Directed by: Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Shoedsack
Starring: Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks, Robert Armstrong, Noble Johnson
The first and still the best of many versions, variations and rip-offs of Richard Connell’s much anthologized (you probably read it in high school) 1924 short story, The Most Dangerous Game (1932) is also one of the grimmest of all Golden Age horrors. It’s also not as well known as it ought to be. The why of that is hard to pin point. Partly, it’s the fact that it’s viewed as a kind of trial run for the more famous King Kong—using the same jungle sets, part of the same cast, one half of the same directing team and the same composer (in a similar frame of mind). It’s at once too tied to Kong and too small in comparison. Another drawback is that not only has it no monster, but it has no horror star as its villain. Nothing against British actor Leslie Banks, but if Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff had played the insane Zaroff, the film would be a full-blown horror classic and not a kind of horror footnote.
The story is simple. Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) is deliberately shipwrecked by Zaroff—a crazy deposed Russian aristocrat with too much time on his hands—who just does this sort of thing so he can hunt the survivors. Zaroff, you see, is a world class big game hunter who grew tired of the “sport” and decided to up the ante by hunting “the most dangerous game of all”—man. Ironically, Rainsford is also a big game hunter, so Zaroff is expecting a better than average contest. (The film is surprising in that it makes a point of having Rainsford have a crise de conscience when he finds himself in the position of all the animals he’s tracked and killed. That’s not a common theme from that time.)
That much of the plot is pretty faithful to the short story, but it is a short story so embellishments are to be expected. Since this is a movie that means a love interest for Rainsford in the guise of Fay Wray. And since this is Pre-code movie that means that sex factor is pretty high and the idea that only after a man has killed can he truly enjoy sex to the fullest has been added. This means that we will have lots of shots of Zaroff leering at Fay Wray, whose bosom will be heaving. More, since this is from the time when Hollywood had just learned that horror was big business, the grislier aspects of Zaroff’s hobby—especially his trophy room—have been played up. (Some of this didn’t get past even the lax 1932 censors, but what did is still startling.) It all results in a tidy and very exciting little horror picture.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Most Dangerous Game Thursday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
In Brief: Often overlooked because it was quickly eclipsed by King Kong (which was made on the same sets at the same time), The Most Dangerous Game (1932) is one of the most striking, grisly, sexualized and exciting horror thrillers of the Golden Age. Owing to the jungle sets, the presence of Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Noble Johnson, a shared director and that Max Steiner score, the film is inextricably linked to Kong. But this lightning-paced thriller about a madman who hunts human beings is very much its own beast.