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Gothic Film in the ‘40s: Domestic Terror and Supernatural Drama

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The Lost Moment (1947)

In the first part of my examination of Gothic cinema in the ‘40s, I focused on romantic melodramas and suspense films — such as Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and Secret Beyond the Door — but this loose subgenre only makes up one part of the decade’s sizeable Gothic output and there are two additional themes of equal importance. First are domestic dramas, films like The House of the Seven Gables (1940) and Dragonwyck (1946), which generally revolve around ancient curses and dubious inheritances. Second are the more overtly supernatural films that unusually add a paranormal twist to more conventional dramas, melodramas, romances, or thrillers — everything from The Uninvited (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) — putting quite a spin on the numerous horror and suspense films of the ‘20s and ‘30s that began with a supernatural premise, but ultimately revealed the culprit to be all too human.

The Gothic films that focused on domestic turmoil were primarily influenced by the fiction of one of New England’s foremost Gothic writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and thus director Joe May’s adaptation of Hawthorne’s novel, The House of Seven Gables (1940), set the stage for many subsequent films released during the decade. This compelling tale of betrayal, revenge, death, and obsession fueled by a family curse and an alleged hidden treasure follows the Pyncheons’ squabbles over the sale of their ancestral home. The titular House of the Seven Gables allegedly suffers from a curse going back several generations and stores many bad memories. Clifford (a young Vincent Price) plans to sell it, much to the dismay of his brother Jaffrey (George Sanders), who believes a fortune in gold is hidden somewhere on the premises. To prevent the sale, Jaffrey accuses Clifford of murder when their father dies accidentally, but he is pardon years later and returns to get his revenge…

Arguably, The House of the Seven Gables suffers from being mismarketed. The lurid tagline — “An ancient house! A murder secret! A hidden treasure!” — is at best an exaggeration of the film’s plot, at worst an outright lie. Thanks to the presence of Vincent Price — not yet then a horror star but well on his way by the mid-’40s — and the loose Gothic themes of an old haunted house, a family curse, and buried treasure, it’s easy to see this as primarily a genre film, though it’s really a historical drama about fraternal betrayal. In the novel, Hawthorne wonders, “Shall we never get rid of this Past? It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body.” This language evokes earlier Gothic literature that is similarly obsessed with homesteads and family units, like The Castle of Otranto, and the (admittedly mild) horror of the film comes from this sense of doomed domestic fate, one that has been inherited thanks to generations of cultivated maliciousness.

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The House of the Seven Gables (1940)

Despite intimations of a ghost, the real specter here is human evil born of selfishness, which is bound up with a sense of repressed desire. For her essay “A Domestic Reading of The House of the Seven Gables” for Studies in the Novel, Susan Van Zanten Gallagher reads the novel as Hawthorne’s reinterpretation of contemporary “domestic novels,” which — like Gothic texts focused on marriage and romance — were concerned with the lives of women and the often restrictive roles offered to them: daughters, wives, and mothers. In this sense, Clifford’s betrothed Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay in the film) is actually the protagonist and her attempts to take control of her own future in a practical, economic sense are as essential to the story — in both the novel and film — as Clifford’s revenge plot.

Of the house itself, Gallagher wrote, “Hawthorne’s particulars, however, work in an ironic fashion. The cool parlors and cosy kitchens of the typical domestic novel become the dark, gloomy house, full of spiders and rats, furnished with straight and stiff chairs, and plagued by a mysterious cold draft” (6). With The House of the Seven Gables, there is a sense that the Pyncheons’ domestic failure — set in motion by the father’s death, Jaffrey accusing Clifford of murder, and Clifford being sent to prison —  has turned the house into a place that is haunted, or even damned, a general theme that extended to many of the domestic thrillers and supernatural dramas of the decade.

It was Emily Dickinson who wrote, “One need not be a chamber to be haunted, / One need not be a house; / The brain has corridors surpassing / Material place.” Many of the female protagonists of the films to follow The House of the Seven Gables are focused on characters who are haunted by psychological, rather than supernatural ghosts. In general, there is the sense that fantasy, imagination, and longing — and certainly a sense of selfishness that is all-consuming — either spells doom or nearly does so, not unlike the female leads of Wuthering Heights or Rebecca. And as with Jaffrey Pyncheon and his lust for secret family gold, the protagonists of films like Dragonwyck (1946) and The Lost Moment (1947) are damned by a preoccupation with a life that is out of reach because of societal restrictions on women.

