Free Fear: Three Horror Films in the Public Domain

Free Fear: Three Horror Films in the Public Domain

Greetings, readers. Now, as you may have noticed, I’m fairly eclectic in my writing here on The Blood Sprayer. This has its ups and downs; often I find myself absolutely wracking my brains trying to think of something interesting to talk about that’s not simply covered by a Wikipedia article.  I also went through a period a couple years back where, having discovered Mill Creek Entertainment‘s boxed sets of public domain films, I went on something of a collecting spree.  50 films for $15-20? How could I say no?

So these two things came together in my head today.  Why not set myself the task of writing, in increments, about horror films that have fallen into the public domain, and thus can be watched for free or, at the most, a very nominal fee? I talked it over with Wes, and thus, this column was born.

A quick word about precisely what “public domain” is.  I’m not here to discuss the vagaries and finer details of copyright law, I’m here to talk about horror movies, so I will keep this brief.  First of all, intellectual property.  For our purposes here, intellectual property law grants exclusive rights to a creation — literary, cinematic, artistic, musical, etc. — to those recognized by the law as the owner.  So, for example, the Walt Disney Company owns the rights to Mickey Mouse’s image.  There is generally a deadline on how long intellectual property law protects an owner’s right to a creation, and when that deadline is passed (or the work in question otherwise forfeits its intellectual property rights), the work falls into public domain, and anyone can reproduce or utilize the work without paying royalty charges to the original owner.  Due to a flubbed credit, George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is in the public domain.

And now, without further ado, I present three public domain horror films.  Let’s look at three that Bela Lugosi appeared in, in keeping with the Halloween weekend.


Everyone loves zombies.  WHITE ZOMBIE is the very first zombie movie, dealing not with Romero-style gutmunchers, but rather the enthralled undead of Haitian voodoo lore.  Neil and Madeleine are in Haiti to get married; casual acquaintance Beaumont insists they hold the ceremony at his plantation.  Along the way they meet Murder Legendre (Lugosi), a charming, if somewhat unnerving, mill owner with a rather large collection of glassy-eyed workers.  Unfortunately, Madeleine soon falls ill and dies; Neil sinks in to a deep, rum-soaked depression.  Beaumont, however, has planned for all of this.  Legendre awakens Madeleine from her death-like trance, keeping her in a zombie-state via drugs and hypnosis, allowing Beaumont to keep her for himself.  When Neil becomes aware of this, he realizes it is up to him to rescue her from Legendre’s castle (in Haiti?).  The moral of the story: “Nobody wins when you play with voodoo.”

Lugosi really shines in the role of Legendre, a performance I personally prefer over his stint as Count Dracula.  While much of the film around him is somewhat lackluster, there are some genuinely creepy moments involving the zombies and the story does have quite a bit of depth in its treatment of human selfishness.  WHITE ZOMBIE can be viewed freely here.


Dr. Paul Carruthers (Lugosi) is fairly annoyed with his employers, the Morton-Heath cosmetics company.  His new greaseless cold cream formula made the Morton-Heath company millions of dollars, and all he got was a check for $5,000.  Having been disregarded in such a fashion, Carruthers sets to work on a new project.  Via electrical stimulation of the pituitary gland, Carruthers creates a gigantic bat, and trains it to have an affinity for a certain scent.  He then bottles this scent in samples of “experimental” cologne, which he gives to Morton-Heath associates before letting his bat out.  The bat unerringly seeks the wearer of the cologne, and tears their throat out.

The police baffled, the investigation is taken up by a fast-talking reporter, Johnny Layton, and his goofy side-kick, “One-Shot” McGuire, on behalf of their newspaper editor.  Somehow, they manage to figure out what’s going on, though only after concocting a journalistic hoax that gets them both fired.

Lugosi stands out as the jilted chemist, and some of his dialogue is incredible – his inner monologue isn’t acoustically altered in any way, so it just seems like he’s a monologuing ventriloquist.  He talks lovingly to his bats, bordering on the same sort of baby-talk you hear people use with their dogs.  And to top it all off, I think this is the only film in which you can hear Lugosi say, “it is past my bedtime.” The special effects are about par for what you’d expect from this era, and ultimately I’d call this one of the better Poverty Row cheapies that I’ve seen. THE DEVIL BAT can be seen for free here.

THE APE MAN (1943)

Dr. James Brewster (Lugosi), a noted glandular physician, has disappeared after secluding himself in a hidden lab to work on a new set of experiments.  When his sister, popular “ghost-hunter” Agatha, comes looking for him, his assistant George cautions her, “prepare yourself for a great shock,” before leading her to Brewster’s lab.  Here, she finds her brother in a cage with a gorilla — Brewster’s posture is hunched, his arms swing freely, and he is covered in coarse, dark hair.  Using himself as a guinea pig in experimenting with ape glands, he has turned himself into a monster, the ape-mind occasionally overtaking his human psyche.

Agatha puts on her “ghost-hunter” act to throw muckraking journalists off Brewster’s trail as he desperately seeks a cure for his condition.  He stumbles upon exactly what he’s looking for — regular injections of human spinal fluid will restore him to his human state.  The one down side being, this spinal fluid must be drawn from living humans, who will not be living once Brewster takes their spinal fluid out.  Desperate, Brewster begins taking his pet gorilla out for nightly walks in order to obtain the fluid he needs.

Lugosi hams it up utterly in THE APE MAN, jumping about, hurling furniture, and gargling his lines.  Karloff made a similar movie, THE APE (which I’ll talk about in this column another time), three years earlier which lacked the energy of Lugosi’s vehicle.  The make-up looks like a precursor to the make-up of PLANET OF THE APES, and is significantly easier to act through than Lugosi’s prior special make-up work, in 1932’s THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and 1943’s FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.  The gorilla is played by the enigmatic Emil Van Horn.  THE APE MAN can be viewed for free here.

That’s it for this installment of Free Fear.  Join us next time, for another three horror films that are in the public domain.

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Bill Adcock likes long walks off short piers and eating endangered species. In addition to his work for the Blood Sprayer, his writing can also be found at his personal site, Radiation-Scarred Reviews, which he's maintained since 2008. Bill has also contributed, as of this writing, to GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY issues 2 and 3, and CINEMA SEWER issue 27.

One Response to “Free Fear: Three Horror Films in the Public Domain”

  1. Stop remaking 80’s slasher films and start remaking The Ape Man… what would that even look like today?

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