< Horror Film History — Horror Films in the 1940s

Horror movies of the 1940s: The Wolf Man, Cat People, Universal Monsters, Val Lewton, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Horror Eats Itself

The Body Snatcher 1945

There are several reasons why the horror genre declined – in both quality and popularity – at the tail end of the 1930s. Firstly, the narrative conventions became so well established that they appeared formulaic and predictable, especially when the same-old same-old monsters were put into rotation time and time again. Then, political strife curtailed a lot of European filmmaking. Thirdly, movies with supernatural, violent, science fiction or fantasy elements became a target for literal-minded censors, who were concerned that the masses might believe or, still worse, imitate the horrors they witnessed on the silver screen.

The new regulations didn’t leave Hollywood filmmakers much to work with. The earliest, post-Code horror movies tend to be muted affairs as genre writers, directors, and performers had to figure out how to stay within the lines. Rather than leading to instant storytelling innovation, this meant sticking with tried and tested favorites for much of the late 1930s and early 1940s. This applied to both the material and the stars. The big names in horror were typecast in several movies a year. The name “Lon Chaney, Jr.”, “Bela Lugosi” or “Boris Karloff” emblazoned on a poster is often a more reliable indicator of genre intentions in a movie of this era than a title or synopsis.

Madmen, Not Dreamers

By 1939, all sides agreed that Mad Scientists were appropriate horror movie subjects – they weren’t supernatural, and when they chose the path of evil it was generally because of the sin of pride, rather than any diabolical dealings. It took a while to reach this consensus. When the Production Code Administration demanded the removal of the line “In the name of God, now l know what it feels like to BE God!" from Frankenstein (1931), it was because it seemed both sacrilegious and hubristic, a foul blasphemy spewing from a man tempted to defy the laws of nature, the Mad Scientist as the ultimate transgressive figure, shaking his fist at the heavens.

Ten years later the boundaries had shifted. The PCA approved a number of movies depicting similarly crazed doctors hellbent on perverting the natural order. However, these characters are set up to demonstrate the dangers of scientific ambition and their stories reinforce the right of normal, commonsense folks to challenge and even destroy the so-called expert in their midst. Some of these men are clearly villains from the outset of their narratives and deserve a nasty end, like Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) in Dr. Cyclops (1940) who gleefully uses his colleagues as test subjects, shrinking and then murdering them. Others, like Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) in Son of Frankenstein (1939) eventually see the error of their scientific ways and make amends for their folly (Wolf tips his father’s monstrous creation into a volcanic pit of destruction).

Poverty Row studio, Monogram, enthusiastically churned out mad scientist movies constructed around the PCA-approved template during the early 1940s. As befits Monogram’s bargain budget reputation, special effects were limited to hypodermic syringes and white coats but their output reflected typic B-pictures of the time. An early example, The Ape (1940) starred Boris Karloff as Dr. Bernard Adrian and was adapted from Adam Shirk’s play by Curt Siodmak, who would go on to write The Wolf Man. Siodmak mashes the plot elements together with some flair. Dr. Adrian showed up in his small town a few years ago, offering treatment for those afflicted by “the paralysis epidemic”. He’s not popular with the townsfolk – they suspect he’s conducting experiments on stolen dogs. The only people who show any kindness towards him are wheelchair-bound Frances Clifford (Maris Wrixon) and her mother (Gertrude W. Hoffman) – and that’s probably because the good doctor is dedicated to helping Frances walk again. The drama begins when the circus comes to town: a giant, caged ape (a mini Kong) attacks his trainer and escapes. The wounded trainer – a cruel fellow who provoked the attack – is brought to Dr. Adrian’s home for treatment. This triggers a series of bad decisions, which end with Dr. Adrian donning the dead ape’s skin so he can go out murdering subjects to harvest the spinal fluid he needs to cure Frances.

