From the Entertainment Springs of Cinematic Horror Thrills

Mark Jancovich
Mark Jancovich

In his discussion of genre, Altman observes: “we cannot help but notice that generic terminology sometimes involves nouns, sometimes adjectives… Indeed, the very same word sometimes appears as both part of speech: musical comedies or just plain musicals, Western romances or simply Westerns, documentary films or film documentaries.” (Altman 1999, 50)

Furthermore, he suggests that the shift from a term operating as a adjective to its operation as a noun is associated with the process of generification, or the process through which the idea of a distinct genre is produced: “there would seem to be some kind of historical consistency in these generic doublets. Earlier uses of the term are invariably adjectival in nature, describing and delimiting a broader established category… Later uses involve standalone substantival treatment, with a corresponding change in the status of the new category.”

Certainly, there are reasons to doubt Altman’s suggestion that the relationship between the use of terms as adjectives and as nouns is largely a linear process of development and that, once an adjective has become a noun, the adjectival use simply drops away. None the less, his work provides a very useful way of understanding generic terminologies, and one that can help clarify the historically specific meanings of two generic terms during the early 1940s: horror and the thriller.

During this period, references to “horror” were sometimes used in an adjectival sense (in which films were described as “horrifying” or “horrific”) but “horror” was usually used as a noun. In other words, it was given the “stand-alone substantival treatment” that suggests the “status of [a generic] category”.

Alternatively, during the first half of the 1940s, the term “thriller” was used very differently, and although these uses were not “adjectival in nature”, they did not yet have the “status of a new category”.

The term “thriller” may have been clearly used as a noun, but it was not used to describe a particular type of film but rather to describe films that featured a particular quality. In other words, the term “thriller” did not suggest a generic category but rather worked like nouns such as “failure”, “hit” or “masterpiece”.

“Thrillers” were simply thrilling films — films that “thrilled” audiences — but this reference to “thrills” connoted something more than simply mere “excitement” or “suspense”.

The “thriller” was a film that provoked the kinds of physical reactions that are usually associated with horror today, and a film would be described as a “thriller” on the grounds that it provided “thrills and chills”.

To put it another way, the term “thriller” was often indistinguishable from the “chiller”, and it was used to describe films that would appeal to the “thrill seeker”, films that were “terrifying”, “hairraising”, “spine-tingling” and “shocking”; films that would make one’s “flesh creep” or give one “goose pimples”.

In this way, the “thriller” had a quite different meaning in the early 1940s from that with which it commonly associated today, and rather than suggesting a realist crime drama, the thriller was commonly used in relation to films that were clearly understood as horror pictures at the time and, in many cases, are still understood in this way today.

The article will therefore focus on the critical reception of films during the 1940s in order to examine the ways in which generic terms were used within the period. Of course, one cannot directly read reception off from reviewing practices, and no matter how broad the sample of reviews that one consults, one cannot presume that this sample represents all sections of the American population.

However, these reviews do give some indication of the ways in which generic terms were understood by a significant portion of the American population, and demonstrate that the meanings of these generic terms in the 1940s were often quite different from their meanings today.

The first section, therefore, focuses on the ways in which reviewers used the term “thriller” in relation to films that would be seen as classics of horror today, or as examples of the gothic (or paranoid) woman’s film, while the second section will then move on to examine a series of classic thrillers, many of which were seen as central to the emergence of film noir, and the ways in which these films were often overtly identified as horror films in the period.

Finally, the third section moves on to explore the persistence of this association between the terms “horror” and “thriller” well into the late 1950s, although this was also the period during which these two terms began to diverge from one another as generic categories.

