1940s Horror Movies

The Body Snatcher 1945

Horror Eats Itself

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.

Read More About the Rise of Film Censorship in the 1930s here >>>>>>

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 and the scientists’ onscreen experiments had to become markedly less grotesque than they had been in the early 1930s (see: The Island of Lost Souls and Murders in the Rue Morgue). 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).

Despite the existence of a very successful adaptation just 10 years earlier, MGM decided the continuing fascination with mad scientists meant the time was ripe for another screen version of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They bought the rights to the Paramount-produced, Rouben Mamoulian-directed 1931 movie (effectively suppressing it until the 1980s) and attached a significant wattage of the fabled MGM star power: Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Lana Turner in the main roles, with Victor Fleming directing.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Shall I never be happier in my work? Will I ever get a better part than the little girl Ivy Petersen, a better director than Victor Fleming, a more wonderful leading man than Spencer Tracy, and a better cameraman than Joe Ruttenberg? I have never been happier. Never have I given myself so completely… It is as if I were flying.” – Ingrid Bergman’s personal journal, 1941

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 1941
Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941)

The post-Code version of the familiar tale tones down the SFX make-up and dials up the melodrama. Spencer Tracy famously hated being asked to play the role (no actor wants to rehash a part for which someone else won an Oscar) and refused to wear elaborate make-up to show the difference between the good Dr. Jekyll and the depraved Edward Hyde. As a result of this and a muted performance, his mad scientist is more morally self-indulgent than blasphemous. As with the 1920 and 1931 versions, this movie expresses the Jekyll/Hyde duality by giving the protagonist two, very different love interests.

Lana Turner is good girl Beatrix, whisked off to Europe by her Daddy as soon as he picks up the slightest hint that something might be off with her scientific fiancé. Left to cool his horny heels, Dr. Jekyll transforms himself into Hyde so he can seduce barmaid Ivy (Ingrid Bergman). His brutality towards Ivy provides the main horror of the movie and all the best scenes are between Bergman and Tracy. He separates her from her job and support network, traps her in a gilded apartment, and treats her like a plaything – all the textbook abusive relationship moves. When Beatrix returns, he tries to be a nice guy again, but cannot shake his inner abuser.

As many movie producers have discovered to their cost since then, adding big-budget names to a horror movie doesn’t necessarily make it a hit.  The New York Times called it a

preposterous mixture of hokum and high-flown psychological balderdash… For around Robert Louis Stevenson’s frightening fable of good and evil, John Lee Mahin, who wrote the screenplay, and Victor Fleming, who directed it, have created a Grand Guignol chiller with delusions of grandeur, a nightmare interpreted by a reader of tea leaves, a mulligan stew hidden under an expensive souffle. In a daring montage or two, which must have caught the censors dozing, a weary Freud is dragged in by the coat-tails.

The glossy production values of the movie were appreciated in some quarters, however, and it was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Music Scoring). Thanks to the starry cast, and the fact that MGM kept the earlier Paramount version under wraps, it did become the definitive screen version of the story for many years.

At the other end of the scale Poverty Row studio, Monogram churned out a series of mad scientist B-movies in the early 1940s. As befits Monogram’s bargain budget reputation, special effects were limited to a couple of hypodermic syringes and a white coat for the villain. However, they contracted Karloff and Legosi to take turns with the coat and syringes. The icons’ names on the marquee guaranteed modest returns for Monogram and some piquant moments for modern-day fans.

The Ape (1940)

TheApe1940
The Ape, 1940

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.

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 – he had recently fled Germany and was all too aware of how it feels to be the stranger in town. 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.

Return of the Ape Man (1943)
Return of the Ape Man (1943)

Paula, The Ape Woman (1943-5)

It’s different for girls. Universal flipped the human-degenerating-to-ape narrative in a trilogy about “the Gorilla girl”, a circus ape named Cheela who is given a partial human brain transplant plus “glands” by out-of-control endocrinologist, Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine). In the first installment, Captive Wild Woman (1943) Cheela transforms into the beautiful Paula Dupree (played by the Native American Acquanetta), who Walters manages to brainwash into doing his bidding – until she kills him. Over the course of this movie and the two sequels, Jungle Woman (1944) and The Jungle Captive (1945) Paula shifts back and forth between her gorilla and human forms, courtesy of her own raging hormones and the interference of dastardly endocrinologists. Perhaps because of the heavy reliance on stock footage in the first two movies, or because audiences weren’t ready for a female shapeshifter, the Ape Woman movies never really gained a foothold in public consciousness and remain a footnote to this part of the Universal cycle.

