Judge Brett Cullum, Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger, and Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky team up to dissect nine films from the legendary horror producer.
Our reviews of Bedlam: Season One (published November 11th, 2011), Cat People / Curse Of The Cat People (published October 24th, 2005), Cat People (HD DVD) (published January 17th, 2008), Isle Of The Dead / Bedlam (published October 24th, 2005), and I Walked With A Zombie / The Body Snatcher (published October 24th, 2005) are also available.
In 1941, RKO Pictures was on the verge of bankruptcy, thanks to the bloated and unprofitable (yet artistic) productions of Orson Welles. Pictures like Citizen Kane may be critical darlings, but they didn't fill the studio's coffers or theater seats. The studio was on the verge of having to close its doors when the studio head decided that a B-picture horror unit should come and save the day. At a party he spotted a man across the room.
"Who is that?" he prodded a nearby guest.
"Him? That's Val Lewton—he writes horrible novels."
Obviously mishearing the response, he replied, "That just who I need! A man who writes horror novels."
Val Lewton was born in Russia, and immigrated to the U.S. as a child with his mother. He was raised by a pack of foreign women pursuing the American dream, and was heavily influenced by an aunt employed in show business. He had a fanciful imagination, and started out wanting to be a writer. First he took a job as a journalist, but was not well suited for it, since he had a tendency to make things up. He then became a pulp fiction novelist, cranking out sordid, cheap thrillers for dime store and drugstore racks. His big Hollywood break came when he became a story editor for David Selznick, and found himself working on epic, flashy hits such as Gone With the Wind. Lewton polished scripts, and created some of the most memorable scenes in Selznick's masterpieces. By all rights Lewton had, through his work with Selznick, already achieved enough to leave him remembered in the industry as a great story editor and idea man.
But the Val Lewton legacy would be built on nine movies he made for RKO Pictures when they needed money most. He was hired to produce "B-films" that would thrill audiences and sell tickets. RKO was jealous of Universal Studios, which was making a veritable mint with their monster franchises—Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. So they responded with Lewton titles like Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and Body Snatchers. There were no scripts behind the words, just an idea to ape the monster films that were so popular. Lewton crafted his "B-pictures" from the ground up. He hired stock players in the RKO acting company, brought in the best directors he could find, and always helped write the final drafts of the scripts before shooting began. He created a team of loyal professional friends, who pushed each other to make the most out of very little. What he produced were the first ventures into the realm of psychological horror—because he could afford to do little else. He had no budget for special effects, and came to rely on dark, twisted takes on humanity, moody lighting, and skillful sound design. He spewed out smart, erotic nightmares where horror sprang from scarred psyches and twisted souls running towards death as fast as they could. The Universal monster films were hokey, but Lewton's thrillers laid the foundation for film noir. His legacy was that he turned the popcorn movie into high art, and saved RKO in the process.
The Val Lewton Horror Collection gathers together the nine movies he produced for RKO. It's an amazing retrospective of thrills that are earned, characters that are fleshed out, and gems all but forgotten by the casual movie fan. For years you had to be "in the know" to seek out Lewton's titles at film festivals, or on the rare late night cable screening. These aren't the quaint "man in a mask" goofy monster movies most people associate with classic horror from the '40s. The films are set in the real world, with flesh-and-blood people. It's death, foreboding, and a "high concept" style and realism that make them as fresh today as they were sixty years ago. The great directors of horror all owe a great debt to Val Lewton. Hitchcock, Romero, and Carpenter are among the circle of artists who have endlessly stolen from his material. Val Lewton invented the modern psychological horror movie, and did it on a tight budget with only some silly titles to start with. His most successful collaborations were with director Jacque Tourneur, who claimed Lewton was "the dreamer" whenever they got together. And, oh…what beautiful wicked dreams he wrought.
Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky: Cat People / Curse of the Cat People
Val Lewton, one of the unsung heroes of Hollywood horror films, gets off to a roaring start with his 1942 hit about a woman unstrung by sexual tension and jealousy. Then Lewton turns audience expectations upside down by crafting a touching and luminous sequel that taps into childhood anxiety like no other film in the classic Hollywood era. Behold the power of imagination.
