This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
The momentum of the early 1930s keeps rolling in 1933, as a variety of studios celebrate the newfound profitability of the horror genre. Thanks to King Kong, this is a formative year for the idea of the “giant monster” movie, which you can argue exists somewhere outside of horror—but we think it, along with its progeny, belongs here. Certainly, nearly every “creature feature” for the next several decades is deeply indebted to King Kong, and few come anywhere close to matching up with it.
In Germany, operating under the watchful eye of the Nazi party (which would later ban the film), Fritz Lang produced The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, his last German-language film before emigrating to France and then the U.S.A. A crime drama with touches of the supernatural, it continued the story he first told in the silent, Expressionist classic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. In only his second sound film, Lang showed his ability to grow and thrive with the change in technology, opting for a more naturalistic (but still thrilling) visual style than his earlier Expressionist work. It was experience that would serve him well as he went on to direct numerous film noir classics in the U.S. throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
On the Universal side of the spectrum, 1933 is home to The Invisible Man, which always stands as one of the more underrated entries in the original Universal Monsters canon. Claude Rains delivers a classic performance as the imperious and haughty Dr. Jack Griffin, who is turned invisible by a botched science experiment and slowly descends into delusions of grandeur. Less focused on atmosphere and gothic frights than Dracula or Frankenstein, and somewhat less concerned with its melodramatic love story than The Mummy, The Invisible Man is more like a madcap crime caper with horror elements, thriving on Rains’ hilarious vocals and surprisingly emotive, almost vaudevillian performance while wrapped in yards and yards of bandages. It’s not among the scariest classic entries in the history of Universal Horror, but it’s absolutely one of the most purely entertaining.
1933 Honorable Mentions:
The Invisible Man, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Mystery at the Wax Museum, The Ghoul
Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
King Kong, along with Star Wars: A New Hope, is likely one of the two biggest watershed moments in the history of cinematic special effects, and that’s just the beginning of what makes King Kong such an enduring classic. It’s a film that inspired entire generations of would-be filmmakers to first seek out the tools that would lead them to careers in the motion picture industry, and there’s no bigger praise you can laud on it than that.
There had been monster movies or “creature features” before Kong, but it became the key reference point for that entire film demographic from the time of its release until the genre underwent an atomic-age reimagining with the likes of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 and Them! in 1954. Likewise, it set the bar on its special effects at such a high level that in many instances, shots and sequences from King Kong weren’t suitably duplicated for decades to come. Much of the credit belongs to pioneering stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, who was inventing new techniques on the set of Kong on a daily basis, laying a foundation for an entire field of visual effects that are still being refined by studios such as Laika (the makers of Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings) today. Those techniques were likewise carried on and further refined by O’brien’s arguably more famous protege, Ray Harryhausen, who used them to great effect in the second golden age of the monster movie, throughout the 1950s-1970s.
Kong, though, still stands as an unparalleled achievement for its time period—far grander and more ambitious in scope than most anything you can compare it to in the same time frame. On one hand it’s a rollicking adventure film, with a classic “journey into the unknown” plot that is still being recycled for modern monster installments like Kong: Skull Island. At the same time, though, it was likewise an interesting experiment in genre-blending—an FX-driven adventure-drama film with horror elements and no clear-cut, traditional “antagonist.” Carl Denham might fit the bill, but he’s better described as a naive dreamer with stars in his eyes, oblivious to the ethical quandary of shanghaiing a huge beast to display in the middle of New York City. Kong, meanwhile, is a misunderstood creature, operating on the sense of self preservation he learned in a home where he’s only ever known a daily fight for survival against a neverending stream of monsters. The film’s empathy for Kong, and its condemnation of the hubris that led to his ascent of the Empire State Building, are what helped make the story such an emotionally affecting classic.
Given that cultural potency, sequels and remakes have always followed in Kong’s wake. Only nine months later, RKO released the hastily assembled Son of Kong, made on a smaller budget and featuring an adolescent ape, but it unsurprisingly failed to generate the same kind of fervor. Subsequent efforts have ranged from the embarrassing (1986’s King Kong Lives) to the admirable efforts of Peter Jackson’s 2005 Kong epic, which came the closest that any film ever has to recreating the combination of adventure and emotion seen in the original. Even now, Godzilla vs. Kong still lurks on the horizon, implying that the great ape may yet see his 100th birthday, still in the popular eye.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.