Part II of my An Incomplete History of Horror Films.
The end of the 1930s saw horror films become more and more popular as well as help turn stars like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff among others into household names. The 1940s saw a many sequels and spin offs to classic Universal Studios monsters with Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Mummy all returning in more films which helped build on their popularity.
The Wolf Man (1941): Directed by George Waggner and starring Lon Chaney, Jr in the title role. Larry Talbot returns to his ancestral home in Wales after learning of the death of his brother. One night, Larry tries to save a friend from a wolf attack but ends up getting himself bit. A gypsy woman tells Larry he has been bitten by a werewolf and that he is now cursed.
While not the first ever werewolf film, this is the film that put in place much of the werewolf lore we know of today as the film combined several werewolf legends into one film. Pentagrams, gypsies, silver bullets and even the full moon were all mingled together to create the modern myth of the werewolf on film that is still used today. The film is also famed for its use of groundbreaking make up and effects work at the time. The time lapse effect used to show Lon Chaney, Jr transform from human to werewolf was only displayed on screen for a few seconds, but in reality, it took almost 10 hours to film that effect with all the make up applications. This film really is an all time classic and if you want to see the birth of the modern werewolf legend, then this is the film to watch.
Cat People (1942): This was based on the short story; The Bagheeta by Val Lewton. The film was directed by Jacques Tourneur for RKO Pictures. While Universal was riding high with the success of the monster films, other film studios like RKO wanted to try something a little different. Irena Dubrovna is a young fashion designer who believes she had been put under a curse and that she will turn into a dangerous cat-like creature if she consummates her marriage.
Unlike Universal’s big monster movies, this film is more subtle and is more of a psychological thriller/horror. It is famed for is dark and moody atmosphere as well as two particular, well shot scenes involving a bus and a swimming pool. A very downbeat film with a bleak but fitting ending. RKO would carry on this formula through the 40s of a different, more subtle horror film and Cat People even got its own sequel; The Curse of the Cat People (1944).
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943): Universal Studios team up two of their most famous monsters in what is the first ever ‘vs/meets’ ensemble horror film. Directed by Roy William Neill. Larry Talbot (The Wolf Man) is accidentally brought back from the dead and travels to Frankenstein’s castle in an attempt to end his curse. While exploring the castle’s catacombs, Larry finds Frankenstein’s monster.
Lon Chaney, Jr. returns to play Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man and Bela Lugosi (famous for playing Dracula) is Frankenstein’s Monster. This is the film that kicked off the ensemble horror film that still occasionally gets used in modern day. Alas, Universal also ran the idea into the ground in the 40s with films like; House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and even trying a more comedic slant with; Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). This is a decent enough film and is well made, but to be honest, the whole monster thing was getting a bit tired at this point. As through the 40s, Universal churned out monster movie after monster movie and audiences wanted something different.
Dead of Night (1945): Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer and Basil Dearden. This was quite a rarity at the time as it was a horror anthology film telling five separate stories all wrapped up in a connecting narrative. The stories include; a racing driver’s premonition about a fatal crash, a children’s Christmas party with a ghostly visitor, a haunted antique mirror, a tongue in cheek story of two obsessed golfers and a tale about an unbalanced ventriloquist. There is also the framing story with a twist ending.
Not only was this a breath of fresh air in the midst of all the monster movies, it was also a British horror film. This stands out as horror films had been banned from production in Britain during the war. The idea of the horror anthology came to become very popular in the 1960s 70s and 80s (coming up later) and this film left quite a legacy as several of its stories were reworked for later films and TV shows. Director Martin Scorsese considers Dead of Night as one of the scariest horror films of all time. This is a fantastic film with the stand out story being the Ventriloquist’s Dummy starring Michael Redgrave.
The mid to latter part of the 1940s kind of got a bit bland when it comes to horror films. There were a handful of sequels/spin offs to Universal’s monster films and some fairly decent films like; Isle of the Dead (1945), House of Horrors (1946) and Scared to Death (1947). But the monster movie was slowly dying off and by the 1950s people were no longer scared by Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man, etc as they had witnessed the real horrors of World War II. With over 40 million people killed, the monsters shown on the big screen lacked the punch they once had. People lived in fear of something else… the atom bomb. Seeing/hearing about things like the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 changed the world forever and cinema with it. The bombings made film goers fear something more grounded than make-believe monsters, they feared science and the people behind it. The infamous Roswell UFO incident also occurred in 1947 and gave the public another thing to worry about… aliens. The 1950s horror films started to reflect this with the rise of the crazy scientist, nuclear energy, advanced technology and ‘visitors’. Sci-Fi horror was born. The 50s marked the decline of the top grade horror movie (though they were still being made) and classic movie monsters began to slowly die out as the the drive-in B-movie began to rise.
House of Wax (1953): A remake of; Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) only with a much darker tone. Directed by André de Toth and starring the legend that was Vincent Price. Henry Jarrod is a highly talented wax figure sculptor with his own wax museum. Jarrod’s business partner sets fire to the museum intending to claim on the insurance and Jarrod is left to die in the fire. Jarrod survives, but with severe injuries that prevent him from sculpting… but that doesn’t stop him creating an all new wax museum.
The film was originally released in 3D and was in fact the first ever colour 3D film released by an American studio. Vincent Price is amazing in this film as you feel sympathy for him, but also fear him at the same time. He’s a man that has been wronged and seeks vengeance… and he gets it. The film has a hell of an exciting ending that will leave you hot under the collar.
