DeGiglio-Bellemare, Mario, Charlie Ellbe, and Kristopher Woofter, Eds.: Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade

By Keetley, Dawn | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

DeGiglio-Bellemare, Mario, Charlie Ellbe, and Kristopher Woofter, Eds.: Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade


Keetley, Dawn, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


DeGiglio-Bellemare, Mario, Charlie Ellbe, and Kristopher Woofter, eds. Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015. 353 pp. Cloth. ISBN 978-1-4985-0379-2. $105.

Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema is an invaluable resource for scholars of the horror film. As the introduction by Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare and Kristopher Woofter outlines, histories of the horror film have routinely devalued or simply omitted productions of the 1940s. The decade has been characterized as one of "repetition and return" (xii), in which studios tried to cash in on the success of Universal's groundbreaking 1930s monsters. Various relatives of Frankenstein and Dracula made lackluster appearances (Son of Dracula [1943], House of Frankenstein [1944]); spectral mummies haunted the screen (The Mummy's Ghost [1944]); and vampires came back for an encore performance (The Return of the Vampire [1944]). Other genres, notably film noir, have dominated 1940s film criticism, with little effort to trace any interconnections between film noir and horror (a fact this collection redresses particularly effectively in chapters by Kristopher Woofter, Peter Marra, Kier-La Janisse, and Blair Davis). When the attention of horror critics has turned to the 40s, it has been to recognize the importance of a couple of standout films--for example, The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941) and Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942)--that are posited as oases in the sea of derivative mediocrity. The essays in this collection, however, make a strong case for a much richer decade in horror's history. They draw attention to heretofore neglected films that warrant critical study, and they offer new lenses through which to see the decade, "rethinking and reframing persistent claims about what constitutes horror in that decade" (xv), arguing against casting the decade as an "inferior" echo of the 1930s (xvi).

The collection is divided into four sections. The first (with four chapters) offers varied theoretical interventions into the overarching narrative of 1940s horror; the second (with five chapters) rethinks the strict classification systems that have in part worked to devalue 40s horror; the third (with four chapters) addresses historical contexts, notably, of course, the trauma of World War II; and the fourth (with four chapters) takes up the importance of those independent studios dubbed collectively "Poverty Row." I'm not sure, though, that this structure--with the exception of the fourth section on Poverty Row--helps much to orient the reader since chapters throughout the collection all, to varying degrees, serve as interventions in the story of 1940s horror, rethink classification systems, and ground 40s horror in its historical context. The section divisions thus seem a little haphazard.

One of the ways in which this collection seeks to reframe and revitalize critical discussions of 1940s horror film is by illuminating its connections to other genres. Indeed, hybridity is a watchword throughout the collection and serves as the best way to characterize 1940s horror. One of the standout chapters in this regard is Peter Marra's contribution on 40s horror films as proto-slashers. Discussing Bluebeard (1944), The Lodger (1944), Hangover Square (1945), and The Spiral Staircase (1945), Marra argues that these films anticipate the slasher through the way they manipulate both point of view and gender. At some point, the camera takes the killer's POV, in order to implicate the viewer in the violence, thus heightening "the general proliferation of paranoia about the killer 'in our midst'" (42); the films also dramatize killers whose grasp on normative masculinity is tenuous, a fact that drives their violence and that is rooted in a post-war crisis of masculinity. (Ian Olney also suggests that 40s films prefigured the slasher.) Other chapters discuss how the Gothic shaped the genre's hybridity in the decade: notably, Woofter argues that the gothic discourse of 40s horror films opened up the genre's borders, especially to film noir and the paranoid woman's film. …

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