The Horror of Val Lewton

Continuing with our Halloween month series of classic horror posts, today a survey of the horror films of RKO producer Val Lewton. Lewton is an interesting transitional figure, generally praised for the subtlety of his aesthetic, where much is implied and ambiguous and psychological rather than graphic. He has his fans, but I have to say, I prefer the horror films of the twenties and thirties.


 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.


I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Though it’s set on a sugar plantation in the West Indies among actual zombies, I Walked with a Zombie still feels to me much more like a Gothic romance along the lines of Jane Eyre or Rebecca than a horror film. A nurse comes from Canada to work at the plantation house, and finds that the lady of the house is zombie (although that is not revealed until later. For the nonce she just seems to be sort of catatonic). There is budding romance between the plantation’s master and the nurse;  his brother and wife had had an affair years ago which the natives suspect had something to do with her malady. Has she been turned into a zombie out of revenge?  There are whole voodoo scenes in the jungle but I must say it’s not very scary, just moody. The spirit of the thing is all very scientific, and never taps into the superstition that makes an expressionistic film like White Zombie so terrifying.


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 have been necessary for that, 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. The manager of a girl singer (Jean Brooks) 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.


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 Bettie Page/ Morticia Addams mash-up.


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…yet 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.


Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Lewton’s sequel to his already unsatisfying Cat People is a veritable orgy of audience betrayal and false advertising. Lewton wanted to call it Amy and her Friend—and it is clearly a very personal film, having more personal meaning for him than the audience. Let me make one thing abundantly clear. This film has almost nothing to do with Cat People. Except…well. The couple from the first movie are now married and have an imaginative daughter, whom the rather Fascistic parents try to control and convert into something more like themselves, i.e.,  a boring automaton. She makes friends with an insane next door neighbor, an actress whom, apropos of nothing germane to the film, tells the entire story of The Headless Horseman. And the girl becomes friends with the ghost of the original Cat Woman, who doesn’t really seem to do much, although at one point the girl is lured out into the chill night air. Audiences promised a horror movie would have every legitimate right to consummate riots at their local cinema.


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.


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.


Bedlam (1946) 

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

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