When you think of classic horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s, what comes to mind? For most people, it’s probably the Universal Classic Monsters. Films like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man are still considered some of the best ever made, and they’re hands down the gold standard for the genre’s early years.
But they weren’t the only horror movies made during those decades. Universal also produced non-monster horror films, and other studios made genre movies too. You just don’t hear much about them anymore. The Universal Monsters loom so large in horror history that everything else from that era has faded into a bit of obscurity. But those years gave us some fantastic films that deserve to be known and appreciated right up there with the Universal classics.
So to that end, I’d like to recommend five horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s that aren’t the Universal Classic Monsters. Obviously, there are a lot more than just five, but these are a good place to start and get acquainted with this largely forgotten era of the genre.
Vampyr is a German movie from 1932, and it’s about a man named Allan Gray who’s obsessed with the occult. His studies lead him to a small village that’s being oppressed by a vampire. Almost immediately after he arrives, he begins to experience some baffling phenomena. For instance, he sees shadows move on their own, and characters seem to come out of nowhere and leave just as inexplicably.
A lot of these strange occurrences are downright nonsensical, but that’s actually what makes the film so good. The plot follows dream logic rather than real logic, and it’s saturated with a shadowy, dream-like atmosphere to match, immersing you in the story and making you feel like you’re experiencing the vampire’s curse yourself. This makes Vampyr one of the most unique viewing experiences you’ll ever have, so it’s not just one of the best non-Universal horror films of the 1930s. It’s one of the best horror movies of all time.
Island of Lost Souls
Island of Lost Souls is a 1932 adaptation of the classic H. G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. It’s about a man who finds himself on an island where a scientist named Dr. Moreau has figured out a way to accelerate evolution and turn animals into weird-looking humanoids. Anchored by great performances and memorable characters, this movie deserves way more love than it normally gets.
Just like some of the classic Universal monster movies, this film flips the script on us and makes its monsters the good guys. Dr. Moreau’s creatures are genuine people, not just animals, and you come to really care about them by the end of the film. They endure terrible mistreatment and even torture at their creator’s hands, so you want them to finally get their chance at revenge. This makes for a really intriguing story, so Island of Lost Souls more than earns its spot as one of the best 1930s horror films from any studio.
The Black Cat
The Black Cat is a Universal film, but it’s not a monster movie. It was the first time Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi ever shared the screen together, and it’s one of the founding fathers of the psychological horror subgenre. The film follows a young couple on their honeymoon and a man named Dr. Vitus Wedergast (Lugosi). They survive a bus accident together, and afterwards they seek shelter at the house of an old friend of Dr. Wedergast, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). At first, Poelzig’s hospitality seems like a godsend, but soon the truth about these two friends’ past and Poelzig’s current plans for the young couple come to light and threaten their very lives.
Hands down, the best thing about this movie is the two lead performances. Karloff and Lugosi were the best horror actors of their generation, and getting to see them duke it out onscreen is an absolute delight. On top of that, the story is really intriguing too. It slowly reveals its secrets about Wedergast and Poelzig, so it keeps your eyes glued to the screen as you wait to find out more about these mysterious characters. The Black Cat shows, without a doubt, that Universal’s non-monster movies could be just as good as their more famous creature features. This is one of the best psychological horror films of all time, so I highly recommend giving it a shot.
The Return of the Vampire
The Return of the Vampire is basically a Dracula ripoff, but don’t let that fool you. It’s actually pretty good. It’s about a vampire named Armand Tesla who terrorizes a town while masquerading as a normal human being, and just like in Universal’s 1931 classic, this bloodsucker is also played by Bela Lugosi.
As you might expect, the best thing about this movie is Lugosi’s performance. The story is predictably generic, but Lugosi single-handedly elevates it to the status of a legit cult classic. He’s just as good here as he was in his breakout role, and getting to watch him essentially reprise that character (just with a different name) is a real treat. So if you’re a fan of vampires or Bela Lugosi, don’t let The Return of the Vampire slip through the cracks. It’s well worth a watch.
The Uninvited is on Martin Scorsese’s list of the eleven scariest movies ever made, so you know it’s good. To impress a filmmaker like Scorsese, this has to be more than just a great horror movie. It has to be a great movie, period. And it is. This was the first horror movie to depict ghosts as real entities, and it’s still one of the best almost eighty years later.
It’s about a sibling pair who buy a new house on the English coast, and soon after they move in, spooky stuff starts to happen. I know that sounds like every haunted house movie ever made, but it’s actually a compelling story. See, this ghost isn’t just a jerk who likes to scare people for fun. No, there’s a reason why it’s haunting this house, and the movie slowly unfolds that secret at just about the perfect pace. It keeps your attention the whole way through, so The Uninvited isn’t just one of the best horror films from the 1940s. It’s one of the best horror movies from any decade.