The Evidence: Cat People / Curse of the Cat People
It is the quintessence of the American horror movie, this moment of psychosexual panic: A woman walks alone down an alley (or a country lane, or a wooded path—take your pick). She has performed a sexual indiscretion (in this case, flirting with a jealous woman's husband). The camera lingers on irrelevant details—an empty expanse of wall, a waving branch—but shows nothing. But she is being stalked; her life is in danger. We grip the edges of our seats. Do we judge her, finding in the threat a reflection of our moral outrage? Or do we fear for her, empathizing with her sin as only the fellow guilty can?
In 1942's Cat People, director Jacques Tourneur stages this scene in only a couple of minutes, and the threat is imagined, by both the potential victim (Jane Randolph as Alice) and her stalker (Simone Simon as Irena). But the moment serves as model for all the horror movies that come after. It works, even if no violence happens (the shock payoff will come later, in an eerily lit and echoing swimming pool), because the tension among the characters is taut as a violin string of catgut.
Val Lewton's first triumph as producer (and uncredited co-screenwriter, having polished DeWitt Bodeen's script according to his own desires) has all the elements that set Lewton's B-movies ahead of his competition. The story works as both a horror melodrama and a carefully balanced portrait of marital collapse. Fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon, The Devil and Daniel Webster) has no friends in America. She is elegant and immaculate and has no qualms about bringing a strange man home. The man in question, "good, plain Americano" Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), falls in love immediately. In fact, he loves his neurotic new bride so much that he indulges her fears of consummating her marriage—at least until he starts flirting with officemate Alice (Jane Randolph).
Cat People avoids soap-opera histrionics by virtue of smart writing that never panders to an audience craving something a bit more disturbing. Is Irena just a desperate housewife growing more dangerously hysterical by the day? Or is she really one of the evil "cat people" that she was warned about as a child? A conventional horror film would answer that question with certainty. In a Val Lewton film, you can never be too sure. (Compare Lewton's restraint to the huffing and puffing Paul Schrader threw on screen in his lurid 1982 remake.)
But Lewton's first outing for RKO would not have worked half as well if not for its performances. Simone Simon projects a guarded sexual energy, an alluring shyness that makes it easy to understand why Oliver would marry her in hopes of teasing out her mysteries. By the end of the first act, the film clearly sets itself up as a tale of marriage anxiety. Irena's real fear is her inability to commit to her new husband because of her fear that "something evil is in me." And then she locks herself in a separate bedroom. Yes, the evil is sexual desire, the animal nature of libido, whether Irena is literally a panther woman or it is all in her mind. And it certainly does not help that her unctuous psychiatrist (Tom Conway, I Walked with a Zombie) seems to dabble in what might gently be called seduction therapy. (Remember that Hitchcock's Spellbound was still three years away, yet Lewton and Tourneur are already tipping over Freud's couch.)
Warner's print of Cat People suffers from some spots and scratches and even a missing frame here and there, but nothing too distracting. In an informative commentary track, film historian Greg Mank hints that Simone Simon, whom he dubs a "naughty angel," may have been more like Irena than even Lewton had hoped. While she seems friendly in the audio excerpts Mank offers during his discussion, Mank tells us that the other performers in the movie thought she was rather a terror.
RKO was pleased enough with the success of Cat People that they ordered Lewton to make a sequel. The title they handed him: Curse of the Cat People. What could he possibly do with that? In typical Lewton fashion: exactly the opposite of what the studio wanted.
I have often thought that the perfect Val Lewton story would be "Little Red Riding Hood," a tale that had made a strong impression upon him as a child. A young girl must choose between the grandmotherly superego and the lupine id. Or maybe "Hansel and Gretel," where both choices are embodied in one sinister witch in a candy-coated house. Imagine what Lewton's favorite cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, could do with the light from a smoldering oven…
Of course, Lewton was rarely so overt. Take his one real fairy tale: 1944's Curse of the Cat People. This is a film of surprising delicacy and depth, a sequel that matches up to and perhaps surpasses its predecessor in originality—so much that it has puzzled audiences for years and been unjustly neglected because it resists easy categorization. In his commentary, Greg Mank argues that the film is Lewton's effort to exorcise his childhood demons. The film went over schedule and over budget, as a frustrated Lewton poured himself into the production. Simone Simon and the studio both hated the film, and RKO moved to curtail Lewton's freedom in future productions.
