Before the Hollywood Production Code went into effect in 1934, movies were allowed to show sex, drugs, violence, homosexuality... and that crime did, in fact, pay.
These early '30s horror movies scandalized audiences with severed heads, heaving bosoms, and other taboos and they were often heavily censored even before the code was officially adopted. Some, like Freaks, were so controversial they led to Hollywood censoring itself.
Here we go.
The Black Cat (1934)
European emigré Edgar G. Ulmer's first Hollywood film was a low-budget exploitation picture about the dangers of venereal disease. His second was this stunning B-movie that ends with Bela Lugosi skinning Boris Karloff alive! We see a shirtless Karloff chained up while Lugosi wields a knife — Karloff's screams and the horrifying silhouette as the camera pans away is a masterful, unforgettable shot. Karloff's character happens to be a devil worshipper who killed both Lugosi's wife and daughter and was preparing to sacrifice a newlywed bride to Satan, but we still cringe at the scene. It was the first, and arguably best, teaming of the two horror legends.
James Whale's horror landmark was met with shocked outrage over two key moments: When a triumphant Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) declares, "Now I know what it feels like to be God!" and, of course, when the monster accidentally drowns a little girl.
Several state censors insisted on those scenes being cut completely. It's hard to consider either scene shocking now, especially after the film and its sequels were parodied so perfectly in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. The little girl's watery death was, you could argue, the cinematic equivalent of Hitchcock killing off star Janet Leigh halfway through Psycho in 1960.
Dracula director Tod Browning drew on his time spent with a traveling circus (yes, really) for this tale of sideshow "freaks." It was so controversial, it was pulled from release before finishing its first theatrical run and was banned in England for 30 years. One woman even sued MGM after a test screening, claiming the film caused her to miscarry.
Even after the film was cut from 90 minutes to 64, its notoriety helped spur Hollywood to come up with a formal production code that would prevent films like it being made. One reviewer raved, "Anyone who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital."
According to TCM, after World War II, MGM sold distribution rights to a British exploitation king who exhibited it as "Forbidden Love," often on a double bill with nudist camp footage. In the '60s and '70s, it became a midnight movie staple and was finally embraced as a cult classic.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Frederic March won the Best Actor Oscar for playing both the brilliant doctor and his fearsome alter-ego. But despite that prestige, many of the suggestive scenes with bar singer Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) were cut by local censors.
After the kindly Dr. Jekyll first comes to her rescue from an assailant, Ivy shows off her upper thigh (which he explores for injuries) and she holds his hand down and keeps it there. She sizes him up and says, "Now you're the kinda woman would do something for." The camera lingers on her legs as she takes off her stockings and she playfully throws her garter at him. He leaves her, apparently naked, in bed as she swings her leg, softly cooing, "You'll come back soon?" He returns, but as the monstrous Hyde, who terrorizes her telling her, "I hurt you because I love you, my dear."
Those sadomasochistic scenes were reproduced in the 1941 version with Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman, a clear influence on the scenes between Dennis Hopper and Bergman's daughter, Isabella Rossellini, in Blue Velvet.
Doctor X (1932)
Psychologist Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) is called in to help track the Moon Killer, a serial murderer who likes feasting on his victims. But Doctor X — or one of the other eccentric research scientists in his lab, including the guy who literally wrote the book on cannibalism — may be the real culprit. With Pre-Code Scream Queen Fay Wray and a Cronenberg-esque final transformation, you've got a helluva movie from future Casablanca director Michael Curtiz. Followed by the sequel The Return of Doctor X in 1939, co-starring an unrecognizable Humphrey Bogart as an undead, bunny-stroking killer.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Edgar Allan Poe's short story is very loosely adapted as a German Expressionist-tinged shocker in which mad scientist/circus showman Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) is responsible for a string of murders in 19th Century Paris. The fact that his victims are prostitutes — and that we see him abducting, torturing and killing a scantily clad woman — would never have been permitted under the Hollywood code. That shocking torture scene was originally going to open the film, but Universal executives insisted the movie open with a humorous sideshow scene instead. They also reportedly requested that nearly 20 too-violent minutes be cut from the film.
Murders in the Zoo (1933)
This film, which, as advertised, features all manner of gruesome deaths by zoo creatures, opens with a startling sight: A soon-to-be-dead man trying to scream with his mouth sewn shut! Perpetual villain Lionel Atwill stars as a jealous zoologist who murders his wife's lovers with the deadly animals at his disposal.
In 1933, the New York Times reviewer noted, "just as it seemed the cinema's experiments in sadism were ended for the season, Paramount disclosed a particularly gruesome specimen... Lionel Atwill as the insanely jealous husband is almost too convincing for comfort." Decades later, Leonard Maltin described it as "astonishingly grisly."
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Still the best, and most disturbing, version of H. G Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau. Charles Laughton plays the cruel, whip-wielding scientist who conducts ungodly experiments as he tries to turn animals into men. He's succeeded with Lota, a cat-woman hybrid, who wears as little as possible. The film ends with the villain's tortured creations turning on him and vivisecting him as he did to them in the "House of Pain."
The film was rejected by 14 local censor boards in the U.S and was banned in Britain until 1958.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Boris Karloff stars as the fiendish Sax Rohmer villain in this wildly un-PC movie that's worth watching despite its horribly dated "yellowface" casting. That's a pre-Thin Man Myrna Loy as Fu Manchu's sadistic daughter who enjoys nothing more than seeing the object of her desire brutally whipped. The camera lingers quite appreciatively on the nearly naked black men doing Fu Manchu's bidding and on the heroic male lead (Charles Starrett), who is captured, stripped, and subjected to a variety of tortures. The New York Times review began with the line "And still the cinema goes busily about its task of terrorizing the children."
According to Mark A. Vieira's Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, a scene in which Loy's daughter "violates" the hero was cut due to its depiction of then-forbidden interracial sex. (Never mind that Loy was as Caucasian as the leading man.)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
The first version of this oft-told tale gets a sensational treatment as shipwreck survivor Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea) realizes he's landed on an island run by a man-hunting madman. Recognizing Rainsford as a famous big-game hunter, Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks, who plays it to the hilt) hopes the newcomer will join him in hunting the other unfortunates who've washed up on the island. We get a glimpse of the Count's gruesome "trophy" room, which includes a preserved human head mounted on the wall and a severed head floating in a jar of liquid. The original version lingered much longer in the trophy room, according to IMDb, with "an emaciated sailor, stuffed and mounted next to a tree where he was impaled by Zaroff's arrow, and another full-body figure stuffed, with the bodies of two of the hunting dogs mounted in a death grip."
The film was shot at the same time and on the same set as King Kong and also stars Fay Wray being unwillingly carried off by a big brute (in this case, Noble Johnson as a mute Cossack) while wearing a too-scanty gown that only gets more revealing after a grueling junkle trek.