[Horror History] Man vs. Animal, a Looming Terror (The 1940’s)


This is Part 4 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 as well

While the horror films of the 1930’s dealt in well-established fictional monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, werewolves, mummies, etc.), those of the 1940’s reflected the internationalization of the horror market. Americans looked at themselves a “safe,” separate from Europe, where everything was gradually descending into a frightening and uncontrollable chaotic mess. Banned in Britain, wartime horror movies became solely an American product. Of course, the U.S. did not remain separate and “pure.” A sense of duty and heritage regarding Europe keep creeping through the American shield. The pull of that link to the land of the nation’s ancestors eventually catapulted the States not only into war with Japan, but Germany as well. In the same way, many horror films of this decade deal with roots cracking through the ground–men and women becoming subject to the emergence of a primal, animal identity. You can even see this device used in Disney’s Pinocchio (1940), when the bad boys of Pleasure Island turn into donkeys.

You wanna hear something truly horrific? Listen to “Dominic the Donkey”

But it wasn’t donkeys posing a global threat at the outset of the 40’s. It was wolves. Adolf Hitler, though one could easily call him a jackass, identified strongly with legends and symbolism associated with wolves. His first name means “noble wolf” in the Old German tongue, and he was known to use “Herr Wolf” as a pseudonym for himself during his early political days. Various headquarters for the Nazi party were given names like Wolf’s Gulch (France), Manwolf (Ukraine), and Wolf’s Lair (Eastern Prussia). Hitler often referred to the SS as his “pack of wolves” and several sources, among those his favorite secretary Johanna Wolf (whom he called the “she-wolf”) report that he would absentmindedly whistle the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?” It should be recalled, of course, that the Big Bag Wolf is a character who whose desire is to consume people and destroy their homes.

Propagandists of the time were fond of depicting Hitler as the Big Bad Wolf of various fairy tales and fables. It seemed that the figure of the marauding wolf typified the predators that were lurking in the corners of the public consciousness. It is therefore no surprise that Universal, home of those now-iconic monsters of the 1930’s, picked the Wolf as the go-to specter of menace for their horror films of the early 1940’s.

After Son of Frankenstein (1939), Universal looked to their backlist for properties that could have sequels. The result was Vincent Price disappearing in The Invisible Man Returns (1940) and Tom Tyler bandaged up in The Mummy’s Hand (1941). But this wasn’t enough, so the new studio regime developed a fresh horror star in Creighton Chaney, son of their famous silent Quasimodo and better known under his working name, Lon Chaney, Jr. He had scored critical success for his portrayal of Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1939), so Universal decided to use a leftover script from their Karloff-Lugosi heyday to introduce Chaney, Jr. into their repertoire. The result, Man-Made Monster (1941), prompted director George Waggner to take on a more elaborate project to showcase the character talents of the new, burly Chaney.

“Blitz Wolf” was a short Disney cartoon from 1942 that featured the Three Little Pigs and Hitler in the role of the Big Bad Wolf

And so Chaney Jr. was cast as Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941), a film about an American schlub bitten by a Romani man in wolf form (Lugosi, symbolically passing on the “curse” and status of a horror star) while staying in Wales. He is eventually battered to death with a silver cane by his father (Claude Rains) at the conclusion of the well-mounted and ambitious script by Curt Siodmak, who had fled the Nazi wolves himself in 1937. The Wolf Man proved that Universal could still found horror franchises. Chaney Jr. was then shuffled around to play all of the greats. He took on the role of the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), the Mummy in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), and the vampiric count in Son of Dracula (1943). It’s hard to imagine he wasn’t burned when Waggner produced a lavish, Technicolor Phantom of the Opera (1943) and passed over Chaney Jr. to assume his father’s old role. The part of the Phantom was deemed too important to mess up, and so was given to Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man father figure, Claude Rains.

This new version of the masked theater dweller’s tale was as much musical melodrama as it was horror and is surprisingly mild compared to the silent version. The film was also unusually large scale for Universal in the 1940’s. They mostly stuck to making low-effort series horror the way other studios were making series westerns. There were ongoing sagas chronicling the eerie adventures of the Invisible Man and the Mummy and a three-picture series about Paula the Ape Woman kickstarted with Captive Wild Woman (1943), again pinpointing the cultural fear of man (and woman) overcome by baser, primal instincts that lead to disaster. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, signed over from Fox, played Holmes and Watson respectively in a series of twelve modern-day mysteries all directed by Roy William Neill (except Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), directed by John Rawlins). Many of these featured supernatural elements, particularly The Scarlet Claw (1944) and The House of Fear (1945). These films soon led to spin-offs starring the monsters that Holmes defeated. Real life acromegalic Rondo Hatton, the “Creeper” from The Pearl of Death (1944) became a regular mad lab assistant in an Ape Woman sequel and got vehicles for success in House of Horrors (1946) and The Brute Man (1946). Gale Sondergaard, the black widow of The Spider Woman (1944), returned as a similar villainess, with Hatton as her minion, in The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1945). Chaney, Jr. starred in six Inner Sanctum mysteries, often in unsuitably intellectual roles, as when he plays a college professor in Weird Woman (1944). There were also a few standalones whose familiar sets, players (Karloff, Atwill, Lugosi, etc.), and storylines makes it seem like they were series efforts that never took flight, namely Black Friday (1940), Night Monster (1942), The Mad Ghoul (1943), and She-Wolf of London (1946).

