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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Silver Horrors: The 14 Greatest Horror Films Of The 1940s


The 1930s was unquestionably, the golden age of movie horror. The sheer amount of imagination and ingenuity introduced throughout the decade, especially during the pre-Code era of 1930-1934, was unprecedented. Most of the archetypes were introduced during the decade, including Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, all of which helped to shape the genre. However horror fell into limbo for two years, following Britain's embargo on horror from 1937-1938. After a revival of Frankenstein and Dracula proved wildly lucrative, the genre was reborn with Son of Frankenstein(1939), which brought back Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the kings of the genre and ushered in a new era of movie horror. This was a wondrous beginning, but unfortunately, most of Universal's output throughout the decade couldn't match what they created in the previous one and most fell in the b-territory. The slack would be picked up by producer Val Lewton, whose b-movie outfit at RKO helped change the genre with a series of subtle, yet frightening chillers, which started with the genre landmark, Cat People(1942).
Overall, the 1940s was a mixed decade, but what was good, was great and it was a last hurrah for a certain classic type of horror that would all but be erradicated by decade's close thanks to Abbott and Costello and the end of a war that would usher in an atomic fear that would create a lingering, lasting influence, not just on the psyche of the world, but also on the genre's offerings during the next decade.
The following list represents the most oustanding films from that decade It was difficult to seperate the thrillers from the horrors, as both The Spiral Staircase(1946) and Bedlam(1946) were eliminated on these grounds. I kept Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein(1948), because despite the comedy, it's just as much a comedy as a horror movie. Hopefully, this list will provide a decent set-list for the uninitiated, or those well informed that would like to form their own movie marathon!


1. The Wolf Man(1941)
Director: George Waggner
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers


The definitive werewolf movie is the one that set the standard for all to follow. After a false start with 1935's Werewolf of London, Universal hit it out of the ballpark with this sophisticated and mythic movie, which may contain the finest cast ever assembled for a horror movie. Lon Chaney Jr. proves his claim to the throne of horror, pioneered by his father in the silent era, making the role of Lawrence Talbot his own and adding it to the pantheon of immortal monsters. The Wolf Man plays out like a gree tragedy, with Chaney returning home from abroad, to take up residence at his welsh estate, where he tries to connect with the community and his own father(Claude Rains).
The story is simple, yet complex in it's psychological leanings, and much of it has become legend, particularly the connection between the pentgram and lycanthropy and that wonderful gypsy verse("even a man who is pure in heart...) which has become the stuff of legend. Great direction, wonderful performances from all involved(including the poignancy of Maria Ouspenskya as Maleva the gypsy woman) and one of the most heartbreaking conclusions in the genre, make this a true giant of the horror film. Lon Chaney Jr.'s finest hour.



2. Cat People(1942)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cast: Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph


The first of Val Lewton's horror classics, set the standard for the subtle and psychological. A completely different turn from what was seen in horror films up to that time, Cat People is a dark and sexual film about a woman(Simone Simon) and her fear of becoming a panther if she is sexually aroused. What the film really is about is sexual repression and how such repression can ultimately lead to mental disorders. Of course, there is a supernatural undercurrent, so we're never really sure, either.
Unforgettable fright scenes include the unexpected hiss of a trolley and the infamous swimming pool scene, which is all done with the art of shadows and suggestion. A nail biter conclusion, as well, make this a horror classic not to be forgotten. Followed by a sequel, Curse of the Cat People(1944), which was a charming fantasy.This was remade in 1982 in a highly sexualized remake, quite unlike the subtleties of this original film.



3. Dead of Night(1945)
Director: Alberto Calvacanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer
Cast: Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave, Frederick Valk


The best horror anthology film ever made is also one of the most diverse and haunting. A man(Mervyn Johns) suffers a nightmare and goes to an estate that he swore he saw in a dream. There he slowly reveals his dream, as those around him reveal odd occurences that link with the supernatural. Each story gets increasingly scarier, only one story(the golf segment) being whimsical. The final story about Michael Redgrave and his ventriloquist dummy with a life of it's own, is easily the most unforgettable and terrifying. The conclusion has been ripped off numerous times since and is one if the genre's finest. All the stories are wonderful(the "Christmas Party" reminded me of an M.R. James story, while "The Hearse Driver" was like Charles Dickens) and Michael Redgrave's performance as the demented ventriloquist has to be one of the finest in the genre.


