A great horror movie makes more of an impression on the psyche than any other kind of film. Hell, even a bad horror flick can scar you for life. There’s a phrase that every seasoned horror fan loves to hear: “Have you ever seen . . . ?”
For the next 31 days, John E. Meredith will unearth some of his personal favorites that fell through the cracks, that are not so obvious, the kind that might even sneak up on you while you’re trying to sleep.
An escaped leopard is loose in a small New Mexico town. A mother, preoccupied with making dinner, tells her daughter to go down to the market to get some flour. The girl looks at the door, fear in her eyes. The leopard . . . but her mother insists. Hurrying back home, the sack of flour held close to her chest, the street is empty and filling up with darkness. There is a sound behind her, not a human sound. Her eyes widen in panic. She starts to run. As her footsteps quicken, the sound of padding speeds up behind her. Running, running, to her house, just ahead. But the door is locked.
Mommy, open the door! The leopard is after me! Her mother’s face assumes the expression of exasperated parenthood. Hands on her hips, she turns to the door. You’re always lying, making up stories, how many times have I told you . . . Something crashes into the door. Flour sprays through the cracks. The mother’s eyes grow huge. From beneath the door a thick stream of blood seeps across the floor into the house.
While this scene from THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) was directed by Jacques Tourneur, it belongs just as much to the film’s producer, a quiet but visionary man named Val Lewton. It’s usually a great film’s director who gets most of the glory. That’s only fair, when he or she is there for nearly the entire life of this creation. But no one tends to pay much attention to the person who shepherds a movie all the way from the original idea to the final edited product that’s presented to the studio. This is the person who helps to shape the concept, work the script, hire the director, choose the cast, oversee the production, the editing, the choice of music, and sometimes even has influence over how the final product is promoted. Martin Scorsese, known to have directed a couple decent movies himself, said that Val Lewton “never had any aspirations to direct, but the movies he produced belonged to him.”
Born in Russia, of Jewish descent, Vladimir Leventon’s mother took her children and left for America when they were very young. He was nephew of Alla Nazimova, a Russian stage actress who had been enticed into American motion pictures by big-time Hollywood producer Lewis J. Selznick. A fiercely independent woman, she was eventually making more money than America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford, all the while seeking more creative control by writing and producing her own movies. It was both her connections and her strength of personality that would influence the man her nephew would become, simultaneously coloring the kind of characters who would appear in his films. When Nazimova’s sister showed up from Yalta, fleeing her husband with her children in tow, she gladly took them in. They converted to Christianity and the boy called Vladimir became Val Lewton.
Lewton began his career writing pulp novels that had a touch of melancholy, but it’s no surprise that he found his way to Hollywood. He did damn near anything at first, story editor, researcher, script doctor, errand boy. Working as an uncredited writer on GONE WITH THE WIND, he was most likely responsible for the scene at the Atlanta depot where the camera pulls back to reveal hundreds of wounded soldiers. After apprenticing under David O. Selznick and working on such films as A TALE OF TWO CITIES, REBECCA, and KING KONG, Lewton was hired by RKO to head its horror unit. The fledgling studio had been essentially bankrupted by Orson Wells’ CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and wanted cheaply produced movies to compete with the Universal horror films. Lewton worked from a budget of $150,000, a running time limit of 75 minutes, shooting schedules of only three weeks, and had to use pre-tested titles that were given to him by the studio. Other than that, he was free to do whatever he wanted. For this he was paid $250 a week, which was pretty much chump-change even back then.
The first movie made by Lewton and his team, CAT PEOPLE (1942), began at a Hollywood party when some drunken big-wig tossed out the title and said, “Here, see what you can do with this.” The resulting film was a moody and mysterious thing of the shadows, not unlike the creature in its title. A beautiful Serbian girl, Irena (Simone Simon), working as a fashion designer in New York, believes that she descends from a race of women who, as a result of certain bestial rituals in the Middle Ages, can change into large and dangerous cats when their passions are aroused. This intrigues the quietly kinky naval officer Oliver (Kent Smith), who quickly marries her. The only problem here is that the sexual act tends to be driven by passion (unless you’ve been married for a long time), and Irena is afraid of unleashing the beast inside. While she thinks her man might die if he gets some, he thinks he’ll die if he doesn’t. This eventually leads to co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) looking pretty darn good. When they start to hook up, it sets off some killer anger and jealousy in Irena, and these are some wickedly intense passions too.
Most of this is fairly subtle, of course. Hey, it was the 1940s. But don’t think for a minute that the same things blatantly splashing across modern movie screens weren’t happening in less obvious ways way back then. However, even had he been allowed, it’s doubtful that Lewton would have done anything different. The movies he produced have been likened to chamber music compared to the symphonic bombast of the Universal monsters. Just watch the scene where Alice is floating contentedly in an indoor pool late at night. She becomes aware that there’s something prowling around the edge of the pool, quietly stalking her. We never really see anything more than shadows lurking in the shimmering reflection of the water, never hear much more than vague animal sounds and the echo of Alice’s screams. The world of Lewton’s movies was a real one where monsters didn’t necessarily exist, but the fear of them was very real.