While Dragonwyck borrows equally from novels like Jane Eyre and even Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, it continues The House of the Seven Gables’ themes of a corrupt aristocracy. Vincent Price returns to play the Bluebeard-like head of an old family who exploits the farmers working on his estate and, in turn, his home is believed to be a place of ghosts, suspected murder, and even whispers of a curse. Echoing Hawthorne’s assertion in The House of the Seven Gables that “what other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart,” he is so obsessed with finding a male heir that he murders his own wife and marries a farmer’s daughter-cum-governess (Gene Tierney) who is seduced by the fantasy of his aristocratic world.

Similarly, director Martin Gabel’s neglected old-dark-house drama The Lost Moment — based on Henry James’ novel The Aspen Papers — follows two women (Agnes Moorehead and Susan Hayward) caught in the spell of romantic letters written long ago by a dead poet. When a publisher (Robert Cummings) comes to their eerie Venetian estate under false pretenses to hopefully purchase the letters, which were written to the elderly Juliana (Moorehead), he discovers madness, murder, and some disturbing family secrets. It’s baffling that the film was so critically panned upon its release, as it deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of Gothic cinema fans.

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The Uninvited (1944)

These themes of obsession, tormented fantasy, and dark family secrets also found their way into overtly supernatural dramas of the period, most notably in Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944). A composer and his sister, Rick (Ray Milland) and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ruth Hussey), are on vacation on the English coast when they see an abandoned house, fall in love with it, and learn it is for sale. Known as Winward House, it has a possibly questionable background and a cold, reserved former owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), but the price is right and they eagerly purchase it. They also meet Beech’s lovely granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell), who Rick begins to fall in love with.

Stella has a somewhat unhealthy attachment to the house, and the siblings learn that her mother died there when she was just a child. Soon, they come to believe the house is haunted and one night at dinner, Stella is overcome by a presence and nearly throws herself off the cliffs. The Fitzgeralds seek the help of local physician (Alan Napier), who tells them about the house’s torrid past: Stella’s artist father had an affair with one of his models, Carmen, who tried to murder the infant Stella, culminating in the eventual deaths of all three adults. Believing there are two spirits in the house, benevolent Mary and evil Carmel, they perform a seance, but nothing is quite as it seems…

For Criterion, Farran Smith Nehme wrote, “Lewis Allen’s 1944 beauty is an early example of a true cinematic ghost story—one that doesn’t pull away the curtain at the end, Toto-like, to reveal a human manipulating the levers.” The Uninvited was the one of the first Hollywood films to seriously examine ghosts and haunted houses without falling back on the comedic or crime-inspired tropes of the ‘20s and ‘30s found in films like The Old Dark House (1932), The Ghost Goes West (1935), Hold That Ghost (1941), or the numerous adaptations of The Cat and the Canary. While Universal embraced the supernatural early on with films like Dracula (1931) and The Mummy (1932), Paramount was essentially the first studio to make a classic American ghost film.

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The Uninvited (1944)

Moody and atmospheric, director Lewis Allen doesn’t overplay his hand and is careful to make the use of the supernatural sparing, but effective. The siblings inexplicably hear a woman crying during the night; a particularly clever entry way into the hauntings that manage to avoid the more ludicrous, comic ghostly cliches such as objects moving of their own accord. Cinematographer Charles Lang, Jr. makes excellent use of the foreboding house, which he had to light quite creatively as it did not have power, and the picturesque yet ominous Devon cliffs. Other elements include fresh flowers that wither almost instantaneously, the perfume of other invisible flowers, and a brief scene of an apparent possession. These particular haunting tropes seem an obvious influence on both The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1963) — despite the literary source material for both those films — and all three revolve around the issue of tormented relationships between parents (or parental figures) and children.

The Uninvited’s big reveal is that it’s actually the ghost of Stella’s mother who is evil and, somewhat like Rebecca, the film is awash with menacing female presences, both alive and dead. Her sudden sexual maturity and the romance feelings Rick has inspired seems to have awakened a hysteria that is both internal and external, as biological as it is supernatural. Even more so than the male characters in the film, it is these women who seek to control and even destroy the girl. As Smith Nehme wrote, “ridding the place of its lurking evil becomes a question of saving Stella herself,” and she is tormented as much by childhood psychological trauma as she is by spectral presences. Much of the film’s drama and tension — as with many of these Gothic films — emerges from the contrast between what Stella experiences and how the characters around her interpret those events rationally.

