After the success of Son of Frankenstein in 1939 and the subsequent rush to get horror films back into production, 1940 is chock full of horror flicks of all kinds, from dramatic thrillers that only border on the edges of the genre, to more “mad doctor” movies that will proliferate like weeds this decade, to lighthearted horror comedies such as The Ghost Breakers, which stars a boyish Bob Hope.
Notable this year is the emergence of one Vincent Leonard Price Jr., at the very beginning of his career, starring in two films of note: The mystery/gothic drama The House of the Seven Gables and Universal’s The Invisible Man Returns. In the latter, he plays the title role of Geoffrey Radcliffe, the titular invisible man in this installment, a wrongfully convicted criminal who is turned invisible in order to slip the hangman’s noose. Although he’s not playing the same character that Claude Rains did in 1933, Price brings the same charisma and hint of satirical humor to the role. He would spend the next two decades largely performing in dramas, until 1953’s House of Wax made him a horror icon to be exploited heavily by Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe films of the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in horror typecasting for the rest of his long career. Price would ultimately have credited screen roles in seven decades.
1940 is a year for lesser Universal horror works in general, as The Mummy’s Hand kicks off a rather meandering series of sequels without Boris Karloff, in which the shambling mummy Kharis slowly and unstoppably lurches around and strangles people to the tune of three more sequels: The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Curse and The Mummy’s Ghost, which descend in quality pretty rapidly. Karloff and Lugosi, meanwhile, are at it again in Black Friday, while Karloff ultimately appears in four different horror films this year, which also include Before I Hang and The Man With Nine Lives. Suffice to say, the guy took advantage of all the work he could while the getting was good.
1940 Honorable Mentions:
The Invisible Man Returns, The Mummy’s Hand, Before I Hang, Black Friday, The Ghost Breakers
The Film: Rebecca
Rebecca is perhaps the most effective ghost story ever filmed to contain strictly metaphorical ghosts, rather than literal ones. Alfred Hitchcock’s American film career began with a bang, as this David O. Selznick-produced psychological thriller proved to be the only Hitchcock film to ever take home Best Picture at the Academy Awards, announcing the British master of suspense’s arrival and intent to change the Hollywood game.
All the characters of Rebecca can be described as haunted, but the nature of that haunting is rarely as we’re initially led to believe. The beautiful, gothic estate of Manderley is the home to aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter, played with the expected sophistication by Laurence Olivier, who we meet reeling after the death of his beloved wife Rebecca. Our viewpoint character, on the other hand, has no name of her own—Joan Fontaine’s big Hollywood break here is as a timid, good-natured young woman who is badly out of her depth when it comes to navigating the social circles and stuffy aristocracy of Manderley, where everyone assumes she will forever lack the grace and refinement necessary to be a “great lady.” Her lack of a name signifies her insignificance in the eyes of everyone at the estate, all of whom remain fixated on the specter of Rebecca, a woman of radiant beauty and seemingly boundless charisma, who seemed to have inspired fanatical devotion from her servants, friends and husband. Fontaine is brilliant as she tries to put on a brave face and endure the scorn of those around her, but her facade quickly begins to crumble as she’s mortified time and again.
The description may sound lacking in horror bonafides on some level, but there is indeed a uniquely creepy aura to Rebecca, well reflected in the film’s opening moments, which begin with a fog-shrouded nighttime drive up the estate’s driveway, accompanied by Fontaine’s hushed, dreamy narration. Like most classic gothic romances or melodramas, there are secrets buried in this great old manor, from the nature of Rebecca’s death to the hidden machinations of the hired help and their associates. The themes of Rebecca were later lifted for low-rent horror flicks like 1958’s The Screaming Skull, but nothing in that overtly “horror” genre entry is half as chilling as this film’s Mrs. Danvers, the stone-faced housekeeper who at one point tries to convince the new Mrs. de Winter to leap to her death from Rebecca’s old bedroom, so intense is her loyalty to her dead mistress. At times, it feels like the whole world is conspiring against Fontaine, engendering great sympathy for her character as she eventually learns to stand up for herself and take control of the estate. We badly want to see her come out on top.
This being a Hitchcock film, though, things are rarely so simple as they first appear. Rebecca bucks convention with a third act that significantly reframes the events we witnessed throughout, rewarding the audience’s careful attention to detail and beefing up the role of Olivier’s husband character just when we think we fully understand the source of his sorrows. Its conclusion is poetical and justified; a beautiful exercise in melodramatic catharsis and gothic romance, the ghost of Rebecca vanquished at last.
1941: The Wolf Man
More remakes and mad doctors are running rampant in 1941, as Karloff continues to put in work (The Devil Commands), but new faces are arriving on the scene as well. The most notable is the ample frame of Lon Chaney Jr., stepping very neatly into the exact sort of roles once tackled by his father, the Man of a Thousand Faces. His starring turn in The Wolf Man is obviously his most high-profile work in 1941, but he simultaneously appears in Man-Made Monster, and would work steadily in horror for the rest of his life. Due to eventual appearances in the sequels of several franchises in the 1940s, Lon Chaney Jr. holds the distinction of being the only person to portray all four of the major Universal monsters: The Wolf Man, Dracula, The Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster.