Jungle Woman (1944)
Jungle Woman (1944)

The Mad Scientists of this era are represented, mostly, as morally broken men, whose destructive schemes are inherently deviant and 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 was 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 animal persisted. Although 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, 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 favorite secretary was 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 by 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.

The predatory Wolf gradually replaced the specter of the evolutionary Ape as the Beast Within. It’s no surprise that Universal, home of the iconic monsters of the 1930s, picked the Wolf as their new go-to figure of menace for the late 1930s and early 1940s – although the execution of the werewolf in The Wolf Man (see images below) doesn’t leave the ape too far behind.

The Wolf Man (1941)

The Wolf Man 1941 Lon Chaney
The Wolf Man (1941)

Although there is a well-established werewolf mythology extending back to the ancient world, there was no single story (as with Dracula and the vampire myth) ripe for easy adaptation. The Werewolf of London (1935) introduced the idea of the Wolf Man to the screen, but it failed to capture the zeitgeist. Six years later, Screenwriter Curt Siodmak (who had fled the Nazi wolves himself in 1937) to was asked for an original take. Originally titled Destiny,  The Wolf Man (1941) is a mishmash of several wolf legends, with added ingredients. Siodmak stirs pentagrams, fortunetellers, silver bullets, father-son angst, and the full moon into the monster mix to create a robust new myth. It owes little to established European (or even Native American) traditions about were-creatures but established a new set of cinematic rules which Hollywood lycanthropes would follow for decades to come.

Set in a contemporary, wolf-infested 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 after a period of estrangement. He soon adapts to life in the village, rebuilding his relationship with his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) and beginning a romance with a pretty local girl, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). Just when it looks as though he’ll assimilate into the family tradition without any problems, he takes Gwen and her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) to the carnival where they encounter a fortune teller (Bela Lugosi). The mysterious European sees a pentagram in Jenny’s palm – Siodmak invents this as a sign the owner of the palm is going to be killed by a werewolf. Later, the fortuneteller transforms into a wolf and attacks Jenny. Larry, wielding his silver-headed cane, beats the wolf to death but is bitten in the process. Modern audiences are all-too-familiar with what happens next, but Larry’s slow descent into werewolfhood, aided by 20 layers of Jack Pierce’s meticulous yak hair SFX make-up, offered a startling and unsettling spectacle to 1941 audiences.

Pierce & Chaney on set of The Wolf Man (1941)
Jack Pierce and Lon Chaney on the set of The Wolf Man (1941)

The long hours in the make-up chair proved to be a worthwhile career investment for Lon Chaney Jr. Prior to this, he’d never quite stepped out of his father’s shadow as an actor, but The Wolf Man put him on the horror icon map – and kept him in steady work for the next few years. The movie arrived in theatres two days after the Pearl Harbor attacks and, despite some concerns from Universal that the jittery American public would stay away, was a huge hit grossing a respectable $2.4 million  (according to UMR) from a $180,000 budget.


Universal’s Monster Go Round

Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942)
Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942)

As well as becoming a standalone hit, The Wolf Man, along with newly minted star Lon Chaney Jr., kickstarted a new set of monster mashups from Universal. Eager to further monetize their IP by yoking Chaney to their existing franchises, the studio cast him as the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and as the Count in Son of Dracula (1943).

Set in another mythical village, Vasaria, Ghost of Frankenstein picks up from the end of Son of Frankenstein, with Bela Lugosi once again playing Ygor. Ygor has nowhere else to go so he remains in the Castle, sitting loyally by the hardened lump of volcanic sulphur containing the mortal remains of the Monster. When the local pitchfork-and-torches crew shows up for another razing, they succeed only in blasting the Monster free. Delighted, Ygor takes the Monster to his old boss’s brother, who is, conveniently, also interested in the niche medical field of reanimation. Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) wants to draw a line between his own work (swapping brains from one body to another) and his father and brother’s monster-making activities. However, he’s sucked in by the idea that, if he could replace the criminal brain currently festering inside the Monster’s skull with one from a more benign donor, he might be able to redeem both the creature and his family reputation. This is somewhat optimistic on his part.