The most significant Universal horror in terms of franchise was Neill’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), a dual sequel to Ghost of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man in which Lugosi (whose brain–spoiler alert–was put in Chaney’s skull at the end of Ghost) plays the Monster and Chaney, Jr. returns as the cursed Talbot. In House of Frankenstein (1944), Dracula (John Carradine) joined up, Lugosi was ditched in favor of bulky Glenn Strange, and Karloff returned to play a distinguished mad scientist. House of Dracula (1945) lost Karloff, but is otherwise the same deal. These monster rallies remain endearing to fans of the classics, not least for the strange twists of plotting that get around the monsters’ seemingly permanent deaths and contrive to bring them together for yet another rumble. They don’t, however, make much of an effort at being terrifying, and were screened mostly at children’s matinees. The end result, however, was one of the first truly great horror-comedies, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), in which Universal’s premier vaudeville comics run into Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man, Strange’s Monster, and in what was to be his last turn in the role, Lugosi’s Dracula. The pair’s later run-in movies with the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and Jekyll and Hyde aren’t as funny as they should be, but the comedians are spot on in earlier haunted house flick Hold That Ghost (1941).

Who’s on First? F**king Frankenstein’s Monster!

At this point, the days of the lovingly crafted Bride of Frankenstein (1935) were over. The horror genre had devoured itself like the feral creatures it played up so much in the early 1940’s. The series of Abbott and Costello parodies put the final nails in the coffin for this era of horror films, forever resigning Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Monster to sequel fodder. Those monsters who had been so terrifying on their debuts the prior decade would not be frightening again for a long time to come. Meanwhile, the B studios were cashing in on Universal’s comedy-horror act with lookalike efforts. Columbia signed Karloff to a run of “mad doctor” movies like The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) before landing Lugosi and his werewolf minion (Matt Willis) in their own monster mash-up picture, Return of the Vampire (1943). Fox and Paramount felt obliged to produce a white slavery/gorilla brain transplant story with The Monster and the Girl (1941) and a foggy werewolf whodunnit, The Undying Monster (1942). It seemed that if it wasn’t werewolves, it was brains being switched or tampered with, a person made into something they are not, something twisted, devilish, cruel…wolf-like. Then, down on Poverty Row, Monogram kept Lugosi on retainer for The Invisible Ghost (1941) and its eight sequels, and inadvertently addressed subversive societal issues of the times surrounding race and class with King of the Zombies (1941) and Revenge of the Zombies (1943). Studios loved having their comedians mix with ghouls and spooky specters in old dark houses with secret passageways, and that alone became the premise of a whole slew of horror-comedies like You’ll Find Out (1940), Whistling in the Dark (1941), The Smiling Ghost (1941), Topper Returns (1941), One Body Too Many (1944), Ghost Catchers (1944), and Genius at Work (1946).

In contrast to all of this cheap bustle, RKO hired Val Lewton to produce their own small-scale horror pictures and got a clutch of polished, doom-haunted, poetic little masterpieces in Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), Isle of the Dead (1945), The Body Snatcher (1945), and Bedlam (1946). Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, or Robert Wise, the Lewton films are literate, adult, and sophisticated, especially when set beside their competition. But the main reason they worked for the audiences of the 1940’s is that they are also serious about being scary in a way that Universal had given up on. The stalking scenes in Central Park and the basement pool sequence in Cat People are models of a style of horror cinema that Lewton would perfect, a style that would become the basis of the stalk-and-slash films of the 1970’s and beyond. The Lewton films also spill more gore than their average counterparts–the trickle of blood under the door in The Leopard Man was an especial shock at the time. They also emphasize extreme emotional states, like the neglected daughter driven nearly to murder in The Curse of the Cat People. Almost all of Lewton’s films had to do with vicious animal urges taking over the human form, though some of his later films that were produced as war grew imminent were measured exercises in psychological terror that revealed the true monsters of the world to be human beings who had lost their moral compass. That Lewton had hit on a style and formula that worked is proved by the way others tried to imitate his art. After Cat People, Columbia managed its own effects-free “subtle” horror with Cry of the Werewolf (1943), and Lewtonesque tricks could be seen in The Soul of a Monster (1944) and The Woman Who Came Back (1945) as well.

