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The Val Lewton Horror Collection: Subtle Shudders 

Lewton legacy arrives in time for Halloween

Mindful of the millions that Universal Studios had made from its classic monster movies -- and reeling from its own set of financial setbacks -- RKO Pictures commissioned producer Val Lewton in the early 1940s to churn out a series of sensationalist horror flicks on minuscule budgets. But the highly educated Lewton had his own ideas: Rather than slapping together silly creature features with shoddy effects, he created a series of psychological thrillers showcasing literate scripts, taut direction and a reliance on shadows, lighting and sound effects to establish mood and atmosphere. Much to the delight of the studio, the films proved to be largely popular with both critics and audiences.

THE SHADOW KNOWS: Frances Dee awakens to the possibility that the living dead do exist in I Walked With a Zombie (Photo: Warner Bros.)
  • THE SHADOW KNOWS: Frances Dee awakens to the possibility that the living dead do exist in I Walked With a Zombie (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Earlier this month, Warner Bros.' home entertainment division saw fit to release The Val Lewton Horror Collection, a DVD compilation set that includes the nine terror tales which the inimitable moviemaker (often described as one of the few "auteur-producers") made for RKO. Seen collectively -- and what better time to watch them than at Halloween? -- they confirm Lewton's reputation as an "A"-list talent working with "B"-level resources.

Cat People (1942; ****) was the first of Lewton's output, and it remains a small masterpiece of the genre: No less than Martin Scorsese (in his documentary A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies) has stated that the movie is "as important as Citizen Kane in the maturization of the American cinema." It was a commercial bonanza for RKO, earning a whopping $4 million return on its $134,000 shooting budget and paving the way for Lewton to retain creative control on his follow-ups. The alluring Simone Simon stars as Irena, an Eastern European immigrant who meets and marries an American architect (Kent Smith). Forced to remain celibate because of an ancestral curse that will turn her into a panther if her emotions are aroused, she grows jealous of her frustrated husband's attention toward a pretty co-worker (Jane Randolph); this in turn leads to the movie's two classic set pieces, one involving Randolph's walk down a dark city street, the other focusing on her nocturnal swim at an indoor pool that's surrounded by menacing shadows and an even more menacing growl. Simon's Irena makes for one of the most tragic heroines ever seen on screen -- a woman who, through no fault of her own, is deprived of the love she hungrily seeks. The movie's strong sexual currents and adult subject matter (when you get down to it, this is a film about impotence), amplified by ace director Jacques Tourneur and scripter DeWitt Bodeen, further lift it above the realm of the usual spook show. Paul Schrader shoddily remade the film in 1982 (with Nastassia Kinski), but this is the one to savor.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943; ***1/2) has the distinction of being one of the best movies ever saddled with one of the worst titles. As it had done with Cat People, RKO chose a moniker around which Lewton had to build a movie. But the producer wasn't about to let it hamper his commitment to excellence: Teaming again with Tourneur and bringing Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man) and Ardel Wray aboard as scripters, the gang meshed together an article by Inez Wallace with no less than Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre! Frances Dee plays the nurse who journeys to Haiti to look after the ailing wife (Christine Gordon) of a brooding plantation owner (Tom Conway). But as she becomes familiar with the locals and their customs, she begins to wonder if there's any merit to their belief that the wife is one of the undead. The nighttime march through the sugar cane fields is incredibly atmospheric, the high point in a film that's as poetic and dreamlike as it is suspenseful.

The Leopard Man (1943; **1/2), the third and final film Tourneur directed for Lewton, is arguably the weakest film in the set, centering on a series of brutal slayings believed to have been committed by an escaped leopard. While the movie contains one of the best sequences seen in any of the nine titles -- a girl's trip to the supermarket ends with her blood slowly seeping underneath the locked door of her house, the only visual trigger we need to imagine the worst -- the film is ultimately let down by an obvious mystery that's rather haphazardly constructed.

