Certainly in the run-up to Halloween people start thinking of the spooky movies they want to watch. A lot of people don’t like what are considered horror movies. Many are derivative, repetitive or just plain poor quality. There are some true classics in the genre like the original Frankenstein but there is also a lot of pure drek. As for myself, I am more interested in the same things in a so called horror movie as I am in any other movie: cinematography, plot, character and atmosphere. So the Ten little Indians variety of movie where you count down the murder of foolish teenagers is not for me. It wasn’t even when I was a teenager.
I think my tastes were influenced by my grandmother. When I was young and often spent time at my grandparent my grandmother had found a radio station that was re-broadcasting the old radio programs that played when radio first became popular. As I sat with her in the kitchen while she cooked or baked we listened to the shows she liked; The Shadow, Inner Sanctum, Lights Out and Suspense. The kind of horror on those shows was not the startle type. It didn’t depend on visually nasty things but rather your own imagination.
So the old, atmospheric movies in black and white were not boring to me but reminiscent of those old radio shows. Sitting in the dark, watching them over a bowl of popcorn was a special experience. Fairly soon in my exploration of the movie world I found a series of movies over time that belonged in this class. As it turned out they were all produced by one man, Val Lewton. Lewton was a Russian-American novelist, film producer and screenwriter best known for this string of low-budget horror films he produced for RKO,
Cat People, which came out in 1942, was the first production for producer Val Lewton, who was a journalist, novelist and poet turned story editor for David O. Selznick RKO hired Lewton to make horror films on a budget of under $150,000 to titles provided by the studio. The film was shot from July 28 to August 21, 1942, at RKO’s Gower Gulch studios in Hollywood. Sets left over from previous, higher-budgeted RKO productions notably the staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons were utilized. Near the end of the filming of Cat People, two crews were working to finish the picture on time, one at night, filming the animals, and one during the day with the cast. But costing only $141,659 iy came in $7,000 under budget. and it made almost $4 million in its first two years, according to some sources. The picture saved RKO from financial disaster.
Cat People tells the story of a young Serbian woman, Irena, who believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when driven to emotional extremes. Reviews were initially mixed but time has been favorable. Critic William K. Everson dedicated a whole chapter to the film and its successor The Curse of the Cat People in his book Classics of the Horror Film. In 1993, Cat People was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The film still holds a 93% Fresh rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, where anyone can chip in their two cents.
Next in the lineup was I Walked with a Zombie in 1943. This was one where Lewton was forced to use the film’s title by RKO executives. The film was initially based on a piece written by one Inez Wallace for American Weekly Magazine, but Lewton asked his writers to borrow from Jane Eyre to give narrative structure and to research Haitian voodoo to give some authenticity. Lewton, together with scripters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, came up with a story in which a nurse travels to the tropics to care for the wife of a seemingly abusive plantation owner. The film used very limited sets and only a handful of extras, but as with Cat People director Jacques Tourneur managed to create a realistic yet atmospheric impression of a tropical island populated at every turn by voodoo worshippers. In an era of gross out walking dead movies this is a moody thriller, far more faithful to West Indian zombie traditions. Ambiguous throughout, one is left wondering if it is voodoo or human weakness and evil that is the cause of all the grief. Initially rejected by some critics, later writers have viewed more highly and it still holds a 92% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, showing there is still an appreciative audience for it. In 2007, Stylus Magazine named it the fifth best zombie movie of all time and if you look at the list you’ll see how different it is from all the others. It’s a zombie movie for people who hate zombie movies as well as those that like them.
The Leopard Man also came out in 1943. Director Jacques Tourneur’s third and last picture for Lewton, it was based on the book Black Alibi by the adventure story writer Cornell Woolrich. The story revolves around the purchase of a leopard as a publicity stunt for a nightclub in a small New Mexico town, which then manages to escape. A series of killings ensue and of course it is assumed from th nature of the deaths, it is the big cat, But is it? When the leopard is found to have been dead before at least one of the killings everything changes.when The haunting finale takes place during the annual “Day of the Dead” festivities. According to a contemporary interview with writer Ardel Wray the film exteriors were shot around Santa Fe, New Mexico. While perhaps one of Lewton’s weaker offerings it is one of the first American films to attempt to realistically portray a serial killer well before the term was even in use. Rotten Tomatoes still gives it an 88% fresh rating and many newer films don’t merit that.
The Seventh Victim was the third film to come out in 1943. It was directed for Lewton by Mark Robson and was his first picture as a director. the film focuses on a young woman who stumbles on an underground cult of Satanists in Greenwich Village in New York, while searching for her missing sister. Charles O’Neal had written the script as a murder mystery, set in California, that followed a woman hunted by a serial killer but it was revised by DeWitt Bodeen, basing the story on a Satanic society he had encountered in New York City. Filmed in only 24 days, it was not well received. It lost money at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics, who found its narrative incoherence a primary fault. It was later revealed that Robson and an editor, John Lockert, had removed four substantial scenes from the final cut, including an extended conclusion. Again however, time has been kinder to it. The cinematography and score have been praised and without any spoilers I can say there are interest precursors to classic moments in later horror films. The subject natter may have been ahead of it’s time, more modern viewers give it a 92 % fresh rating in spite of it’s downbeat ending.
The Ghost Ship, the final film for Lewton in 1943 is about a young merchant marine officer who begins to suspect that his ship’s captain is mentally unbalanced and endangering the lives of the ship’s crew. The ship’s crew, however, believes the vessel to be haunted and cursed and several mysterious deaths occur. The film did well at first but in February 1944, Lewton was sued 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. Because of the suit, The Ghost Ship was withdrawn from theatrical release and not shown for nearly 50 years. It was not until the film’s copyright was not renewed and it entered the public domain in the 1990s that it was again available. Not as well known and somewhat more of a thriller than a horror film, critics tend to rate it higher than regular viewers, who are perhaps disappointed at that lack of traditional horror elements. While not the Caine Mutiny and perhaps not even an October type of film, it is certainly worth a viewing.
The Curse of the Cat People was demanded by the studio as a follow-up to the success of Cat People with another script by DeWitt Bodeen. It came out in 1944 and was directed at first by Gunther von Fritsch and then Robert Wise. This film, which was then-film editor Robert Wise’s first directing credit. Even though it is the sequel to Cat People and has many of the same characters, it is more of a ghost story. I like the way it was described on Rotten Tomatoes page by Hal Rovi “Saddled with a lurid title, producer Lewton and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen chose to offer a fascinating glimpse into the wonderfully boundless realm of a child’s imagination, and in this respect the film is an unqualified success”. It is in many ways a unique film and whether because of this or in spite of it The freshness rating is at Rotten Tomatoes is still 89 %.
Lewton did three more of his B horror films, all successful and all with Boris Karloff. You can read about them in this post. The original pairing of the two has an interesting story behind it which may be a post for another October day.