In her Cinema Journal essay, “’At Last I Can Tell It to Someone!’: Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s,” Diane Waldman wrote, “the central feature of the Gothics is ambiguity, the hesitation between two possible interpretations of events by the protagonist and often, in these filmic presentations, by the spectator as well. This it shares with other filmic and literary genres, for example, the horror film and the fantastic. Yet in the Gothic, this hesitation is experienced by a character (and presumably a spectator) who is female. Within a patriarchal culture, then, the resolution of the hesitation carries with it the ideological function of validation or invalidation of feminine experience” (31).

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The Woman Who Came Back (1945)

These themes can also be found in one of the more ignored Gothic suspense films from the period, The Woman Who Came Back (1945), sort of a dark twist on witch-themed romantic comedies like I Married a Witch (1942) or the later Bell, Book, and Candle (1958). Lorna Webster (Nancy Kelly) returns to her Massachusetts hometown after several years away and becomes convinced that she is possessed by the spirit of Jezebel Tristner, an infamous witch from the area, thanks to the fact that she was the sole survivor of a bus accident. An old, black-veiled woman (the fantastically named Elspeth Dudgeon of The Old Dark House and The Moonstone) sitting next to her claimed to be Tristner, who was burned at the stake in Lorna’s hometown 300 years prior.

Her former fiancé, the local doctor (John Loder), becomes actively engaged in her recovery. Though they resume their relationship, Lorna begins to see Jezebel’s influence everywhere in her life and a number of strange things happen: a black dog follows her around, flowers die when she touches them, and she finds Jezebel’s confession in the church basement that confirms the witch’s supposed pact with the Devil. The townsfolk become superstitious, if not outright hysterical, and believe Lorna is not only possessed, but is responsible for any misdeeds or unhappy accidents that occur around town.

Made by one of the many poverty row studios operating at the time, Republic Pictures, The Woman Who Came Back is a subtle and compelling film that borrows much from Val Lewton’s horror production for RKO during the same period, such as Cat People and The Leopard Man, and was obviously influenced by the previous year’s Weird Woman (1944), based on Fritz Leiber’s novel about suburban witchcraft, Conjure Wife, which Universal made for their Inner Sanctum series. There’s also a dash of Carl Dreyer’s excellent witchcraft hysteria film, Day of Wrath (1943), and though this is an undeniably cheap production and suffers from a number of plot issues — including some unanswered questions and an attempt to tack on a rational ending that explains everything away — it is an interesting experiment in supernatural suspense, suspicion, and hysteria.

Despite more minor efforts from the period like The Lost Moment and The Woman Who Came Back, possibly the most compelling of all these supernatural-themed drama films of the decade is Albert Lewin’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). The beautiful, young, and well-off Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield, who looks alarmingly like H.P. Lovecraft) is having his portrait painted by the morally upstanding artist Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore). Basil’s rakish friend Lord Henry (George Sanders, at his best, despite being implausibly goateed) looks in on them and begins schooling Dorian in the ways of the world and opens Dorian’s eyes to the fact that his youth and beauty will not last. He insists that Dorian should make the best of them while he can and live a life motivated by pleasure. Dorian makes a wish of sorts on the painting that he will always mirror it and never change.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Later he meets a much lower class singer and actress, Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury), who he falls in love with. He begins to court her and proposes marriage, but changes his mind on a whim and cruelly breaks her heart. He regrets this, but before he can reconcile things, Sibyl kills herself. Dorian is heartbroken with what he has done, but squashes his emotions and proceeds to live the most debaucherous life imaginable. All the while, the portrait, which he has locked away in a secret room, begins to look twisted and ugly. Many years later, Basil catches a glimpse of the portrait and confronts Dorian about his bad behavior, which leads to a downward spiral of death and deception.

