Since the mid 1980s, when educational institutions across the planet began to host course units dedicated to the horror film, there has naturally been much written about the genre. In fact, if you overlooked magazines, fanzines and the odd newspaper article and took the entire English language book output devoted to horror films from the past thirty years, you could literally build a small house from the proceeds. If you did the same for the previous thirty years you would be lucky to have enough paper to cover one wall of your average outhouse – a place that many cultural commissars still see as the proper domain for the horror film. But sitting here surrounded by such modern tomes as Selling the Splat Pack, Merchants of Menace and Grindhouse Nostalgia, it is hard to discern anything but a superficial sense of horror film history. This is not the case with Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces Of A Lost Decade, a project that was largely produced in Canada (and specifically Montreal) and truly pulls off some incredible deep-dish research. Not only does it seek to understand how filmgoers and critics saw horror films during the era they were released but how horror history and filmmaking in general informed the films produced in those years and to collectively provide an understanding of the influence of these films well beyond that socially tumultuous decade. It also seeks to revise with reverence what has critically come before it in the creation of a history that can be simply reduced to Val Lewton versus Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein (Charles Barton, 1948). As someone who read Carlos Clarens’ Horror Films: An Illustrated Survey at a seminal age (and read and re-read it and even gratuitously applied the then new technology of the photocopier to it) that is exactly how I summarised the 1940s in horror until picking up this book. Although feeling more than an inkling that I was watching bits of horror films during screenings of film noir as a cinema studies student in the early 1980s, I have to admit that until now I have never felt the need to revise my own understanding of what I understand now to be a somewhat blinkered view of horror film history. Another point of connectivity that this book possesses and that the digital age demands is the creation of a filmography that lists commercial disc and tape releases after each article for the films cited. This in itself is a general innovation that could easily be overlooked (commercial film availability always fluctuates during format changes due to rights issues) and even rivals chief Splat Pack leader Eli Roth’s inclusion of a filmography of cannibal films during the end credits of his recent controversial action/horror film The Green Inferno (2013).
Although appearing in the familiar format of a collection of writings usually belonging to a group of academics who need to publish or perish along with their PhD students, Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema which is directed by several career academics, has corralled a unique set of writers from the independent film research world with which it intersects. Maybe its dedication to Rondo Hatton immediately alerts you to one of its main points of difference (all of the writers seem to love the area they are working in) or perhaps the comic review of The Devil Bat (Jean Yarbrough, 1940) that comes straight after the clear and exciting introduction by two of the editors may alert you that there is something different going on here – as compared to something produced by the average university press (Lexington is not one, but can at least ably ape the format). Rick Trembles – who provides the cartoon film review – used to be regularly published in a Montreal daily newspaper, and over the years this allowed him to pioneer a completely unique form of film criticism that is both insightful and hilarious. Written under the banner of Rick Trembles’ Motion Picture Purgatory, England’s Fab Press has published two volumes of his work that should be standard readings for any university with a cinema studies/media studies department. Perhaps, however, it is the acknowledgements page that reveals Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema as something special. Some of the writings grew out of presentations at a national conference devoted to the “Horror Area of Popular Culture” over several years. Significantly, the editors also acknowledge the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in Montreal. This organisation, which regularly presents lectures on the horror film, also has an outlet in London, but every country – especially Australia – should have one.
The contents are divided into four parts, which allows for a thorough staking out, evisceration and investigation of the territory. Part 1, labelled “Interventions”, includes Kristopher Woofter’s analysis of the manner in which the concept of Gothic realism has allowed many of the films produced by the poverty row studios to become overlooked especially in comparison to the Universal reiterations of their own products. Peter Marra identifies proto-Slasher elements in several films of the 40s including The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, 1943), The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927), Hangover Square (John Brahm, 1945) and Bluebeard (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1944) in his essay titled “Strange Pleasure”. Ian Olney investigates films from 1946 to 1956 and takes in those ignored by the first writers of horror film histories, such as Carlos Clarens and Ivan Butler, along with several more contemporary texts who have continued this line of horror film history. His examination of William Cameraon Menzies’ 1953 film The Maze (a staple of late 60s & early 70s late night TV) and connection of it to the cinema of the 1940s is highly recommended. In chapter 4, editor Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare confidently and competently connects the 1945 Val Lewton film The Body Snatcher (he co-wrote it under a pseudonym and produced it) with the stage of the Theatre of the Grand-Guignol.
