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Top 21 Scariest Horror Films from the 1940s

Top 21 Scariest Horror Films from the 1940s

Welcome to the Spooky world of the Frightful Forties

So you are one of those keen horror fans, who like to travel back in time to experience the frights and terrors of earlier cinematic eras. So are we!

The spooky stuff of the 1940s may be a thing of the distant past, but thanks to an enthralling, good old invention called Film, it will never be really gone.

Whenever you miss those good old days and feel like shivering and screaming, all you have to do, is sit tight, bite on your nails, and enjoy the thrills that only a 1940s horror movie can give you.

It will be a pleasure to drag you kicking and screaming through the blood-chilling frames of each horror film featured here, so let’s proceed to the terrifying collection where you’ll be chased by ghosts, evil dummies, acid-scarred composers, jungle beasts, Satan-worshippers and monsters like werewolves, zombies and the various abominations of men unleashed by mad science.

This is not your average horror film list featuring only the scariest and goriest films. We treat horror as the broad genre it actually is. Thus, we tried to diversify this collection as much as possible.

We picked science fiction- and fantasy horror films, mystery- and crime horrors, anthology horror films and horror film-noirs, psychological horror thrillers, dramatic- and romantic horror films and everything in between, even horror comedies.

Ready to jump and scream in front of the screen? Buckle up then, and let the best horror films of the 1940s scare the living heck out of you!

This collection is an episode of FrameTrek’s Best Horror Movies of All Time. A mega-journey dedicated to identify the spookiest films of each cinematic era, chronologically. It starts with the Horrors of the Silent Era and wanders ahead decade-by-decade, all the way to our ever moving present.


Presenting the 21 Best Horror Movies of the 1940s

Chronologically


The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

The Invisible Man Returns (1940), Joe May, Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Nan Grey, Best horror films from the 1940s
Where to Watch?   More info

Horror science fiction film directed by Joe May, starring Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price and Nan Grey.

Story: The owner of a coal mining operation, falsely imprisoned for fratricide, takes a drug to make him invisible, despite its side effect: gradual madness. (IMDB)

This is the second movie of Universal’s Classic Invisible Man Franchise.

Why is The Invisible Man Returns among the top horror movies of the 1940s?
✓ This film’s impressive visual effects, specifically those scenes where Vincent Price transitions from invisible to visible (and vice-versa) earned it an Academy Award nomination.
✓ A box office hit, well received by critics and audiences upon release and one of the most popular movies of the 1940s.


The Ghost Breakers (1940)

The Ghost Breakers (1940), George Marshall, Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Top horror films from the 1940s
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Mystery horror comedy film directed by George Marshall, starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard.

Story: A radio broadcaster, his quaking manservant and an heiress investigate the mystery of a haunted castle in Cuba. (IMDB)

Why is The Ghost Breakers among the greatest horror movies of the 1940s?
✓ Cited as a prime example of the classic Hollywood horror-comedy.
✓ This film was such a big box office hit that, for years after its release, other studios made similar movies in hopes of replicating its success.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), Victor Fleming, Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Greatest horror films from the 1940s
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Drama horror science fiction film Victor Fleming, starring Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner.

Story: Dr. Jekyll allows his dark side to run wild when he drinks a potion that turns him into the evil Mr. Hyde. (IMDB)

Despite its powerful cast, Stevenson’s classic story loses its social and sexual undertones in this lustless, but still decently entertaining, adaptation

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde among the most famous horror movies of the 1940s?
✓ It was a huge commercial success, and it was nominated for three Academy Awards.
✓ Received praise for the performance of the principal cast, Fleming’s direction, pacing and staging of the story.


The Wolf Man (1941)

The Wolf Man (1941), George Waggner, Lon Chaney Jr., Most famous horror films from the 1940s
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Horror mystery romance movie directed by George Waggner and starring Lon Chaney Jr.

Story: Larry Talbot returns to his father’s castle in Wales and meets a beautiful woman. One fateful night, Talbot escorts her to a local carnival where they meet a mysterious gypsy fortune teller. (IMDB)

A handsomely told tale with an affecting performance from Lon Chaney, Jr., The Wolf Man remains one of the classics of the Universal horror stable.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is The Wolf Man among the most popular horror movies of the 1940s?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ It had a great deal of influence on Hollywood’s depictions of the legend of the werewolf.
✓ Praised for it’s makeup effects, atmospheric music, and Chaney’s performance.