4. The Uninvited(1944)
Director: Lewis Allen
Cast: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Gail Patrick, Donald Crisp


For my money, this is the ghost movie and one of the most sophisticated supernatural films ever attempted. The Uninvited is a genuinely frighteing(and romantic) story about a brother and sister(Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) who move into a seaside mansion, where the ghost of a woman haunts. Ray falls for Gail Russell, who has become the target of the malevolent ghost, while her father(Donlad Crisp) attempts to protect her from some terrible secret.
One of the scariest movies ever made, this is one of the few genre masterpieces that still has not seen a DVD release for whatever reason, which is a shame, considering it's well within the top 25 in horror history.


5. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein(1948)
Director: Charles Barton
Cast: Abbott and Costello, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Glenn Strange


Most aficionados agree that Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein is the finest horror comedy ever made. It's the perfect melding of comedy and horror, as the monsters play it completely straight and are treated scarier than they were in any of the previous monster rallies. This was the final entry in the Frankenstein series that began with the original in 1931. In this film, Bud and Lou are Florida baggage clerks who stumble across Dracula(Bela Lugosi) and the Frankenstein Monster(Glenn Strange), who are sent as exhibits to a wax museum. Dracula wants to transport Costello's brain into the Monster, and The Wolf Man(Lon Chaney Jr.) wants to stop his evil plot.
Great fun all around, with wonderful lines, a terrific climax and an unforgettable music score, helps make this a classic of many genres. The best introduction to the world of classic monsters that one could find.


6. I Walked With A Zombie(1943)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cast: Frances Dee, Tom Conway, James Ellison


Moody, dream-like thriller from Val Lewton, has to rank as one of his best as well as one of the greatest of all zombie films. Taking it's story model from Jane Eyre, I Walked with a Zombie is about a nurse(Frances Dee) who goes to Haiti to care for a woman who may be one of the living dead. This film contains some of the most terrifying film moments ever, including a particularly scary midnight walk through a corn field and Darby Jones as a most unforgettable zombie. One of the most poetic of horror films.



7. The Body Snatcher(1945)
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniel


It's understandable when critics claim this to be Val Lewton's finest film, for surely there were few as compelling, nor did any compare on such a dramatic level. This was the film that saved Karloff's career from "the dead" as he said in interviews, as he gives one of his finest performances as Cabman Grey, a ressurection man who works for a disgraced doctor(Henry Daniel), blackmailing and tormenting him throughout. Karloff and Daniel were good enough to be nominated and deliver two of the best performances in horror history, and Lugosi has a small role that is highly effective, especially in his final scene with Karloff, which was to be the final screen pairing of these two legends. The conclusion is one of the most terrifying in history and pays homage to the Robert Louis Stevenson story that this was inspired from.


8. The Lodger(1944)
Director John Brahm
Cast: Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon, George Sanders



This was actually a remake of an earlier Hitchcock silent made in 1926 and probably the only time that i'll ever say that a remake of the master was superior. In fact, this is the greatest Jack the Ripper movie of them all. Laird Cregar is perfection as "Slade" a mysterious fellow who moves in as a lodger to a struggling family, while horrific crimes occur throughout London. This was one of the first "psychological" horror films and one that explored sexuality as a means to his crimes. It's a fairly perverse film and is still chilling with stylish directing by the vastly underrated Brahm and great acting, especially from Cregar, who is simply, unforgettable.


9. The Picture of Dorian Gray(1945)
Director: Albert Lewin\
Cast: Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders, Angela Lansbury


Brilliant motion picture that ranks as one of the most exquistely shot motion pictures of all time and the best adaption of Oscar Wilde's immortal classic. Hatfield plays the title character, who gains immortality, but becomes more ammoral over time, destroying many lives in the process, while his portrait becomes hideous. Hatfield is cold and aloof, yet excellent as the souless youth, while Sanders and his characterization set a standard for the remainder of his career, as Dorian's influence in life. Lansbury is tragic as Gray's doomed love interest, whom he later shuns and she won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her wonderful performance.


10. The Ghost Breakers(1940)
Director: George Marshall
Cast: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson

Follow-up to the previous year's remake of The Cat and the Canary(1940), and manages to blend the horror better, setting a precedent for future horror comedies. Goddard portrays an heiress who inherits an island castle in Cuba, which is supposedly haunted. Bob Hope goes along with her, along with Willie Best and the result is alot of fun. Noble Johnson's turn as a murderous zombie is especially memorable and effective and his stalking of a bathing suit clad Paulette Goddard, is a highlight. This is probably the Bob Hope film that stands up best today and ranks as one of the best horror comedies.



