Tonight on TCM: The Horror of Val Lewton

Tonight on TCM, several horror films from the hand of RKO screenwriter/producer Val Lewton.


8:00pm (EST): Cat People (1942)

“People”? It’s just one woman and she may or not be a cat person. Beautiful to look at, but the narrative is a bit slow moving. Lewton’s first horror film as producer at RKO…To my mind he seems to have paved the way for all those dreadfully dull Hammer and AIP films of the 1960s. Yet Lewton was practically the ONLY interesting thing going on in horror in the 40s. In relief against all the routine programmers, the cranked-out cheapies etc he seems a veritable genius. Cat People explores themes of sexual frustration, jealousy, personal demons and our connections to the animal within us. But it’s very talky, the actors are extremely dull to watch, and, while it is suspenseful, the film-makers make you wait way too long for some very funny payoffs. Yet there are very interesting little details all throughout. A mixed bag at best, but I seem to be in the minority on this subject.


9:30pm (EST): Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007)

Martin Scorsese makes his case for Lewton’s greatness as an auteur. I’ve seen this documentary twice, and most of the Lewton films more times than that and I am still far from being a true believer. So let us agree to disagree! I can see the virtues he describes but I am still not the hugest fan of Val Lewton. Beautiful, yes, interesting, yes but boring!


11:00pm (EST): The Seventh Victim (1943)

A teenager looks for her missing sister/ guardian and her detective work leads to a Satanic cult in the heart of Greenwich Village. Features Kim Hunter and  a pre-Beaver Hugh Beaumont. The film doesn’t go as far into superstition as it ought to to make it interesting and so does not scare us. Feels more like a noir, a melodrama or a spy thriller than horror. The Satanists seem more like Nazis, just some kind of a secret group of callous, plotting people. At the climax they try to coerce the missing sister into committing suicide but she won’t. Later she does, but then only because she wants to — not because she is being forced to. On the other hand, check out the sister’s rad, Bohemian haircut, a sort of Betty Paige/ Morticia Addams mash-up.


12:15am (EST): The Leopard Man (1943) 

One of the better of the Lewton pictures. The potential is here for an iconic new horror character to rival those created by Universal, but Lewton tends to shy away from the broad strokes that would be necessary, opting for ambiguity and naturalistic explanations. But the new setting is refreshing, while still having a Gothic “night-time” feel. It is set around a night club in New Mexico. A girl singer’s manager walks in with a black panther, which she is to bring onstage to steal attention from another singer. The panther escapes and kills a young Mexican girl in a very nightmarish sequence. Later there are two other murders that are blamed on the panther…but turn out to be the work of a local museum curator. It would be much cooler if he were under under some Native American spell and turning into a panther as is briefly implied. But no, he’s just crazy. Very atmospheric, memorable, and scary film. I just wish it had a real, proper Leopard Man.


1:30am (EST) : The Ghost Ship (1943)

This one hints at being a horror film, but isn’t really. There are no ghosts, just the nightmarish situation of being a young officer on a boat with an insane captain (Richard Dix) who believes he has the right to kill whomever he wants. With a Hitchcock directing it might have been a brilliant film…and it’s still interesting. Dix seems sort of drunk throughout the film, but so do the rest of the characters. One memorable scene has a guy in a hold getting crushed by an anchor chain — a very original demise.


2:45AM (EST): The Body Snatcher (1945)

One of the better (perhaps the best) of the Val Lewton horror pictures for RKO, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale (which was in turn based on the real life story of Burke and Hare.) Set in Edinburgh in the 1830s. Boris Karloff plays a grave robber who helps a famous surgeon (Henry Daniell) obtain the corpses he needs to do his research. Like Burke and Hare, Karloff’s character has taken to killing people to get the corpses he needs.  As a subplot the surgeon’s assistant really wants to help a little crippled girl walk. The situation both drives the need for new corpses (for research) but also provides tension. Is she in danger? Will the ghoul come for her? In the end the surgeon kills the grave robber, then accidentally takes his corpse one night. As they ride on a road one night, the surgeon hears the grave robber’s voice, cracks the wagon up and has a fatal accident. Karloff’s performance in the film is great. Bela Lugosi plays a creepy servant.


4:15am (EST): The Isle of the Dead (1945)

Like most Lewton,  this one is simultaneously boring and interesting. A Poe-like scenario…a bunch of people quarantined on a Greek island during a plague epidemic in the 19th century. Boris Karloff as an officer. A bunch of Premature Burial stuff and people walking around a castle with candles…which would later become a mainstay of the Corman Poe Cycle. yeah, that’s my ultimate verdict on this movie: a bunch of people in nightgowns walking around with candles.


5:30am (EST): Bedlam (1946) 

Boris Karloff as the cruel head of an 18th century insane asylum, inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. Scorsese would appear to be paying tribute to this film in his own Shutter Island (2010). 

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