The Most Disturbing Moments From Classic Horror Films

By Orrin Grey

Known informally as the Hays Code, the Motion Picture Production Code was officially established in 1930 but not rigorously enforced until 1934. The time before the enforcement of the Hays Code is often called “pre-Code Hollywood” and is responsible for a number of controversial movies, not to mention some of the best horror movies of all time.

While we may think of classic black-and-white horror films as fairly tame by modern standards, there were a few motion pictures released back in the old days, especially during those “Wild West” pre-Code years, that had scenes every bit as vivid, shocking, disturbing, and strange as anything you’d find at the multiplexes today. From the Universal monster movies to silent shockers, there are plenty of weird and wild things waiting in the wings of classic horror films… for those who know where to look.

The Black Cat is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: Universal Pictures

Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 art-deco nightmare was the first film to team up Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. A contemporary review in The New York Times called it “clammy and excessively ghoulish,” and studio executives at the time forced Ulmer to re-cut certain scenes in order to tone down the film’s horror.

This squeamishness may have been because The Black Cat was one of the first horror films to deal directly with the effects of WWI, almost entirely abandoning the Edgar Allan Poe story from which it takes its name. Lugosi plays Dr. Werdegast, who is seeking revenge against Karloff’s sinister architect, Hjalmar Poelzig, for acts the latter committed that left Werdegast a prisoner for 15 years.

Besides a sequence of a Black Mass, we are also treated to implications of necrophilia as Poelzig shows off his collection of embalmed brides preserved in glass cases. The most shocking sequence is saved for last, however. When Lugosi’s Werdegast finally gets his revenge, it is by taking the skin off Poelzig, alive – a fate that is still hard to watch even though we see it mostly as shadows cast on the wall.

Freaks is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: Warner Bros.

Following the success of his 1931 adaptation of Dracula, director Tod Browning used his newfound clout to secure financing for a project that he had been working on since 1927. The film that became Freaks was eventually hailed as Browning’s masterpiece, but at the time, it all but ended his career. The original cut of Freaks was around 90 minutes long, but when it was shown to test audiences, it didn’t exactly go off as MGM hoped. In fact, one woman threatened to sue because she claimed the film caused her to have a miscarriage. So, the studio stripped the movie down considerably and almost 30 minutes of footage disappeared.

One thing that audiences of 1932 may not have been quite ready for was Browning’s decision to use actual sideshow performers as the titular freaks. But they may have been equally unprepared for the film’s humane treatment of its central cast. The “freaks” of the title aren’t the villains of the piece. That job is pulled off by “normal” characters Cleopatra and Hercules, who attempt to dupe the show’s little person, Hans, into marrying Cleopatra so the two can then take his life and claim his inheritance.

At a wedding feast, the assembled sideshow performers famously chant, “Gobble-Gobble, we accept you! We accept you! One of us!” But when they learn of Cleopatra’s betrayal, they stalk her through the rainy night, ultimately catching her at the base of a tree and making her literally “one of them.” While the film’s ending reveal of Cleopatra’s fate may not be particularly shocking to modern audiences, the scenes leading up to it still are, and we can only speculate on what may have been lost from the film’s original, longer version.

Murders in the Zoo is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Considered by some to be one of the worst horror films of the pre-Code era, this movie opens with a “scene so startlingly grisly that it still appalls today,” according to Mike Mashon and James Bell, writing for the BFI in 2019. The scene in question features Lionel Atwill, as the film’s antagonist, sewing a man’s lips together in the depths of the jungle. When Paramount requested a Reissue Code be provided for the film in 1935 so it could be shown again, the censors agreed on the condition that they “eliminate the close-up of the man’s lips stitched together,” along with a couple of other scenes.

The Most Dangerous Game is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: RKO Radio Pictures

Filmed alongside the original King Kong, this 1932 adaptation of the Richard Connell story of the same name borrowed some of King Kong’s jungle sets and also its starlet, Fay Wray. Instead of an adventure story about a giant ape, however, The Most Dangerous Game is about a hunter who hunts other people. The film is thought to have partly inspired the real-life Zodiac slayer, who wrote in one of his coded messages that he enjoyed taking lives and said, “It is more fun than [hunting] wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all.”

