This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
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
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.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.