The most reductive version of the Entire History of American Horror Filmmaking is that it all began as Hollywood's narrative and stylistic response to German Expressionism, which was, with the odd exception here or there, the only place you could go between about 1910 and 1930 to find anything paranormal in the movies. And this response came in a very direct way, for the most part: several of the leading lights of the Expressionist movement were imported, with the most important for our present purposes being Karl Freund, a top-shelf German cinematographer brought to Universal by Carl Laemmle (himself a German immigrant, though from decades earlier), where his second feature was the genre-defining Dracula. Rumor has held (though with what proof, it's tough to say) that Freund even largely took over directorial duties on that film from the perpetually drunk Tod Browning, which means, in theory, and if we want to stretch a point way too far, that Freund was the individual most responsible for show America what horror cinema should look like.

Even backing away from the most strident claims of German authorship of American genre films, it's certainly the case that Universal intentionally took its cues from Expressionism, while the other studios took their cues from Universal. It was probably inevitable that there'd be a Hollywood remake of a German classic, then - indeed, it's more surprising that the first generation of American sound horror only produced one such remake (ignoring that Nosferatu and Dracula derive from the same novel; the latter film is anyways more indebted to Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston's stage adaptation than to Bram Stoker). Admittedly, the 1935 production Mad Love only sees fit to credit itself as an adaptation of Maurice Renard's 1920 novel Les mains d'Orlac, but the more direct influence was surely the 1924 German film The Hands of Orlac, with Robert Wiene directing Conrad Veidt in the title role, the same team-up behind the quintessential Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Not only was Mad Love inspired by a German movie, the two individuals most prominently responsible for its success were recent transplants from the German film industry. One was none other than Karl Freund, directing a feature for the eighth and last time, three years after officially debuting with The Mummy. The other was star Peter Lorre, a Jewish native of Austria-Hungary who'd become a fixture in the German film industry following Fritz Lang's iconic M. Germany in the 1930s being a chilly place for Jews, he quickly fled to France, then Great Britain, where he made his English-language debut as the villain in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934. Mad Love was his next film, the first step in a Hollywood career that would take a long time to find its footing, and never quite steadied itself. This cannot be blamed on his talents: despite the obvious labor it took him to recite his lines in English, his insane surgeon in Mad Love is a stellar piece of physical acting and uncanny screen presence, and reviews at the time were enthusiastic bordering on rapturous.

In Mad Love, Lorre plays Dr. Gogol, a genius surgeon living in Paris, who has formed a pronounced erotic fixation on Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), the star of a Grand Guignol-style horror theater. He's attended every one of her performances, and finally presents himself to her on the night of her last performance, where he's horrified to learn that she's retiring to spend more time with her husband, the up-and-coming genius pianist and composer from England, Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive, in the role Veidt played in the German film). In a fit of demented despair, Gogol purchases a wax replica of Yvonne that has served as an advertisement for her act, which he stages in his home as his very own Galatea (a comparison Gogol makes some dozen or so times, drifting from a smart reference to an irritating distrust on the part of the writers as the film goes on). Fate doesn't have much better in store for the Orlacs; on his way to Paris, Stephen's train derails, and he barely survives, with his hands badly mangled in the process. To save his life, they must be amputated, which will end his career at its most promising moment, but Yvonne swallows her pride and begs Gogol to see if he can possibly help rescue Stephen's precious hands. He can't, but he can do something almost as good: that same day, he attended the execution of an American murderer, Rollo (Edward Brophy - his affable whimsy at the prospect of dying, especially his delight in hearing that the Hoover Dam was completed, is one of the most off-kilter and memorable elements of the whole movie), and the dead man's perfect hands - he was a circus knife thrower in life - are the perfect candidate for a limb transplant. The mad doctor tells no-one of this particular development, but when Stephen finds himself, after weeks of costly therapy, able to fling sharp objects with deadly precision, while coming no closer to being able to play the piano at his former level, he starts to wonder whether the miracle of his rescued hands has an unimagined dark side. Gogol, for his part, is delighted to have a lever to nudge Stephen into a madness all his own, and hopefully freeing up Yvonne for himself.

