The Critical Reception of 1940's Horror

Project Details


Standard accounts of the horror film present the 1940s as a low-point in its history, which witnessed the sad degeneration of the 1930s cycle, as Universal ran its classic monsters into the ground in tired sequels, and the genre was only deemed worthy of low-budget productions. However, despite these characterizations, most accounts also acknowledge that the 1930s cycle actually ended in 1936, and that the 1940s films actually part of another cycle that had begun in 1939, a cycle that reached its peak in 1944 and 1945 (see for example, Butler, 1967; Clarens, 1967; Gifford, 1973; Tudor, 1989; and Berenstein, 1996).
Furthermore, rather than low-budget productions, the New York Times claimed that many examples of the 1940s cycle were 'being dressed in full Class "A" paraphernalia, including million dollar budgets and big-name casts.' (Stanley, 1944: X3), while Variety claimed that this situation was due to a change in the market, in which horror films were 'cleaning up in most spots around the country, even getting first-run and downtown bookings in an unprecedented manner' (Cunningham, 1943: 7).
However, few histories provide a detailed account of this boom in quality horror production, and most of the films associated with this boom have been generically reclassified since their original release. For example, the New York Times article quoted above defined a number of films as horror that are currently seen as examples of the paranoid woman's film (Gaslight, Dark Waters, and Hangover Square), film noir (Phantom Lady, Laura, Woman in the Window) and even classic Hitchcock thrillers (Spellbound).
As a result, the magnitude and character of the 1940s cycle requires a revision of established histories of the horror film, so that Universal is no longer seen as the dominant trend and it is recognised that the genre was understood very differently when compared with today. Such an revision also suggests new ways of understanding the films that Val Lewton produced at RKO, films that are today seen as isolated and idiosyncratic developments, but were understood in the period as crucially shaped by their intermediate status between the low-budget shockers and the high-budget quality films.
The research will therefore draw upon Bourdieu's work on cultural distinctions, and recent developments in reception studies, to examine the reviews published in the mainstream press of the period, a section of the press that was exemplified by the New York Times. In the process, it will examine how various films were generically identified in these reviews, and how cultural hierarchies were established not only between genres but also within the horror film itself. The research will therefore involve a close reading of the critical reception of four main types of films: the low-budget shockers associated with by Universal Studios, Columbia Pictures, Monogram and the Producers Releasing Corporation; the paranoid woman's film; Hitchcockian and film noir thrillers; and the films produced by Val Lewton at RKO.
In the process, the research will provide a sense of how the term horror was understood in the period, and the ways in which the films associated with this term were consumed.

Berenstein, Rhona, Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender Sexuality and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema, New York: University of Columbia Press, 1996.
Butler, Ivan, The Horror Film, London: Zwemmer, 1967
Clarens, Carlos, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, New York: Putnam, 1967.
Cunningham, Jim, 'Creepy Pix Cleaning Up', Variety, Wednesday, March 31, 1943, p. 7.
Gifford, Denis, A Pictorial History of the Horror Film, London: Hamlyn, 1973.
Stanley, Fred, 'Hollywood Shivers', New York Times, May 28, 1944, p. X3.
Tudor, Andrew, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Film, Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
Effective start/end date1/09/0731/12/07


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council: £31,294.00