The Ape 1940

Karloff’s performance, as usual, gives Adrian a depth and dignity beyond his context, although very much of his time. The doctor is a foreigner and one of the reasons he is rejected by his neighbors (the adults voice their mistrust while the kids throw rocks) is because they identify him as Other, clinging to strange ideas that don’t chime with their own limited understanding. Although the movie doesn’t stray outside the literal limits of the Code, it nonetheless throws up some thoughtful challenges to those “correct standards of life”. There are some intriguing subtextual ripples within Siodmak’s script too, as it riffs on themes from the text that dominates the mad scientist subgenre, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Adrian’s motivation is pure (he wants to help Frances because she reminds him of the daughter he lost) but he’s prepared to commit the ultimate crime in pursuit of his scientific goals. If only these doctors would just stay in their lane! He’s even prepared to – ignoring her boyfriend, Danny’s objections – make Frances suffer (“Pain is good,” he tells her). It’s implied that Adrian has been experimenting on his guinea pigs for years and would have continued to do so, but Fate takes a hand and deposits first the injured circus trainer and then the giant ape into his lap. The Code meant there could be no explicit mention of demonic temptation, but it seems like the Devil himself is toying with him. The doctor abandons his humanity when he puts on the ape skin: only in abasing himself, in regressing to animal form, is he able to satisfy his scientific (=unnatural) desires. He has to die, of course, to satisfy moral standards, but not before he witnesses Frances take a few shaky steps out of her chair. He goes to Hell a happy scientist, his hypothesis proved once and for all.

Bela Lugosi also played a series of mad scientist roles for Monogram in the early 1940s – as well as trailing his Dracula persona, he could do a convincing Nazi accent – proving there were plenty of variations on the main theme. In Black Dragon (1942) he’s a villainous plastic surgeon who carves up the faces of Japanese agents so they can pose as American businessmen. In The Corpse Vanishes (1942), he abducts young women to steal their blood – not to drink it, but for its rejuvenating properties. The Ape Man (1943) is a retread of themes in the earlier Karloff movie, killing in order to obtain human spinal fluid for his experiments. In the sequel-by-name-only, Return of The Ape Man (1943) he defrosts a Neanderthal (from a pile of cellophane as Monogram budgets didn’t run to giant blocks of ice) and tinkers with his brain, to disastrous effect.

The Mad Scientists of this era are represented, mostly, as morally broken men, whose destructive schemes must be stopped by good, normal citizens: popcorn entertainment aimed squarely at the servicemen and women marching into war. They also represented a triumph of the pulpit over the projector – the anti-science sentiments of religious leaders were effectively being reinforced through the negative depiction of science in horror movies. The anti-evolutionary faction were outraged at the idea that men were descended from beasts and fought to maintain a clear distinction between human (with a soul) and animal (without). Nonetheless, cultural fascination with the boundary between human and beast persisted. The figure of the primal, chest beating gorilla so prevalent in 1930s horror from King Kong to The Ape had lost some of its power to scare, however. There was a new threat in town.

Hungry Like The Wolf Man

Wolves were firmly enshrined in the zeitgeist by the 1940s: they functioned as potent symbols of the predatory, snarling, tear-each-other-to-pieces mood of the times. From early on in his career, Adolf Hitler identified with the iconography and legends of the wolf. The name 'Adolf' means "noble wolf" in Old German. He used "Herr Wolf" as a pseudonym during his initial forays into politics. Various Nazi party HQ were named for wolves - Wolfsschulcht (Wolf's Gulch) in France, Werwolf (Manwolf) in the Ukraine and Wolfsschanze (Wolf's Lair) in East Prussia. The SS were "my pack of wolves", he made his sister change her name to 'Paula Wolf' and his favourite secretary was one Johanna Wolf (he referred to her as 'Wölfin' (she-wolf).

“One of his favourite tunes came from a Walt Disney movie. Often and absent-mindedly he whistled "Who's Afraid of The big Bad Wolf?" —an animal, it will be recalled, who wanted to eat people up and blow their houses down."
—p27 The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler Robert G.L. Waite (Da Capo Press 1993)

The imagery he used caught on in not-so-flattering ways. Propagandists of the period habitually depicted him as the Big Bad Wolf of fairy tales, as demonstrated by this 1942 cartoon called Blitz Wolf.

BLITZ WOLF 1942 from Mark Boyce on Vimeo.

It seemed the marauding wolf typified the predators lurking in the corners of public consciousness. It's therefore no surprise that Universal, home of the iconic monsters of the 1930s, picked the Wolf as a go-to figure of menace for the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Werewolf of London (1935)

"The werewolf is neither man nor wolf but a satanic creature with the worst qualities of both."

