Born in Russia in 1904, Val Lewton came to the United States with his family at the age of five. In the early ‘30s he became an assistant to David O. Selznick and for 10 years was a jack-of-all-trades around Hollywood, working on the revolutionary sequences from A Tale of Two Cities with a then-unknown Jacques Tourneur and story editing no less than two of the most popular Best Picture Oscar winners of the era, Rebecca and Gone with the Wind (he was responsible for scripting the latter’s famous sea-of-wounded-soldiers overhead, which he thought was unfilmmable). In 1942, Lewton was made the head of RKO’s horror unit, which came to be known as the Snake Pit, and the rest, as they say, is history. Blowing the auteurist model wide open, the nine horror films the Sultan of Shudders and his factory of revolving creative talent cultivated at RKO—collected here on Warner Home Video’s The Val Lewton Horror Collection—are all models of efficiency and reveal their producer’s very personal connection to their sinister goings-on.
It’s easy to imagine Lewton screaming “more shadows!” on the sets of these films. And shadows he got, none more hieratic than the ones supplied by Tourneur, whose reputation still struggles to free itself of Lewton’s legacy. Today, Cat People remains both Tourneur and Lewton’s most popular production, in which Simone Simon, whose death in February at age 95 scarcely made news, stars as Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian-born fashion artist who believes she’s being held under the spell of an ancient curse. The film’s infamous pool sequence has been cribbed countless times (most famously by Argento for his classic cult shocker Suspiria) but it’s the provocative reflection Tourneur and Lewton give the lonely Irena’s sexuality and obsession with her otherness that truly haunts, most memorably when Irena receives a sinister hello from someone from her past while dining with her American friends.
Lewton’s contemplation of multi-cultural conflict is also felt throughout Tourneur’s masterpieces The Leopard Man and I Walked With a Zombie. Who else but Tourneur could tell a story entirely in shadows? In Leopard Man, a runaway leopard grips a New Mexican town in fear, killing three young women in the course of a few days. The women may seem anonymous, but Tourneur daringly uses sound to both scare and complicate them. It may be a horror film, but because of its startling aural rhythms, it could also be read as a musical. Similarly, I Walked With a Zombie is a master class in sight, sound, and suggestion from beginning to end. Jane Eyre‘s gothic romance is transplanted to the West Indies, where Betsey Connell (Frances Dee) confronts the power of voodoo. In the film’s most famous sequence, Betsey takes an extended trip through a sugar cane field and encounters the zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones). Tourneur’s images cast an unnerving spell, suggesting that the emotionally frustrated living may be the real zombies.
All of Lewton’s films seem to capture their characters in limbo: either between cultures, life and death, or past and present. The Curse of the Cat People was Robert Wise’s first directorial credit, which he had to share with Gunther von Fritsch, who was fired from the production after too much dillydallying. The film is nowhere near as popular as its predecessor, and though it’s a different beast altogether, it’s in many ways superior. The story follows Kent Smith and Jane Randolph’s characters from Cat People to Sleepy Hollow, where their daughter, Amy (Ann Carter, one of cinema’s great child performers), not only befriends an old woman down the lane who believes her grown daughter actually died when she was six but also Simone Simon’s dead Irena Dubrovna. There’s a very sinister bedtime story vibe to the film that easily erases the bad taste of the dialogue, which too often speaks the psychology of the story. (Not surprisingly, the film is often studied in college psych classes.) The details, like Amy thinking she can mail letters by putting them inside a tree trunk, are so specific it doesn’t come as a surprise that many such particulars were inspired by incidents from Lewton’s youth.
In Mark Robson’s The Ghost Ship, the handicapped are possessed with a heightened sense of the world around them, and like the characters from Curse of the Cat People, who all seem to be exorcising themselves of the past, Captain Will Stone (Richard Dix) is haunted by madness. Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is his third officer, who can’t get anyone on board to believe that the captain is slowly killing off the crew. The central act of emotional terrorism Stone wages against Merriam isn’t very engaging, especially when compared to the more subversive, politically-charged tug of war that anchors Bedlam, and the direction feels as indifferent as Dix’s miscalculated performance, but Robson’s aesthetic detachment gives the film’s best set pieces—one involving the ship’s swinging anchor, a second around the anchor’s chain dropping into its compartment—an appropriately ghostly feel.
