin Kosleck), a man struggling to survive in a fierce art scene. After he loses a huge sale thanks to the interference of a brutal critic he contemplates throwing himself into the ocean to kill himself. Walking by the sea he discovers a huge man, known as ‘The Creeper’ (Rondo Hatton) half drowned. Marcel saves him, and nurses the giant back to health. He asks The Creeper to allow him to sculpt him, and the two soon form a friendship. However, when Marcel tells The Creeper how much he hates the critic who ruined his sale The Creeper heads out into the night and murders him. Marcel soon realises what has happened, but rather than go to the police, begins to send The Creeper out on missions of murder.
House of Horrors is a surprisingly dark movie. The content of the film feels a lot more mature than the other films in this set. This isn’t a campy movie, the villains aren’t arch, there’s not really any comedy to be found here. Instead, it’s a story of two twisted, cruel men who work together to fulfil their murderous needs; all without them ever actually agreeing to it.
The moment when Marcel realises that The Creeper has killed for him, and decides to do it again is a chilling one. Both men know what’s going on, yet never talk about it. Marcel simply talks about his latest enemy, and The Creeper goes out for a late night walk. The plausible deniability that hangs over the crimes, and the calm way Marcel delivers his targets makes it feel chillingly realistic. Hatton is wonderful as The Creeper too, a figure who at first you think is going to be a sympathetic character, judged harshly because of his physical appearance; but then becomes the monster people accuse him of being. It’s a shame that Hatton passed away before the release of the movie, as it’s clear he could have become a big name in horror films of the era.
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Each of the movies in the set gets an HD remaster, and they look fantastic for their age. It’s wonderful to get to see films that are almost 100 years old in some cases look like they could have been made within the last decade. The picture and sound quality is really crisp, and stands up well. There are a few trailers and stills galleries added on too, and each movie has a full length commentary track. Night Monster and House of Horrors have commentaries with author Stephen Jones, and author/critic Kim Newman, whilst Murders in the Zoo and Horror Island have commentaries with Kevin Lyons, and Jonathan Rigby. The tracks are really informative, and definitely add a lot to each of the film in lieu of behind the scenes features.
Creeping Horror is an interesting set that shows some of the variety of the earlier days of horror cinema, and how different studios tackled the genre. Not every film here will appeal in the same way, but they each have something interesting about them, and are a great addition to any collection.
Creeping Horror is out on Blu-ray on 17th April from Eureka Entertainment.