As far as intelligent, well produced, carriage-trade horror goes, Lewton wasn’t alone. MGM had Victor Fleming, a hero on the strength of his acclaimed direction of both Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). He mounted a big budget remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) as a showcase for Spencer Tracy’s dual performance and received the full Metro glamor treatment for co-stars Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, playing an abused Soho waitress and Jekyll’s fiancée, respectively. This was followed by other fogbound literary properties with bravura acting and careful production values: The Lodger (1944), starring Laird Cregar as Jack the Ripper, Gaslight (1944), with Bergman persecuted again, and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). During the war and its aftermath, there was a run of near-benevolent supernatural films like A Guy Named Joe (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). But sometimes the specters were anything but friendly. Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944) feels like an homage to Lewton, particularly in the casting of Elizabeth Russell, Lewton’s favorite, as the wispy, malevolent spirit (who happens to be a “nasty” lesbian, to boot). The Uninvited was groundbreaking and incredibly influential, still standing as the model for many, many tales in which nice folks buy a picturesque, remote house and are pestered by ghosts, which then prompts an investigation into the cause of the haunting and a climactic exorcism. From Britain, mostly neglectful of the horror film while fighting against real life monsters, came Ealing Studio’s multi-directed Dead of Night (1945), the grandfather of the horror anthology, best remembered for its haunted mirror and mad ventriloquist sequences. It was highly influential in its use of the frame narrative with twists and mixes of moods from supernatural anecdote to clubroom comedy to all-out psychological terror.

Chucky ain’t got nothing on Hugo

Some horror scholars say that the greatest mystery of the genre is that in the late 1940’s, just as in the late 30’s, the horror film completely died out seemingly without warning. In the 30’s, the decline is almost entirely down to the unique circumstances of the British horror censorship. For the 40’s, some have suggested that after Abbott and Costello it became impossible for moviegoers to take the monsters seriously, but this glosses over that the comedians didn’t “meet” Frankenstein and co. until 1948 when the genre was already withering away. It could equally be argued that after the third or fourth sequel, it was difficult to surprise or startle audiences with the same creatures over and over again, only to seem them “vanquished” and resurrected within the year for another outing. Whatever the reason, between 1947 and 1951, Hollywood produced almost no true horror films. The Creeper (1948), Jean Yarbrough’s weird mélange of Lewton shadows and mad science, is perhaps the only notable exception. Maybe overproduction killed the genre, but hollow copycat Westerns were being churned out in even greater numbers without shaking the appetite of cowboy fans. Comparatively, there are 5 films in Universal’s original Kharis the Mummy series, which most fans describe as repetitive and formulaic; there are 51 completely interchangeable Three Musketeers pictures from the same era. Mind-boggling. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that after World War II, gothic horror was upstaged by real-life genocides and atrocities. And yet, the First World War had proved a potent inspiration for the Expressionist horrors of the 1920’s and 30’s, lingering subliminally in the films of F.W. Murnau (a fighter pilot) and James Whale (a P.O.W.).

The irony is that, in the late 1940’s, American screens were as shadowed and haunted as they had ever been, but not in actual horror movies. Film noir entered the public consciousness at this time, a genre that was diagnosed rather than invented. French critics had looked at the stream of American films, mostly thrillers and melodramas, and labelled them as noir, in reference to their overwhelming darkness in both imagery and subject matter. Lewton’s horror films could also double as early noir templates, and Jacques Tourneur went from Cat People to what is widely regarded as his film noir masterpiece, Out of the Past (1948). Other personnel made similar shifts. Robert Siodmark, Curt’s brother, helmed the gloomy and unusual Son of Dracula, in which a woman wants to be bitten by the count, as well as the early psycho-suspense horror The Spiral Staircase (1946). He also produced a number of noir films with heavy, heavy horror elements: The Phantom Lady (1943), The Killers (1946), The Dark Mirror (1946), etc. Edward Dymtryk moved from Captive Wild Woman to Murder, My Sweet (1944), the first major adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s work. While Karloff and Lugosi were tied too closely to castles and laboratories, Peter Lorre segued easily from horror to noir roles, reprising his M (1931) act as a sorrowful, psychotic killer in what might be the first truly proper noir, Stranger on the Third Floor (1940).

All of these were films about a looming evil. Scenes steeped in gloom, scores that pulsed with foreboding atmosphere and dread. Many viewed them as the embodiment of the last decade, dark forays into the atrocities that had gripped the globe and unleashed those feral, wolf-like creatures in the early 1940’s who were responsible for so much cruelty and damage. The noir films worked hard to do horror’s job in a less direct but still compelling manner while the genre was on hiatus. Because 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…

Next up, Part 5 examines the fear of nuclear fallout and beasts beyond measure in the creature features of the 1950’s

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.