Curse of the Cat People is the freshman feature for Robert Wise, a survivor of the Citizen Kane debacle that opened the door for Lewton's RKO career. Wise (having learned from Orson Welles) shows a mastery of sound that gets us inside a child's imagination quite effectively. Later, he'd use this to even better ends in The Haunting. (Wise shares screen credit with Gunther von Fritsch, who was dumped from the production and got stuck in B-movies and television.)
The film opens in Tarrytown, where a kindergarten class plays in the woods of Sleepy Hollow. Talk about an invitation to a creepy fairy tale. Little Amy (seven-year-old Ann Carter) is too intense and preternatural for her years (if the film were made today, Dakota Fanning would take the part). There is "something moody, something sickly" in her, according to her father. No wonder: Her parents are Oliver and Alice Reed (Kent Smith and Jane Randolph), still fretting over the mental breakdown of Irena years before. When Amy wishes for a friend, Irena's ghost (Simone Simon, dressed more for boudoir than playground) keeps her company through the falling leaves of autumn and the blanketing snow of winter. The twist: This is no vengeful horror movie monster. This is Irena redeemed, returned to the innocence of presexual childhood.
If any film qualified as a psychodrama, it is Curse of the Cat People. What else would you call this? It isn't a horror film: the ghost of Irena functions as a neurotic's fairy godmother, dream angel to an emotionally unbalanced child. "I'll be just like daddy wants me to be," Amy promises on her birthday. But maybe that is the problem: This is a child whose excess of imagination and inability to conform to the other kids are exactly what frightens her square parents. Yes, that's it: The real fear in this movie is that of parents who don't want their kid growing up "weird." And any kid with an imaginary playmate, no matter how benevolent, would be weird to Amy's bourgeois parents. If anything, Curse of the Cat People is an anti-horror film. The audience anxiously awaits some trouble, expects that the old lady on the corner (Julia Dean) will be a witch, or the Jamaican butler (calypso star Sir Lancelot) will conjure a zombie, or Irena will turn evil—but the fear is entirely ours. This is a movie about horror movies and why grown-ups watch them.
Curse of the Cat People is a film best appreciated by kids, who may sympathize with its tortured protagonist, who sees a tree as a magic mailbox and plays with an imaginary friend—just like every kid. If Cat People was Lewton's effort to air his personal fetishes (fear of touching and cats particularly), then Curse of the Cat People is his answer to critics who say that horror movies—and imagination itself—are unrealistic bunk. The moral of the story: What's so wrong with a little imagination—and even a little healthy anxiety?
Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees: I Walked with a Zombie / The Body Snatcher
The advent of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's small masterpiece I Walked with a Zombie on DVD promises a stellar Halloween for movie lovers. To further sweeten the deal, Warner Bros. has coupled it with The Body Snatcher, also produced by Lewton, featuring famed director Robert Wise and horror greats Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Both films demonstrate why Lewton made such a name for himself as producer of these low-budget genre flicks, with their visual artistry, their persuasive re-creation of distinctive settings—and their timeless power to disturb.
I Walked with a Zombie / The Body Snatcher: The Evidence
The Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian is a place of beauty, with its lush palm trees and unspoiled beaches. But there is a darker side to this tropical paradise. In the night one can hear the weeping of the descendants of slaves, and the rhythms of voodoo drums from the houmfort. It's a strange place indeed to find young Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee, Little Women ), and her post is even stranger: caring for the zombielike wife of brooding plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway, The Seventh Victim). Holland's embittered half-brother, Wesley Rand (James Ellison), maintains that Paul drove his wife mad, but Betsy—who is falling in love with Paul—refuses to believe that he is to blame. She resolves to restore his wife to health…even if it means venturing into the forbidden houmfort and experimenting with the power of voodoo.
