Low budget horror movies like The Cat People and The Leopard Man made Val Lewton one of the most successful producers in the history of the genre. All nine of his greatest movies are now available in a boxed set from Warner US, and Grant Peabody checks them out…
Horror films don’t have to be blatantly graphic to scare audiences. In fact it’s often what you don’t see in a movie that gets your spine tingling. Ridley Scott’s Alien is much scarier than any of the sequels that followed it because it mainly allows us just glimpses of the alien creature. The follow-ups brought them out in the open replacing the fear factor with the splatter factor.
Nowadays filmmakers can show us pretty much anything, but it wasn’t always so. Way back in the days before CGI the world of film fear was stalked by the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and their ilk. The British censor may have thought the sight of Boris Karloff lurching around with bolts in his neck or Lon Chaney with a bad case of five o’clock shadow merited an ‘X’ certificate (no child under 16 admitted), but seen today those movies are more likely to raise a titter than goosebumps.
Not so the films of Val Lewton though. He was an American film producer who made a series of nine, broodingly atmospheric horror films in the 1940s. Every one of these films is excellent in its own way, and some of them are genre classics that still have the power to put the frighteners on. There are no obvious monsters here, but patient viewers who can tune in to their creepy atmospherics will certainly find themselves enjoying a pleasant frisson or three!
Val Lewton was born May 7th, 1904 as Vladimir Ivan Leventon, in what is now Yalta, Ukraine. He was a nephew of the silent movie actress Alla Nazimova. In 1909, he emigrated with his sister and mother to the United States, where his name was ‘Americanised’ and he was raised in suburban Port Chester, New York.
Lewton studied journalism at Columbia University and wrote eighteen works of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. But he liked to use his imagination… sometimes too much, because he once lost his job as a reporter for the Darien-Stamford Review after it was discovered that a story he wrote about a truckload of kosher chickens dying in a New York heatwave was a total fabrication.
In 1932 he wrote a best-selling pulp novel called No Bed of Her Own, which was later used in the making of the film No Man of Her Own, starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. This early success gave him the opportunity to work as a writer for the New York City MGM publicity office, providing novelisations of popular movies for serialisation in magazines, which were sometimes later collected into book form.
Later he went to Hollywood to write a screen treatment for Gogol’s Taras Bulba for legendary producer David O. Selznick. Though the film was not made, Lewton was hired by MGM to work as a publicist and personal assistant to Selznick. His first screen credit was “revolutionary sequences arranged by” in David O. Selznick’s 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities. Lewton also worked as an uncredited writer for Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, including writing the scene where the camera pulls back to reveal hundreds of wounded soldiers at the Atlanta Depot. Lewton also functioned for Selznick as a story editor, a scout for discovering literary properties for Selznick’s studio, and acted as a go-between with the Hollywood censorship system. Just as famously he was asked by Selznick to time the ‘toilet breaks’ that such a lengthy film needed for the Intermission!
RELISHING THE CHALLENGE
In 1942, Lewton was named head of the horror unit at RKO studios, at a salary of $250 per week. The up and coming studio had looked at the financial rewards being reaped by Universal Studios with their hugely popular Frankenstein and Dracula movies (which had saved them from bankruptcy). With this in mind, RKO created a horror strand and put Lewton in charge of production. But not being too flush with cash, RKO restricted the movies to relatively low $150,000 budgets. In addition, each film was to run under seventy-five minutes, and Lewton’s supervisors would supply the title for each film.
The latter was probably the biggest constraint, but Lewton relished the challenge and rose to it admirably. Lewton’s first production was Cat People, released in 1942. The film was directed by Jacques Tourneur, and went on to earn nearly $4 million. In fact it was the top moneymaker for RKO that year. This success enabled Lewton to make his next films with relatively little studio interference, allowing him to avoid the sensationalist material suggested by the film titles he was given, instead focusing on ominous suggestion and themes of existential ambivalence.