In one of the most infamous sequences in the film, we see the hunter’s trophy room, including a man’s head in a jar and another one mounted on the wall. According to many accounts, the original scene was as much as 10 minutes longer and featured some instances of full-body human taxidermy, which proved to be too much for test audiences, even in a pre-Code 1932. A few of those props may have been re-used in RKO’s 1945 take on the same material.

Island of Lost Souls is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: Paramount Pictures

In their re-release of the film, Criterion called Island of Lost Souls a “twisted treasure from Hollywood’s pre-Code horror heyday.” It was banned in a dozen countries, including England, where British film censors refused it a certification and described it as “against nature.” None other than the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester, who was married to the film’s star Charles Laughton, replied, “Sure; so is Mickey Mouse.”

As the first cinematic adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, the film’s frank discussions of insensitive topics were more than enough to put it on the bad side of plenty of film censors. Audiences who saw it were reportedly nauseated by the experience, helped along by eerie shots of the film’s beast men, not to mention their strange language, which sound engineer Loren L. Ryder supposedly created by recording assorted animal sounds and human languages and then playing them backward at varying speeds.

The pièce de résistance of uncensored moments in Island of Lost Souls, however, comes when the various beast men turn upon Laughton’s Dr. Moreau, dragging him into his own “House of Pain” and turning his enthusiasm for vivisection upon him as he screams.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: Universal Pictures

Dr. Mirakle is played by Bela Lugosi, and like most characters played by Bela Lugosi over the years, he doesn’t have a lot of room to talk when it comes to sins. The megalomaniacal hypnotist and evolutionist believes he can prove that humans are descended from apes by mixing ape and human fluids. To do this, he kidnaps sex workers, crucifies them, and injects them with blood from his pet ape, Erik. When this inevitably ends with them no longer among the living, he dumps them in the Sienne.

While this film isn’t very graphic, the implications that underlay Mirakle’s schemes, not to mention the scenes of the poor women in their nightdresses bound to crosses and Mirakle’s occasional reminders that Erik is “lonely” are more than enough to make this film one of the most sinister pictures of horror’s early period.

The Leopard Man is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: Warner Bros.

The Leopard Man was the third and final collaboration between director Jacques Tourneur and legendary horror producer Val Lewton. Along with their crew at RKO, the two “were adept at transforming cheap underlit sets into the stuff of nightmares, where every darkened nook housed a potential menace,” and The Leopard Man is no exception. Filled with shadowplay and vividly black pools of darkness, the film is adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich and has been called one of the first cinematic attempts at a realistic portrayal of a serial offender – though the actual term wouldn’t come into common use for several decades.

One of the film’s most memorable sequences comes early on when the eponymous stalker claims his first target. Along with her mother and brother, we hear the incident from the other side of a locked door, the only visible sign of the horror is the slow seeping blood that comes in under the edge of the door.

Frankenstein is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: Universal Pictures

Everyone knows the scene: The Frankenstein monster, played by Boris Karloff under makeup by Jack Pierce, comes upon a little girl who is throwing flowers into a lake and watching them float. The monster picks up the little girl and throws her into the lake, but she doesn’t float. The next time we see her, her father is carrying her remains, riling up villagers to hunt for the monster.

While the scene is one of the most famous in the Frankenstein canon, it was very nearly removed from the film. Censors at the time demanded that the scene be excised, and so the moment ended before the Frankenstein monster picks up the little girl, making the later appearance of her lifeless body less clear and even more sinister. The scene wasn’t restored until home video releases in the 1980s. Censors also objected to Henry Frankenstein’s line, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

To find out why censors found this scene so troubling, we must look no further than the often-cited taboo that, even in horror films, you don’t take the lives of kids. Though, of course, there are countless effective exceptions to this rule, dating all the way back to Frankenstein itself.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: Warner Bros.

