The Most Dangerous Game/The Hounds of Zaroff (1932) ***½
As is well known, RKO made a big splash in the 1940’s with a series of cheaply produced horror films, even the worst of which were much more imaginative than just about anything the competition was coming up with at the time. What is not as well remembered— largely because of the way the best example of the phenomenon vanished into obscurity after the Hays Code grew some teeth— is that the small number of B-horror movies the studio produced in the 30’s were equally groundbreaking in their own way. Though it was shot on a tight schedule on sets that had already been built for King Kong, using a significant fraction of the Kong cast, and clocking in at just over an hour from beginning to end, The Most Dangerous Game proved to be an enormously influential film. RKO remade it themselves in 1946 (under the title Game of Death), it has been ripped off more times than a mortal being could easily count, and Jesus Franco even shot a pair of softcore porn variations on the theme, one during the 70’s and another in the 90’s. Not only that, it was, for its time, an extraordinarily daring movie, fearlessly displaying some of the grisliest imagery of the 1930’s.
We begin with a bunch of rich guys on a yacht. What we have here is a hunting expedition being led by the renowned outdoorsman Bob Rainsford (The Unseen’s Joel McCrea) at the instigation of one of the older men. The fat cats are having a big old time with their top-shelf scotch and imported cigars, but the man whose idea (and boat) this is wants to get where they’re going sooner rather than later, and accordingly, he has ordered his captain (William B. Davidson, of Man-Made Monster and The Thirteenth Guest) to take a shortcut through a reef-bound and shark-infested channel between two small islands. The captain is concerned, partly because one of the islands in question has a bad reputation, but mostly because the buoys marking the safe route through the channel aren’t quite where they’re supposed to be according to his chart. The boss-man insists, however, and so it is to him that all concerned may direct the blame when the yacht tears open its bottom on a shallow patch of reef and the boilers explode on contact with the cold seawater, killing everyone aboard but Rainsford, the captain, and one other sailor. What’s more, the neighborhood sharks soon winnow the survivors to Rainsford alone, and he only narrowly survives to reach the shore of the nearest island.
To Rainsford’s surprise, there is what appears to be a castle near the center of the island, and it looks as though the place is inhabited. Rainsford’s knock at the main door is answered by a fearsome-looking man in Cossack attire (Noble Johnson, from Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Mad Doctor of Market Street, in one of his surprisingly numerous whiteface turns as an eastern European of Turkic extraction), who scowls wordlessly at him no matter what he says by way of explaining himself. Fortunately, the tension is diffused when the Cossack’s boss (Leslie Banks, of Transatlantic Tunnel and The Murder Party) appears and explains that his doorman is a mute. The Cossack doorman is named Ivan; his master is Count Zaroff, a Crimean nobleman who had the good sense to flee the country when the Communists took over after World War I. As Zaroff explains, he traveled the world for some years thereafter, finally coming to rest in what had originally been a Portuguese colonial outpost, abandoned centuries ago by its original owners. Zaroff sunk a bit of his fortune into restoring the place, and he’s been there ever since.
Rainsford isn’t the count’s only guest, either. The very same reefs on which he came to grief had claimed another ship only a week or so before, and because Zaroff’s motor launch is not in working order at the moment (“Russians are not very good mechanics”— he’s got that right, anyway), the four survivors of that earlier wreck are still in temporary residence at the castle. Once Rainsford has had a chance to change his torn and sodden clothes, Zaroff introduces him to Martin Trowbridge (Robert Armstrong, best remembered for King Kong and The Son of Kong) and his sister, Eve (Fay Wray, from The Vampire Bat and The Mystery of the Wax Museum), whom he has been trying to keep entertained with a combination of hunting stories, piano playing, and the best vodka available in this godforsaken corner of the globe. Martin is mainly in it for the booze. Eve, on the other hand, has been a rather tougher nut to crack, and Zaroff says he’s glad to have a handsome young man under his roof to take up the slack— that his new guest should also be an internationally famous big-game hunter is a bigger boon still. Zaroff, you see, is a passionate hunter himself, and he hopes someday soon to bring Rainsford with him into the jungles of his island in pursuit of the most dangerous and challenging game he has yet discovered; Rainsford will just have to wait until that day comes to find out exactly which formidable beast his host is talking about.