Though often marketed as a horror film, it really borrows much more from melodrama and only has minor genre notes. It does, however, return to the idea of a brooding, Gothic hero, one that featured in the Gothic romances I discussed in the first part of this essay, most often played by actors like Olivier or Welles, though with a new interpretation of the character type. Waldman wrote that this divergence from the original character type could specifically be found throughout the Gothic films of the ‘40s. She said, “In every film from Shadow of a Doubt (1943) to Sleep My Love (1948), the heroine’s suspicions about the Gothic male are confirmed. This represents a substantial departure from the 19th century Gothics, the earlier films in the cycle, and the modern Gothics and contemporary romances where the moody Byronic lover emerges as someone who truly loves the heroine. For example, in the modern Gothics analyzed by Joanna Russ, the cruel Satanic type is ‘invariably guiltless’ while a gentler, kinder man is actually the villain, perhaps ‘an insane mass murderer of a whole string of previous wives.’ In these more conservative works, as Tania Modleski has argued, moody, scornful, cruel and sadistic behavior is thematized as problematic for women, but it is eventually naturalized as simply part of being male, in fact evidence of the man’s love for the heroine” (34).

And The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the Gothic films from the era where “the heroine’s suspicions about the Gothic male are confirmed” — in the sense that Dorian turns out to not only reject Sybil, leading to her death, but he becomes the film’s monster. Wilde effectively reimagined the Gothic male protagonist by removing him from the basic romantic equation put forth by everything from The Castle of Otranto and Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre and by incorporating influences from Decadent literature like the short fiction of Poe or the novels of Huysmans (whose work Dorian reads and is corrupted by). To a certain extent, Lewis’s adaptation also wrested the subgenre away from “woman’s films,” though Lewin certainly put an emphasis on Sybil’s ruination and suicide and her brother’s subsequent quest for revenge.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Both the film and novel are effectively about a man seeking the limits of experience; he begins as something of a Gothic hero and does start an intense romantic relationship with a young actress, but chooses hedonism. The novel caused a moral outrage that foreshadowed the furor over Wilde’s own lifestyle, but in a letter to the St. James Gazette, Wilde wrote that the book’s moral is that, “All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment.” Like the earlier Gothic novels, there is this sense of moral judgement and punishment and for Philosophy and Literature, Joseph Carroll wrote of Wilde’s own “guilt and self-loathing,” particularly in regards to his own homosexuality, which is a central theme of the novel.

While many of the traditional Gothic films are concerned with sexual repression and a female character struggling against societal constraints, The Picture of Dorian Gray’s themes are more complex and represent an internal moral struggle with certain obvious parallels to Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Carroll wrote, “The three chief male figures in the novel all embody aspects of Wilde’s own identity, and that identity is fundamentally divided against itself. The novel is thus a ‘psychodrama’” (5). But in Lewin’s film, this is complicated by the exaggerated presence of two female characters. First there is Sybil, whose death has more of an impact on Dorian than in the novel and many of his subsequent immoral actions can be linked back to a sense of loss or guilt, somewhat like the male leads of Rebecca or Secret Beyond the Door.

But in the second half of the film, the young and innocent Gladys (Donna Reed!), Basil’s niece, is able to remind Dorian of the goodness and morality he has rejected for so many years. Carroll wrote, “For Wilde, identity consists of two main elements, sensual pleasure and moral pathos, and in his moral universe these two elements are usually set in opposition to one another. Sensual pleasure associates itself with egoism, worldly vanity, and cruelty. Moral pathos is sometimes associated with devoted love, but it manifests itself primarily as pity for the poor and as tenderness toward children. Erotic passion allies itself with sensual pleasure. The morally negative side of Wilde’s identity is distinctly male and predatory, and the positive side distinctly female and maternal. In Wilde, the moral sense couches itself explicitly and imaginatively in Christian terms—in terms of self-sacrificing love, sin, remorse, redemption, and the soul.” (6)

That sense of self-sacrifice, redemption, and even punishment — so informed by Christian, particularly Catholic morality — is a defining feature of many of the Gothic films of the ‘40s, though it can also be found in horror movies and film noir. This grew out of both the numerous Gothic literary sources and the strange blend of nihilistic despair and fantastical escapism that emerged in so much art, literature, and cinema during WWII and the immediate postwar years. While The Picture of Dorian Gray remains one of the most obvious examples of this type of polarizing moral struggle, it touched on nearly everything that could be described as Gothic: fantasy films like The Enchanted Cottage (1945), romantic comedies like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), domestic suspense films like The Sign of the Ram (1948), and romantic thrillers like Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love (1948). These Gothic themes even came full circle at the end of the decade with Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948) — Welles himself said he wanted it to be “a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein” — the ultimate combination of supernatural horror, psychological torment, and, to an extent, domestic tragedy.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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