Lewton always wrote the final draft of the screenplays for his films, but avoided an on-screen co-writing credit except in two cases, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam, for which he used the pseudonym ‘Carlos Keith,’ which he had previously used on the novel, Where the Cobra Sings. After Jacques Tourneur left RKO’s horror film unit, Lewton gave first directing opportunities to Robert Wise (The Sound of Music) and Mark Robson (Von Ryan’s Express).
From 1945-1946, Boris Karloff appeared in three films for RKO produced by Lewton: Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam. In a 1946 interview with Louis Berg, of the Los Angeles Times, Karloff credited Lewton with saving him from what Karloff saw as the overextended Frankenstein franchise at Universal Pictures. Berg writes, “Mr. Karloff has great love and respect for Mr. Lewton as the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”
When RKO head Charles Koerner died in 1946, the studio went through personnel and management upheavals, ultimately leaving Lewton unemployed and in ill health after suffering a minor heart attack. Through connections, he rewrote an unused screenplay based upon the life of Lucrezia Borgia. The actress Paulette Goddard at Paramount Studios particularly liked Lewton’s treatment, and in exchange for the script Lewton was given employment through July 1948. (The Goddard film Bride of Vengeance, heavily rewritten, was released in 1949.) While at Paramount, Lewton also produced the film My Own True Love, released in 1949.
Following his association with Paramount, Lewton worked again for MGM where he produced the Deborah Kerr film Please Believe Me, released in 1950. During this time Lewton attempted to start an independent production company with his former protégés Wise and Robson, but when a disagreement over which property to produce first arose, Lewton was kicked out. Lewton spent time at home working on a screenplay about the famous American Revolutionary War battles at Fort Ticonderoga. Universal Studios made an offer on the work, and though the screenplay was not used, Lewton was given producer duties on the film Apache Drums, released in 1951. This film is usually considered the film most like Lewton’s earlier RKO horror films.
In 1950, Hollywood producer Stanley Kramer tendered an offer to Lewton to work as an assistant producing a series of films at Columbia Studios. Lewton resigned at Universal and began preparation to work on the film My Six Convicts but after suffering gallstone problems, he had the first of two heart attacks which weakened him such that he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1951 at the age of just forty-six. The following year, Kirk Douglas appeared in The Bad and the Beautiful, and it’s generally accepted that his character was partly based on Lewton.
A number of books and two documentaries on Lewton have been produced. A documentary film, Martin Scorsese Presents: Val Lewton – The Man in the Shadows, was released in 2007. But it’s only relatively recently that collectors have been able to get all of Lewton’s films in one box set, including the little-seen Ghost Ship, a movie that Lewton probably wished he had never made. The film did well on its original release but he was sued in February 1944 for plagiarism by playwrights Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner, who claimed that the script was based on a play that was submitted to Lewton for a possible film.
The lawsuit led to Ghost Ship being withdrawn from theatrical release, and though Lewton disputed the claim, the court ruled against him. RKO paid the authors $25,000 in damages and attorney fees of $5,000, and lost all future booking residuals and the right to sell the film for airing on television. Losing the lawsuit deeply disturbed Lewton, and left him depressed for a significant period of time. The film did not see release for nearly another 50 years due to the suit, but became available when RKO’s copyright expired and it entered the public domain in the 1990s.