1941 also gives us a classic comedy fantasy in the form of The Devil and Daniel Webster, which touches on the horror genre thanks to its Faustian elements, along with an early Abbott and Costello feature, Hold That Ghost, which sees the comedy duo inheriting what might be a haunted tavern. It would be seven more years before Abbott and Costello returned to the horror genre for their much better-known rendevouz with Dracula, The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, which would serve as an unofficial ending to the era of classic Universal monsters. In 1941, though, we’re still going strong. Not to be forgotten: Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, which isn’t always tagged as a “horror film” per se, but is home to some of the era’s most suspenseful scenes—particularly the bit with Cary Grant fetching his wife a terrifyingly lit glass of what may or may not be poisoned milk.
1941 Honorable Mentions:
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Hold That Ghost, The Face Behind the Mask, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Suspicion
The Film: The Wolf Man
Director: George Waggner
After a handful of very successful Frankenstein sequels, but less than ideal follow-ups to Dracula and The Mummy, what the Universal monsters series really needed in 1941 was some fresh blood. This it got, in the form of the fourth head on its monstrous Mount Rushmore: The Wolf Man. In a time when the monster series was beginning to trend toward broader adventure, comedy or self-parody, The Wolf Man brought things nicely back to basics, in a story that favors suspense, atmosphere and character over comedy or overt displays of production value. The Wolf Man’s first priority was scaring cinema-goers, and by all accounts it did just that, despite having to contend against reports from the front lines of World War II.
Universal had already tackled a werewolf yarn six years earlier in Werewolf of London, but where that creature retained a fair amount of his human features, this time the studio went for broke. The stories regarding Jack Pierce’s makeup and the torture it was to apply to star Lon Chaney Jr. are legendary and apocryphal, with the actor at various times stating that it took up to 10 hours to apply, but that may have simply been his desire to live up to his father’s reputation speaking. The results are iconic, although modern audiences likely expect to see a few things in The Wolf Man that aren’t actually present until its sequels. For instance: One never actually sees a facial transformation of Chaney’s Larry Talbot in the original film—nor do we ever see a shot of the full moon. Both of those things are present in the film’s first follow-up, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
The film is notable for its establishment of Larry Talbot as a particularly pitiable character, by Universal Monster standards. Although this ground had been partially explored by the empathetic Frankenstein’s Monster, who doesn’t understand the world around him, Talbot is actively horrified by the atrocities he commits while rampaging as an unthinking beast, torn between his desire to survive, find a cure and not cause any further harm. As the series goes on, he is repeatedly revived and develops an ultimate goal of finding a permanent death, which is certainly the most nihilistic goal of all the Universal monsters. If the film had come along a few decades later, you’d probably see Wolf Man apparel at Hot Topic.
The production, meanwhile, gets the most out of a reduced budget from the gothic grandeur seen in the likes of Son of Frankenstein, still managing to look like an “A” production for the most part—the last entry in the monster series that can legitimately make that claim. Its forests of gaunt, leaf-stripped trees and fog-wreathed cemeteries still make The Wolf Man seminal Halloween viewing for conjuring that classically spooky vibe. Although none of its sequels can really measure up, and Larry Talbot never receives a stand-alone sequel of his own, it does little to diminish the drum-tight construction of the original.
1942: Cat People
As the 1940s continue and the war heats up in Europe, and America enters the war following Pearl Harbor, the horror genre begins to undergo some of its own changes. The overall volume of horror releases isn’t affected much, at least for now, but the effort and budgets being put into those horror pictures seems to slip, industry wide. There’s never a shortage of horror flicks in the cinema, but many of them are cookie-cutter sequels or rather formulaic rehashes of the same “mad doctor” or “monster on the loose” formulas. The genre is getting a bit more tired, in other words, and the studios are taking a grindhouse approach toward horror films: Make them cheap, and make them in quantity to satisfy the regular consumers. The genre begins to feel like a comfortable distraction from the sober news of what is happening in Europe.
That attitude leads toward the decline of some of the more prominent franchises, such as Universal’s Frankenstein. Three years after the lavishly appointed Son of Frankenstein revived the genre, the studio released The Ghost of Frankenstein, marking the series’ departure from “A” budgets to “B” budgets, as well as the departure of Boris Karloff playing the creature. In his place is the newly minted Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr., but something about the creature’s pouting face just isn’t quite right, if you ask us. The continuity here has grown loose, as there’s no real explanation for why a returning Béla Lugosi (as Ygor) is now alive after his apparent death in the end of Son of Frankenstein, but the film does introduce the important plot device of “brain swapping” that will become important in pretty much every Frankenstein film from here on out. In general, though, Ghost is the series’ first step toward mediocrity, being significantly brighter, less atmospheric and less stylish than its forebears. Still, it’s above-average within the context of 1942.
Other films from this turbulent year include another Mummy sequel, The Mummy’s Tomb, along with monster flicks like Night Monster and The Undying Monster. And as always, there’s Karloff with at least one chiller, like this year’s horror comedy, The Boogie Man Will get You.
