The Best Horror Movie of 1940: Rebecca

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The Best Horror Movie of 1940: <i>Rebecca</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

After the success of Son of Frankenstein in 1939 and the subsequent rush to get horror films back into production, 1940 is chock full of horror flicks of all kinds, from dramatic thrillers that only border on the edges of the genre, to more “mad doctor” movies that will proliferate like weeds this decade, to lighthearted horror comedies such as The Ghost Breakers, which stars a boyish Bob Hope.

Notable this year is the emergence of one Vincent Leonard Price Jr., at the very beginning of his career, starring in two films of note: The mystery/gothic drama The House of the Seven Gables and Universal’s The Invisible Man Returns. In the latter, he plays the title role of Geoffrey Radcliffe, the titular invisible man in this installment, a wrongfully convicted criminal who is turned invisible in order to slip the hangman’s noose. Although he’s not playing the same character that Claude Rains did in 1933, Price brings the same charisma and hint of satirical humor to the role. He would spend the next two decades largely performing in dramas, until 1953’s House of Wax made him a horror icon to be exploited heavily by Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe films of the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in horror typecasting for the rest of his long career. Price would ultimately have credited screen roles in seven decades.

1940 is a year for lesser Universal horror works in general, as The Mummy’s Hand kicks off a rather meandering series of sequels without Boris Karloff, in which the shambling mummy Kharis slowly and unstoppably lurches around and strangles people to the tune of three more sequels: The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Curse and The Mummy’s Ghost, which descend in quality pretty rapidly. Karloff and Lugosi, meanwhile, are at it again in Black Friday, while Karloff ultimately appears in four different horror films this year, which also include Before I Hang and The Man With Nine Lives. Suffice to say, the guy took advantage of all the work he could while the getting was good.

1940 Honorable Mentions: The Invisible Man Returns, The Mummy’s Hand, Before I Hang, Black Friday, The Ghost Breakers

The Film: Rebecca

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Rebecca is perhaps the most effective ghost story ever filmed to contain strictly metaphorical ghosts, rather than literal ones. Alfred Hitchcock’s American film career began with a bang, as this David O. Selznick-produced psychological thriller proved to be the only Hitchcock film to ever take home Best Picture at the Academy Awards, announcing the British master of suspense’s arrival and intent to change the Hollywood game.

All the characters of Rebecca can be described as haunted, but the nature of that haunting is rarely as we’re initially led to believe. The beautiful, gothic estate of Manderley is the home to aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter, played with the expected sophistication by Laurence Olivier, who we meet reeling after the death of his beloved wife Rebecca. Our viewpoint character, on the other hand, has no name of her own—Joan Fontaine’s big Hollywood break here is as a timid, good-natured young woman who is badly out of her depth when it comes to navigating the social circles and stuffy aristocracy of Manderley, where everyone assumes she will forever lack the grace and refinement necessary to be a “great lady.” Her lack of a name signifies her insignificance in the eyes of everyone at the estate, all of whom remain fixated on the specter of Rebecca, a woman of radiant beauty and seemingly boundless charisma, who seemed to have inspired fanatical devotion from her servants, friends and husband. Fontaine is brilliant as she tries to put on a brave face and endure the scorn of those around her, but her facade quickly begins to crumble as she’s mortified time and again.

The description may sound lacking in horror bonafides on some level, but there is indeed a uniquely creepy aura to Rebecca, well reflected in the film’s opening moments, which begin with a fog-shrouded nighttime drive up the estate’s driveway, accompanied by Fontaine’s hushed, dreamy narration. Like most classic gothic romances or melodramas, there are secrets buried in this great old manor, from the nature of Rebecca’s death to the hidden machinations of the hired help and their associates. The themes of Rebecca were later lifted for low-rent horror flicks like 1958’s The Screaming Skull, but nothing in that overtly “horror” genre entry is half as chilling as this film’s Mrs. Danvers, the stone-faced housekeeper who at one point tries to convince the new Mrs. de Winter to leap to her death from Rebecca’s old bedroom, so intense is her loyalty to her dead mistress. At times, it feels like the whole world is conspiring against Fontaine, engendering great sympathy for her character as she eventually learns to stand up for herself and take control of the estate. We badly want to see her come out on top.

This being a Hitchcock film, though, things are rarely so simple as they first appear. Rebecca bucks convention with a third act that significantly reframes the events we witnessed throughout, rewarding the audience’s careful attention to detail and beefing up the role of Olivier’s husband character just when we think we fully understand the source of his sorrows. Its conclusion is poetical and justified; a beautiful exercise in melodramatic catharsis and gothic romance, the ghost of Rebecca vanquished at last.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.