THE FILMS OF VAL LEWTON – Buy The Val Lewton Horror Collection here: Amazon UK
THE CAT PEOPLE (1942) – Buy here: Amazon UK
Val Lewton’s biggest success is possibly also one of the talented RKO producer’s more overrated movies, but it’s still a classic of the genre. Simone Simon is intriguing as a strange New York fashion artist who changes into a black panther when her amorous instincts are aroused (though this transformation is never actually shown, only implied). She plans to marry Kent Smith, who could be in for a shock when she orders Whiskas for her wedding breakfast. But first she stalks her rival Jane Randolph, forcing her to take a late-night swim in a shadowy sequence that has deservedly achieved classic status. (This scene was apparently inspired by director Jacques Tourneur’s experience of nearly drowning while swimming alone at night – he made the shadow of the stalking panther with his fist!). Produced for just $134,000, on leftover sets from The Magnificent Ambersons, this made enough money to rescue RKO from bankruptcy. In real life, Lewton suffered from gatophobia – far of cats. But that didn’t stop him from doing a loose remake of this. The film was also remade in far more violent and sexy fashion starring Nastassia Kinski.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1957)
Young nurse Frances Dee travels to the Caribbean to care for the ailing wife of plantation owner Tom Conway, only to discover that her patient has been turned into a zombie by the natives. Conceived by the legendary producer as “Jane Eyre in Haiti,” this eerie classic is going to be a bit of a disappointment to gore-loving modern day audiences weaned on Lucio Fulci’s flesh eaters. But it does get pretty scary in places nevertheless, with a standout sequence, devised to validate the pre-sold title, where Dee takes a midnight walk through the sugar cane fields in company with a hulking black zombie slave. Richly toned cinematography and an evocative music score give this B-production an A-movie feel, and it’s definitely one of the best of Lewton’s nine (all outstanding) RKO chillers.
THE LEOPARD MAN (1943)
One of the best of Lewton’s movies, this skilled adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s novel, Black Alibi, contains one of the scariest sequences ever put on celluloid. The plot concerns a leopard loose in a small town, and in the scene in question a small girl becomes its first victim. After a shivery bit involving a train trestle and the leopard’s eyes staring out of the gloom, the girl runs home to discover her mother has locked her out of the house. Her frantic screams as the beast approaches are followed by silence – and a pool of blood spreading under the locked door. Shadowy photography, smart scripting and very stylish direction move this punchy little thriller along swiftly to its unusual conclusion. Though not, strictly speaking, a horror film, this is certainly quite macabre in places. It’s very neatly directed by Jacques Tourneur, later to make the Lewton-style Night of the Demon.
THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943) – Buy here: Amazon UK
A lesser entry in Lewton’s generally fine series of low-budget spookers, this slow-moving, overly literate yarn stars Kim Hunter as a young woman searching New York’s Greenwich Village for her sister, who has mysteriously disappeared and may be a suicide. Hunter’s enquiries bring her into contact with a cult of devil worshippers, leading to a bleak, downbeat conclusion. It’s certainly offbeat, with an eerie, fog-shrouded atmosphere, but the film as a whole is overwritten and confusing, and hardly cheerful entertainment. It was directed by Mark Robson, later to do many big budget Hollywood pictures.
THE GHOST SHIP (1943)
The most elusive of Val Lewton’s 1940s RKO chillers, this tense and atmospheric movie is a heavily atmospheric study of the conflict between psychotic sea captain Richard Dix and his fair-minded, decent third mate, Russell Wade, who comes to realise that Dix has been responsible for the deaths of several crew members. The problem is, nobody will believe Wade and the nutty Dix is determined not to let him complete the voyage! The title suggests it’s a spook show, but the horrors here are purely psychological. There are two memorable set-pieces – one in which a sailor (Lawrence Tierney of Reservoir Dogs!) is crushed to death by the anchor chain, another involving a swinging boat hook that causes chaos during a fierce storm. Only an overly abrupt conclusion prevents this good movie from being a great one. It was directed by Mark Robson, later to do Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Earthquake (1974).
CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) – Buy here: Amazon UK
A strange and memorable sequel to Lewton’s biggest RKO hit. After the death of his wife Irena (Simone Simon), Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) has married former co-worker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) and they now have a six-year-old introverted daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). Amy has trouble at school because she spends too much time daydreaming, and Oliver tries to encourage her to make friends. After Amy finds a photo of deceased cat-woman Irena, whose name is never mentioned in the house, Irena appears to her and the two strike up a friendship. At the same time, Amy befriends Julia Farren, an aging actress who is alienated from her own daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell, who also appeared as a sinister cat woman in the previous movie – perhaps the same character).