1942 Honorable Mentions:
The Ghost of Frankenstein, Fingers at the Window, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Boogie Man Will Get You
The Film: Cat People
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cat People is evidence that a work of significant artistic merit can come about even as the result of a mandate to produce potboilers on a budget—which is exactly the conditions that producer Val Lewton was working under at RKO when instructed to produce a series of cheap horror films. Cat People was the first and remains the best known, an unqualified, heavily atmospheric success that is owed in one part to Lewton’s resourcefulness and also to the skillful efforts of director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, whose respective masteries of film noir shadow, lighting and framing illustrate exactly how to produce suspense from the suggestion of supernatural terrors, rather than their literal appearance.
The story of Cat People revolves around Serbian-born fashion illustrator Irena, a coldly detached woman who has lived her life under the certainty of a curse in her lineage, a taint in her bloodline. She believes that she is descended from a race of heathen, devil-worshiping magic users in her native Serbia, and that if she allows herself to express emotions with any sort of intensity, be they sexual passion or righteous anger, that she will lose control and become an animal. Is Irena simply an over-stressed woman, reacting to society’s expectation that someone in her position be demure at all times, rather than “hysterical”? Or do her passions really put the lives of those she loves in danger? In uncertainty lies suspense.
Cat People is one of those rare Hollywood films that often finds its discussion revolving entirely around a producer—in this case, Val Lewton. Although it is true that the film is based on a short story penned by Lewton (The Bagheeta), and that the producer tended to rewrite the screenplays of those films he oversaw, the film also belongs to director Tourneur in equal measure. His moody, claustrophobic use of light and shadow in Cat People presaged many of the techniques that would be used heavily in the film noir genre in the decade to follow, lending weight to scenes that would sound incredibly simple on paper. “A woman walks home late at night, not sure if someone is following her” is a sequence that has appeared in countless thrillers, but rarely so effectively as in Cat People, as Jane Randolph steps in and out of isolated pools of light on abandoned streets, islands of safety against something ephemeral and wild that always seems just out of frame. The sequence is famously broken in the end by the jarring arrival of the so-called “Lewton Bus,” with a sudden discharge of air that is credited by some film historians with birthing the modern “jump scare.” Certainly, the sequence wouldn’t look out of place in almost any modern horror film. The famous pool sequence likewise gets most of its mileage out of the uncanny play between the glittering refraction of light and the superbly unnerving sound design of a big cat’s heavy breathing, rather than anything the audience can physically see. You can feel the influence of this particular scene in the conclusion of a horror film like It Follows, which also makes use of the unique, reflective light conditions of an indoor swimming pool.
For working within such tight parameters, it’s a thing of beauty. In Lewton’s own words, the films he produced at RKO contain only the following: “A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fadeout. It’s all over in 70 minutes.” But he was significantly underplaying the talent of everyone who worked on those pictures, including his own. At a time when American horror films were becoming more formulaic, Lewton and Tourneur were making the absolute most out of their limitations.
1943: I Walked With a Zombie
In terms of sheer volume, these next few years are some of the most prolific in horror history, at least before the advent of home video. It really seems at this point as if Americans were escaping into the movie theater as a way to drown out the battle raging in Europe and Asia, and a lot of the time what they were seeing were horror flicks.
1943 offers a good variety of chillers in a plethora of styles. You’ve got a few straight-up sequels, like the underwhelming Son of Dracula, which saw Lon Chaney Jr. (it’s hard to like him as anything but the Wolf Man) stepping into the role of Dracula’s progeny “Alucard,” a trope subsequently passed down through the decades, all the way to the likes of Castlevania. Likewise, there are remakes here, including a big-budget (and color!) take on Phantom of the Opera, which stars the former Invisible Man, Claude Rains, in the title role of the acid-scarred Phantom. The Seventh Victim is certainly a contender as well, another Val Lewton-produced, RKO noir-chiller with sultry undertones, playing a bit like a primordial version of Rosemary’s Baby.
From a populist standpoint, though, 1943 is perhaps most significant for the birth of the “monster mash” via Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The follow-up to the lower-budget Ghost of Frankenstein is a somewhat unwieldy fusion of a Wolf Man story and a Frankenstein one—the creature is played by Béla Lugosi this time and looks particularly awkward—but much more screen time is spent on the former rather than the latter. Indeed, for the first half of its runtime, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man plays like the closest thing to a straight-up The Wolf Man sequel that Universal would ever produce, and it’s a pretty competent one at that, with classically spooky atmosphere and a sympathetic antagonist in the form of Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot, who just wants to find a way to permanently die this time. Of course, given that title, what audiences really wanted to see was two of screendom’s most famous monsters engage in a titanic battle to the death, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man does deliver, albeit in its closing moments. It’s not exactly Iron Man vs. Captain America, but in a very real way, this film laid the groundwork for pitting valuable pieces of IP against each other within the confines of a “shared universe.” Infinity War and Endgame might never have existed without it.
1943 Honorable Mentions:
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Ghost Ship, Son of Dracula, The Seventh Victim, The Leopard Man, Phantom of the Opera
The Film: I Walked With a Zombie
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Val Lewton’s second collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur arguably manages to outdo the more famous Cat People, delivering a dreamy horror story that is astoundingly serious-minded and thoughtful in its examination of the powers of belief, free will, emotional pain, historical subjugation and the sins of our ancestors. It combines the beautiful black-and-white cinematography of Tourneur with a story partially cribbed from the bones of Jane Eyre to create a work that feels entirely unique, suffused with death and mystery. As one character says, looking out at the sea: “That luminous water. It takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies, the glitter of putrescence.”
