The 1940s may not be as replete with well-known early sci-fi films as the ’50s, but it definitely has its iconic examples. The movies of the ’40s in this genre helped prime audiences and pave the way for those to come in the next decade. In particular, they brought to the forefront a sci-fi theme that would thrive in the cinema in the ’40s and ’50s: medical and scientific experiments gone horribly wrong.
Here we’ve rounded up ten of the best sci-fi movies from the 1940s. If you’re a fan of the genre, it’s well worth watching (or revisiting) these classics from the bygone Golden Age of Hollywood. The special effects leave a lot to be desired, but the heart is certainly there.
And you can explore films of the decade further if you like with our piece on classic movies from the 1940s.
Top ’40s Sci-Fi Films
- Black Friday – 1940; directed by Arthur Lubin; starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Stanley Ridges. A scientist transplants a gangster’s brain into his friend, and things don’t go quite as smoothly as anticipated afterwards.
- Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe – 1940; directed by Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor; starring Buster Crabbe, Carol Hughes, and Charles Middleton. Hero Flash Gordon travels off-world to find an antidote to “the Purple Death” that’s decimating the people of Earth.
- The Invisible Man Returns – 1940; directed by Joe May; starring Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, and Nan Grey. This sequel to 1933’s The Invisible Man tells the story of a man who takes a pill to become invisible, but that has the side effect of slowly driving you mad.
- The Invisible Woman – 1940; directed by A. Edward Sutherland; starring Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, and John Howard. The previous entry on the list wasn’t the only way Universal Studios ran with this work of H.G. Wells. This movie focuses on a model who lets herself be the subject of an invisibility machine test, with a particular motive.
- One Million B.C. – 1940; directed by Hal Roach Jr., Hal Roach; starring Victor Mature, Carole Landis, and Lon Chaney Jr. This one’s more fantasy than sci-fi, but the two genres go hand in hand, right? And it was so unlike anything that came before it, it deserves mention. It tells a tale of survival in prehistoric times and the love between a man and woman from opposing clans.
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – 1941; directed by Victor Fleming; starring Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Lana Turner. This is a star-studded silver screen adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic about a man who drinks a formula that unleashes his dark side.
- Man-Made Monster – 1941; directed by George Waggner; starring Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr., and Anne Nagel. Another Lon Chaney Jr. flick to make our list, this one is about a mad scientist who turns a guy into his very own remote-controlled monster.
- The Invisible Man’s Revenge – 1944; directed by Ford Beebe; starring Jon Hall, Leon Errol, and John Carradine. Yep, it’s back. With previous The Invisible Man-inspired films doing so well, Universal continued to successfully milk it (and we omitted The Invisible Agent from 1942). In this one, a scientist helps a fugitive become invisible, not realizing he’d use it to take revenge on people.
- The Monster Maker – 1944; directed by Sam Newfield; starring J. Carrol Naish, Ralph Morgan, and Tala Birell. This is the story of a mad scientist who injects a horribly disfiguring virus into people he doesn’t like. Stay on his good side.
- King of the Rocket Men – 1949; directed by Fred C. Brannon; starring Tristram Coffin, Mae Clarke, and Don Haggerty. With an evil mastermind assassinating scientists, two go into hiding and one builds an experimental rocket suit that turns the other into the hero they need.