The Washington Post referred to Universal’s 1943 remake of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ as the latest version of “the time-honoured ‘thriller,’ first made famous by Lon Chaney, pere.” (Bell 1943)

In this way, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ was not only identified as a “thriller” but also as a story made famous by the father of Universal’s key horror star in the 1940s, Lon Chaney Jnr. Furthermore, if Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of the story has created any ambiguity about the way in which film versions of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ are usually identified generically, Universal’s second reunion of ‘Dracula’, the ‘Wolfman’ and ‘Frankenstein’s monster, ‘House of Dracula’, was also referred to as “a purely ridiculous thriller.” (Guernseyb 1945)

Similarly, Columbia’s wartime Dracula imitation, ‘The Return of the Vampire’, which featured Bela Lugosi as its bloodthirsty monster, was also referred to as the “New Thriller at Rialto” by the New York Journal-American, which claimed that the film had “a scream in every scene, a chill in every thrill, and a shiver for every spine.” (Blackfordb 1944)

The association between the terms “horror”, “thriller” and “chiller” can also be seen in the reviews of Paramount’s ‘The Man in Half Moon Street’, in which “Nils Asther is a scientist who finds a way of staying young… by transferring to himself glands from young medical students”, a film that was remade as by Hammer in the 1960s. (T.M.P.a 1945)

Although the story was claimed to be “old stuff, especially for the Rialto’s patrons” and the kind of thing that “Boris Karloff has been doing… for years, only more flamboyantly”, this film was also identified as “the new Paramount thriller” (Guernseya 1945), and as “the Rialto Theatre’s latest spine-tingling picture” (Camerona 1945).

The association between the thriller and horror can also be seen in reviews of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series. For example, while ‘The Spider Woman’ was the latest in the Sherlock Holmes’ “shockers” (Barnesa 1944), a film in which “the entertainment springs from horror thrills” (Cooka 1944), it was also described as a “chiller-diller” (Blackforda 1944) that was designed with “the thrill trade” in mind.

The next Holmes adventure, ‘The Scarlet Claw’, was also identified as “a horror film” (Barnesc 1944), and one that was “the Rialto Theatre’s current bid for thrill-seekers” (Winstenc 1944). Nor were such claims simply made in relation to Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series.

For example, in 1943, ‘Captive Wild Woman’ featured Universal’s “latest monster wonder-child” (T.M.P. 1943), the studio’s most recent addition to its pantheon of monsters, and critics not only maintained that it had been designed in the knowledge that “a good many moviegoers are willing to pay a price to be scared out of their wits” but they also claimed that it was unlikely to “let the thrill seekers down.”

Similarly, ‘Calling Dr. Death’, the first in Universal’s ‘Inner Sanctum’ series, was described as “a mystery thriller” by the New York Journal American, although it also claimed that “you hardly need to be told” that it is “at that haven of horror films, the Rialto theatre.” (Pelswick 1944)

As a result, while the film was also referred to as an “engrossing thrillodrama” (Thirera 1944), the association between the “thriller” and the “chiller” was clear through its designation as “the first of the chiller-thrillers” that would make up the ‘Inner Sanctum’ series (Masters 1944).

Even Val Lewton’s ‘Curse of the Cat People’ was described as a “thriller” by the New York World-Telegram (Cooka 1944), while ‘Isle of the Dead’ was described as being “halfway between a horror film and a thriller” (Hale 1945).

While this description might be taken to imply that the horror film and the thriller were understood as discrete genres, it actually suggests something the opposite. Not only does the same review call the film a “spine chiller” but another reviewer noted that it was “more shocking than thrilling” (O.L.G. 1945). In other words, a distinction was being drawn that is similar to that often made between horror and terror.

In other words, the claim that ‘Isle of the Dead’ was “halfway between a horror film and a thriller” associates the term thriller with clean terror while the term “horror film” is distanced from the “status of [a generic] category” and simply identifies the film as being morbid, an identification that is clarified by the claim that the film “marches forward with a relentless and ghastly attention to yawning graves” (O.L.G. 1945).

