Does the idea of a romantic horror movie seem strange? I can think of three from 1940s Hollywood that fit the bill, though I wouldn’t call any of them truly horrifying. Spooky and unsettling, perhaps frightening, but not gory or gross, and they were all made within a few years of each other.
I Married A Witch (1942)
This is the lightest of the three films, a fun romantic romp with Veronica Lake and Frederic March that nonetheless has some dark underpinnings. Lake plays immortal witch Jennifer, who curses Jonathan Wooley’s descendants after he burns her and her father (played by Robert Benchley) at the stake, ensuring that all of the Wooley men will have unhappy marriages. When a lightning storm frees Jennifer and her father centuries later, she decides that she can make the present-day Wallace Wooley (played by March) far more miserable than his snobbish fiancee will, but of course the love potion Jennifer concocts to induce Wallace to fall in love with her backfires and she finds herself trying to win his heart.
If you’ve seen 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle with Kim Novak, this plot will sound familiar, but I actually prefer this movie. Among other things, there’s no nonsense about the witch losing her powers just because she falls in love. The obstacle is her father’s continuing hatred of the Wooleys, and his threat is to strip her of her powers because of her love for Wallace. Honestly, any variation of “a woman loses all of her power when she falls in love with a man!” just gets on my nerves. Talk about propping up male supremacy …
This is a charming little black-and-white film with Veronica Lake at her sulkily comic best. She refuses to listen to March’s pleas as her love for him wreaks havoc with his life and political career, and he is utterly unable to resist her charms. Jennifer and Wallace succeed in outwitting her father and it ends with amusing glimpse of their married-with-children life. As Jennifer tells her father says, “Love is stronger than witchcraft.”
I Walked With A Zombie (1943)
When producer Val Lewton wanted to convince RKO Pictures to let him make this low-budget “B” picture, he sold it to them as “Jane Eyre in the West Indies.” But he had a secret purpose as well, with the deeper themes of the film revolving around the continuing legacy of slavery and how it damages both the descendants of the former slaves, now residents of the island, and the descendants of the slaveholders. The small-scale tragedy of the Holland family can be viewed as a punishment for their actions both past and present, which is one of the reasons the censors insisted that Lewton remove any connection between his fictional island and the United States. It would never do for American moviegoers of the 1940s to recognize themselves and their own sins in the film.
Still, it’s a little startling to see how much racial criticism the film was able to sneak past the censors. The trappings appear lurid at first — especially the voodoo ceremony — but it’s treated with surprising respect for the time by both the Black and the white characters. Our heroine is at first enchanted by the beautiful tropical island, but soon comes to realize that it was a trap for the slaves who were brought there against their will, and that their descendants are still held captive by the powerful white planter families despite being nominally “free.”
The Jane Eyre part is played by Frances Dee as Betsy, a Canadian nurse who travels to the West Indies to care for Jessica (Christine Gordon), a sugar planter’s wife whose mystery illness has left her catatonic and without a will of her own. Whispers and rumors abound about Jessica’s illness, alternately blaming her husband, Paul (played by Tom Holland), or Jessica’s infidelity with Paul’s half-brother Wesley (the top-billed James Ellison).
The most famous setpiece of the film is when Betsy takes her charge to a voodoo ceremony in the hope of reversing the curse that she has come to believe was placed on Jessica. Betsy has fallen in love with Paul, but she feels it’s her duty to cure Jessica if she can. A revelation at that ceremony only makes it more obvious that the Holland family is responsible for their own damnation, and it’s a relief when Paul is finally freed from his responsibilities so he can leave the island forever with Betsy.
The Uninvited (1944)
This is not one of the recent gory horror movies of the same name, but a classic ghost story that still holds chills today. Brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (played by Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) scoff when they are told that their new house is haunted by the ghost of Carmel, the mistress of the previous owner, but footsteps and other invisible occurrences start to make believers of them both, even the skeptical Roderick. Worse, the ghost seems to have a grudge against the beautiful Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) and endangers her every time she visits the house. The mystery of Carmel’s death and why her malevolent ghost lingers in the house must be solved if Stella and Roderick are to find their happy ending together.
This is considered a classic of the ghost story genre, and for good reason. The special effects are minimal and still hold up well, even in the digital age, and the mystery surrounding the ghost is still satisfyingly difficult to unravel. Milland makes a stalwart hero, and he’s one of my favorite actors of the period, able to move easily between playing heroes and villains. Only two years later, he won an Academy Award for playing an alcoholic in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend.
So there you have it — a witch, a zombie, and a ghost all get their due, and each film has a happy ending for their leads, disparate as they may be. Happy Halloween!