While Universal was sliding further and further towards the bottom of the barrel, over at RKO, they were trying something new. Producer Val Lewton formed a "horror unit" that turned out a series of successful entries to the genre between 1942 and 1946. Lewton was a novelist and former story editor for David O. Selznick , and he eschewed "those mask-like faces, hardly human, with gnashing teeth and hair standing on end" of the Universal monsters in favour of suggestive shadows. He drew on literary source material, for a series of tight (under 75 minutes), low budget (less than $150,000) features starring former A-list players that were instant hits, and still chill today.
Cat People (1942)
Cat People follows the story of Irena, a young woman who carries with her the belief that she is cursed, and will turn into a large, dangerous cat if she consummates her marriage. A mainly psychological thriller, much is made of what lurks in the shadows (particularly in the famous swimming pool scene), and the audience is left to make up their own mind (unlike in the 1982 remake). It was a great success, earning $4M (off a $134k original budget) and was followed by The Curse of the Cat People in 1944. I Walked With a Zombie(1943) is often referred to as the "Voodoo Jane Eyre", as it mines Bronte's story for inspiration (Lewton had worked with Selznick 1944 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine). A naive young nurse new to the West Indies finds herself looking after a plantation owner's wife who may (or may not) be the subject of a curse. The Body Snatcher (1945), a non-Universal pairing of Karloff & Lugosi was billed as “The Screen's Last Word in Shock Sensation - the Hero of Horror joins forces with The Master of Menace”, it is in fact a measured exercise in psychological horror where the monsters are humans who have lost their moral compass. A truly amazing box set of Val Lewton movies on DVD is now available —The Val Lewton Horror Collection (Cat People / The Curse of the Cat People / I Walked with a Zombie / The Body Snatcher / Isle of the Dead / Bedlam / The Leopard Man / The Ghost Ship / The Seventh Victim / Shadows in the Dark).
Feminism in film and The Cat People - Alisa Hummell
The Subtle Shockers of Val Lewton - Horror Wood feature in two parts
FilmSite.org - Tim Dirks again
The RKO movies pointed in the right direction, and have much in common with some of the horror thrillers of the 1990s. But it is the bloated, creaking, and well-flogged corpse of the Universal monster pictures that truly represents the ending of this first horror movie cycle. However, as any student of the supernatural will tell you, if a thing looks dead, that's the time to be most afraid, as you never know what might come shooting out from beneath the tombstone....
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The site is organised roughly in terms of decades - not an ideal approach, but a convenient Horror movies in the 1950s (1): Godzilla, The Beast from 10,000 Fathoms, The Wasp Woman, Them!, Ray Harryhausen, monster movies
It is hard to grasp the changes that took place in popular consciousness between 1940 and 1950. In ten short years the concept of a horrific monster had altered irrevocably. Whereas Lon Chaney, Jr in a fine covering of yak's hair had once served as a powerful envoy from the dark side, now there were more recognisably human faces attached to evil. Faces who had fought on both sides in WW2, the developers of the atom bomb and the death camp, mad scientists indeed whose activities would have unnerved even Victor Frankenstein or Dr Moreau.
The military action of WW2 had left over 40 million dead, and millions more exposed to the full spectrum of man's inhumanity to man. Homecoming soldiers and bereaved widows had too many horror stories of their own to appreciate fantasies on the big screen, and much preferred the silliness of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein et al. The world could never be the same again, and the dawning of post-war posterity in America brought with it a new breed of monsters, adapted specifically for survival in the second half of the twentieth century.
After WW2, no nation could be seen to seek out-and-out conflict with another. This did not stop the 'low-key' operations in Asia (Korea, then Vietnam) and the spiralling standoff of the Cold War. People lived with the fear of war, which became more unnerving than war itself. The messages from WW2 were clear: no matter how heroic your men, how skilled your generals, how staunch your supporters on the Home Front, at the end of the day it was technology that counted. Bigger. Better. Deadlier. Like the atom bomb. The more advanced the technology, the more powerful the nation. It wasn't just human technology that impinged on public consciousness - the first recorded sighting of a flying saucer occurred in 1947, followed a few months later by the infamous Roswell Incident. The horror films of the 1950s are about science and technology run riot, an accurate enough reflection of reality for a confused populace, wary of the pace of technological change.
The 1950s are also the era when horror films get relegated well and truly to the B-movie category. The studios were too busy incorporating technical changes such as widespread colour production and trying to meet the challenge posed by TV to have much truck with making quality horror pictures. Big stars were reserved for epics and musicals while the Universal era icons were either dead, dead-in-the-water (Lugosi was reduced to an impoverished caricature of his former self) or moved on (Karloff had diversified into TV & theatre and was still working). The main audiences for horror movies were teenagers, who ensured that the genre remained very profitable. They flocked to the drive-ins in hordes, not caring too much about character development, plot integrity or production values. Some of these B-movies are, frankly, ludicrous, in the way they require the audience to suspend disbelief. The aim of the game was thrills, thrills and more thrills, and these monsters, whilst perhaps more terrifying in conception than execution, never fail to deliver on the action front. Nonetheless, they are highly entertaining, and provide a crude, technicolour snapshot of the way America desperately didn't want itself to be.