There had been “zombie” films in the U.S. market as early as 1932’s White Zombie with Béla Lugosi, but they treated the mysticism of the Caribbean as an exotic joke, not to be believed or trifled in by sober, modern white folk. I Walked With a Zombie approaches these belief systems from a very different perspective, not only depicting them with surprising accuracy and dignity, but considering how those beliefs could be co-opted by the white man as one more element of control over the lives of the island inhabitants. Although the setting of the film is a post-slavery island of Saint Sebastian, the film’s constant visual motifs of bondage and servitude never allow the viewer to forget the horrors of their not-so-distant past. From the fact that the town is centered around the figurehead of a former slave ship, to a white doctor’s seemingly well-intentioned use of voodoo traditions to instill modern scientific teaching into the community, the film adopts a waveringly accusatorial tone.
The story revolves around a young nurse named Betsy, who is brought to the island to be the caretaker of a catatonic woman whose illness and potential madness have stripped her of any sense of free will. It contains mystery elements, with several characters giving Betsy very different accounts of how her patient ended up in such a state, while always subtly implying a supernatural world of voodoo gods and Great Powers hiding just under the surface of the island’s society, away from the prying eyes of outsiders. How deep Betsy is willing to immerse herself in that underbelly will depend on just how badly she wants to help her patient … and how badly she wants to impress her handsome employer.
As in Cat People, director Tourneur and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt deliver a gorgeously macabre palette of images despite their small budget. The iconic, bug-eyed zombie visage of the enforcer “Carrefour” is the kind of image that must have haunted the dreams of patrons for years to come, but the lasting power of I Walked With a Zombie are in its quiet, wider shots, like the nightmarish, lanky profile of Carrefour standing stock-straight in a darkened, wind-swept corn field, or Betsy leading her pliable patient through the midnight cane fields, toward the pounding drums of a voodoo ceremony. Truly creepy imagery abounds.
1944: The Uninvited
In 1944, like 1943, volume of horror cinema is once again through the roof—these are serious boom years we’re talking about here, and they would continue unabated until around 1947. This year in particular can boast a solid variety of horror films, which range from Universal monster sequels (The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse send that series out with a whimper) to proto-slashers like The Lodger and multiple horror-adjacent entries in the Basil Rathbone-starring Sherlock Holmes series, The Pearl of Death and The Scarlet Claw. And that’s not even including the psychological thrillers, like Gaslight, or the formative ghost story of The Uninvited. There was a lot to see at the cinema in 1944, if you were a horror fan.
On the Universal side of the spectrum, the most notable effort is House of Frankenstein, which represents both a novel first and a chapter slamming shut on the classic Universal Monsters series. Seeming to sense that individual series such as Frankenstein and Dracula were running out of steam, Universal shrugged its anthropomorphized shoulders and concluded “Maybe people will be more interested if they’re all in the same film.” Thus, audiences were given House of Frankenstein, reuniting Frankenstein’s Monster with his old foe the Wolf Man, along with Dracula, “the hunchback” and “the mad doctor” to round things out. It’s a historically important crossover event, but it can’t help but leave the classic monster-lovers a bit cold, considering how separate the iconic characters are ultimately kept from each other. The film plays like an early experiment in horror anthology, telling first a very short Dracula story (starring John Carradine as Dracula), before spending most of the film on Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man and a comatose Frankenstein’s Monster, who only awakens for the closing moments. It has its moments—notably, the reappearance of Boris Karloff as “Dr. Niemann” rather than the Monster—but it would be the last Universal monster film of any real merit for a number of years.
Gaslight, meanwhile, represents a completely different kind of horror, if you choose to define it as horror. Ingrid Berman plays a woman who returns to the scene of a terrible crime, but can’t shake the sense that something isn’t at all right—feelings that are negated by her suspicious new husband, who insists it’s all in her mind. Featuring scintillating performances and scripting, you know Gaslight has been influential when we still use the term more than 70 years later to describe the very specific form of abuse it depicts.
1944 Honorable Mentions:
Gaslight, House of Frankenstein, The Curse of the Cat People, The Lodger, The Pearl of Death, The Scarlet Claw
The Film: The Uninvited
Director: Lewis Allen
As long as horror films have existed in Hollywood, filmmakers have been telling “ghost stories,” but The Uninvited marks a turning point in how the industry approached the genre. It seems rather facile, looking back 75 years from today, to think that the idea of actually having “real ghosts” in a film could be a revelation in and of itself, but The Uninvited’s decision to do so effectively threw a wrench in decades of film convention when it came to depictions of the supposedly supernatural.
In the decades prior, ghosts had appeared in Hollywood features in a bevy of ways—as punchlines, or protagonists, when portrayed by the likes of Cary Grant in Topper, but largely as the work of hoaxters or criminals. Films such as The Cat and the Canary or the previously mentioned Abbott and Costello film Hold That Ghost from 1941 depicted “g-g-g-ghosts” as the work of devious fraudsters not unlike those who would show up decades later as the villains of the week in episodes of Scooby Doo, charlatans who were usually trying to drive the protagonists away in order to secure some kind of financial windfall. It may be that this form of phony ghost was simply deemed less likely to draw challenges from a Christian fundamentalist audience, given that a fake ghost makes no implication about the nature of the afterlife, but despite years of “monster” films, real hauntings were a corner of the supernatural world that Hollywood seemed loathe to touch. The Production Code, and its insistence that no film contain “ridicule of the clergy” or organized religion, no doubt played its part as well.
