The Most Dangerous Game (1932) ***
Tired of hunting tigers and rhinos, Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) lives only to stalk and kill "the most dangerous game". On a deserted island on which he has built a sumptuous home, he waits in immaculate evening dress for the survivors of the shipwrecks he deliberately engineers to struggle ashore, restores them to full health with fine wine and gourmet food, then sends them out into the jungle for him to hunt and kill.
Today, his quarry are international big game hunter Joel McCrea - a worthy adversary indeed - and Fay Wray, of whom (and which) more later.
Made on what would soon become immortalised as the sets for King Kong, partly to test their effectiveness and partly to get more value for money out of them, this breathless adaptation of Richard Connell's short story is as fine, and important, a piece of work in its own right.
It's probably the defining pre-Code horror movie, the clearest example of what a horror film could be like, but for a variety of interesting reasons rarely was, during those four extraordinary years of sound film production before the Code was enforced.
The assumption that the differences between this and a golden age (Code era) horror film would be more or less the same as between the latter and a modern horror film - ie: more violence and onscreen blood - is soon disabused, though there is a surprisingly gory shark attack, and the 'trophy room' scene, where our heroes stumble upon Zaroff's display of mounted and pickled human heads, is certainly a shock to audiences who are not expecting to see such things in a 1930s movie. (This scene was originally much longer, with even more shocking footage of heads and fully mounted corpses.)
It is a tense and genuinely frightening film; the final scenes of pursuit through the jungle fully the equal of Kong in dramatic effect. But it is the aura of decadence and dark eroticism that truly marks it as pre-Code horror; the fact - of which Wray's tattered and clinging dress would have kept original audiences more than fully reminded - that the cost of their failing to outwit Zaroff is death for McCrea but the proverbial fate worse than death for Wray.
As he states outright, with frankness enough to give Hays nightmares of his own, Zaroff has sex only after the kill, and he intends to make a very different trophy of Fay than a head on the wall.
And it is, I am certain, this darkly sexualised quality to Wray's horror heroines that make her still such an icon of the genre, considering how small a proportion of her output her horror films represent.
It would be interesting to know when her reputation as the genre's most celebrated screamer was first cemented, as I have a feeling it was from the first a kind of metaphorical tribute: the point is not the frequency or volume of her screaming (neither, surely, remarkable in themselves) but the seeming cause and, dare I say, effect of it: even in Kong, the true frisson is that her peril is maidenly peril.
Clara had it, and Fay screams. She is the quintessential embodiment of the genre's pre-Code desires, so carefully sublimated after the Code came in as to be frequently invisible.
Note how often her characters are put in some kind of restraint, or end up with their clothes in disarray; they are not merely put in physical danger from the films' protagonists but a source of obvious lust for them too. Had she played horror roles in the Code era she may well not have stood out from the crowd; it is her complicity in their sado-erotic elements that distinguishes her appearances in this, Kong, Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum (which ends with her strapped naked to a pasting table on the verge of receiving immortalisation via a deluge of hot pink wax).
And it wouldn't have worked so well if her everyday persona was an overtly sexual one: a Jean Harlow, say, would be an interesting but far less effective choice. I think it is in the actual contrast between, on the one hand, her elegance, prettiness, cut-glass accent and mannered style, and on the other, the uninhibited abandon with which she gives herself up to the demands of pre-Code sexuality in her earliest talkies, that her continued and palpable appeal can be located. (Watch these films with an audience and you'll see that whatever she had, it has not become quaint or diluted over time: she's still got it.)
If all she did was scream when the fiend strikes that would be one thing. But as I have written elsewhere, she pants loudly, whimpers, her chest heaves, and she throws herself back in complete submission, her arms flailing. Such sudden moments of eroticised abandon hint at strange depths to her personality. When threatened by lusting maniacs it is not her famous screams themselves that make the deep impression so much as the instant capitulation, tinged with what really does seem like unconscious arousal, that comes swiftly in their wake.
The vividness with which she conveys sexual threat, at its most potent here, is the motor powering these horror films; the secret ingredient that made them seem so very terrifying at the time and still puts them among the most unusual and compelling thirties movies you'll ever see.
I said at the start that the pre-Code era did not produce the quantity of horror films we might have liked or expected, and that's due mainly to the relative newness of the genre itself, but in terms of quality, what was produced was frequently striking. And Most Dangerous Game is one of the very best.
It is perfectly structured, with the first half's slow-mounting suspense, as we discover hint by hint exactly what Zaroff is up to, giving way with the suddenness of Zaroff sounding his hunting horn to a brilliantly directed, relentlessly paced pursuit through the jungle. Set design, music and camerawork all impress, and visiting Britisher Banks is wonderfully loathsome as the mad Russian Zaroff, constantly fingering his scars and waxing rhapsodic on the joys of killing.
Noble Johnson, appearing in whiteface as Zaroff's Cossack servant, makes quite an impression too, as does the pack of terrifying hunting dogs, in reality lovable pooches borrowed for the film from Harold Lloyd.