A Sextet of Horrors From the 1940s

As I believe I have mentioned elsewhere, the history of the 1940s horror film can practically be summarized in two words: Universal and Lewton. Over at Universal Studios, a continuing stream of pictures featuring such classic characters as Frankenstein, Dracula, the Invisible Man, and the Mummy emerged to delight and entertain war-weary audiences. Meanwhile, over at RKO, producer Val Lewton, beginning with 1942’s Cat People, would come out with a series of subtle horror films that depended more on atmosphere and mood, rather than gruesome monsters themselves, to deliver shudders. Some other Lewton horrors to emerge that decade would include the truly wonderful and artful I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and the undersung Boris Karloff outing Isle of the Dead (1945). But while Universal and RKO surely did dominate the American horror market during that decade, they were not the only game in town. In today’s Shocktober column, I would like to shine a light on five horror films from other studios – plus one Universal film that is seldom discussed today – that just might make for prime viewing this Halloween season. Although the quality of these five films surely varies, they might all make for an entertaining evening at home one dark and stormy night: 

THE GHOST BREAKERS horror film reviewsTHE GHOST BREAKERS (1940)

Undoubtedly one of the best comedy/horror movies of the 1940s – perhaps of all time – and almost on a par with the great Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the 1940 reremake of The Ghost Breakers manages the tricky balance between yukyuks and chills with considerable deftness. In this one, Bob Hope plays a radio personality named Lawrence Lawrence Lawrence (his parents had no imagination, he tells us!), who escapes the Mob and the cops by hiding in Paulette Goddard’s steamer trunk. Paulette’s just inherited a creepy haunted mansion off the coast of Cuba, and before you know it, the two are up to their jutting eyeballs in bats, ghosts, murder attempts and zombies. Hope’s character is surprisingly suave and dashing in this film, and much less cowardly than usual (if just as fast with the one-liners). Paulette is vivacious, spunky and incredibly beautiful (whotta smile!), and Hope’s valet, Willie Best, doesn’t embarrass us too much with his stereotyped ’40s “yes, massuh” black humor. The film, directed by George Marshall for Paramount, provides numerous laff-out-loud lines (and I’m not an easy person to make laff out loud) and several scenes that really do chill … especially Noble Johnson’s appearance as a blank-eyed zombie. Paulette’s Gothic-looking mansion, with its glass-coffined mummies, is quite eerie, and, as in A&C Meet Franky, the actors play their parts arrow straight. This film, I might add, is perfect for the kiddies, too, and the crisp-looking DVD that I recently experienced, loaded with extras, only adds to the enjoyment.

horror film reviewsTHE UNDYING MONSTER (1942)

THE UNDYING MONSTER “B material given A execution” is how film historian Drew Casper describes 20th Century Fox’s first horror movie, 1942’s The Undying Monster, in one of the DVD’s extras, and dang if the man hasn’t described this movie to a T. The film, a unique melding of the detective, Gothic and monster genres, though uniformly well acted by its relatively no-name cast, features a trio of first-rate artists behind the camera who really manage to put this one over. And the film’s script isn’t half bad either, loosely based as it is on Jessie Douglas Kerruish’s 1922 novel. Here, Scotland Yard scientist Robert Curtis (James Ellison) comes to eerie Hammond Hall, a brooding pile on the English coast, sometime around 1900, to investigate some recent attacks ascribed to the legendary Hammond monster. Viewers expecting this legend of a voracious predator to wind up being explained in an anticlimactic, mundane fashion may be a bit surprised at how things play out. Ellison is fine in his no-nonsense, modern-detective role (he uses a spectrograph to analyze various clues!), and Heather Angel (who does have the face of one), playing the house’s mistress, is equally good. But, as I’ve mentioned, it is the contributions of three men behind the scenes that really turn this little B into a work of art. Director John Brahm, who would go on to helm Fox’s The Lodger and Hangover Square, and DOP Lucien Ballard have combined their formidable talents to make a picture that is noirish, moody and fast moving, with superb use of light and shadow. And composer David Raksin, who two years later would achieve enduring fame for his score for that classiest of film noirs, Laura, has co-contributed some background music here that is both mysterious and exciting. Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck apparently had hopes that The Undying Monster would be the opening salvo in his studio’s bid to challenge Universal’s monster domination, and in retrospect, it does seem like a fair way to start. The DVD that I recently watched, by the way, looks just fantastic, and sports more “extras” than you would believe capable of accompanying a minor B. All in all, a very pleasant surprise.

