This class will introduce students to the horror films of the 1940s through those films often described as examples of the paranoid (or Gothic) woman’s film. These films, which emerged in response to the phenomenal success of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, feature a woman in love with a potential murderous lover. Although the cycle begins before the war, its key period of productivity was during the war years, and it can therefore also be seen as a key genre associated with changes in the audience during this period. With many men away fighting the war, women were encouraged to disassociate with domesticity in favour of war work and this changed the nature of the cinematic audience. Rather than simply going to the cinema as part of a couple or a family, Hollywood was overwhelmed by the new audience of women that were going to the cinema in groups or alone, and these changed circumstances encouraged these female audiences to play with new forms of femininity. The films therefore exhibit these ambivalent relationship to both the home and the world beyond in both of which require their female leads to turn detective.
We will, therefore, begin with a discussion of Rebecca as a key text within this cycle. It will examine the ways in which these film plays with their heroines’ struggle to make sense of their husbands; and the ways in which these women find themselves unable to tell whether these husbands love or hate them, an uncertain which motivates their investigative narratives.
We will then move onto other examples of the genre, such as another Joan Fontaine classic, the 1944 adaptation of Jane Eyre, which was (like Rebecca) explicitly understood as a horror film at the time. This will also be used to illustrate another key feature of the period, that these were not low budget horror films but major prestige studio productions, and ones that sought to acquire associations with legitimate culture. We will also look at Gaslight in this context, a film that sweep the academy awards in the 1945.
The class will then move on to explore the ways in which these materials were linked to another key feature of the period, film noir, which is often seen as distinct from the paranoid woman’s film, although neither of these terms existed at the time, and the films that are now associated with these two categories were usually identified with being part of the same category in the 1940s: the horror film. The class will therefore look at Phantom Lady (1944), a film often seen as a classic of film noir but one which was produced by a woman, Joan Harrison, who had also been one of Hitchcock’s key collaborators. Although often seen as a film noir, this film features a female, rather than a male, detective (film noir is often distinguished from the paranoid woman’s film on the basis that the former is supposed to be male centred and the latter female centred), and one that features another key aspect of these films, a focus on psychological horror: the heroine’s antagonist is a psychologically deranged killer.
Finally, the class will end with a consideration of Val Lewton’s films. Lewton is often read as both a low budget filmmaker and as one of the key contributors to the horror film in the period. However, through an examination of his first film, Cat People (1942), the class will explore how Lewton’s films feature many of the elements discussed above: a female detective, psychological horror, and an attempt to acquire associations with legitimate culture. We will therefore examine its associations with Rebecca and Jane Eyre, on which Lewton had been a script editor before being hired to produce films for RKO.