Fredric March’s “strenuous” portrayal of the dual roles of Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde in this 1931 adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel won him an Oscar, one of a handful for which the film was nominated. Also in the running was the cinematography, including an infamous transformation sequence achieved by cinematographer Karl Struss using red filters that let the actor’s makeup slowly “appear” in the black-and-white shots.

The in-camera transformation effect was sold by March’s performance, in which he seems to be in genuine pain. Describing his approach to the role, March said that, “Hyde was [ending] Jekyll physically as well as mentally.” March portrayed this in subtle ways, while the makeup artist increased the “lines and shadows of Jekyll’s makeup as the picture progressed, until, in the last scenes, he looked as though he already had one foot in the grave.”

Doctor X is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: Warner Bros.

One of only a few surviving movies filmed in what is widely (but inaccurately) known as “two-strip Technicolor,” Doctor X is also a film filled with all kinds of pulpy thrills that would be prohibited by the restrictive Hays Code a few years after its release. This dark house/mad-scientist-on-the-loose mash-up has references to indecency, cannibalism, and prostitution aplenty, but perhaps its biggest shock comes in the reveal of its “monster.”

In the film, various characters gather in a scientist’s big, spooky mansion on a seaside cliff to determine the identity of a slayer who is probably someone among their number. The potential suspects (and potential targets) include horror stars Lionel Atwill and original scream queen Fay Wray.

Of course, those of us in the audience have already seen the monstrous visage of the suspect, making it difficult to identify them among those gathered since everyone looks fairly ordinary. One of the scientists, however, has pioneered the creation of “synthetic flesh,” which he memorably applies to himself from a steaming vat while a voiceover purrs the words “synthetic flesh.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: Warner Bros.

Dorian Gray, a handsome and wealthy young man, wishes his portrait could age in his place. Dedicating himself to a life of debauchery and wickedness, Dorian remains unchanged while his portrait takes on a sinister and repellent aspect. The 1945 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel was not the first time the story was taken to the big screen, but it was one of the most successful and won an Oscar for cinematography.

At the center of the story is the eponymous portrait itself, which was painted by Ivan Albright for the film. While the rest of the movie was shot in black and white, the portrait was filmed in Technicolor to better showcase its degradation.

‘The Magician’ (1926): Boschian Revels And Amorous Satyrs

'The Magician' (1926): Boschia is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Most Disturbing And Downright Weird Moments From Classic Horror Movies That Rival Modern Films
Photo: MGM

“If you wish to see strange things, I have the power to show them to you.” So says the titular character of the 1926 silent film The Magician, and he isn’t exaggerating.

Helmed by Rex Ingram, who was once called the “world’s greatest director” by Erich von Stroheim, The Magician is adapted from the book of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham. The eponymous magician is named Oliver Haddo, but he was inspired, at least in the original novel, by real-life occultist Aleister Crowley, who was famously called “the wickedest man in the world.” Crowley may have been someone who reveled in his bad reputation, but he wasn’t exactly fond of Maugham’s portrayal of him in The Magician, penning a scathing review in Vanity Fair in which he accused Maugham of plagiarism (written under the pen name Oliver Haddo, no less) and seeking to prevent the French premiere of Ingram’s film through legal means.

In the film, Haddo is played by silent film actor and director Paul Wegener, who may be more familiar to horror fans for his portrayal of the titular creature in the 1920 German film The Golem. Prefiguring the Frankenstein films that would come in just a few years, Haddo has as his goal the creation of life, but to do so he needs the “heart’s blood of a maiden.” Enter Margaret Dauncey, played by Ingram’s wife Alice Terry.

In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Haddo takes Dauncey to some sort of Boschian rite of Pan, where we see a “dancing faun” ravish a woman in front of a decidedly yonic archway. While it isn’t exactly graphic by modern standards, it is suggestive enough to make even the most jaded of modern audiences take notice.


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