In 1932, the American Horror Film came into its own as a viable genre. Dracula and Frankenstein had blown the doors off the industry the year before, making overnight stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and paving the way for a variety of imitators. Paramount responded with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (starring Fredric March in the roles that would land him an Oscar,) and the similarly literate Island of Lost Souls, which cast Charles Laughton as H.G. Wells’ overly ambitious Dr. Moreau.
Not to be outdone, MGM turned to their silent master of the macabre, Tod Browning, hot of the success of Dracula, to put his carnival background to use. Freaks was an unmitigated disaster and was met with as much disgust from its audiences as the studio that wrought it.
Freaks wasn’t MGM’s only contribution to the genre that year.
Director William J. Cowen’s Kongo stars future Academy Award-winner, Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,) as Dead Legs Flint, a cruel paraplegic living deep in the African jungle. He attains great power among the natives by performing magic tricks and pretending to be a god. Eighteen years earlier, Flint was crippled by his wife’s lover (C. Henry Gordon) and has spent everyday, since, plotting an elaborate revenge. Released just before the production code would cast a damp towel on Hollywood, Kongo features some particularly grim scenes, and even more politically-incorrect dialogue.
Originally a play on Broadway starring Huston himself, Kongo was previously adapted as a silent film called West of Zanzibar. This version starred Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney and was directed by none other than Chaney’s longtime collaborator, Tod Browning. Everything’s relative.
In this episode of Backseat Filmmaker, I have the pleasure of discussing both versions of the story with film historian and writer, Michael H. Price. Price is the author of such works as Human Monsters: The Bizarre Psychology of Movie Villains (with George E. Turner,) and the Forgotten Horrors series, which has just seen the release of its seventh installment, Famished Monsters of Filmland.