Best Horror Movies of All Time 1940 to 1949

Jul 24, 2000 (Updated Aug 12, 2010)

The Bottom Line Best Horror Movies of the 1940s.  Enjoy.

1940 to 1949

Horror films were nothing but trouble for most of the studios. They weren't prestigious, they never won awards, and often they come under attack by various religious groups. The Hayes Code made it very difficult to make effective horror films anyway. Universal had cornered the market on horror and it appeared that audiences were tiring of the entire genre. The Poverty Row studios like Monogram put out dozens of cheap poorly made horror films. Studios released their horror stars like Karloff and Lugosi and they in turn made usually awful films for the poverty row producers to keep busy. Lugosi became addicted to pain-killers and morphine and when he got better he got to work with Ed Wood. Westerns, Musicals, Situation Domestic Comedies (Like the Blondie series), and Family films like Andy Hardy were what people were flocking to. Thankfully Val Lewton produced a series of low budget atmospheric horror gems for RKO. The moguls were getting richer and richer buying more and more land, and expanding their empires. Universal eventually found more success with Abbott and Costello than they ever had with horror. . . at least at first. By the end of the decade they would combine the two. As the 40's came to a close , profits were way up and the studios were blissfully unaware of the threat which had appeared on the horizon... a threat that would eventually topple the mighty moguls, destroy the studio system as it was known, and change the entertainment business forever - -the threat that would endear classic horror films into many of our hearts – TELEVISION.

15. The Devil Commands, The (1941)

This is a weird one which features some strange scenes and images you'll long remember. Boris Karloff is the mad scientist who is trying to communicate with the dead. He puts corpses in robot/diving suits sets them around a table and makes them spastically move about with electricity. He really wants to talk to his dead wife, you see. Yikes. It's odd, creepy and rather fun.

14. The Ghost Breakers (1940)
A very good haunted house type comedy with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. They were a hit with The Cat and the Canary and they are even better here. Hope and his buddy hide out from
gangsters by going to Cuba where Goddard has inherited a haunted castle. There's a zombie and a real ghost and Richard Carlson and Anthony Quinn show up too. It's a lotta fun and was remade by Martin and Lewis as 1953's Scared Stiff.

13. Man Made Monster (1941)

A low-brow classic. Lon Chaney Jr. is a circus performer who does tricks with electricity. Mad doctor Lionel Atwill turns nice guy Lon into a zombie like killer. He's caught and electrocuted but that just really pis-s-es him off. It's been re-worked many different ways, but this is more less the archetype for films of this type and very entertaining.

12. Beast with Five Fingers, The (1946)

The film features that remarkable scene with the disembodied hands coming after a terrified Peter Lorre. If you never saw it before, it might appear quite silly but it was the stuff of nightmares when I was a kid. . The famous scene was co-directed by Bunnuel. It's the last good, pure horror film until the mid-50's. It stars Robert Alda (Alan's father), features Victor Francen (as the dead pianist) and J. Carrol Naish as a police captain.

11. Bedlam (1946)

Bedlam was the final low budget horror type film Val Lewton made for RKO pictures. It remains an interesting movie mainly for it's clever ideas, more than anything else. There's not a lot of action or horror in the film, but I particularly loved the scene where an inmate is judged insane because he invented the motion pictures. There is an interesting story, and some memorable characters including Boris Karloff who plays the sadistic ruler of an English insane assylum. Set in the late 1700's the film ws inspired by the engravings of William Hogarth. Certainly worth a look.

10. I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Val Lewton produced this slow moving, atmospheric classic for RKO. Jacques Tourneur directed from Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray's script. If you let the film work like a haunting poem, you'll
find yourself mesmerized by a very unique and special film. Nurse Dee goes to the West Indies to care for the sick wife of a plantation owner and finds much more than she bargained for including strange rituals, voodoo and Carre-four (Darby Jones) the zombie guard.

9. The Lady and the Monster (1944)
Republic pictures occassionally made horror films in between their cheap serials and westerns. Here's a pretty decent one and one that's often referred to as the first official Donovan's Brain
film. Erich von Stroheim is the doctor who keeps the brain of a dead gangster alive. The brain takes over lab assistant Richard Arlen and makes him kill the gangster's enemies. Not particularly scary, but fun. (Don't confuse this one with 1940's Monster and the Girl which is a human brain gets put into a man in a gorilla suit gorilla and seeks revenge kind of movie).
8. The Devil's Hand (1942/47) aka Carnival of Sinners

Maurice Tourneur, the father of Jacques Tourneur wrote and directed this atmospheric horror fantasy during the German Occupation of France ( It was called: La Main du Diable). It was released in the U.S. in 1947 /48. A poor painter sells his soul to the devil. A distorted living hand is the symbol of the contract and various owners of the hand from various time periods appear with masks and proceed to tell their tales to the painter. It's a film I strongly recommend to all fans of atmosphere and mood in film.