Hold That Ghost (1941)

Hold That Ghost (1941), Abbott and Costello, Most popular horror films from the 1940s
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Horror comedy film starring the comedy team of Abbott and Costello.

Story: After inheriting a fortune from a gangster, two dim-witted service station attendants find themselves stranded in a haunted house. (IMDB)

A slam-bang and knockabout comedy, silly and ridiculous, but a laugh-creator and audience-pleaser.

Variety

Why is Hold That Ghost among the best horror movies of the 1940s?
✓ Upon it’s release it received almost unanimously positive reviews.
✓ One of the most successful and popular movies of the 1940s.


Cat People (1942)

Cat People (1942), Jacques Tourneur, Simone Simon, Best horror films from the 1940s
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Fantasy horror thriller film directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Simone Simon.

Story: An American man marries a Serbian immigrant who fears that she will turn into the cat person of her homeland’s fables if they are intimate together. (IMDB)

Influential noir director Jacques Tourneau infused this sexy, moody horror film with some sly commentary about the psychology and the taboos of desire.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Cat People among the top horror films of the 1940s?
✓ Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list and included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ Received critical praise for it’s atmosphere, sophistication and shadowy visuals.


The Leopard Man (1943)

The Leopard Man (1943), Jacques Tourneur, Dennis O'Keefe, Jean Brooks, Margo, Scary horror movies of the 1940s
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Horror thriller film-noir directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Dennis O’Keefe, Jean Brooks and Margo.

Story: A seemingly tame leopard used for a publicity stunt escapes and kills a young girl, spreading panic throughout a sleepy New Mexico town. (IMDB)

Tourneur’s fast-paced film is armed with a taut and intelligent script, and is one of those memorable films that gets even better with age like a good wine.

Dennis Schwartz of Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

Why is The Leopard Man among the scary horror films from the 1940s?
✓ Received critical praise for it’s atmosphere, direction, suspense and the unique use of sound and shadows to create tension.
✓ Gradually acquired a cult following over the years, and is now considered a cult classic and one of the greatest horror films ever made.


Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Phantom of the Opera (1943), Arthur Lubin, Claude Rains, Scariest horror movies of the 1940s
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Romantic horror thriller film directed by Arthur Lubin and starring Claude Rains.

Story: An acid-scarred composer rises from the Paris sewers to boost his favorite opera understudy’s career. (IMDB)

Though it lives beneath the 1925 version, Claude Rains plays title character well in this landmark color version of the classic tragedy.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Phantom of the Opera among the top horror movies from the 1940s?
✓ Despite mixed critical reviews, the film was a box office success and won an Oscar for Art Direction and Cinematography.


The Seventh Victim (1943)

The Seventh Victim (1943), Mark Robson, Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Scariest horror films from the 1940s
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Horror mystery film-noir directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway and Jean Brooks.

Story: A woman in search of her missing sister uncovers a Satanic cult in New York’s Greenwich Village and finds that they could have something to do with her sibling’s random disappearance. (IMDB)

Rarely has a film succeeded so well in capturing the nocturnal menace of a large city, the terror underneath the everyday, the suggestion of hidden evil.

Carlos Clarens

Why is The Seventh Victim among the most famous horror films of the 1940s?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ It became a cult film, noted by critics for its homoerotic undertones.


Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), Roy William Neill, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Scary horror films of the 1940s
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Fantasy horror sci-fi film directed by Roy William Neill, starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi.

Story: The resurrected Wolf Man, seeking a cure for his malady, enlists the aid of a mad scientist, who claims he will not only rid the Wolf Man of his nocturnal metamorphosis, but also revive the frozen body of Frankenstein’s inhuman creation. (IMDB)

A horror feast in which devotees of the weird and the fantastic will gorge themselves to bursting. The opportunities for screams are offered with unparalleled generosity.

Film Daily

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Jacques Tourneur, James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Scary horror movies from the 1940s
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Drama fantasy horror film directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring James Ellison, Frances Dee and Tom Conway.