Mad Love has all the necessary components to be one of the great horror films of a generation, though I can't convince myself it quite gets there. A major reason for this is simply because the broadly similar story told in The Hands of Orlac (where the surgeon is a far less important character, while Orlac himself is the protagonist) is handled better there. The reconstructed version of the 1924 film runs something like 40 minutes longer than the neat and tidy American picture, at 68 minutes, and that time gives it more room to linger on Orlac's descent into mental chaos as he grows convinced that his hands have been possessed by the spirit of a murderer. Mad Love has an impeccable opening two-thirds, at which point it realises that has a hell of a lot of plot to resolve, and starts sprinting. And where the original pivots from paranormal thriller to psychological study in a way that's largely elegant and convincing, the remake delays the revelation that this is, in fact, all in Orlac's head to a moment where it rather undercuts what has gone before it.

Those are, however, mostly quibbles, and without directly comparing Mad Love to The Hands of Orlac, its shortcomings are almost invisible compared to what it does well. Sure, there are elements that don't work much at all: May Beatty, as Gogol's soused housekeeper, is on the bottom rung of dreadful comic relief characters in '30s horror, while the plucky American reporter Reagan (Ted Healy) is better mostly because he has such a low bar to clear. And Clive is a wet sponge: nothing in his brief film career is close to the level of his great insane genius in Frankenstein and its sequel, and there are worse performances on his CV than Stephen Orlac, but there's still very little depth or tension in his acting. Not many actors could have favorably compared to Veidt, of course, and Mad Love de-emphasises the character to a point that the role is neither as challenging nor as vital; still, a bit more real self-doubting terror would have been nice, and it's hard to believe that Stephen is really all that horrified by the possibility that his body is betraying his mind.

This is, for the most part, utterly terrific filmmaking, though. Lorre is so incredible as Gogol that he forgives all the other human-sized sins the film could possibly come up with. The makeup artists doubled down on the actor's already weirdly doughy baby features by shaving every bit of hair from his face and head; adding that to his great skill at bugging out his features and winding his voice up to a piercing squeak, and Lorre's Gogol turns out to be an utterly captivating and endlessly creepy figure, lumpy command of English and all, and far more difficult to get a grasp on than the usual mad scientist; he is, clearly, a gifted and passionate surgeon, which makes his descent into psychotic behavior even more disturbing.

And Lorre isn't the only great visual on hand: Freund's direction happily emphasises imagery, and he had the good fortune of an utter genius as one-half of his cinematography team: Gregg Toland shot the film alongside Chester Lyons, and it's possible to see all of the bold, geometric shadows in this film that would later become Toland's signature in things like The Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane. And this hard lighting makes Cedric Gibbons's big, menacing sets seem all the more imposing and Gothic.

The number of striking shots in this film is most impressive, for an unabashed B-picture: a guillotine bleakly standing against the clouds, a little mirror reflecting the wax statue in a tiny frame as Gogol dreamily plays the organ to his Galatea. In one scene, Stephen receives a visitor who claims to know the full extent of Gogol's experiments, and the revelation of that visitor's appearance is, in all honesty, maybe the scariest individual image in '30s cinema, though the thready laugh accompanying that image helps a lot. There are two montages that fill entirely different ends - one is a nightmare representing Stephen's memory of the crash, one is a time-lapse showing the Orlacs' bills piling up - but in both cases the mountain of Expressionistic imagery sliced together by editor Hugh Wynn with crazy speed and excellent relationships between frames results in terrifically purposeful style as an evocation of psychology.

That's the secret magic of Mad Love, in fact: it's both a hugely successful example of '30s horror style at its most unhinged and portentously Germanic, and also a nasty, insightful chunk of pulpy psychological study. Gogol is a clear-cut Mad Genius of the most generic sort, but he's also uncomfortably and always recognisably human beneath the madness: the sexual frustration and obsessiveness that drive him are monstrously unpleasant, but they're not unrecognisable as perversions of the way actual people feel. As a result, he's more threatening and more sympathetic simultaneously, and the movie containing him hits harder than the usual mid-'30s horror show. The film was produced, unexpectedly, at MGM - which explains Gibbons, but not really anything else about it - but it's a proud exemplar of the Universal horror mentality at its most effective, right at the moment that the horror fad was just about to start burning itself out. Indeed, Mad Love was itself a box office bomb, a most unfair fate for what should otherwise have become a iconic piece of American horror.

Body Count: 3, plus the undoubtedly large number of victims of the train crash, plus at least two flies fed ominously to a pitcher plant.