Indeed Karloff had made a similar distinction between terror and horror in his introduction to his horror collection, ‘Tales of Terror’, a distinction that defined horror in terms in terms that would fit noir thrillers such as ‘Woman in the Window’ and ‘Double Indemnity’:

“Horror carries with it the connotation of revulsion which has nothing to do with clean terror. If we are not careful we will end by giving simple terror a bad name. The well-told tale of a really juicy murder, with grisly undercurrents of lust and hatred, carnage and what-have-you, topped of with intimate and gory details of how the corpse was dismembered and disposed of, and what a time the murderer had cleaning up the mess, makes exciting and even shocking reading, with a direct appeal to our morbidity and sadism. But we are not really frightened. After all, however cunningly it has been dressed up, it is still rather old hat.” (Karloff 1943, 10)

He therefore opposes horror to “true terror” in which the “essential element” is “fear… of the unknown and of the unknowable.” (Karloff 1943, 11)

None the less, attempts to distinguish the thriller from horror were rare, and it was more usual to see them as indistinguishable categories. For example, writing of the cycle of 1940s “terror films”, Siegfried Kracauer referred to the whole cycle as “horror-thrillers” (Kracauer 1946).

Similarly, ‘The Climax’, Universal’s follow-up to ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, was described “another elaborate horror thriller” that followed similar lines to its predecessor (Creelmand 1944).

Even examples of the gothic (or paranoid) woman’s film were discussed in this way with Gaslight being referred to “a frank chiller-thriller” (Winstenb 1944), while also being straightforwardly identified as a “thriller” in which Boyer “is impressively frightening.” (Camerona 1944) In other words, the film was not distinguished from horror but identified as a thriller precisely due to its “psychological horrors” (Barnesb 1944).

It was, therefore, predicted that audiences would find these horrors both “shocking” and “thrilling” (Camerona 1944), and the film was recommended “if you like screen horror shows” (Barnesb 1944) or “must have your marrow chilled” (Camerona 1944).

Similarly, ‘Dark Waters’ was also described as both “a killer-diller of a thriller” and as “a Horror Film”; a “tingling diversion”; and “a creepy story” (Crowtherc 1944).

If it was, therefore “a ‘must’ for thriller audiences”, its status as a thriller was due to the ways in which “Andre de Toth, the director, has added enough weird sounds, evil glances and mysterious effects to give a normal person the creeps.” (Guernseyb 1944)

‘Dark Waters’ was therefore described as “a spine-chilling melodrama” (Creelmanc 1944) that resembles the “Hitchcock thrillers” (Winstene 1944), while also being clearly identified as one of the best “horror mystery pictures of the year” (Cookc 1944); a “Memorable Horror Film” (McManus 1944); and “a horror story of the sort that made the Rialto Theatre infamous.” (McManus 1944)

Another classic Gothic (or paranoid) woman’s film, ‘The Spiral Staircase’, was also identified as “a Thriller”, largely on the grounds that it featured “a deft creation of ‘atmosphere’ and mood sustained through a crescendo of chilling events” (Bell 1946). In addition, the film was claimed to put “more than ordinary pleasurable strain on the nervous system”, and to be in the “chills and fever business”.

If all these claims suggested an association with horror, other reviews were more explicit in their identification of ‘The Spiral Staircase’ as a horror film. If Variety referred to the film as a “murder thriller”, it also claimed that “Director Robert Siodmak has retained a feeling of terror throughout the film” (Bron. 1946), while Time claimed that the film confirmed Siodmak’s growing reputation as “Hollywood’s top horror man” (Anon 1946).

Alternatively, the New York Times described it as “a shocker plain and simple” (T.M.P. 1946), that operated “on the time-tested theory that moviegoers are seldom more satisfied than when a film causes them to experience cold chills”, and it claimed that Siodmak’s film uses “practically every established device know to produce goose pimples.”

Furthermore, the film is claimed to be so effective that “we know that the film is likely to scare the daylights out of most audiences.”

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