The War of the Worlds (1953): With aliens and UFOs being reported in the newspapers, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood took advantage. Loosely based on the classic H. G. Wells novel and directed by Byron Haskin. You all know this story, Martians invade Earth and begin to decimate the planet to destroy humanity while humans (particularly scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester) try to find a weakness in the invaders.
This film takes quite a few liberties over its source material with many huge changes to not only the setting, but also the characters and plot. The movie is fondly remembered and its influence can still be found in similar films made today. One of the all time classics of cinema that latched onto the fears the general public had at the time, even nuclear weapons make an appearance in the film. The alien invasion film was very popular in the 1950s and this was one of the stand out efforts.
Godzilla (1954): The film that captured the fear and aftermath of the atomic bombings of 1945 like no other. Directed by Ishirō Honda, this film took the concepts of monster films to a new level by mirroring the devastation of real life events. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka stated that, “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.” A huge, 165 foot tall ancient sea creature attacks Japan after being awoken via nuclear weapons testing.
If King Kong was the pioneer of the big monster movie (and it was), then Godzilla is a very, very close second. Coming from the same country that saw the devastation of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 first hand, its hard not to see the intended parallels. Godzilla’s attacks on Japan clearly mirror the fear and destruction of the bombs. Godzilla is the physical manifestation of an atom bomb attack and the fact Godzilla is woken by nuclear weapon testing is more then just a coincidence… and he also has an atomic breath that destroys buildings.
Them! (1954): Giant ‘nuclear’ creature films became popular in the 1950s and this was one of the first that kick started the trend. Directed by Gordon Douglas, this film took the fears the public had at the time about nuclear energy and mixed it with the big ‘creature feature’ films that were starting to become popular. Taking something as innocent as an ant and turning it into a feared gargantuan became a trend setter. In the New Mexico dessert, a nest of gigantic irradiated ants is discovered and a battle between the giant ants and the humans begins.
Even today, this film is regarded as one of the best Sci-fi horror films of the 1950s. Its a well remembered classic and rightly so too. Often copied, but never bettered. Other similar films were released through the 50s like; Tarantula (1955), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Deadly Mantis (1957), Earth vs. The Spider (1958) and several others. Them! was even nominated for an Oscar for its special effects. I really have a soft spot for these giant creature feature films and this one is the cream of the crop.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957): By the late 50s, the classic Universal Studio’s monsters were losing popularity, but one film studio refined and reinvented the classics all with a certain British charm. That studio was Hammer Film Productions (I love Hammer films) and this film marked the turn around point. A modern retelling of the Merry Shelley novel all filmed in colour. Directed by Terence Fisher and staring two actors who would soon become horror icons; Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Hammer films created the gothic horror sub genre with this film and went on to make many other movies in the same vein. They saved the classic movie monsters from dying out as they took characters like Dracula, The Mummy, etc and retold the stories in their own unique style. Christopher Lee was only cast to play the monster due to his 6′ 5″ height and Universal Studios’ even fought hard to prevent Hammer from replicating their iconic Frankenstein monster image, so Hammer created their own look. For me, Hammer films were when horror films started to hit hard, they were like nothing seen before. There was blood and lots of it, genuine scares, amazing set design and all filmed in glorious colour. Hammer films made Universal’s monster movies look amateurish in comparison… and they had only just started…
Dracula (1958): Hammer followed up on the success of; The Curse of Frankenstein with another retelling of a Universal Studio’s classic monster. Directed by Terence Fisher (again) and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (again).
That image right there… I said in part I how Bela Lugosi’s performance of Dracula is THE definitive Vampire and I stand by that. But he always felt like an actor playing a part, playing it really damn well, but still just an actor. Christopher Lee as Dracula scared the hell out of me as a kid like nothing else. I actually believed he WAS Dracula and up until he sadly died in 2015, I still believed he was Dracula. Hammer films created one of the best, if not the best version of this story. I love both of Universal’s versions from 1931 but this is the Dracula film that got me hooked on the character. Peter Cushing’s Dr. Van Helsing and Christopher Lee’ Dracula are two characters that are burnt into my subconscious forever.
The Tingler (1959): From producer/director; William Castle and starring Vincent Price, The Tingler was B-movie making at its finest. A simple enough story about a scientist who discovers a parasite that feeds on human fear. This parasite is able to make people’s spine tingle, hence the title.
Producer/director; William Castle was famous for the gimmicks he would use for his films. For Macabre (1958), he offered every customer a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy in case they should die of fright during the film. With House on Haunted Hill (1959), he arranged to have a skeleton attached to wire float over the audience as they watched the film. He also used similar gimmicks for this film too. Castle had a scene in the movie where the Tingler seems to break free of the film and Vincent Price directly spoke to the the audience, told them the Tingler had escaped into the cinema and instructed them to “scream, scream for your lives!”. This scene was a cue for buzzers that were fitted to the seats to go off giving the sensation that the audience were being attacked by the Tingler. He would also hire actors to faint during his films and they would be taken away by fake nurses. William Castle made movie going fun and would often pull similar gimmicks in his films of the 60s too.
Well I think that will do for the 40s and 50s era of horror films. We saw the rise, fall and rise again (thanks to Hammer films) of the classic movie monster. Sci-Fi, the fear of nuclear energy and aliens became a staple of the 50s for a while. So what fears will the 60s bring us in part III?