11. The Seventh Victim(1943)
Director: Mark Robson
Cast: Kim Hunter, Tom Conway, Jean BrooksProbably one of the darkest Hollywood movies ever made, The Seventh Victim is also the most underrated of the Lewton films and the most disturbing. The plot involves a woman(Kim Hunter) who is searching for her sister and discovers that she ran afoul of a satantic cult. In maturity and execution, this film's approach to satanism and suicide, was very progressive and widely ahead of it's time, incorporating several themes thatwould later become genre mainstays. There's even a pre-Psycho shower scare that is scary and effective. The ending is one of the darkest and most controversial in the genre, even today.


12. Isle of the Dead(1945)
Director: Mark Robson
Cast: Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer



Karloff's second film for Lewton and one of the more underrated of his career. Karloff portrays a Greek general who quarantines an island after a mysterious outbreak begins killing off people. He believes that it's the cause of a vampire that has taken the form of a beautiful young woman(Ellen Drew). Plenty of atmosphere and an increasingly intense performance from Karloff, adds to the suspense. One scene in particular, a buried alive victim rising from the grave, is very frightening and ranks among the creepiest scenes in Lewton's catalouge.



13. Bluebeard(1944)
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Cast: John Carradine, Jean Parker, Nils Asther


Poverty Row's finest hour, this ranks as an excellent character study and contains the finest horror performance from genre regular, John Carradine as the title character, a Parisian puppeteer who has a fetish for strangling women. Jean Parker portrays the woman whom he idolizes and reveals his terrible secret to. Ulmer proves his mettle as one of the most efficient b-directors ever and it's evident that he deserved so much better. Despite, PRC often being known for low budget hilarity like The Devil Bat(1940), they could occasionly crank out really classy films like this and Strangler of the Swamp(1946). Hard to believe that Carradine was in this and Voodoo Man at virtually the same time! A very underappreciated motion picture and one of the least analyzed of the decade.


14. Son of Dracula(1943)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Louise Allbritton, Robert Paige

Son of Dracula is often overlooked in the Universal horror oeuvre, mainly because of the decade it was made and the star, Lon Chaney Jr., who was admittedly miscast. However, Robert Siodmak(The Killers) teaming with his brother Curt(The Wolf Man) creates one of the most effective horror/noirs ever, proving that the genre was more than just "kiddie stuff." In many ways, what was experimented with here, would anticipate several of the later Dracula/vampire films in both theme and subtext.
Chaney is surprisingly good in one of his strangest roles, as the son of you-know-who, as he emigrates to the Louisiana Bayou to covert beautiful Louise Allbritton(one of the genre's finest femme fatales) into a vampire. The picture is wonderfully moody, with scenes of Dracula(I should say, Alucard) rising as mist from the swamp, and the ending has to be one of the most devastating in genre history. Robert Paige convinces as the best Universal hero if the decade and Allbritton has fun in a decidely kinky turn as a woman who wants to be a vampire, reminding me of so many later, romantic themes that will later appear in this genre.
This is that one film that reminds you that Universal were still capable of making serious, thinking man's horror pictures.





The 1940s was an odd period for movie horror, literally in black and white, running the gamut from extremely classy and sophisticated thrillers, like those from Val Lewton to run of the mill monster movies, like those produced at Universal. It saw the rise of one star(Lon Chaney Jr.), the resurgence of another(Boris Karloff) and the fall of one(Bela Lugosi), while also seeing the collapse of the initial run of gothic based horror pictures. Universal produced several fun pictures throughout, including nominess like The Mummy's Hand(1940), The Mad Ghoul(1943), Man Made Monster(1940) and Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man(1943), but after World War Two, Hollywood had little place for monsters and soon they found the classic creations taking home with Abbott and Costello. Val Lewton left horror in 1946 and the genre went into limbo for several years, until the arrival of a thing from another world in 1951, and later the monsters would see ressurection with a small British film company named Hammer, but that's another decade and another story.




4 comments:

  1. I concur with Dead of Night, The Uninvited,I Walked with a Zombie, The Body Snatcher, The Seventh Victim & Isle of the Dead. (It is not coincidental that four of these are Val Lewton productions.)

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  2. If you haven't seen it, "M" starring Peter Lorre. Strange, horrific and sick. It maybe from the 30's.

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  3. A nice collection of classic suspense flicks of the 1940's. Dead of Night is a favorite along with The Uninvited.

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  4. I can't believe the 1941 production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Tracy and Bergman isn't included here. One of the finest adaptations. No! THE finest!

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