Hell’s Bells (1929) – dir. Ub Iwerks
Finally, the devil gets involved!
This is probably the short that most directly influrnced a Cuphead design. The devil(s) in this short look pretty darn similar to the main antagonist of the game. The cartoon begins in Hell as we see some of the underworldly residents skittering around like a squid-tentacled spider, a dancing, living flame, and Cerberus the three-headed dog. A band of tiny devils dance and play for the entertainment of Satan using instruments made from the corpses of the damned.
Like a lot of Ub Iwerks’s cartoons, Hell’s Bells is light on plot, but heavy on gags. It’s pretty much just a day in the life of the citizens of Hell, which actually looks pretty fun. Everyone seems happy and content with their jobs. Except the two guys Satan feeds to Cerberus.
This nearly exact short could be remade using woodland creatures in a sunny meadow, but Ub Iwerks was a weirdo who would prefer to animate unsettling creatures in creepy places.
Swing You Sinners (1930) – dir. Dave Fleisher
Yet another Fleischer toon! And not even the last one on this list.
It begins with Bimbo and a chicken fighting in an alley, something that I assume was way more commonplace in the 30’s. Bimbo pulls a cop through the chicken’s coop, and then is worried he may go to jail for stealing someone else’s chicken, but this coop is just in the middle of a dirty alley. Bimbo tricks the cop into handling the chicken, which he then slams into the ground in a disgusting display of the police assuming they’re above the law. If we had bodycams back then, that wouldn’t have happened.
The cop casually follows Bimbo to a nearby cemetery where the dead immediately come to life and begin haunting him. What follows is just a cavalcade of absurd events until it’s soon revealed that Bimbo is being punished for his past sins. I don’t even know why they had the tacked on setup with the cop, the Fleischers clearly just wanted Bimbo to get into this graveyard so they could subject their audience to the deepest, darkest corners of their psyches.
I won’t even describe the rest of the short. Just enjoy some buckwild gifs from it and keep in mind that this isn’t even all of it.
Yeah, that’s how it ends.
I don’t know what these spirits did in life to be denied a peaceful rest and become condemned to an eternity destroying the minds of small dogs, but it can’t have been good. The title even implies that this may be their punishment for sinning. What the hell, cartoons.
The Mad Doctor (1933) – dir. David Hand
A terrible storm is ruining Mickey’s sleep as a cloaked figure steals Pluto! The fiend drags the dog to their island fortress, conveniently located within a minute’s walk from Mickey’s house. According to the plaque on the door, the castle belongs to Dr. XXX, commonly referred to by Disney nerds as the titular Mad Doctor. Mickey follows them inside and is locked in the house of horrors. Just like many of the other shorts on this list, Mickey is subjected to a series of trials and nightmares he must overcome to save Pluto.
Those similarities really illuminate how many light-years ahead Disney’s animation department was of their contemporaries. This film was released the same year as Fleischer’s Snow White, yet displays a massive disparity in budget and polish. The talent level is equal, as the Fleischer’s put out some of the most gorgeous animation of their day, but this short really shows how Disney has always looked to stand out from their competition. Sequences like the slow trek down a stone hallway from Mickey’s POV and some impressive lighting effects really show off the commitment of Disney animators of the day.
This short could belong on this list due to animal cruelty alone thanks to the unsettling scenes of the Mad Doctor manhandling Pluto.
Just like our previous entry from Disney, The Skeleton Dance, this spooky short’s influence cannot be undersold. The cartoons have become less overtly scary over time, but Mickey properties can’t help but reference this short, especially in video games.
It all turns out to be a dream (or is it?), but it’s still wild to see so many terrifying things happen to the face of a huge global conglomerate. Thankfully after decades of attempting to shave off any edge Mickey ever had, the new shorts are returning him to his roots. Mickey is allowed to have scary, dangerous stuff happen to him again, just like in this macabre short.
Minnie the Moocher (1932) – dir. Dave Fleischer
Yes, ANOTHER Fleischer Betty Boop cartoon! This list could have just been those, but I was able to trim it down an include some other animation houses. For some reason, Fleischer was just the best at creating unpleasant and disturbing cartoons and they did it a lot! If you recognize the title, you can see where this one is going.
This is the first of the three cartoons produced by Max and Dave Fleischer to feature Cab Calloway. Way more than the other two, this is straight up a music video for Calloway’s iconic hit Minnie the Moocher. The short opens with live action footage of Calloway and his orchestra playing the song while Cab cuts a rug in his signature noodly way. The clip provides a goof reference point for just what the hell is going on when characters in these shorts suddenly take a more solid form and start wiggling around like a weird jazzy worm.
Betty’s overbearing eastern European parents (portrayed as comically over the top, yet less racist than any other cartoon of the era, probably thanks to the fact that Max and Dave are Polish immigrants) are upset that she hasn’t been eating to the point of screaming at her. Her fasting is revealed to be from a combination of her mother’s terrible cooking and Betty’s suffocating loneliness as she confides in a statue in their foyer. In an effort to teach them a lesson, Betty decides to run away while also threatening potential suicide. She packs her bags, writes a goodbye note, and leaves home.
She calls her boyfriend Bimbo to join her, which is weird since she was just crying about how lonely she is. The two leave town, but are immediately terrified by the darkness of the wilderness and hide in a cave. In the cave they meet the ghost of a walrus (a classic woodland creature) who regales them with the story of “Minnie the Moocher” in song. And dance.
Jesus Christ. Somehow this is the creepiest of the rotoscoped Cab Calloway dances animated by the Fleischers. Their effort to reconcile the huge difference between the forms of a man and a walrus meet right in the middle of the uncanny valley as your brain tries to interpret this thing as a living being. The super disquieting gags that are peppered throughout the musical segment don’t help. This is without a doubt, the most unsettling cartoon I’ve ever seen.
If you think of classic cartoons and only imagine adorable characters bopping around to old timey music and going on wholesome adventures, I hope this article opened your eyes to how F-ed up old animation could be. Cuphead certainly had a lot to draw from.
Check out some more spooky Laser Time goodness below, as well as our list of Disney’s best classic Halloween-y shorts!