The studio hated the movie, of course. But when the audiences were surprising huge and enthusiastic, piling up millions of dollars in RKO’s bank account, they suddenly wanted Lewton for their longtime boyfriend. Still, they were undoubtedly laughing when they gave him the title for his next movie. Teaming up with his friend and director Jacques Tourneur again, Lewton wove together a bit of Jane Eyre and some living dead legends for 1943’s haunting and somber little ditty, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Set in Haiti, a woman loved by two brothers and married to one has fallen into a catatonic trance brought on by a supposed tropical disease. Some would say, however, that she’s really under a voodoo spell. Jessica, played by Christine Gordon, is alternately beautiful and spooky as she stalks around in a flowing sheer dress. She seems almost to be floating. Also effective is the sudden appearance of a towering, zombified-looking man in the glow of a torch. Everything is silent, dreamlike, and then he is just there. It’s very hypnotic, like the faraway sounds of drumming that act as the island’s heartbeat.
Betsy (Frances Dee), the young nurse hired to care for Jessica, is initially enthralled with the island experience. One of the brothers, however, shares another perspective, one that was closer to the heart of the film’s producer. Overlooking the sea at night from the rail of a boat, he says, “It’s easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. Everything seems beautiful because you don’t understand. Those flying fish, they’re not leaping for joy, they’re jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its glow from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay.” It’s true, he could just be bitter after not getting that job writing tourist brochures, but there is a deeper explanation for the sadness here. One not usually found in movies at that time, especially horror movies. There is a sculpture in the plantation garden, a statue of Saint Sebastian. The native Caribbean man leading Betsy onto the grounds explains that it was originally the figurehead on a slave ship. That’s where the people here come from, he says. That’s why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial.
The island people and their zombies are not so far in spirit from the big-city sophisticates who populate the fourth movie Lewton produced, THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943). After three huge money-makers, RKO wanted to rake in even more, thinking they could double the product by splitting up Lewton and Tourneur. The director was sent on to mostly big-budget A-list movies (the best of which were OUT OF THE PAST and CURSE OF THE DEMON), while they left Lewton down in the horror dungeon with his meager B-movie budgets. Lewton promoted editor Mark Robson to director for their next effort, a dark masterpiece supposedly about devil worship in Greenwich Village. It’s really the story of a quest by innocent Mary (Kim Hunter) to save the sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), who doesn’t really want to be saved. Dark and shadowy, paranoid, full of fear and isolation, people step in and out of shadows, speak in hushed tones and never seem to find what they are looking for.
It’s full of nocturnal menace and the suggestion of hidden evil in the everyday. The doomed sister, all dark and sleek in her Cleopatra wig and fur coat, is like the ultimate Goth chick. There are some very reasonable-sounding Satanists, dressed quite nicely, one of which asks a thoroughly valid question: “What proof can you bring that good is superior to evil?” This seems to be the question Lewton is asking. The world he has created is one where we all are potentially evil, murderous, or even suicidal. The greatest horror here comes not in blood and guts, nor even in creatures slinking through the shadows, but in a noose hanging over a wooden chair in an otherwise empty room.
Lewton had trouble sleeping. He would often go walking through the dark and the silence like his characters did. His would be the only light still on at the RKO studios, as nighttime was when his mind was best for writing. He was always at war with his bosses, who neither understood nor really cared about what he was trying to do. Nor was he really ever completely satisfied with his own achievements. Old-school horror master Boris Karloff appeared in the last three flicks Lewton did for the studio, proudly portraying the more human kinds of monsters than the ones he had been known for. Years after Lewton had died of a heart attack, Karloff more or less said that the man had rescued him from the dead and restored his soul.
There were a total of nine films in Val Lewton’s run with the RKO horror unit, all of them worth checking out. I love gut-munching, head-ripping, disturbing full-frontal horror, without a doubt, but there’s a lot to be said for the more quiet, contemplative terrors as well. That’s what you’re going to get here. It’s the difference between horror and terror, the difference between revulsion and fear, between the seen and the unseen. There’s some psychological depth here, almost unheard of in films of that era, especially horror films. These characters don’t run from the darkness, but move toward it, seeking answers. “If you make the screen dark enough,” Lewton said, “the mind’s eye will read into it anything you want.”
These movies are somewhere between horror and art, very hypnotic, like something moving around in the unconscious. There’s some sadness here, but some magic too. They are best viewed late at night, alone, with the lights out. Maybe just awake enough to keep watching. That’s when you can really let your mind go, and feel yourself floating, dreamlike, through a shadow world where nothing is definite but anything might be possible.
(CAT PEOPLE. 1942, USA. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Written by Val Lewton and Dewitt Bodeen. Starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. 1943, USA. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Written by Curt Siodmak. Starring James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway.
THE LEOPARD MAN. 1943, USA. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Written by Ardel Wray. Starring Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks.
THE SEVENTH VICTIM. 1943, USA. Directed by Mark Robson. Written by Dewitt Bodeen, Charles O’Neal. Starring Jean Brooks, Tom Conway, Kim Hunter.
THE GHOST SHIP. 1943, USA. Directed by Mark Robson. Written by Leo Mittler and Donald Henderson Clarke. Starring Richard Dix.
THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. 1944, USA. Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Dewitt Bodeen and Val Lewton. Starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Ann Carter.
THE BODY SNATCHER. 1945, USA. Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater.
ISLE OF THE DEAD. 1945, USA. Directed by Mark Robson. Written by Ardel Wray and Val Lewton. Starring Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew.
BEDLAM. 1946, USA. Directed by Mark Robson. Written by Val Lewton and Mark Robson, from William Hogarth’s book A RAKE’S PROGRESS. Starring Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House.)