It was no small thing, then, that The Uninvited tells a tale that incontrovertibly challenges its characters’ deeply held assumptions on the nature of life and death. It’s a gothic tale with allusions to the likes of Jane Eyre and The Fall of the House of Usher, concerning a young woman’s return to the house where her mother died under mysterious circumstances. What she uncovers, in no small part due to the guiding hands of the spirits around her, dredges up long-buried family secrets that challenge the history she’s been led to believe. It’s a structure that would go on to be echoed through ghost stories of latter decades, from The Innocents, to The Others, to Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. Everything we see in The Uninvited is formative.
With that said, it can also make the film seem rather familiar to a modern audience, but such is the experience of watching most classic films that were heavily influential upon entire genres. It is, if nothing else, an always engaging (if seemingly doomed) romance between Ray Milland’s Roderick and Gail Russell’s Stella, which builds to a satisfying climax that reaffirms the unknowable and terrifyingly alien nature of the beyond.
1945: Dead of Night
This is another year of varied, eclectic horror output, with a good number of thrillers, mysteries and dark noir films hanging around the periphery of the horror genre, although there are fewer films that stand out here as particularly notable in a historic sense. Karloff continues to churn out low-budget horror flicks, with both the (pretty decent) The Body Snatcher and the (somewhat less so) Isle of the Dead, while Basil Rathbone continues his Sherlock Holmes run with another horror crossover, in The House of Fear. The Spiral Staircase is a taut thriller that both calls on Old Dark House tropes and presages the format of minimalist Twilight Zone episodes like “The Invaders,” sans the tiny aliens. Finally, this year’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is often considered the superior adaptation of a story that has been adapted numerous times, noted for its Citizen Kane-like deep focus and impressive black-and-white cinematography.
House of Dracula, meanwhile, is a low point for Universal’s classic monster series, rushed into production after House of Frankenstein and once again assembling all of the monsters in one place, without so much as an explanation for how some of them have been resurrected since they perished a year earlier. Shoddy in appearance and cynically calculated as a cash grab for the lowest common denominator, it certainly feels like the time of these monsters being taken seriously has long since passed. The fact that Dracula’s motivation in this outing is to find a cure for his vampirism so he can live a normal life is perfectly indicative of how much the series had lost its way, and the Universal monsters essentially slunk from the cinemas afterward with their tails between their legs, to lick their wounds and hibernate for the next few years.
1945 Honorable Mentions:
The Body Snatcher, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Spiral Staircase, House of Dracula, Isle of the Dead
The Film: Dead of Night
Director: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer
The most spectacular thing about Dead of Night, rather than any of its individual stories, is just how neatly and satisfyingly the film’s four directors managed to tie together the connective tissue of their tales via a beautifully executed framing device, at a time when the concept of a “horror anthology” was almost entirely alien. In the decades since, there have been dozens of horror films made using the anthology format, but few have ever looped all of their stories together in a way that made them all feel equally important and ultimately indispensable to the whole. This might be the rare case where the film that did it first, did it best.
Dead of Night was a rarity as soon as it arrived on the scene, given that the U.K. had all but entirely ceased horror film production during the war years, but it went a long way in reenergizing interest in British horror. The framing device follows a nervous architect as he arrives at a small country estate, only to realize that he recognizes every one of the other visitors … from his recurring dreams! All the guests are charmed to some degree by this bizarre coincidence, and begin to share tales of their own apparent encounters with the supernatural, even as the architect slowly becomes certain that a terrible incident is creeping up on them all.
The individual tales vary a bit in effectiveness, as in almost all anthologies, from a light-hearted farce involving a ghostly golfer to a much more atmospheric (and scary) story centered around a mirror possessed by a malevolent spirit. The most famous sequence is justifiably the final one, which revolves around a ventriloquist who may or may not be taking orders from a living dummy—a now stock horror premise that has been repeated in numerous films (and multiple Twilight Zone episodes) in the decades since, although rarely so creepily as it is here. That little doll, “Hugo,” will be in your dreams after a viewing of Dead of Night, we can assure you—particularly after you see what happens to him in the film’s closing moments.
In general, though, this is a film of unusual cleverness for the era, and some sly social commentary to boot, as when a wife opines that “you know how difficult it is choosing presents for a man—they always seem to have everything they want.” Each story grabs the viewer’s attention, but how well they work together only really becomes apparent in the frenzied build to the film’s conclusion, which inverts the story on itself in a way that is thoroughly modern, unexpected and delightful. The last 10 minutes or so of Dead of Night play as if they’d been directed by the likes of Christopher Nolan, cementing its status as one of the most creative horror films of the era. It set a very high bar for future horror anthologies, which only a handful have managed to match.
