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 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
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.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.