Robson’s work is in top form throughout the influential The Seventh Victim, which starts slow and is unnecessarily gabby but is chock-full of some of the most arresting images put out by Lewton’s Snake Pit factory. Where to begin? The two shots are dazzling displays of symmetry and the gaudy backdrops appear as if their chillingly communicating with the characters, seemingly dropping clues about their identities. But it’s the suffocating sense of dread that lingers in the air that the film is best known for—and, of course, its lesbian subtext. (Like the best Cronenberg, the film’s horror seethes beneath its beautiful, intoxicating surface—so much so you’re tempted to scratch it for relief.) Next to Welles, I don’t think any director has shot staircases as menacingly as Robson does here, and the final pessimistic leg of the film—essentially a prolonged death sequence that begins as a forced suicide, transitions into an expressionistic nightwalk, and ends with a self-imposed suicide—rivals the hall of mirrors climax from Lady from Shanghai in terms of sheer force of invention, will, and emotion.
It’s important to discuss Welles in relation to Val Lewton. Not only did RKO hire Lewton to save the company from the financial disaster brought on by Welles’s Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but when Tourneur graduated to making A pictures Lewton chose to collaborate with Robson and Wise, both of whom were responsible for editing Welles’s two most enduring classics. One imagines that the oblique angles and seductive rhythms of Welles’s films permanently altered Robson and Wise’s DNA. Even the weakest Lewton films scream Welles’s influence. In The Body Snatcher, a cabman murders people that a ruthless doctor and his prized student use for their classroom medical demonstrations. The story is woefully straightforward but Boris Karloff’s performance as John Gray may be his best and Wise manages a number of jaw-dropping overheads and expressionistic set pieces, most memorably the death of the lonely street singer.
Karloff followed Body Snatcher with two more starring roles in Lewton productions, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam, both directed by Robson. In Isle of the Dead, Gen. Nikolas Pherides (Karloff) and an American reporter, Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), ride to a Greek island and learn from Jason Robards Sr. that hundreds of pillaged tombs, coffins, and burnt corpses have caused a plague to spread across the land. Lewton based the story on a work by Swiss painter Arnold Boecklin and he wanted the script to capture the mood of a country in cultural and spiritual transition, but the obsession with mythology is uninspired and the script is talky and impossibly slow-going for much of its running time, only picking up with the premature burial of a woman and her subsequent return to the land of the living.
Like Body Statcher, Bedlam was written by Lewton under the pseudonym Carlos Keith. Inspired by William Hogarth’s painting The Raven’s Progress, the film tells the story a young woman, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), who leaves the tutelage of Lord Mortimer (Billy House) because of her distaste for money and bourgeois callousness. Interested in the conditions at the notorious St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum (a.k.a. Bedlam), Nell is maliciously committed there by the institution’s cruel manager, Master Sims (Karloff), and forced to fascinatingly confront the limitations of her empathy. The film isn’t very stylish outside of its insane asylum sequences, but it has a strong political perspective and an even stronger social consciousness, and the twisted literally and comedic rhythms of Lee and Karloff’s catty exchanges make for delicious drama. Any scene without them is a wash by comparison. Lewton was an avid reader with a big sense of humor and a great appreciation for art, and though he never directed a film, if he had it might have looked and sounded a little like this one. Bedlam‘s story is worthy of Poe but thank Warner for deeming us worthy of Lewton.
Image is serviceable across the board. The Leopard Man fares worst, Bedlam and The Seventh Victim best, with flickering a problem on most of the films. The occasional, sometimes frequent flashes of flecks and dirt are easily forgiven, but given how often the drama of these films unspools in the darkness of the night, shadow delineation leaves plenty to be desired. Sound is also serviceable. Each film gets either a mono or stereo track-they're all a little flat but nonetheless clear.
Commentary tracks on seven of the nine features: historian Greg Mank on both Cat People and Curse of the Cat People (with audio excerpts of Simone Simon); film historians Kim Newman and Steve Jones on I Walked With a Zombie; film historian Steve Haberman and Robert Wise on Body Snatcher; Haberman again on The Seventh Victim; William Friedken on The Leopard Man; and Tom Weaver on Bedlam. Weaver's track is bursting at the seams with information, and as such may be too much to take in during one sitting, and Friedken's track is grueling given that he seems to describe rather than study every single action that takes place in Leopard Man. A strange crackling sound can be heard throughout Mank's two commentary tracks; I don't know if something is in Mank's mouth or if the recording is to blame, but the distraction is a shame considering the weight of the man's observations. Wise's contribution, though, towers above the pack: he talks very little about his actual work on Body Snatcher, but his words are alive with passion and he touchingly reminiscences about editing Welles's films and working with Lewton, who gave him his first directorial gig. Also included here are trailers for most of the films and the documentary "Shadows in the Dark," which covers Lewton's entire life-from his birth in Russia and migration to Hollywood to the legacy his films have left behind-and features interviews with all sorts of scholars and admirers including Friedken, Joe Dante, and Guillermo del Toro.
Beautiful. Poetic. Scary. Take a walk with these nine Val Lewton classics.