The Turn To Gruesomeness In American Horror Films, 1931-1936

Too dreadfully brutal, no matter what the story calls for [...] It carries gruesomeness and cruelty just a little beyond reason or necessity.” Review of Frankenstein, Motion Picture Herald, 1931

The type of picture that brought about censorship.” Review of Mad Love, Motion Picture Herald, 1935

Quite the most unpleasant picture I have ever seen [...] it exploited cruelty for cruelty’s sake.” Review of The Raven, London Daily Telegraph, 1935.

Is the thirties horror film more akin to graphic modern horror than is often thought?

Critics have traditionally characterized classic horror by its use of shadow and suggestion. Yet the graphic nature of early 1930s films only came to light in the home video/DVD era. Along with gangster movies and "sex pictures," horror films drew audiences during the Great Depression with sensational screen content. Exploiting a loophole in the Hays Code, which made no provision for on-screen "gruesomeness," studios produced remarkably explicit films that were recut when the Code was more rigidly enforced from 1934. This led to a modern misperception that classic horror was intended to be safe and reassuring to audiences.

Taking a fresh look at the genre from 1931 through 1936, author Jon Towlson's new critical study, The Turn To Gruesomeness In American Horror Films, 1931-1936, examines "happy ending" horror in relation to industry practices and censorship. Early works like Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Raven (1935) may be more akin to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (2003) and Saw (2004) than many critics believe.

Jon, a very good friend of Behind the Couch, is a film critic and the author of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (CONSTELLATIONS) (Auteur/Columbia University Press, 2016) and Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages Of Films From Frankenstein To The Present (McFarland & Co, 2014). He is a regular contributor to Starburst Magazine, and has also written for the BFI, Paracinema, Exquisite Terror, Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, Shadowland Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Digital Film-Maker Magazine.

The Turn To Gruesomeness In American Horror Films, 1931-1936 is available now, courtesy of McFarland & Co. A hard copy can be purchased here. It is also available to download for Kindle. For a detailed look at what it has to offer, check out the preview on Amazon.

To keep up to date with Jon, check out his blog and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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