This movie represents the first attempt by Hollywood to bring werewolf mythology to the big screen. Mannered and stylized, it contains some intriguing ideas about the nature of hybridization - and a very simian werewolf. It's most significant for the way in which it connects the Jekyll and Hyde mythology to the idea of transforming into a physical beast.

The moonlit prologue is set in Tibet, where botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon is searching for a rare plant, the mariphasa lumina lupina, a rare plant ("the phosphorescent wolf flower") that blooms only under moonlight. He discovers a specimen, but is bitten by a strange creature in the process of retrieving it.

The main action takes place in the London of the chattering classes. They're all busily flocking to a botanical exhibit, the 'Madagascar Plant', a carnivorous, tentacled, hairy creation that chews up mice and frogs (and bears no physical resemblance to the real pitcher plants of that island).

"Evolution was in a strange mood when that creation came along. It makes one wonder just where the plant world leaves off and the animal world begins." óDr. Yogami

Dr. Yogami accosts Glendon in the crowds beside the plant, and claims to remember him from a brief encounter in Tibet. He shares Glendon's interest in the mariphasa and is desperate to examine his colleague's specimens. His urgency seems most rude and unscientific until he lets slip that the mariphasa is the only known antidote to 'werewolfery', and that there are no less than two cases of lycanthrophobia [sic] known to him in London at that present moment. He tells a skeptical Wilfred that "these men are doomed, but for this flower".

Back home in his laboratory, Glendon tests Yogami's tip about moonlight and manages to get the mariphasa to bloom under an artificial moon simulation lamp. Unfortunately, a flower isn't the only new growth stimulated by the light as a fine coating of hair also sprouts on the back of Glendon's hand. He manages to make it disappear by applying mariphasa juice but warning bells are ringing in his ears, along with Yogami's warnings that the antidote is only temporary.

Glendon's slide into lycanthropy is all the more painful because he knows exactly how he is afflicted, and that there is worse to come. The initial symptoms are mild (aversion to bright light, hostility from the family cat) but a series of clever cuts (as he passes from room to room in his mansion) show his transformation into a hirsute, snaggle-toothed figure reminiscent of the "something troglodytic" Edward Hyde. When he discovers that Yogami has stolen his precious mariphasa blooms and there is no remedy for his condition, he runs off into the moonlight, snarling.

"...the werewolf must kill at least one human being each night or become permanently afflicted."

The headlines the following morning scream brutal murder ("Unidentified girl horribly mangled"), and Glendon is forced to confront the awful truth. This uptight, emotionally repressive, rigidly-mannered English gentleman has to acknowledge that he has an uncontrollable animal side and must take steps to restrain it. He also has to confront the truth about his crumbling marriage, as his wife takes increasingly defiant pleasure in gallivanting about London with an old flame, Paul Ames, and even in his wolf form, he is powerless to prevent this. He's doomed - all he can hope for is to die along with his infection, before he hurts anyone he loves.

Werewolf of London is very much about identity crisis, perhaps reflecting wider political concerns that the world was once again moving towards war, and that the old social order, based on rigid class and gender distinctions, was lost forever. Glendon begins the narrative as an impervious Englishman, serenely ordering his Tibetan lackeys around and operating under the assumption that he is entitled to wander in the demon-filled valley of the mariphasa, contrary to a number of warnings. Then, with one bite from a shadowy creature, his identity changes forever. His arrogance will be punished, fatally, and his view of himself and his place in the world transformed along with his hairline. He has some hard lessons to learn during his fall and he dies a humble penitent, begging forgiveness from his wife for his neglect.

The Wolf Man (1941)

Although there is a well established werewolf mythology extending back to the ancient world, there was no single established story (as with Dracula and the vampire myth) ripe for easy adaptation. It fell to screenwriter Curt Siodmak (who had fled the Nazi wolves himself in 1937) to pen a story to fit the title Universal had been knocking around for a while. The Wolf Man (1941) is a mishmash of several wolf legends, with added ingredients. Siodmak stirs pentagrams, gypsies, silver bullets and the full moon together to create a robust myth. It owes little to established European traditions, but established a new set of cinematic rules which Hollywood lycanthropes would adhere to for decades. Set in a contemporary Wales (where no one has ever heard of the war), the story follows Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) who returns to his ancestral home from America, only to become infected by a bite from a gypsy named Bela (Lugosi). With a starry cast including Claude Raines, and spectacular makeup and special effects, the picture was a big hit.

