Book Review: Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films


The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films, 1931 to 1936
By Jon Towlson

Published by McFarland, 2015. 240 pages

One of the wonderful things about reading up on the history of horror films is that there is always something new and interesting that can be learned once a subject is really put under the magnifying glass. Now this isn’t to say that if you look for something you’ll find it, even if it isn’t there, but Towlson has done a great deal of research to back up his thoughts and ideas in this recent book. It also shows that no matter how long you’ve been a fan, there is always more to learn.


When looking back on these old black and white horror films from the ’30s, it is sometimes hard to think that these could ever be considered scary or too intense for audiences. But things were much different back then. But that didn’t stop filmmakers from trying to push the limits, especially since because of the depression, they were trying like hell to get people to come to the theaters. This was also before the MPAA was created. There was the MPPDA (Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America), but getting things passed them was a little easier than now. One of the usual ways was what was called “Five reels of transgression followed by one reel of retribution”.  This mean that the evil characters in the film could get away with murder as long as they got what was coming to them in the end, and there was a happy ending. So as long as the audience walked out of the theater thinking that all was right again with the world and the bad guys paid for their actions and sins, then it was okay. And the studios pushed that as much as they could.

Which is also why they would throw in some cheesy and tacky slapstick type humor in there to lighten the mood, so more darker and sinister themes could be injected in there. Just think of some of the subjects being implied in some of these earlier films. Bela Lugosi wanted to mate a woman with a gorilla in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). Charles Laughton wanted to do the same in Island of Lost Souls, but with a panther woman. The Black Cat (1934) had Lugosi skinning Karloff alive! Such darkened brutality!


Well, reading through Towlson’s book, you will learn all about these different films and what they went through. He has done some extensive research which is quoted throughout the book, with letters from the studios to the MPPDA as well as back to the studios, outlining some of the issues they had with a certain script.

Towlson goes through quite a few films, giving a lot of details of the process the studios when through to make sure their film would not only pass the Production Code’s approval, but also if they were going to run into issues with the states’ own local censors. He covers films like Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), and so many other titles. You’ll be surprised at what was going on between the studios and the ratings board, even back then.

You can order this book directly from McFarland by either visiting their website HERE or calling them directly at 800-253-2187.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s