7. The Uninvited (1944)

This serious, straightforward, haunted house/ghost story was unique in 1944 and in fact few serious haunted house films were made until 1963's The Haunting. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey rent a haunted house on an English Coast. They get a young medium to try and exorcise the spirit. It's a well made ghost story and holds up pretty well.

6. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Splendid version of Oscar Wilde's novel about the handsome wealthy Londoner who stays young while his portrait ages. George Sanders nearly steals the picture as Dorian's cynical friend. It's mostly in black and white with a few color sequences and also stars Angela Lansbury, Donna Reed, and Peter Lawford.

5. The Wolf Man (1941)

Horror and pathos mix pretty well in this story of Larry Talbot who's bitten by a gypsy werewolf and cursed to become a man/wolf with an animal desire to kill what he loves most when the moon is full and the wolfsbane blooms. A fine cast of supporting characters (including Bela Lugosi) help make this a delightful MONSTER (as opposed to horror) classic.

4. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

A truly remarkable mixture of horror and comedy resulted from some of the best Abbott and Costello bits (Hold that Ghost) blended onto a bedroom farce structure to support most of the Universal Monsters- - Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and a final gag using Vincent Price. Although none of it was new, the blending of the genres and well seasoned comedy routines was never done better. One of the reasons it works so well is because the Monsters played it straight as if they were in House of Dracula/Frankenstein Part 2, while Abbott and Costello hammed it up.
Lon Chaney Jr (in one of his best performances), Bela Lugosi, and Glenn Strange were the monsters. Karloff would join Abbot and Costello in Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff the following year and in A and C Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (a much lesser effort) in 1953.

3. The Body Snatcher (1945)

Val Lewton produced this classic for RKO based on Robert Louis Stevenson's short story. It was the last film to team Karloff and Lugosi together. Lugosi has a small role as a simple minded would-be- black-mailing servant. Karloff plays Gray, a cab driver who supplies cadavers for medical experiments to Dr. Macfarlane (Henry Daniels). The ending still packs a punch. Wonderfully atmospheric, a tight well written script, well directed by Robert Wise (!) and superior acting from Karloff and Daniels. (Burke and Hare)

2. Cat People (1942)

Mood , atmosphere and suggestion creates a superior horror classic in Producer Val Lewton's
first low budget film for RKO, brilliantly directed by Jacques Tourneur. They were subtle in presenting this very ‘adult' material, and it worked beautifully. It's a horror film about the
‘Fear of sex'.

And the One I think is the best of the decade is

drum-roll please...

We have a tie. . .

1. Dead of Night (1945)

Everything from t.v.'s Twilight Zone to comic books to the anthology films like Tales from The Crypt and Creepshow owe a huge debt to this grandfather of all horror anthologies and still one of the very best. 4 directors (perhaps you know of Charles Crichton) worked on this English film
produced and distributed by Universal. There's a strong story that links everything in the film
together. The best of the stories features Michael Redgrave as a deranged ventriloquist (you'll see how this sequence influenced Psycho years later). There's a Christmas ghost story, a mirror that is haunted, an ominous waiting hearse, and a rather silly ghost on a golf course. Don't miss this gem.


1. The Seventh Victim (1943)

Producer Val Lewton's best film (for RKO) is directed by Mark Robson, and written by Dewitt Bodeen and Charles O'Neal. It's quite an influential film as well. There's a satanic cult in
New York's Greenwich village which needs to kill one of it's former members. Her sister arrives and finds an apartment furnished with just a noose and a chair. There's a restaurant called Dante's, a shower scene which will surprise you, and plenty of dark foreboding in this atmospheric and quite grim story. Tom Conway, Kim Hunter and Hugh (Mr Cleaver) Beaumont star in one of the finest classic horror films ever made.


Black Friday (1940)

This was misleadingly billed as another Karloff/Lugosi film. Lugosi and Karloff have no scenes together and Lugosi doesn't last very long. The real star is the now forgotten Stanley Ridges. Karloff gives him part of a gangster's brain and under hypnosis Stanley goes after gangster Lugosi and some of his men. It's barely above average, but somewhat interesting in how this plot was recycled and resurrected in various versions of ‘Donovan's Brain' for the next thirty of so years.