1946: The Beast with Five Fingers
The horror boom that has been in pretty constant, self-sustaining motion since 1931 (with the exception of 1937-1938) is beginning to wind down here. There are still plenty of options in 1946 to choose from, but this will be the last year with a large horror crop for quite a while—until the mid-1950s, in fact. We’ve got to enjoy the good stuff here while we can—in a few years time, horror is going to become very hard to come by.
1946 is notably home to another classic chiller from producer (and screenwriter, in this case) Val Lewton, which saw his story paired up with none other than the hardest working man in horror, Boris Karloff. Bedlam is a psychological, period piece horror film about a despotic insane asylum director, played by Karloff with just enough aristocratic glee that you manage to both be drawn to the guy and hate his guts. The film isn’t quite so stylishly shot as Lewton’s collaborations with Jacques Tourneur, such as Cat People or I Walked With a Zombie, and it doesn’t really have the budget to make its 1700s setting seem believable and not contrived, but it’s a great excuse to see the master chew some amusingly anachronistic scenery.
The year is also home to some other pop-culture films of note, such as the Bugs Bunny short Hair-Raising Hare, featuring the furry, red, sneakers-wearing monster recognized by decades of children who saw these films in syndication ad nauseum, and two different horror films starring the uniquely disproportionate face of character actor Rondo Hatton. Sadly, Hatton suffered from acromegaly, which caused the ghoulish facial features that made him a Universal horror bit player. Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will no doubt remember him from this year’s film, The Brute Man, in which he plays a misunderstood, back-breaking killer known as “The Creeper.” His memory survives on through The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award, an online awards show currently in its 18th year, which awards busts of Hatton’s particularly recognizable head as a sort of macabre Oscar statuette for the horror community.
1946 Honorable Mentions:
Bedlam, Hair-Raising Hare, Shock, Strangler of the Swamp, House of Horrors, The Brute Man
The Film: The Beast with Five Fingers
Director: Robert Florey
To look at The Beast with Five Fingers from afar, one might think it was another remake of The Hands of Orlac, but although this film does concern itself with the wickedness that might be contained within man’s most precious digits, it isn’t about a man questioning whether his body (and will) are still his own. Rather, this film is more interested in sensation and shock than psychological winnowing, presenting the possibility of its hand as a disembodied one, returned from the grave to seek revenge on the men and women who cursed its owner to an early end.
One part murder mystery, one part Old Dark House film and one part pre-giallo, The Beast with Five Fingers is a smooth-running and reasonably well-polished thriller. An ensemble cast is gathered to be menaced by the possibility of the severed hand on the loose, but it’s Peter Lorre’s “musicologist” character, Hilary Cummins, who is best remembered. Featuring crisp, deep-focus B&W cinematography that pairs nicely with moody, noir-influenced lighting effects and a creaky Victorian manor house that wouldn’t be out of place in The Cat and the Canary, it’s a blending of horror sub-genres that seem to fit together in natural, organic ways.
Lorre, as expected, is excellent here, imbuing Cummins with his usual combination of guile, sleaziness, paranoia and sleepy-eyed humor. He has a unique way of couching his characters in a neutral space between “despicable” and “wounded and sympathetic” that is on full display here, amplified by the fact that the audience isn’t quite sure if he’s meant to be a figure of suspicion or an unlikely protagonist. Is Lorre our unreliable narrator? Or merely a pawn in some greater mastermind’s game? Constant misdirection keeps the audience guessing through a breezy, 88-minute runtime.
One final note: The “disembodied hand” FX used throughout this film are fairly simple in technique, but perfectly executed. The fact that a Warner Bros. “B” horror picture from the mid-1940s managed the effect so consistently, 50 years before “Thing” was scurrying around as a centerpiece of the first Addams Family movie, is worthy of praise.
1947: The Red House
If 1946 was a notable step down from the high-volume horror releases of the 1940s to date, then 1947 is when the genre truly falls off the map again, to a place it hasn’t been since 1937-1938. This is the beginning of the darkest stretch in genre history, and unfortunately we’re not talking about the dire content of the films themselves.
Why did horror essentially fade into obscurity, just a few years after being one of the most prolific film genres in Hollywood? Many potential causes have been advanced, most notably the idea that film audiences, having now grappled with the horrors of the second world war, splashed across newspapers, magazines and film strips, had become inured to the style of horror found in Universal monster or ubiquitous “mad doctor” films. This might well have been the case, given that horror returned in force looking fairly different in the early 1950s, but it seems equally likely that the studios of the day simply thought the genre’s era of marketability had passed. Films like House of Dracula had shown the lack of vitality remaining in some of the stock characters who had been horror’s surest bets in the preceding years, and there was still the matter of the Production Code to contend with as well.
The result, at least in the U.S., was almost total genre hibernation. You’ll still find some film noir entries here that contain horror elements, and the occasional non-U.S. horror film, like this year’s Uncle Silas/The Inheritance from the U.K., but the pickings here are very slim.
1947 Honorable Mentions:
The Film: The Red House
Director: Delmer Daves
Is there such a thing as “country noir”? The existence of The Red House begs the question, as Delmer Daves’ film ably captures the visual aesthetic usually found in urban, hard-boiled detective stories and instead transfers it to a patch of isolated farmland in the middle of the American heartland. The results are distinctive, containing some of the fantastical rural elements seen in the likes of The Night of the Hunter, but with an even darker visual aesthetic. The Red House is almost completely suffused in shadows, in a not-so-subtle visual allusion to the pent-up secrets shared by its characters. Suffice to say, there are some serious skeletons in these closets.