This was a flop when it came out, which is not surprising because it’s not a horror film at all, though it was sold as one. The movie is actually a poignant fantasy about the wonders of childhood, a little gem that sticks in the memory. It’s achingly atmospheric and beautifully co-directed by Robert Wise, who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, with credits such as The Sound of Music, West Side Story and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The film was started by Gunther Von Fritsch, but Wise, formerly an editor, took over when the former fell behind on the shooting schedule. The film’s reputation has grown since its initial release. Director Joe Dante said that the film’s “disturbingly Disneyesque fairy tale qualities have perplexed horror fans for decades,” and the film has been utilised in college psychology courses.
THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) – Buy here: Amazon UK
One of Lewton’s most impressive productions, this chillingly atmospheric movie hands Boris Karloff a classic role as the evil “resurrection man” of the title. Set in a stagy, typically American version of 1832 Edinburgh, the film stars Henry Daniell as a doctor who regularly buys cadavers from the sinister John Gray (Karloff), and is not too inquisitive where Gray gets his specimens. In fact Karloff has taken to cutting out the middleman and saving himself a trip to the cemetery by murdering people off the street. In one memorable sequence the voice of a street singer is abruptly cut off after Gray’s cab has followed her into a dark tunnel. In another scene Bela Lugosi attempts to blackmail Boris, with fatal results for the erstwhile Dracula (the fact that Bela is relegated to a small cameo here shows how badly he had mismanaged his career. In fact it was to be his last “prestige” role). Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, the movie is padded out with some fairly uninteresting love interest between Meg Camden and Russell Wade, and a sentimental sub-plot about Doctor Wade’s attempts to cure a crippled child. But that is forgivable because it’s rare to find such a literate, intelligent genre flick, and the film really comes into it’s own when Karloff is on screen. Look out for that climax it’s a stunner. Director Robert Wise again does an impressive job. He would later bring us his own tribute to Lewton with the horror masterpiece, The Haunting (1963). Interestingly, director John Landis has resurrected The Body Snatcher this year, well, sort of, with his new big budget movie about the exploits of Burke and Hare, played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Michael Winner has a cameo and gets killed, so we’ll all want to see that.
ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) – Buy here: Amazon UK
The least of Val Lewton’s atmospheric RKO horrors is still much better than most of the other chillers made around this time. Boris Karloff stars as a Greek general who, after leading his troops to victory in a Balkan War battle, travels to a nearby island to visit the grave of his wife. But a plague is ravaging the island, and he is forced to quarantine himself there, along with the locals and American reporter Marc Cramer. There’s a suggestion that Greek vampires (vrykolakas) are on the loose on the island, but the horrors here are mainly of the psychological variety. Though relatively short, the film does tend to drag in places, mainly because it’s such a glum affair. However, it’s produced with Lewton’s customary flair for making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and there’s at least one sequence that has attained classic status: a long, spine-chilling scene of a victim of premature burial waking up in her tomb. Karloff’s ailing, low-key performance seems all the more convincing when you discover that he was stricken with an old back injury while making the film and had to be rushed to hospital for a spinal operation. This one was directed by Mark Robson.
Bedlam was the nickname given to St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Hospital for the insane, and this handsomely mounted Lewton production takes us behind the walls of that feared institution for a movie that is more stately than scary. The year is 1761, and the sadistic head of the asylum is none other than Boris Karloff in one of his most strikingly unsympathetic screen characterisations.
Actress Anna Lee campaigns to change the inhuman conditions there and ends up as an inmate herself when she displeases the fat Lord Mortimer (Billy House). Historically quite accurate the film’s gloomy visual style was inspired by a series of Hogarth portraits. Too talky and depressing for popular success, it was Lewton’s last movie at RKO, and again directed by Mark Robson.