Never one to miss a trick, Universal followed this up with Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man in 1943. This sees a revived Wolfman (he was shot in the end of the first film) seeking the help of Dr Frankenstein to cure his lycanthropy. The good doctor has passed on, but Talbot instead runs into the frozen Monster (played this time, rather confusingly, by Bela Lugosi. It's even more confusing when you remember that Lon Chaney Jr played the monster in Ghost of Frankenstein 1942). There's a battle to the death between the Monster & the Wolfman – all good clean fun. It was a hit, and Universal really milked the sacred cow dry with House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945).

  • Once Bitten - Flick Filosopher article by Mary Ann Johanson
  • Detailed synopsis + some interesting comments re incest theme
  • House of Frankenstein spins the casting merry-go-round another couple of turns with Boris Karloff playing a mad scientist vowing to emulate Dr Frankenstein, cure Larry Talbot and reactivate the monster. He murders a carnival freak-show host, and then uses one of his horrors (Count Dracula) to try and murder his enemies – unfortunately Drac is zapped by the first rays of the sun. yes, they all die at the end, only to be revived for House of Dracula, which involves the Count and the Wolfman desiring to be cured of their foibles. They go & ask a kindly mad scientist, who inadvertently revives the Monster to complete the unholy triumvirate. They all die in the end, apart from the Wolfman, who, apparently cured, rides off into the sunset. The increasingly desperate (and ridiculous) combinations of monsters effectively killed this phase of the horror film. From lovingly-crafted masterpieces like Bride of Frankenstein”, the genre had totally devoured itself within a decade. It was only left to Abbott & Costello, in their series of horror parodies (Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) etc) to hammer the final nails into the coffin. The Universal Monsters (Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Monster) who had cast such terrifying shadows on their debut, would never be frightening again.

    • Full list of ...Meets..., Son/Daughter ofs and House Ofs

    Feline Alternatives

    While Universal was sliding further and further towards the bottom of the barrel, over at RKO, they were trying something new. Producer Val Lewton formed a "horror unit" that turned out a series of successful entries to the genre between 1942 and 1946. Lewton was a novelist and former story editor for David O. Selznick , and he eschewed "those mask-like faces, hardly human, with gnashing teeth and hair standing on end" of the Universal monsters in favour of suggestive shadows. He drew on literary source material, for a series of tight (under 75 minutes), low budget (less than $150,000) features starring former A-list players that were instant hits, and still chill today.

    Cat People (1942)

    Cat People follows the story of Irena, a young woman who carries with her the belief that she is cursed, and will turn into a large, dangerous cat if she consummates her marriage. A mainly psychological thriller, much is made of what lurks in the shadows (particularly in the famous swimming pool scene), and the audience is left to make up their own mind (unlike in the 1982 remake). It was a great success, earning $4M (off a $134k original budget) and was followed by The Curse of the Cat People in 1944. I Walked With a Zombie(1943) is often referred to as the "Voodoo Jane Eyre", as it mines Bronte's story for inspiration (Lewton had worked with Selznick 1944 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine). A naive young nurse new to the West Indies finds herself looking after a plantation owner's wife who may (or may not) be the subject of a curse. The Body Snatcher (1945), a non-Universal pairing of Karloff & Lugosi was billed as “The Screen's Last Word in Shock Sensation - the Hero of Horror joins forces with The Master of Menace”, it is in fact a measured exercise in psychological horror where the monsters are humans who have lost their moral compass. A truly amazing box set of Val Lewton movies on DVD is available —The Val Lewton Horror Collection (Cat People / The Curse of the Cat People / I Walked with a Zombie / The Body Snatcher / Isle of the Dead / Bedlam / The Leopard Man / The Ghost Ship / The Seventh Victim / Shadows in the Dark).

    The RKO movies pointed in the right direction, and have much in common with some of the horror thrillers of the 1990s. But it is the bloated, creaking, and well-flogged corpse of the Universal monster pictures that truly represents the ending of this first horror movie cycle. However, as any student of the supernatural will tell you, if a thing looks dead, that's the time to be most afraid, as you never know what might come shooting out from beneath the tombstone....