The film is about a handicapped farmer and his sister, who live on a remote farmstead with their adoptive daughter, Meg. As Meg grows close to one of the family’s hired hands, Nath, the two stumble onto the existence of a mysterious “red house” that exists somewhere in the recesses of the property owned by her adoptive father. But as the young lovers grow curious about the connection between Meg’s father and the house, events simultaneously conspire from several angles to separate the two.
The great Edward G. Robinson, veteran of numerous noir and gangster films, plays the peg-legged farmer Pete, who comes off first as an object of sympathy, and then possibly a source of malevolence. As the investigation into the “red house” continues, his sanity starts to slip, but is it the result of victimhood, or guilt?
Highlighted by a creepy, anxiety-tinged score from Miklós Rózsa, The Red House plays like a melodrama by day, and a horror film by night. It does an excellent job of teasing the possibility of the supernatural, while never making anything concrete, allowing for several potential interpretations. With a conclusion whose implications are considerably more shocking than one would expect, it makes for an understated, under-seen 1940s psychological thriller.
1948: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
In the midst of the horror genre’s longest overall fallow period, 1948 actually isn’t quite so bad, at least compared to the years that surround it on either side. It can at least claim to be home to several genre movies that have stood the test of time in some way, to the point that they’re easily recalled by those who know film. If only we could say that about the likes of 1950. Alas.
This year is home to a number of noir-ish thrillers that border on the horror genre, which would describe the content of both The Amazing Mr. X and Daughter of Darkness, a more mundane film than the title might have you believe. There are some monster-y fantasies, ‘ala Unknown Island, which features some of the strangest looking dinosaur costumes of the 1940s, but the biggest discussion of “is it horror?” this year revolves around Alfred Hitchcock and Rope.
Rope is one of Hitchcock’s simplest psychological thrillers from a plotting standpoint, but was one of his most complex and challenging to execute behind the camera. The director reportedly considered it a failed experiment, but the film’s esteem has gradually increased over the years, in response to its admittedly impressive (but often very subtle) production design and camera techniques. Edited to appear as a single, continuous shot, and full of numerous long takes of 10 minutes or more, it certainly feels like watching the stage play it was adapted from. The fact that Hitchcock also made Rope his first Technicolor feature only added to his technical challenges. The story concerns a dinner party being held by a pair of brilliant but disturbed young men, who are reveling in the fact that they killed one of their peers earlier that afternoon, just to see if they could get away with the crime. The dinner party is part of the test: Can the two blithely smile and gab their way through the evening, while their victim’s body is hidden in the very same room? What of the pair’s former professor, played by Jimmy Stewart, whose inquiring mind is constantly needling at the guilt showing through their facade? Whether or not you consider it “horror,” Rope is a scintillating, 80-minute thriller.
1948 Honorable Mentions:
Rope, The Amazing Mr. X, Daughter of Darkness, Unknown Island
The Film: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Director: Charles Barton
Here we are—the swan song of the Universal Monsters, or at least the “Big Three” of Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man. None of the three had appeared in a feature since the disappointment of 1945’s House of Dracula, but this broad horror-comedy at least gives the characters a serviceable, loving denouement. It’s notable for being the only time since 1931 that Béla Lugosi returned to the role of Dracula in an official capacity, while Lon Chaney Jr. again portrays the Wolf Man (of course). It could have been a truly grand reunion if Karloff was also present, but instead the Monster is portrayed this time by Glenn Strange, who also played the creature in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Still, two out of three ain’t bad, and Strange arguably does a better job as the creature than anyone else other than Karloff.
The film is a typical starring vehicle for Abbott and Costello, which sees the boys roped into a menial job that leads them into an array of dangerous situations. It’s not truly the finest or funniest of the duo’s features—they made more than 30 of them, so it’s hardly surprising—but it’s definitely the best-known Abbott and Costello feature today, thanks to its connection to the Universal Monsters legacy. The fact that it was immediately followed by a series of “Meets” films, ‘ala Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd and Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, speaks to its box office success in its initial release, which went a long way in keeping the duo’s film careers going into the mid-1950s.
The monsters, to their credit, are presented in exactly the same way here as they would be in standalone entries in their own film franchises—they don’t behave differently, or come off as caricatures of themselves, as one might fear. Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, is still a tormented antihero who prays for death. Dracula is still a classical arch-fiend. The Monster is still … unconscious on a table for most of the film, per tradition. They are, as a group, essentially playing a collective, monstrous straight man to the antics of Bud and (especially) Lou, and it works quite smoothly, as if the comic pratfalls that follow have always been part of the genre, rather than a marketing ploy tacked on to familiar characters 16 years later. Sequences like Costello being stalked by the Wolf Man around his hotel room, all while being blissfully unaware of what is happening, still play well today, although the film suffers a bit for its lack of the usual dialog and patter routines for which the duo was most famous.