Bluebeard (1944)

Cult director Edgar Ulmer's version isn't particularly noteworthy except that it has one of
John Carradine's finest performances. Carradine was actually a very able and talented actor and you can see evidence of it right here as he plays Gaston Morel a puppeteer in 19th century Paris
who kills women.

Curse of the Cat People (1944)

This Val Lewton produced (for RKO) film has nothing to do with the original movie. It's a ghost story/fantasy and though a well made, atmospheric film, isn't much of a horror film either. Still it's certainly worth seeing. A young girl , sees the beautiful ghost of her father's first wife (Simone Simon). Co-directed by Robert Wise and Gunther V. Fritsch.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Spencer Tracy with very little make-up plays the title characters. He's mis-cast. Ingrid Bergman
plays a barmaid, rather than a prostitute (like Miriam Hopkins played in the much superior 1932 version). It's well produced by MGM, and director Victor Flemmings follow up to ‘39's Gone with the Wind, but not nearly as good as the Barrymore or March versions.

Flying Serpent, The (1946)

It's got the exact same plot as The Devil Bat (the Lugosi cheapie) but the advantage of plot elements that will be particularly interesting to the fans of Larry Cohens cult classic ‘Q'. This is a ‘bad' movie with an over the top and campy performance from George Zucco. He plays a demented archeologist who uses Quetzalcoatl, the ancient Aztec Bird/God to murder anyone he doesn't like. He does this by placing one of the bird's feather on his intended victims. Soon the cheap puppet on a wire that's supposed to be a ferocious bird/god attacks and kills the person who's got its feather. An almost fun camp classic that ‘Q' fans will none-the-less want to see.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

This is formula stuff. Frankenstein is actually the monster and he's played without much flair by none other than Bela Lugosi. It's a small part. Most of the film is actually a sequel (with most of the cast returning) to Universal's hit, The Wolfman. Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot hopes that Dr. Frank Mannering can cure him as Frank revives the monster. It doesn't work out.

Ghost of Frankenstein, The (1942)

Logic is thrown out of the window in this the fourth of the Frankenstein series. Characters who were killed in past films show up without explanation in this one. Lon Chaney Jr. takes over as the monster and plays him like a big lumbering giant. He's dull. Lugosi as Igor is still fun though. He wants to put his brain in the big guy and will do anything to make sure that happens. A few well done scenes do not save the film. Sir Cedric hardwicke and Lionel Atwill with Ralph Bellamy and yep, Dwight Frye!!!!

House of Dracula (1945)

The slightly better sequel has a doctor (not Karloff but Onslow Stevens) trying to use real medicine and science to cure the monsters from their curses. It seems to work... uh oh... guess again. Carradine is Dracula, Chaney Jr. the Wolfman and Strange, the Monster. If your in the right mood it's fun... but not a bit scary.

House of Frankenstein (1944)

This is the one with Boris Karloff. He takes on the identity of George Zucco who has a travelling horror show. John Carradine is pretty good as Dracula, but he's out of the picture before Karloff finds the Wolfman and Frankenstein and revives them both. It's not scary, nor very good, but it's still fun. Glenn Strange's first appearance as the Monster.

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Val Lewton produced, and Mark Robson directed this above average low budget horror film for RKO. Karloff stars as a Greek general who tries to keep his troups morale up during the Balkan War as they are quarantined with the plague. It's atmospheric, but more dull and plodding than interesting., but not nearly as good as other Lewton films.

Mummy's Hand, The (1940) ; Mummy's Tomb, The (1942); Mummy's Ghost, The (1944);. Mummy's Curse, The (1944)

For those who just need to know. The Mummy's Hand stars Tom Tyler under the bandages, while the rest of the films star Lon Chaney Jr. as the Mummy. George Zucco is in three of the four films, he's not in The Mummy's Curse–the worst of them all which features a lot of footage from the previous films. The best is probably the third one- The Mummy's Ghost, because it's got a faster moving pace and John Carradine. So the next time there's a marathon of these on the tube and you have nothing better to do... have at it. If you're in the mood three of them are kinda fun. None of them are scary, or particularly well done.

Place of One's Own, A (1944)

A very low key, well done ghost story. James Mason is quite good playing much older. Margaret
Lockwood, Dennis Price and Ernest Thesiger also star. Might be too slow and quiet for most.

There you go.

Chris Jarmick (Author: The Glass Cocoon - Available November 2000)

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