“Hybridity” is the title of part 2, in which Anne Golden assesses Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946) under the title “Horror Genre Hybridity, Vertical Alterity, and the Avant-Garde”. Golden specifically looks at, “the intriguing parallels regarding the use of avant-garde verticality between Maya Deren and The Spiral Staircase.” (p. 94) This is followed by the contribution of Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies founder Kier-La Janisse and her obsession with films of, about and for children, titled “The Child Witness, Peril and Empowerment in 1940s Horror: from The East Side Kids to The Window”. Janisse deftly paints a picture of, “an era that was divided between wartime neglect and post-war trauma.” (p. 124) Co-editor Charlie Ellbe supplies a detailed account of the Universal Studios film adaptions of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries Radio Series which have virtually bypassed critical examination in the past and the present with the exception of Chapter 7 of Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema. The films include Calling Dr. Death (Reginald le Borg, 1943), Weird Woman (Reginald Le Borg, 1944), The Frozen Ghost (Harold Young, 1945) and Strange Confession (Julien Duvivier, 1945). Dennis R. Perry covers the Mystery Hybrid films that combine Poe and horror and include The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934), The Fall Of The House Of Usher (James Sibley Watson, 1928) and The Tell-Tale Heart (Jules Dassin, 1941). Mark Jancovich takes on the horror films (or at least the films that were considered horror at the time) that Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart star in, including The Return Of Dr. X (Vincent Sherman, 1939), where Bogart played a vampire.
Part 3 is devoted to history. “Serial Killers, Deals with the Devil, and the Madness of Crowds” looks at the ambiguity created in French films produced during the Occupation of France by Germany. “Always Hearing Voices, Never Hearing Mine: Sound and Fury in The Snake Pit” by Karen Herland studies the 1948 film directed by Anatole Litvak. Chapter 12 by Louise Fenton wears the self-descriptive title “The Demise of the Cinematic Zombie From the Golden Age of Hollywood to the 1940s”, while Gary D. Rhodes investigates “Fears New and Old in The Post-War American Horror Film”.
Part 4, dubbed “Poverty Row”, kicks off with Paul Corupe’s study of the life and work of Sam Newfield, concentrating on Hitler: The Beast Of Berlin, a film that was made in 1939 for the company that became known as PRC in 1940, not long after it was taken over by his brother Sigmund. Corupe who has been running the excellent Canuxpliotation web site devoted to the Canadian B-film since 1999 and who is also a co-editor with Kier-La Janisse at publishing company Spectacular Optical then looks at the influence that Hitler: The Beast Of Berlin has had over the four horror films Newfield produced in the 1940s, which included The Mad Monster (George Zucco, 1942), Dead Men Walk (George Zucco, 1943), The Monster Maker (Sam Newfield, 1944) and The Flying Serpent (Sam Newfield, 1946). Chapter 15 by Blair Davis who wrote the book The Battle For The Bs, which deals with low budget films of the 1950s writes “Of Apes and Men (and Monsters and Girls): The Ape Film and 1940s Horror for Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema”. Films he writes about include The Ape (William Nigh, 1940), The Ape Man (William Beaudine, 1943), Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942), The Leopard Man, The Monster and the Girl (Stuart Heisler, 1941) and Return Of The Ape Man (Phil Rosen, 1944). Chapter 16, “The Perfect Neanderthal” by Cory Legassic, centres on the work of acromegaly sufferer and unlikely movie star Rondo Hatton. Hatton appeared in several films including The Brute Man (Jean Yarbrough, 1946) and House Of Horrors (Jean Yarbrough, 1946). In the final chapter, meanwhile, Selma A. Purac puts forward the argument for Republic Pictures’ 10-day wonder The Vampire’s Ghost (Lesley Selander, 1945) as a poverty row classic.
Overall, Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces Of A Lost Decade is the product of excellent research, writing and editing. It indeed achieves the aim of its title (it recovers more than traces), and the book should find its way into the hands of serious programmers and as many horror and general film enthusiasts as possible.