Story: A nurse is hired to care for the wife of a sugar plantation owner, who has been acting strangely, on a Caribbean island. (IMDB)

Evocative direction by Jacques Tourneur collides with the low-rent production values of exploitateer Val Lewton in I Walked with a Zombie, a sultry sleeper that’s simultaneously smarmy, eloquent and fascinating.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is I Walked with a Zombie among the scariest horror films of the 1940s?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Praised by critics and audiences for its atmosphere, story and Jacques Tourneur’s direction as well as for its depiction of beliefs associated with African diaspora religions, particularly Haitian Vodou.
✓ Widely considered to be one of the greatest zombie movies ever made, and an influential horror classic.


House of Frankenstein (1944)

House of Frankenstein (1944), Erle C. Kenton, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Scariest horror movies from the 1940s
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Fantasy horror sci-fi film directed by Erle C. Kenton, starring Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine.

Story: A deranged scientist escapes from prison and recruits Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man to get revenge on his behalf. (IMDB)

The impressively eerie and horrendous settings, lighting and costumes will help you enter into the sinister proceedings.

Wanda Hale of the New York Daily News

Why is House of Frankenstein among the most popular horror movies from the 1940s?
✓ Received critical praise for the acting, makeup, clever photography, lighting and score.


The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

The Curse of the Cat People (1944), Gunther von Fritsch, Robert Wise, Simone Simon, Kent Smith Jane Randolph, Most popular horror films of the 1940s
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Psychological fantasy horror thriller film directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise, starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph.

Story: The young, friendless daughter of Oliver and Alice Reed befriends her father’s dead first wife and an aging, reclusive actress. (IMDB)

✪ It is a sequel to Cat People (1942) and has many of the same characters, but it is only tangentially related to its predecessor.

Foregoing the horror thrills of its predecessor in favor of childhood fantasy, Curse of the Cat People is a touching and psychologically complex family film couched in a ghost story.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

The Uninvited (1944)

The Uninvited (1944), Lewis Allen, Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Most famous horror movies from the 1940s
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Fantasy horror mystery film directed by Lewis Allen, starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey and Donald Crisp.

Story: A composer and his sister discover that the reason they are able to purchase a beautiful gothic seacoast mansion very cheaply is the house’s unsavory past. (IMDB)

This one will really give you the shudders, and there are a few places where the suspense will freeze the marrow in your bones, to say nothing of the blood in your veins.

Karl Krug – Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph

Why is The Uninvited among the scariest horror films from the 1940s?
✓ It was a huge box office hit upon release and received positive reviews from trade papers as well as from critics, who were surprised that the film’s supernatural elements were presented as reality and that they found it genuinely frightening.
✓ One of the first Hollywood feature films to portray a haunting as an authentic supernatural event.
✓ Martin Scorsese placed this film on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time.


The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Albert Lewin, George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Greatest horror movies from the 1940s
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Fantasy horror-drama film directed by Albert Lewin, starring George Sanders and Hurd Hatfield.

Story: A corrupt young man somehow keeps his youthful beauty, but a special painting gradually reveals his inner ugliness to all. (IMDB)

✪ The movie is black-and-white except for four times, when Dorian Gray’s picture is shown in color.

Why is The Picture of Dorian Gray among the greatest horror films of the 1940s?
✓ Included among the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 Most Heart-Pounding American Movies.
✓ It is perhaps the best known among the dozen or so film and television adaptations of the material upon which it is based.
✓ A box office success and one of the most popular movies of the 1940s.


Dead of Night (1945)

Dead of Night (1945), Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, Best horror films of the 1940s
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Anthology horror film of four individual segments directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer.

Story: The guests invited to weekend in the country share their supernatural stories, beginning with Walter Craig , who senses impending doom as his half-remembered recurring dream turns into reality. (IMDB)

With four accomplished directors contributing, Dead of Night is a classic horror anthology that remains highly influential.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Dead of Night among the best horror movies from the 1940s?
✓ #35 on Time Out Magazine’s list of the Top 100 Horror movies and #5 on director Martin Scorsese’s list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time.
✓ A box office success and one of the most popular movies of the 1940s.


The Body Snatcher (1945)

The Body Snatcher (1945), Robert Wise, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Scariest horror movies of the 1940s
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Thriller horror film directed by Robert Wise, starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Henry Daniell.

Story: A ruthless doctor and his young prize student find themselves continually harassed by their murderous supplier of illegal cadavers. (IMDB)

No punches pulled… No details hidden… No facts sugar-coated in this startling and horrific expose of the methods used by surgeons years ago to get bodies for dissection!