In the absorbing chiller The Seventh Victim (1943; ***1/2), Kim Hunter (in her film debut) plays a young student who heads out to New York to search for her missing sister (Jean Brooks). A trio of sympathetic men -- a poet (Erford Gage), a psychiatrist (Tom Conway) and the missing woman's husband (Hugh Beaumont, years before playing Ward Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver) -- help her uncover the truth, which is that her sister has become mixed up with an outfit of devil worshippers. The allure of suicide, the suggestiveness of lesbian desire (mainly in a shower scene that brings to mind Psycho) and the banality of evil all get a workout in a dense, fascinating piece whose greatest crime is that it might be too ambitious. Those with a familiarity of Dante's Inferno will especially have fun trying to piece it all together.

For decades, The Ghost Ship (1943; ***) was the "lost" film from the Lewton catalogue, thanks to a plagiarism lawsuit that kept the movie out of circulation. It's a blessing that it's included here, even if it does the least to justify the word "Horror" in this collection's title. Basically, it's a cat-and-mouse drama in which a greenhorn officer (Russell Wade) discovers that his ship's captain (Richard Dix) is so cracked that he makes Captain Queeg look sane by comparison. Cross Mutiny On the Bounty with The Sea Wolf and add a dash of Moby Dick, and that's pretty much what you have here.

CHILD'S PLAY: Lonely Ann Carter conjures up the spirit of Simone Simon in The Curse of the Cat People (Photo: Warner Bros.)
  • CHILD'S PLAY: Lonely Ann Carter conjures up the spirit of Simone Simon in The Curse of the Cat People (Photo: Warner Bros.)

The Curse of the Cat People (1944; ***) stands as one of the most curious sequels ever made. Future West Side Story helmer Robert Wise (making his directorial debut) replaces Jacques Tourneur, but the original's scripter and three stars are all brought back for this sensitive drama about Amy (Ann Carter), the young daughter of the characters again played by Kent Smith and Jane Randolph. A lonely girl, Amy finds solace with the ghost of Smith's first wife, Irena (Simone Simon in an extended cameo). Smith's character is still a drip (why the two women fought over him in the first movie remains a mystery), but the focus here is little Amy and the manner in which the adults try to understand her predilection toward imaginary worlds -- in fact, the film's view of childhood so impressed scholars of the time that it was occasionally screened as part of college psychology courses.

The Body Snatcher (1945; ***1/2) marks the first of three collaborations between Lewton and Boris Karloff, the era's foremost horror star. In his book Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary states that Karloff deserved the '45 Best Actor Oscar for this film; snobs will snicker, but Peary isn't far off the mark. Karloff delivers a masterful turn in this adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story, with Wise providing the direction and Lewton himself supplying the script (under his pseudonym Carlos Keith). The horror icon stars as Mr. Gray, a coachman who steals bodies on the side for a venal doctor (Henry Daniell). Karloff's nothing short of commanding in an unexpectedly complex role, and he shares a couple of scenes with his frequent 30s co-star Bela Lugosi, here relegated to a bit part as Daniell's sneaky servant.

Isle of the Dead (1945; ***) casts Karloff (sporting blond curls that would do Harpo Marx proud) as General Pherides, an uncompromising military man who issues a quarantine on a small Greek island where a plague has broken out. As the various residents and guests sweat out their survival, the superstitious Pherides begins to believe that the beautiful young woman (Ellen Drew) in their midst is actually a Vorvolaka, a vampirish demon which kills humans by draining them of their lifeforce. The story's on the slender side, but haunting imagery and some chilling moments (including a woman who wakes from a coma to find she's been buried alive) compensate.

Lewton's run of the macabre ended with Bedlam (1946; ***), which seems mild today but at the time was considered so ghastly by the British censors that it was banned outright in England (joining a short list that also included Freaks and Island of Lost Souls). Inspired by a William Hogarth painting and set in 18th century London, the story finds the sadistic head of an insane asylum (Karloff in another top-flight performance) matching wits with a reform-minded society woman (Anna Lee), even going so far as to have her declared mad and tossed into his institute.

In addition to the audio commentaries provided by various film historians, the DVD set also includes Shadows In the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. This hour-long documentary offers insight into the life and career of an artist who correctly believed that the most frightening horrors are the ones we cannot see.

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