Universal followed up with a catch-all sequel to both The Wolf Man AND Ghost of FrankensteinFrankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943. Once again scripted by Siodmak, this features a revived Wolf Man (restored to life by the sacrifice of hapless graverobbers in the atmospheric opening set piece) seeking a cure for his lycanthropy. After a brief stint in hospital where he confesses guilt over his past murderous ways to Dr. Frank Mannering (Patric Knowles),  Talbot journeys to Vasaria, where he discovers the good doctor Ludwig has passed on. However, he locates and frees the Monster (played this time by Bela Lugosi) who has somehow managed to freeze himself inside a giant block of ice – this is never explained, but the same device is used in Return of the Ape Man also starring Lugosi that year. Perhaps it’s related to the ice-based news stories emerging about the horrifying experiences of servicemen in Greenland during 1942-43, which must have made the idea of being frozen inside a block of ice a particularly resonant one to war-ravaged audiences.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943)
Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943)

The narrative focuses mainly on Talbot as he continues to hunt for another member of the Frankenstein clan who might be able to help him, Ludwig’s daughter Elsa (Ilona Massey). However, his progress is hindered by the arrival of Dr. Mannering, who’s tracked the werewolf through Europe, and the Monster, who’s intent on causing trouble for Talbot. Despite his dominant billing on the poster image, this is not the Monster’s finest outing. Lugosi was a fragile 60 years old by this point and wasn’t up to a lot of the physical demands of the role. So, encased in the Monster’s trademark make-up, stuntmen Eddie Parker and Gil Perkins did much of the literal and figurative heavy lifting, including the epic fight scene between Wolf Man and the Monster.  Then, during post-production, all the Monster’s dialogue was cut – possibly because Siodmak’s lines – especially delivered with Lugosi’s Hungarian accent – were too close an echo of the kind of speeches about world domination spewing from the leaders of the Third Reich.

House of Frankenstein (1944)
House of Frankenstein (1944)

House of Frankenstein (1944) AKA The Devil’s Brood spins the casting merry-go-round another couple of turns with Boris Karloff as Dr. Gustav Neimann, whose goal is to emulate Dr. Frankenstein, cure Larry Talbot (as always, Lon Chaney Jr) and reactivate the Monster (relegated to a minor role and played by Glenn Strange). Neimann murders a carnival freak-show host, and then uses one of his horrors (Dracula – John Carradine) to try and murder his enemies – unfortunately Drac is zapped by the first rays of the sun, only to be revived for the next monster rally, House of Dracula (1945), which involves the Count and the Wolfman seeking a cure. Enter another kindly mad scientist, who inadvertently revives the Monster to complete the unholy triumvirate. They all die in the end, apart from the Wolfman who, curse lifted, rides off into the sunset.

The increasingly contrived combinations of monsters and the repeated pattern of death and resurrection as the sequels flowed into one another effectively killed the Universal cash cow. From its origins in the lovingly-crafted masterpieces of the early 1930s, the genre managed to devour itself in just over a decade. It was left to comedians Abbott & Costello, in their series of horror parodies (Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) etc) to hammer the final nails into the coffin. They didn’t even mess with casting, utilizing Bela Legosi as the Count and Glenn Strange as the Monster. 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

RKO’s 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 favor of suggestive shadows and psychological drama. He drew on literary source material for a series of B-movies starring former A-list players that were instant hits and still chill today. Highlights include:

Cat People (1942)

Cat People (1942)
Cat People (1942)

Cat People is 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 written by DeWitt Bodeen and directed by Jacque Tourneur, 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)

I Walked With A Zombie (RKO, 1943)

I Walked With a Zombie(1943) is often referred to as the “Voodoo Jane Eyre”, as it mines Bronte’s story for inspiration (Lewton worked with Selznick on the 1944 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine). Lewton became intrigued by an article published in American Weekly in May, 1942, in which travelling newspaper columnist Inez Wallace recounted a strange encounter.

On a trip through the West Indies, Wallace was fascinated by the stories she heard from locals about zombies – people drugged by their enemies so they appear to be dead, who can then be resurrected after the funeral and, their mind utterly scrambled, be put to work in the fields. She was longing to see one for herself. “One sultry afternoon” in Haiti she did, “just standing” in a field:

He was the most forlorn figure I have ever seen. Almost in rags, it appeared that he had tried to put on all the clothes he could find, although the day was stifling. His face… was a sickly gray – like fresh Russian caviar and his skin, drawn tight over his bones, resembled old parchment.”