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The Spiral Staircase (1946)

The Spiral Staircase (1946), Robert Siodmak, Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Scary horror films from the 1940s
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Psychological horror film directed by Robert Siodmak, starring Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore.

Story: In 1916, a shadowy serial killer is targeting women with “afflictions”; one night during a thunderstorm, the mute Helen feels menaced. (IMDB)

This is a smooth production of an obvious, though suspenseful murder thriller, ably acted and directed. Mood and pace are well set, and story grips throughout.

Variety

Why is The Spiral Staircase among the most popular horror movies from the 1940s?
✓ The movie has been subject to significant film criticism and academic discussion, particularly in regard to the film’s visual motifs and blending of horror and film noir.
✓ Noted by critics for its prominent Gothic horror elements and cited as a progenitor to the slasher film genre, specifically for its point-of-view cinematography deployed during scenes in which the killer stalks his victims.


Bedlam (1946)

Bedlam (1946), Mark Robson, Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Best horror movies of the 1940s
Where to Watch?   More info

Dramatic horror thriller film directed by Mark Robson, starring Boris Karloff and Anna Lee.

Story: Nell Bowen, the protégé of Lord Mortimer, wants to help change the conditions of notorious St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum (Bedlam). Though she tries to reform Bedlam, but the cruel Master Sims who runs it has her committed there, though ultimate, it’s the lunatics who’ve taken over the asylum. (IMDB)

While the film has a tendency to wander into unadulterated Hollywoodisms in spots, it is a generally straight-forward and imaginative estimate of a two-century-old sociological theme.

Bosley Crowther – New York Times

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Charles Barton, Abbott and Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Best horror films from the 1940s
Where to Watch?   More info

Horror comedy film directed by Charles Barton, starring the comedy team of Abbott and Costello alongside Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi.

Story: The Wolf Man tries to warn a dimwitted porter that Dracula wants his brain for Frankenstein monster’s body. (IMDB)

A zany horror spoof that plays up and then plays into the best of Universal horror cliches.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein among the top horror movies of the 1940s?
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ It was one of the biggest box office hits of its time and it was also well received by trade papers and critics.


Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), Charles Barton, Greatest horror films of the 1940s
Where to Watch?   More info

Crime horror comedy film directed by Charles Barton, starring the comedy team of Abbott and Costello alongside Boris Karloff.

This funny and suspenseful outing for Bud and Lou casts them as a pair of hotel employees – house detective Casey Edwards and bumbling bellboy Freddie Phillips – who are determined to discover why corpses keep popping up around the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel. Is supposed swami Karloff really the killer… or is it someone else? (Amazon)


…end of the reel…

So there you have it: The 21 Greatest Horror films of the 1940s

If you want to take a look at the movies listed above, without all that info between the titles, here’s a quick recap:

Top 21 Horror Movies of the 1940s
Chronologically
The Invisible Man Returns 1940
The Invisible Man Returns
*Part of the Collection: Universal’s Classic Invisible Man Franchise
The Ghost Breakers 1940
The Ghost Breakers
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1941
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Wolf Man 1941
The Wolf Man
*Part of the Collection: Wolfrancula Cinematic Universe
Hold That Ghost 1941
Hold That Ghost
Cat People 1942
Cat People
The Leopard Man 1943
The Leopard Man
Phantom of the Opera 1943
Phantom of the Opera
The Seventh Victim 1943
The Seventh Victim
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man 1943
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
*Part of the Collection: Wolfrancula Cinematic Universe
I Walked with a Zombie 1943
I Walked with a Zombie
House of Frankenstein 1944
House of Frankenstein
*Part of the Collection: Wolfrancula Cinematic Universe
The Curse of the Cat People 1944
The Curse of the Cat People
The Uninvited 1944
The Uninvited
The Picture of Dorian Gray 1945
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Dead of Night 1945
Dead of Night
The Body Snatcher 1945
The Body Snatcher
The Spiral Staircase 1946
The Spiral Staircase
Bedlam 1946
Bedlam
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein 1948
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
*Part of the Collection: Wolfrancula Cinematic Universe
Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff 1949
Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff
*Click any Title for more Info and for Streaming / Disc Buying options.

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