horror film reviewsTHE MAD MONSTER (1942)

THE MAD MONSTER Not to be confused with the 1943 George Zucco movie The Mad Ghoul, The Mad Monster is a film that Zucco appeared in the year before. In this fairly paint-by-numbers affair, directed by Sam Newfield for “Poverty Row” studio Producers Releasing Corp. (PRC), Zucco perfects a way to turn his dim-witted handyman, Petro, into a wolf/man hybrid by means of wolf’s blood injections, and then wastes little time in sending the transformed doofus to slay the former colleagues who had scoffed at his experiments. It is a very simple plot, really, and an extremely low-budget production. Glenn Strange, who plays the man/wolf here, would soon achieve greater fame playing the Franky monster in Universal films such as House of Frankenstein (1944) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). The makeup job on him here is pretty lame, and only succeeds in making him look like a hippy with bad teeth (like the one in 1957’s Teenage Monster). The sets in this film, in addition, are fairly nonexistent, and the denouement is abrupt and unconvincing. I have given the movie a very generous 2 stars, in part because I have an abiding love for 1940s horror films, but truth to tell, most objective viewers would probably deem it laughable crap, and I suppose it is. It’s certainly no well-crafted Universal affair or Val Lewton masterpiece, that’s for sure! Still, Zucco is always fun to watch, even in undemanding piffle such as this. If you can spare 72 minutes of your life, I suppose you could do worse than The Mad Monster (not TOO much worse, of course!). Oh … one other thing. The DVD that I recently watched is from Alpha Video, and you know what that means: fuzzy images, lousy sound (indeed, the worst sound of any Alpha Video DVD I’ve encountered so far) and no extras. You’ve been warned!

horror film reviewsTHE FLYING SERPENT (1946)

THE FLYING SERPENT George Zucco’s archaeologist character has a major problem at the beginning of the 1946 PRC cheapie The Flying Serpent. He had recently discovered Montezuma’s treasure horde in an Aztec cave in New Mexico, and now fears that the locals might start to get snoopy. Good thing he’s also found Quetzalcoatl, the legendary Aztec serpent/bird god, and has learned that the creature will track down and kill whoever is in unwitting possession of one of its feathers. Thus, pretty soon, Zucco is planting Q plumage left and right, sitting back and enjoying the carnage… Anyway, this 57-minute film, again directed by Sam Newfield, is minimally fun, and Zucco is always interesting to watch, but the picture is unfortunately done in by supercheap production values, a tediously talkative screenplay, occasional goofball humor, and the simple fact that we never get a solid, steady look at Quetzalcoatl itself. Worse, the film’s resolution is asinine and inane, with Zucco behaving uncharacteristically stupid and contrary to common sense. Matters aren’t helped by the badly damaged film print offered to us on the Image DVD that I recently watched, with problematic sound, to boot. Many other viewers have noted the similarity between this picture and another PRC effort, The Devil Bat, a Bela Lugosi vehicle released five years earlier. In that film, Bela had lured his flying killer to the intended victim by using a special shaving lotion; here, those darn feathers have been substituted. Bottom line: I would have to say that The Flying Serpent is a movie for George Zucco completists only, if such an animal exists. Other viewers who are interested in a film featuring the feathered serpent god alive and well in the 20th century would probably be better advised to seek out Larry Cohen’s 1982 film Q

horror film reviewsTHE BRUTE MAN (1946)

