Cartoons from the first half of the 20th century are scary for many reasons. For one thing, many of the leading animators in the early days of cinema had a dark sense of humor. Also, while cartoons became associated with children in the age of television, these early animators didn’t necessarily make family-friendly movies.
Modern filmmakers, game designers, and artists often take footage from the early years of animation to make a work spookier. but long before bendy and the ink machine either cup head,the animators were doing very well scaring their audiences on their own.
10/10 What a strange and spooky night
The animation team at Van Beuren Studios had a comedy duo called Tom and Jerry fifteen years before the cat and mouse appeared on the screen. Renamed “Dick and Larry” in the ’40s, the original Tom and Jerry was just one tall man and one short man who ended up getting into trouble with each new job they took.
His first movie, What a night from 1931, is a simple story about two taxi drivers who find themselves locked in a castle and tormented by ghosts. As cartoonish as the castle spirits are, their creepy movement and unblinking eyes annoy most modern viewers.
9/10 The devil’s ball is a stop-motion nightmare
Stop-motion animation always threatens to plunge into spooky and mysterious territory, and the scrappy stop-motion movies of the 1930s are especially unsettling. The 1933 cartoon the devil’s ball is a surreal collection of images involving tall, skinny spirits tormenting a child and throwing a surreal party.
the devil’s ball is the brainchild of Ladislaw Starewicz, who essentially made the entire short himself. Considering the team he would have been working with at the time and the immense effort that goes into creating a stop-motion cartoon even today, Starewicz’s achievement is remarkable.
8/10 The Headless Horseman adapts a classic book
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of the best-known American horror stories, and the story of a smug schoolteacher who is tormented by the Headless Horseman has been adapted for the screen many times. The 1934 short The Headless Horseman it’s a pretty straightforward adaptation with some cartoon shenanigans thrown in for good measure.
The short doesn’t get creepy until the Headless Horseman sequence, but the dark and fluid animation of the famous ghost is surprisingly effective. Of course, it all turns out to be a joke, but that doesn’t make the sequence any less impressive.
7/10 Bimbo’s initiation is like 1931 Midsommar
Max Fleischman’s character, Bimbo, has largely faded from public memory. Originally Betty Boop’s anthropomorphized dog boyfriend, Bimbo’s status as the hero of his own cartoons declined as his girlfriend rose to stardom. Bimbo completely disappeared around 1934.
However, a Bimbo short stands out in people’s memory. Bimbo’s Initiation is a perplexing story of Bimbo being intimidated into joining a cult until he finally succumbs, mainly because Betty has already joined. The surreal torment the cult puts Bimbo through makes no sense, but it still evokes something out of a nightmare.
6/10 The land of balloons is not as pretty as it seems
The strange 1935 short world globe by Ub Iwerks may or may not have been intentionally disturbing, but for a cartoon with such a childish premise, the short’s phallic imagery is impossible to ignore. All the inhabitants of Balloon Land are made of balloons and live in fear of the legendary Pincushion Man.
The Pincushion Man in question has a long needle sticking out of his crotch and tries to use it on the two boys who play the short’s leads. By comparison, the sequence where Pincushion Man massacres a bunch of people with balloons seems tame.
5/10 Ghosts terrorized Oswald the lucky rabbit
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is best known today as the character that Walt Disney created before Mickey Mouse. In fact, the creation of Mickey Mouse was Disney’s direct response to Oswald’s loss of rights. Of course, Mickey is a legend now, while Oswald is mostly an obscurity.
Still, 1930’s cartoon ghosts it’s a solidly creepy showcase for Oswald. Directed by Walter Lantz, the short is far more bizarre and mind-blowing than anything Disney had ever done. Oswald goes through an adaptation of Phantom of the operabut with more creepy owls and deflation deaths.
4/10 Revealing heart brings Poe to life
Edgar Allan Poe’s stories are creepy enough, but Ted Parmelee’s animated adaptation of the revealing heart, released in 1953, manages to make the original story even creepier. With grim, painted frames and sinister narration by James Mason, the revealing heart take the puzzling story and get on with it.
Animator Paul Julian, best known for his work on funds for crazy melodies shorts, he adjusted his horror-painted bottoms to great effect. The resulting film was so lurid that the British Board of Film Censors gave it an X rating.
3/10 The priest’s tale was lost in a fire
Husband and wife team Mikhail Tsekhanovsky and Vera Tsekhanovskaya directed the animated film. The story of the priest and his worker Balda sometime in the 1930s, but the film was never finished. Mikhail cut the finished four parts into a complete film, but it was lost in a fire in 1941.
The only surviving part of the film is the four-minute Bazaar scene, which is enough to give an idea of how haunting the full movie would have been. The racked production, cancellation and loss of the film only added to the feeling that something very creepy was going on with the priest’s tale.
2/10 Swing You Sinners is a creepy masterpiece
The Fleischer brothers directed Swing away, sinners! and released it in 1930. The cartoon seems cute and harmless at first, following a useless dog character who tries to steal a chicken. But then he stumbles upon a graveyard and things turn sour.
Ghosts, monsters, and living instruments torment the dog, telling it that it must be punished for its sins. The dog pleads for his life, but to no avail. The short ends with a parade of bizarre images and the dog being eaten by a skull in the last frame.
1/10 The Peanut Vendor is an Experimental Terror
the peanut seller, a 1933 stop-motion animated film about a monkey selling peanuts, probably wasn’t meant to be creepy, but it absolutely is. The monkey in question looks more like a skeletal demon with its long arms and wide eyes.
Directors Dave Fleischer and Seymour Kneitel were experimenting with animation techniques and accidentally stumbled across a deeply terrifying set of images. The age of the movie has only further faded the image of the monkey and made it look more like a skeleton. The movie may have been made with good intentions, but Fleischer and Kneitel unleashed a nightmare.
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