Ultimately, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein feels very much like the end of an era. It’s a goodbye of sorts to Lugosi, who would fade into relative obscurity (and Ed Wood productions) in the coming decade, and the last time audiences would see characters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster until their glorious rebirth via the British horror revival at Hammer Film Productions in the late 1950s. It’s the bittersweet closing of an iconic chapter in horror history, and a contributing factor in the weakness of the late 1940s and early 1950s for this genre. Perhaps the post-war American audience truly was hankering for a new form of horror—one that would reflect the anxieties of a newly born atomic age.
1949: The Queen of Spades
Another rough year, largely saved only by expanding the “horror” definition a bit, and by the fact that the U.K. was still producing horror-adjacent films at the time. 1949 and 1950 pretty much feel like the nadir of this particular trough, and you can imagine that the horror fans of the early 1940s must have felt a bit distraught, like the genre had simply disappeared on them. Perhaps it felt like all of Hollywood had outgrown “mad doctor” and monster films in this particular moment, but they clearly seem to be quite far from the public eye. Regardless, horror cinema is never less socially relevant than it is in this little stretch.
Nevertheless, there are pockets of significance. This year gave us the animated short film version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from Disney, arguably the best-known adaptation of the tale until Tim Burton took a whack at it in 1999. Although this depiction of Ichabod Crane is a particularly gangly, comical and cartoonish one, the Horseman himself is drawn in an entirely different, far more macabre style, making the final chase sequence something that no doubt inspired the nightmares of countless children who didn’t suspect The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad would be so intense.
Elsewhere, Abbott and Costello tried to cash in on the success of Meet Frankenstein with the first of their “Meet” sequels, but Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff is just the start in a series of swiftly diminishing returns for the duo, with the possible exception of the fairly funny Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. Here, however, despite his prominent billing, Boris Karloff is barely even a major player—a textbook case of a title promising more than it can deliver.
Finally, it’s worth noting that although Mighty Joe Young hardly feels like a legitimate “horror” entry, it’s important as a torch-passing moment from stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O’Brien (of King Kong fame) to protege Ray Harryhausen, who are both credited. Harryhausen would go on to ply his trade in some of the first, influential “atomic monster” films of the 1950s, bringing horror into an important new era in the process.
1949 Honorable Mentions:
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Mighty Joe Young, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff
The Film: The Queen of Spades
Director: Thorold Dickinson
Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades is a little-known, post-war British masterpiece that has largely only been rediscovered within the span of the last decade, after being thought lost for more than 50 years. An impressive baroque drama with supernatural elements, it’s a gorgeously moody character study of a man who is willing to make any transgression if it will bring him wealth and power. Featuring first-rate cinematography, performances, production and sound design, it’s destined to become regarded as a cinema classic in film circles worldwide—once everyone finally sees it. And with boosters that range from Wes Anderson to Martin Scorsese, that shouldn’t take too much longer.
The story is set in 1800s Russia, revolving around a penniless military captain, Suvorin, who is fascinated by the card gambling game Faro … but never participates himself. The captain is a cold, reserved man who displays intense self-control, banking his small paychecks and dreaming of the day when he’ll be able to embrace his hidden sociopathy to “take life by the throat and force it to give me what I want.” He suffers from a severe inferiority complex, holding himself to highly unrealistic standards of achievement and being greatly pained by his inability to possess the luxuries of life. This in turn leads the captain to his sociopathic behavior, feigning friendship with peers before switching instantly to haughty command over those he sees as inferior, once they’re of no more use to him. He studies the cards, meanwhile, hoping that they could somehow be his salvation—if only he knew how to win.
Enter, the Countess Ranevskaya, an ancient woman who is purported to have sold her soul in her youth for the ability to win at cards, making her fortune in the process. Now aged, alone and bitter, she takes out her resentments on her ward, the doe-eyed Lizavetta, who desperately wishes for love and some form of escape. And unfortunately for her, that’s exactly what Captain Suvorin promises to give her, provided he can use the opportunity to learn the Countess’ secret. Thus, a game of deception and extortion is put into practice.
These may not exactly sound like horror bonafides, and indeed, for long stretches The Queen of Spades plays more like a superior costume drama, with excellent performances (especially from Anton Walbrook as Suvorin) and lavish sets and costumes, but things gradually begin to take a more sinister and supernatural turn. From the beginning, these aspects are all hinted at visually, as gorgeous cinematography on sets such as the gambling den throw huge, impressionistic outlines of shadow onto the wall behind specific characters, and even the tertiary players are lit with dramatic, devilish lighting that makes them seem more important and ominous than they really are. The film’s visuals are highly stylized throughout, making use of objects such as well-placed mirrors to reflect the faces of background characters in unusual ways, allowing the audience to see the expressions of people whose backs are turned. Conversations, likewise, are often shot in deep focus, with one character standing far behind the other, but both facing the camera.
It’s the film’s final 20 minutes, though, where it earns its place among the horror classics of the era, as its narrative devolves in strange and hallucinogenic directions, highlighted by impeccable sound design and the return of various sound motifs that are extremely effective. These haunting sequences, as Suvorin faces up to some of the ramifications of his actions, call to mind the delirious passion of Edgar Allan Poe pieces such as “The Raven,” and are quite frankly all the more terrifying for the lack of overt “scares” beforehand. It’s a masterful build toward an extremely satisfying crescendo.