THE BRUTE MAN Guys, the next time you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see, try telling yourself that at least you’re not Rondo Hatton. Hatton suffered with the congenital disease acromegaly, which, as Webster’s puts it, is “chronic hyperpituitarism marked by progressive enlargement of hands, feet and face.” He lived to the age of 52, being felled by a heart attack shortly after making his last film, The Brute Man, in 1946. This is an extremely well-made little B picture, directed by Jean Yarbrough for Universal and featuring fine acting by all, a compact story and some real suspense. In it, Hatton plays a former college BMOC who became disfigured after a lab accident and who, years later, begins a murder spree against all his former pals and teachers that he blames for his current condition. He also befriends a pretty, blind piano teacher, who naturally doesn’t recoil automatically from the big lug’s unique physiognomy. These scenes, with big Rondo and the blind woman, will likely cause most viewers to recall Frankenstein and the blind hermit in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), just as his later sacrifices on her behalf are reminiscent of Chaplin’s for his blind flower girl in City Lights (1931). No, The Brute Man is not nearly in the same league as those two immortal classics, but still remains a fine entertainment nevertheless. Frankenstein makeup man Jack Pierce contributed his great talents to this film, too, making Hatton (I would imagine) even more of a sight than he was ordinarily. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Rondo’s “Creeper” character, cold-blooded psycho that he has become, but somehow, we DO still feel some, to the actor’s great credit. Oh, by the way, the DVD that I recently watched looks just terrific; an absolutely first-rate transfer from the fine folks at Image Entertainment.

horror film reviewsSTRANGLER OF THE SWAMP (1946)

STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP Strangler of the Swamp is a very strange little picture from PRC, one of the so-called “Poverty Row” studios of the ’40s; the same studio responsible for such wonders as The Devil Bat (1941) and The Devil Bat’s Daughter (1946). This last film starred Miss America 1941, Rosemary La Planche, in the same year that she appeared in Strangler… Here, she plays Maria, the granddaughter of a ferry boat operator in one of the most dismal-looking swamps you could ever imagine. Having felt lonely while working in the big city, what could be more natural than her taking over her grandpappy’s job when he is killed by the eponymous swamp strangler, the pale-faced spirit of a wrongfully hanged man, eerily played by Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton? Whilst pulling this tow-rope swamp barge through its courses, Maria meets hunky Chris Sanders, played by Blake Edwards (yes, THAT Blake Edwards, almost a full decade before he was to begin his glorious career as a director). Anyway, cheaply made and studio bound as Strangler… is, I suppose the picture does have atmosphere to spare. Shot mostly on darkened sets and with prodigious amounts of swirling ground mist and bullfrog croakings, the film, as directed by Frank Wisbar, does evoke a creepy bayou feel, and its brief running time (the whole thing barely clocks in under an hour) allows for zero padding. This is basically a minor little “B” picture, to be sure, that does what it sets out to do: tell a weird ghost story with absolutely no frills. The film is hardly ever scary, although there are several shots of Middleton’s blank-faced mug that are fairly riveting. La Planche herself is very appealing, strange as her character may be (honestly, who would ever lay down in a pile of grass and swamp muck at night to take a nap?!?), and Edwards fine as the surprisingly UNheroic leading man. The DVD that I recently watched features a battered-looking print with no extras, but I suppose we may never see this oddball curiosity look any better. Fans of ’40s “B” horror may find the picture sufficiently rewarding to warrant a look; others, I feel, may find it a fairly hard pull.

Anyway, FanLit viewers, there you have it … a group of films that demonstrates that although Universal and RKO were indeed the main players in the field of 1940s American horror, they were not the only studios in the game. I hope you get to enjoy some of these ‘40s obscurities one dark and stormy night soon…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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6 comments

  1. I’ll have to check ot Ghost Breakers given that favorable comparison to A/C Meet Frankenstein!
    I have only the vaguest memories of The Flying Serpent and they certainly mesh with this summary :)

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Wait a sec…you mean someone besides me has actually watched “The Flying Serpent”?!?! 😱

      • I’m almost up to 20 on the count of the movies you’ve reviewed this month (it helped to have Carpenter and Craven covered)

        And making a list of ones to add (and to avoid, of course)

        • Sandy Ferber /

          Twenty out of 90, Bill? That’s not too bad, but you still have your work cut out for you! Very glad that these Shocktober columns are proving to be helpful….

  2. The 1944 Columbia Pictures film “Cry of the Werewolf” is well worth watching. I saw it on Tubi last night. The Lewton influence is clear. And nice to see Fritz Leiber Sr. cast as the director of a Voodoo museum.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Yes, I’ve heard of this one but have still never seen it. With Nina Foch, right? I really need to catch up with this one someday….

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