With the DVD release of NIGHTMARES IN RED WHITE AND BLUE looming (next Tuesday!), I thought I’d spend the next few weeks highlighting some great horror films that aren’t included in my documentary. In 96 minutes, NIRWAB references approximately 250 films… but, of course, this barely scratches the surface of “classic horror.” With that in mind, I’ve given myself a task for the weeks leading up to Halloween. For each decade between the 1930s and the 2000s, I’m going to pick ten additional films to highlight. And since there are plenty of great horror films that I haven’t even seen yet, I’m also going to review a pair of films from each decade that are completely new to me…
For me, the 1940s are all about Val Lewton. The nine horror films that he produced for RKO between 1942 and 1946 are, in my mind, the bridge between monster movies and more “adult” horror. They may not have received very much recognition at the time of their original release, but future generations have discovered them on home video (I remember sitting in a darkened room in the basement of the my college library, watching them one by one on laserdisc), and many viewers share the opinion that these films represent the horror genre at its most ambitious. Here’s the list:
CAT PEOPLE (1942, director: Jacques Tourneur)
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943, Tourneur) – arguably Lewton’s best
THE LEOPARD MAN (1943, Tourneur)
THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943, directed by Mark Robson)
THE GHOST SHIP (1943, Robson) – the weakest of the bunch
THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944, directed by Robert Wise)
THE BODY SNATCHER (1945, Wise)
ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945, Robson)
BEDLAM (1946, Robson)
Die-hards like me also want to include Jacques Tourneur’s NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957) and Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING (1963) in the list, even though Lewton's influence was entirely spiritual.
Not everyone wants to give Lewton so much credit. When I interviewed John Carpenter for NIRWAB, he confessed that he is emphatically not a Val Lewton fan. At one point, he said, he was scheduled to be a talking head in Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Lewton – and his plan was to offer a counter-argument against the producer’s stylized approach to monster movies. He told me:
“There’s a scene in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, where Kirk Douglass and Barry Sullivan are these Hollywood filmmakers, and they’re looking at these cat people outfits… and [the outfits] are so bad. So they say, ‘Well, we’ll do it the old fashioned way with shadows and such.’ But when you’re a kid, you don’t want to see shadows. You want to see the real thing, man! Don’t piss me off by not showing me [the monster]… If you’re going to show a cat person, make it a good one… The most famous movie monster of all time probably was Frankenstein – and, man, they showed him. And he became iconic. You couldn’t keep him in the shadows. It would be a cheat.”
That’s not to suggest that Carpenter doesn’t still appreciate the aesthetic of Lewton’s film. He loves film noir – a visual style that had pervaded all of Hollywood by the late 1940s, and transformed horror movies into introverted, psychological dramas… with only a slight hint of the supernatural. Alfred Hitchcock’s elegant Gothic romance REBECCA (1941) keeps the ghosts in the heads of the characters, while Paramount’s THE UNINVITED (1944) seems embarrassed to admit that the ghosts are real. Old-fashioned horror movies like Universal’s SON OF DRACULA (1943) also took to psychoanalyzing their characters. In the film, the main female victim longs for eternal life just as intensely as Dracula himself longs for death. Her psychologist (a stock character in horror films of the day) explains, “The girl was morbid. That often means a fear of death, and Alucard could give her eternal life.” Of course, Lewton’s THE SEVENTH VICTIM made this point much more eloquently… foreshadowing dramas like THE SNAKE PIT (1948), in which the immensely sympathetic Olivia de Havilland suffers a nervous breakdown and shock treatment. Perhaps no film of the 1940s combined pop psychology and monstrous horror better than MGM’s memorably twisted THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945). In this case, however, I’d have to agree with John Carpenter that too much can be left to the imagination.
Whether one chooses to cite Val Lewton’s films as a major influence on mainstream horror or not, the genre unquestionably digested the style of film noir (as practically every American genre did). Some viewers are particularly taken with the horror-noirs of director John Brahm, who remade Hitchcock’s THE LODGER in 1944. Personally, I think THE LODGER is painfully melodramatic. I have a much stronger appreciation for following year’s HANGOVER SQUARE, which stars Laird Cregar (an A-list version of Lon Chaney Jr. who played Jack the Ripper in THE LODGER) as a workaholic composer who is so repressed that he can commit murder without remembering it. Only DORIAN GRAY’s pop psychologist George Sanders knows the truth: When Cregar gets torn between two women (a blond-haired “good girl” and a raven-haired “bad girl”), things get messy. The plot is a little too close to Victor Fleming’s slick remake of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941) – and, frankly, I’d rather watch the earlier film, since it boasts Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman as the dueling dates – but there are a couple of highly memorable set pieces in HANGOVER SQUARE… one that takes place during a Guy Fawkes festival and one that takes place during a piano concerto – with music by Bernard Herrmann. (Eat your heart out, Alfred Hitchcock.)
Another unsung film noir that drew my attention this week was Delmer Daves’s THE RED HOUSE (1947), which stars Edward G. Robinson as a peg-legged old man with a guilty secret. When his adopted daughter and her new beau start snooping around a mysterious shack in the woods, all of his repressed memories start coming back… and suddenly ol’ Ed isn’t as kind and gentle as he was before. THE RED HOUSE isn’t a horror movie… It’s a much more traditional Gothic romance, where the major conflicts exist solely in the minds of the characters. Nevertheless, there are shades of later films like BLUE VELVET (1986) and LADY IN WHITE (1988), and some great moody sequences that take place in the woods at night, with the moon casting long shadows and wind howling through the trees. THE RED HOUSE also features a young Rory Calhoun (who horror fans will remember as the demented farmer in MOTEL HELL) lurking in the darkness, pretending he's Robert Mitchum.
More than anything, THE RED HOUSE made me want to see another film that’s I remember being just as effective at creating that kind of atmosphere. I first saw Disney’s THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW (1949) when I was seven or eight years old, and the five-minute sequence at the end where Ichabod Crane is chased through the hollow by the Headless Horseman made a huge impression. In NIRWAB, Joe Dante cited Disney’s PINOCCHIO (1940) as an example of childhood fare that separates the horror fans from the non-horror fans. SLEEPY HOLLOW (viewed, as I recall, back to back with POLTERGEIST on a day when I came home sick from school) was certainly one of the films that made a horror fan out of me.
And while we’re talking about cartoons, I have to mention one more kid-friendly favorite from the 1940s: “HAIR-RAISING HARE” (1946) is a Merrie Melodies short that pits Bugs Bunny against a big orange monster and a droopy-eyed mad scientist who looks and sounds just like Peter Lorre's mad pianist in THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, which was released the same year. (Eat your heart out, Laird Cregar.)