Cinema Gothic: The 1940s

Even as the world faced its own terrors with the most expansive war in history, Hollywood continued to make modes of escape, even if it had to slash budgets to do so. Horror films went from primarily A-list to B-list pictures, with Universal, in particular, recycling sets, music, and sometimes even casts and plots in multiple films. Smaller budgets, however, did not prevent some real gems from emerging.

The Wolf Man (1941)

Director: George Waggner. Screenplay: Curt Siodmak. Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi. Studio: Universal. Country: USA.

Universal’s 1935 Werewolf of London was technically the first werewolf movie, but the werewolf formed in Curt Siodmak’s script for The Wolf Man set the pattern for almost all werewolves that followed. Siodmak created, amongst other things, the toxicity of silver for the werewolf, a detail not from the werewolf legend, but that of the vampire. Lon Chaney, Jr., the son of The Phantom of the Opera’s star, takes his first star turn here as Larry Talbot, the son of a nobleman (played by The Invisible Man’s Claude Rains) who returns to his home village in Wales after many years in America. Talbot is bitten by a wolf when trying to save a young lady, and an old gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) tells him that the wolf was her son (Bela Lugosi), and that Larry is now a werewolf himself. Larry disbelievers her at first, but a series of strange events cause him to question whether the curse is real, meanwhile causing those around him to question his sanity. Afraid that his next victim will be the village girl has has come to love (Evelyn Ankers, in one of her many starring roles opposite Chaney), he gives his father a silver-headed cane that he purchased at the beginning of the film. The film ends dramatically and movingly, as we already know what has to happen.

Lon Chaney, Jr. pulls out a fine performance filled with pathos in this film, and the ensemble as a whole are top-notch, including Ankers, Rains, and Ouspenskaya. Even Bela Lugosi, in his absurdly short role, is wonderful in his turn as a gypsy staving off the effects of the full moon. Rains is brilliant as the skeptical, logical father who eschews the gypsy lore of werwolves, yet attends church regularly (“Belief in the hereafter is a very healthy counterbalance
to all the conflicting doubts man is plagued with these days”). The film itself is full of the fog-filled forests we now think are in every old horror film. Meanwhile, the film’s score by the incomparable Hans Salter is powerful and, fortunately or not, would be recycled in various other Universal films for more than a decade afterward. Here, though, it is fresh and perfect, and it adds layers of character to the film’s otherworldly ambiance.

Early on in the production, the filmmakers didn’t intend on actually showing the werewolf until the end, only showing the effects of his prowl and Larry’s building anxiety. There would be no transformation early on, and the audience would be left to wonder until the last scene whether Larry was a true werewolf or a man driven insane by the situation around him. If this had been executed, would the film have worked? We might only have to look into the next year to find out.

Cat People (1942)

Director: Jacques Tourneur. Screenplay: DeWitt Bodeen. Starring: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolf. Studio: RKO. Country: USA.

Can you make a successful movie about a person transforming into an animal without showing the transformation? The question was ultimately answered in 1942 by Cat People. What Universal had been afraid to try with The Wolf Man, RKO pulled off in styling fashion here. Studios may have been on tight budgets during the war years, but it didn’t mean  you couldn’t make a thought-provoking and beautiful film, and the pair of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur were certainly doing it at RKO. In Cat People, Simone Simon plays Irena, a girl who believes she is descended from a race of formerly Christian people who long ago made a pact with Satan and could transform into cats, and she is afraid she will transform into a panther if aroused. Refusing to sleep with Oliver, the man she has married, she sees a psychologist. However, strange events begin to transpire when Irena’s husband begins to fall for his secretary, Alice. The secretary is stalked by an unseen animal, first in Central Park, then by a pool.  The tension builds to an exciting climax after Oliver leaves Irena for Alice, and the two are cornered at work by a ferocious animal.

The real intrigue of the film is the stylish way in which the audience is meant to fear what it doesn’t see, often only hinted at by a shadow. This would be a trademark of both Lewton and Tourneur. It actually increases the sense of dread and, combined with other innovative effects, creates a groundbreaking thriller.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur. Screenplay: Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray. Based on a story by Inez Wallace. Starring: Frances Dee, James Ellison, Tom Conway, Christine Gordon. Studio: RKO. Country: USA.

So, who wants to make two horror classics in a row? Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, of course. On the heels of Cat People‘s success, the pair visited the very young genre of the zombie film.  The topic had been attempted originally by United Artists’ White Zombie over a decade earlier, but I Walked With a Zombie featured more stylish cinematography, storytelling, and acting that that early venture. Curt Siodmak, who had devised The Wolf Man’s wonderful screenplay, also composed the script for this venture, and his storytelling artistry combined with the stylish efforts of Tourneur and Lewton produces a great product. Set on a Caribbean Island, the film begins with terrific narration by the lead character, Betsy Connell, played by Frances Dee, explaining how she once “walked with a zombie.” The script, featuring at times potently philosophical dialog, is beautifully brought to life through some striking cinematography by J. Roy Hunt. It is important to note that the zombies represented here are not walking corpses brought to life like in later films such as Night of the Living Dead (don’t worry, we’ll get there), as living people robbed of their own will, in conjunction with Voodoo practices. In this sense, I Walked with a Zombie represents the best of the traditional zombie films. Elegant, moving, and chilling all at once, it may remain the best zombie film and one of the most stylish horror films of all time.

The Uninvited (1944)

Director: Lewis Allen. Screenplay: Frank Partos and Dodie Smith. Based on the novel by Dorothy Macardle. Starring: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner. Studio: Paramount. Country: USA.

It may surprise some that it took over two decades from the birth of the horror film for the first real ghost story to be put to film. However, when that movie finally came, it gave the public a compelling and chilling tale, the perfect template for future haunted house adaptations. Featuring a talented ensemble cast and some real plot twists that keep you guessing the source of the supernatural occurrences, the film also boasts a wonderful coastal setting that foreshadows the opening sequence of TV’s Dark Shadows a couple of decades later. Originally, the ghost was not intended to be seen, however studio pressure compelled the filmmakers to create some ghostly effects that still remain quite impressive. A mystery story of murder and revenge winds its way through this take and comes to a dramatic, confrontation between the living and dead. Don’t miss the premiere of the now famous tune “Stella By Starlight,” which originated in this picture. A true gothic ghost story that has held up well over time, this one is still worthy of a late-night chill, especially in its newly restored Criterion Collection release.

Dead of Night (1945)

Directors: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer. Screenplay: John Baines and Angus MacPhail. Based on stories by H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, John Baines, and Angus MacPhail. Starring: Michael Redgrave, Mervyn Johns, Frederick Valk, Roland Culver. Studio: Eagle-Lion/Universal. Country: United Kingdom.

The British were expressly forbidden to make horror films during the war, but they unleashed a true classic immediately thereafter. A series of strange tales weave together into an intriguing climax. Four short stories, two classics and two written for the film play out as being told by characters who have all been invited to a country house. A chilling story about a hearse, a ghost story set at a Christmas party, a ghostly tale of a golf course, and a story of a ventriloquist dummy (this one is particularly chilling) all work in their own way, and fitted together with the twists of the linking narrative make for a truly spooky piece of entertainment in the great tradition of the English ghost story.

(Cover image: a setting from The Wolf Man.)