Actually, while we’re talking about Zaroff and his hunting, it is precisely that which has Eve so disquieted and reluctant to enjoy the count’s hospitality. Zaroff does all of his hunting by night, and Eve finds it troubling that, during the past couple of days, he has had her other two companions so busy chasing around the bush that they have been completely unable to stir from their beds during the day. Indeed, she has seen no sign of either man since Zaroff first took them out. It is Eve’s fear that something has happened to the sailors, and that Zaroff’s tales of nightly hunts are merely a cover story designed to prevent her from learning the men’s true fate. Rainsford doesn’t quite know what to make of it when Eve whispers her concerns to him during one of the count’s piano recitals, but he is at least willing to countenance the idea that something funny is going on in and around the castle. Eve’s fears take on much greater urgency later that night, for her brother has finally decided to take Zaroff up on his standing offer to take him out hunting. After Eve and Rainsford are in bed, the count brings his third guest downstairs to show him his secret trophy room, at which point both men— together with all of Zaroff’s Cossack servants— disappear from the castle; when they still haven’t returned only a couple of hours before dawn, Eve wakes Rainsford up and asks for his help in getting to the bottom of things. Turns out Zaroff has good reason to keep his trophy room locked up until he’s ready to go hunting with somebody— the walls are lined with enormous numbers of preserved human heads! No sooner have Eve and Rainsford made this ghastly discovery than the count comes home and the outsiders’ situation takes a marked turn for the worse; now that his secret is out, Zaroff no longer has any incentive to play nice with his remaining guests. Originally, he really had been hoping to go hunting with Rainsford, but under the present circumstances, he’ll settle for hunting for him instead. And as for Eve, Zaroff wasn’t kidding earlier when he told Rainsford (albeit not in so many words) that nothing makes him hornier than a successful hunt. Rainsford may be the game, but Eve is going to be the real trophy.
Very few 1930’s horror movies are as lean and streamlined as The Most Dangerous Game. No time is wasted, no extraneous subplots distract from the main thrust of the story, and even the addition of a love interest for the hero is handled in such a way as to raise the stakes and leave no visible seams— indeed, viewers who have never read “The Hounds of Zaroff” may find that they miss Eve Trowbridge whenever they get around to perusing the tale on which the film was based. What writer James A. Creelman and directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel have done here is to make a movie which not only remains true to the spirit of their source material, but to the form of the short story as well, and the efficiency of The Most Dangerous Game is such that it becomes very easy to forgive a number of what might ordinarily have been crippling defects. The acting is pretty weak all around (although Fay Wray gets in a couple of good moments), and the short-lived Martin Trowbridge is used mainly to provide comic relief which is atrociously unfunny even for the 30’s. There is some annoyingly facile irony, as when Rainsford ends a conversation about the ethics of hunting by saying that he’s never going to find out how it feels to be on the other end of the rifle, scant seconds before the yacht on which he rides runs aground and explodes off the coast of Zaroff’s island. And in the great Hollywood tradition, the hero is just a little too steadfastly good to be of much interest. But just as Schoedsack would get away with most of the same missteps in King Kong, his focus on the story and its steady forward momentum, emphasized by a much more mobile and cinematic use of the camera than was typical for the age, prevents The Most Dangerous Game from succumbing to its numerous undeniable defects. You notice them, to be sure, but Schoedsack never gives you much opportunity to dwell on them the way so many of his contemporaries did.
It also helps that The Most Dangerous Game looks as good as it does. King Kong’s impressive jungle sets were ready for use by 1932, but there was still some time remaining before principal photography on that movie was scheduled to begin; Schoedsack had the run of them for this movie, which was designed to be shot very quickly. Not until Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death would a B-horror film make more judicious use of a ready-made set that was beyond the means of its own budget. With the jungle already built and paid for, there was enough money available for some excellent miniature work (the castle and the sinking yacht, for example) and makeup effects (you try turning a black man into a Tatar, and making it convincing enough to survive an extended closeup!). The greatest triumph in the latter department, unfortunately, was excised from many prints of The Most Dangerous Game, first at the insistence of state and regional censors, and later as part of an effort to get the movie past the more powerful Production Code Administration of the 1940’s. The severed heads in Zaroff’s trophy room are very nicely done, and the scene which reveals them is one of the more powerful shocks of the decade. Their very existence as a plot point, as you might imagine, is also one of the reasons why The Most Dangerous Game has been so little seen since 1934. This is another instance in which home video has come to our rescue, however, and most currently available VHS and DVD editions use a complete print. If any first-generation horror talkie demands to be seen uncut, it’s this one.