Hello class, for those that don’t know me, I am Dean Dismay. It is my pleasure to inform you that Professor Horrence had to leave on an emergency sabbatical. It seems the overtly kind nature of this class has taken a toll on the professor’s psyche and he requires some time off to… determine his mental state.
In the interim, you will have a substitute. She is one of the darkest rays of light to eclipse our doorways. I give you, Professor Rea Pugnance. I trust you will treat her with more disrespect than you did Professor Horrence. Thank you for your time. They’re all yours, Professor.
Hello everyone and thank you Dean Dismay, for the dismally devastating introduction. It is a huge dishonor to- and he’s leaving while I’m talking… Okay then.
Now that the old buzzard is gone, what do you say we loosen our ties, let down our hair and chill out a little, huh? You’ll find that I’m not the old school, doom and gloom bore that your old prof was. And I am certainly not the stick in the mud, fuddy-duddy that Dean What’s-his-face is, so you can all relax. Today we’re diving head first into the 1940s and let’s face it, that decade was a legit messed up time. The biggest war the world has ever seen was being fought, atomic weapons were being developed and used, and the OG “Big Bang Theory” was first introduced. In the midst of all of this craziness though, was a bumper crop of horror films. So open your textbooks to the next chapter and let’s see what all the hubbub was about with horror flicks of the fightin’ forties.
The Universal Juggernaut
Like the previous decade, Universal Studios continued their horror dominance. Stars like Lugosi, Karloff, and Chaney continued to light up the silver screen but a new guard was emerging as well. Lon Cheney Jr., the son of the late great Lon Chaney Sr., quickly became Universal’s newest leading man, after the untimely passing of his father. Chaney Jr.’s popularity was so huge that he surpassed his predecessors Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and even his famous father in mere months of his debut. In fact, in the entire decade, Junior made upwards of sixteen horror films for Universal. That’s a lot of screams!
The Wolf Man (1941), its sequels, and crossovers were a huge part of that popularity but other hits had a hand in it as well. A few of these titles included The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), taking over Boris Karloff in the role of the monster. He also took over for Karloff in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) as the titular character as well as the sequels The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse (both 1944). Other Chaney Jr. films of the decade include Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), House of Frankenstein (1944), Frozen Ghost (1945), Strange Confession (1945), House of Dracula (1945), and Pillow of Death (1945).
This, however, did not mean that the stars of old were out of the so-called picture. Both Lugosi and Karloff continued to work steadily into the ’40s with films such as Black Friday (1940), which starred both actors, The Black Cat (1941) starring Lugosi, The Night Monster (1942) another Lugosi project, and while The Wolf Man was Chaney’s vehicle, Lugosi played a part in it as well. Karloff was a busy man, as well. The Ape (1940), The Devil Commands (1941), The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942), and The Body Snatcher(1945) were just a few of the thirteen horror films Karloff performed in during the decade.
Universal Studios, it seemed, was deepening their talent pool as other actors beginning to make names for themselves. Future 50s, 60s and 70s horror legend Vincent Price cut his proverbial teeth in films like The Invisible Man Returns (1940) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Claude Rains, the 1930s star continued his ascent to movie stardom with turns in The Wolf Man with both Chaney Jr. and Lugosi and Phantom of the Opera (1943) with Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster. John Carradine also left his indelible horror mark in the 1940s. Films like House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein featured Carradine’s unique mug as well as Bluebeard (1944), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), Revenge of the Zombies (1943), Voodoo Man (1944), and The Face of Marble (1946).
Competition was Paramount
Paramount Pictures also continued into the 1940s will a slew of horror hits with the most popular being Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944). The film stars Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey and has been the first film to ever portray ghosts as real entities instead illusions or misunderstandings played for comedy. It depicts various supernatural phenomena, including disembodied voices, apparitions, and possession. But Paramount had more horror up their sleeves and some of those titles include The Ghostbreakers (1940), Dr. Cyclops (1940), The Mad Doctor (1941), The Monster and the Girl (1941) and The Unseen (1945).
Not to be forgotten are the RKO entries into the genre with several B-movie titles representing. I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Body Snatcher, and Cat People (1942) all kept moviegoers sleepless at night with the latter being named by the United States’ National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Other genre offerings from RKO include The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), Curse of the Cat People (1944) and Isle of the Dead (1945).
The British Invasion-ish & A (Dorian) Gray Area
America wasn’t the only country stirring up scares throughout the ’40s, in 1945, Great Britain contributed to the anthology horror film Dead of Night (1945) where guests at a country house take turns telling supernatural tales. Chamber of Horrors (1940), Candles at Nine (1944), The Ghost of Rashmon Hall (1947), and Fall of the House of Usher (1948) also had audiences shaking in the aisles proving that a country with almost perpetual rain and gloom really knows how to deliver a scare.
There is an arguable grey area when it comes to genre films. Some genres can blend into others and fit within multiple categories and, well, the 40s had its share of multi-genre films. Film noir, melodramas, and mysteries were all the rage in those days and some of those mystery and thriller films often bled over into the horror realm. Some these movies include The Spiral Staircase (1946) which tells the tale of a serial killer who targets mute and blind women; The Seventh Victim, a Hugh Beaumont (yep, Ward Cleaver himself) horror/noir story about a woman who stumbles upon a Satanic cult while searching for her missing sister; and The Lodger (1944), where a landlady suspects her new tenant might be Jack the Ripper.
As you can see, although a war raged in Europe and many countries were embattled within that war, the 1940s were cranking out horror films almost as fast as armories were cranking out ammo for the war movement. While Universal Studios still reigned supreme throughout the decade, it was clear that audiences loved to be scared and other studios like Paramount, MGM and RKO were starting to take notice.
Perhaps with all of the real horror happening in the world at the time, going to a horror movie was a sense of escape where audiences could find a release from the grip of day to day atrocities both abroad and at home. Either way, horror has been that very abdication from its inception and continues to do so to this very day.
Housekeeping and Such
That’s our time, class. I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. Thank you for your devilishly inattentive outbursts and your occasional fist fights. I’ll admit when the dean interviewed me for the position he made it sound like you all drove your last professor mad with your attentive behavior, respectful obedience and a blatant regard for proper education. But now I see that you’re all ruthless ingrates that only care about suffering and destruction of human will… and I couldn’t be prouder. We are going to get along famously!
Before you go, I’m supposed to ask you to do your required reading by visiting the campus’ Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram pages but I know you already do that so do whatever it is you do and I will see you next time. Be well and be weird, kids. Be well and weird.