I Saw A Zombie (American Weekly, May 3, 1942)

Lewton knew he wanted to make a movie about this phenomenon, but it took several tries to get the right screen story based on Wallace’s handful of pages. Curtis Siodmak and Ardel Wray added the ‘madwoman in the attic’ angle to create romantic intrigue. Frances Dee plays a naive young nurse, Betsy, new to the West Indies. She’s employed to care for a plantation owner’s wife who may (or may not) be the subject of a curse. Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) exists in a vegetable state, unable to dress herself, but she occasionally wanders round as if in a trance. Betsy vows to do what she can to restore her patient – and impress the plantation owner, Paul(Tom Conway), with whom she is falling in love. Unfortunately, Betsy has no idea about the powerful forces she is up against.

I Walked With A Zombie (1943)
Title: I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE ´ Pers: DEE, FRANCES ´ Year: 1943 ´ Dir: TOURNEUR, JACQUES ´ Ref: IWA001AP ´ Credit: [ RKO / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

Once again, Lewton made the most of limited resources and created a chilling atmosphere with light and shadow, frightening the audience with the possibilities of what lay just off screen as well as what was happening on it.

The Body Snatcher (1945)

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”.  Directed by Robert Wise, it’s much more of a psychological thriller that measures how humans abandon their moral compass in just a few innocuous steps, and can rarely find their way back to the path. Karloff is chilling as coachman John Gray, who delivers fresh corpses to Edinburgh’s doctors “to order”, aided and abetted by his assistant Joseph (Lugosi). Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) has been using Gray’s body snatching services for a while, so the story concerns the moral dilemma of his talented young student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade).

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 Uninvited (1944)

The Uninvited (1944)
The Uninvited (1944)

Paramount made a rare foray into the horror genre with The Uninvited, a quirky and multilayered adaptation of Dorothy Macardle’s novel Uneasy Freehold. Although it was obviously an attempt to emulate the success of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), the movie went beyond implying that there might be something supernatural lurking behind the doors of Windward House and is framed as an unashamed ghost story.

Siblings Rick and Pam make an impulse buy while on holiday in Cornwall: the clifftop Windward House. While it’s certainly a steal at £1200, they didn’t realize the previous occupant, a ghostly presence that slams doors, chills rooms, cries in the night and decays bunches of roses, has no intention of moving out. Their arrival at Windward throws events of a couple of decades earlier into relief. The young couple living there, the Merediths, were deeply unhappy and the wife, Mary Meredith, plunged to her death from the cliff, leaving a daughter, Stella, who now lives next door with her grandfather. It appears to be Mary’s spirit that’s haunting the new arrivals. Assisted by the local physician, Dr. Scott, Rick and Pam unravel the web of misery Mary was trapped in when alive – her husband was sleeping with his artist’s model, Carmel – and uncover the truth about Stella’s parentage. On the way, the plot touches on some clearly nonheteronormative relationships (the siblings; Stella and her grandfather; Mary, Carmel, and Miss Holloway) but, like Rebecca, keeps the forbidden desires largely unspoken, burying them deep in the subtext out of the reach of the censors.

The Uninvited spooked audiences of the time with ectoplasmic special effects – these frames were usually the ones cut by censors. However, no censor could chop out the deeply unsettling atmosphere of the long-empty house or the emotional resonance of the tragedy that occurred within its walls and the true horror of the movie lay deep within these elements. The Uninvited was a box office and critical hit and, while it lost out to Laura for its only Oscar nomination (Best Black and White Photography), its success meant that ghosts – actual, supernatural entities rather than human tricks or treats – were a solid bet to drive future horror narratives.


The RKO movies pointed in a new direction for the genre, the psychological scare, and this trend would continue well into the 1960s. Ghosts, once they got a hold of audience’s imaginations, would never go away. As the creaking corpses of the Universal monsters were defrosted/resurrected two or three times too many to ever be credible again, the monster paradigm was shifting. The old familiar faces trading cement mixer’s boots, yak-hair make-up, and a flowing opera cape between dressing rooms no longer had what it takes. The mad scientists weren’t going away. World War Two had generated enough real-life horrors to keep them gainfully employed onscreen for decades – including the delicious new threat of atomic mutation – and there was a new kid blasting onto the block. Thanks to two incidents that made headlines in June 1947 (the Roswell “weather balloon” wreckage and Kenneth Arnold’s “flying disc” sighting), aliens from outer space crash-landed into the zeitgeist.

Or perhaps people were learning to be afraid of communists, or whoever else might be hiding under their suburban bed…


Further Reading


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