Elegance is not a quality that zombie movies are known for, but it describes I Walked with a Zombie, which holds a place of distinction as one of Lewton's finest works and one of the most effective horror films of the 1940s. Made directly after Cat People by the same director, Jacques Tourneur, it employs much of the dreamlike power of its predecessor. Despite its lurid title—which was assigned by the studio, as with Lewton's other RKO films—it is an ethereal, even poetic film that relies largely on atmosphere and artistry for its horror effects. Its purported subject matter may be zombies, but it uses them to tell a story about the intersections between passion, corruption, and redemption.
The gothic novel Jane Eyre is often cited as having influenced the story of I Walked with a Zombie, so it's not surprising that these themes unite the two works. The screenplay—based on a series of nonfiction articles on voodoo practices but heavily rewritten by Lewton—makes use of Jane Eyre's gothic template to involve us in the story, giving us an innocent viewpoint character who ventures into a sinister new environment to encounter danger, love, and the supernatural. And, as in Jane Eyre, the movie's monstrous female—catatonic Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), replacing Bronte's vampiric Bertha Mason—seems culpable for her own downfall because of her inherent immorality.
But is Jessica's condition in fact a symbolic punishment, or simply the aftereffect of a severe illness? One of Zombie's most powerful devices is its refusal to limit itself to definite answers or present us with the reason behind every event. We never learn, for example, why the Sabreur, the sword-wielding voodoo priest, wants to kill Jessica. But this lithe, charismatic figure, who never even speaks, is much more powerful as an enigma than as a logically motivated character—much like the zombies themselves, in fact. In other scenes we are also left in the dark as to characters' motivations, or whether they are even acting under their own volition. All these mysteries make the film compelling; we truly can't ever anticipate or predict what will happen, and even the disjointed quality of the latter part of the film just strengthens the feeling that, as in a dream, events are following some internal logic to which we aren't privy.
The restraint that makes the story haunting has the same effect in the use of sound. This is a very quiet movie, with very little underscoring, and the silence is all the more unsettling when underscored by the mournful song of black sailors, the sighing of wind through fields of sugar cane, or the throbbing of drums. The deliberate pacing of certain scenes also enhances the suspense. At scarcely over an hour, the movie doesn't waste a minute, but Tourneur knows when it will be more frightening by taking its time. The slow, deliberate motion of both the wraithlike Jessica and the gaunt zombie guard Carrefour (Darby Jones) unsettles the viewer far more than today's fast-moving flesh eaters. All these elements come together in what is for me the most memorable scene: a hypnotically eerie night sequence in which Betsy leads the unresisting Jessica through the cane fields to the houmfort. That one sequence alone, ominous and lonely, is enough to make I Walked with a Zombie a horror classic. It's also noteworthy that the black characters in the film are presented respectfully, and voodoo is not demonized. Particularly for a film of this vintage, the absence of racist stereotyping is remarkable, and that makes this film far more palatable to modern viewers than many others of its era.
The print used for the DVD looks to have been taken from the same master as the print I have seen broadcast on cable, since it shows damage in the same places. However, despite the presence of this damage, as well as speckling and grain, the picture is agreeably crisp and features clear whites, deep blacks, and beautiful depth of grays—a particular virtue in the many scenes that make use of shadow and darkness for dramatic effect. Overall the picture shows marked improvement over the broadcast print. Audio, likewise, is far cleaner and more distinct than I have previously known it to be for this film; all the dialogue was actually comprehensible, which was a first, and the drumbeats resonate powerfully. Altogether, despite its flaws, this is a markedly better audiovisual experience of I Walked with a Zombie than I have heretofore known.
The commentary by critic and novelist Kim Newman (author of the vampire novel Anno Dracula) and critic-editor Steven Jones is a lively, energetic dialogue. These two enthusiastic commentators discuss such topics as literary influences on the plot (citing not only Jane Eyre but The Turn of the Screw and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca) and the ways the finished film differs from the shooting script, as well as filling in some background on the actors and offering interesting morsels of trivia. Initially I was disappointed that they don't clarify the areas of the story that are left unexplained, but on reflection I was happier that they had not diminished the film's mystery. Their commentary manages to enhance our knowledge of the film and the filming process without lessening its otherworldly power.
In contrast to the dreamlike Zombie, the horror of The Body Snatcher is concrete, with an emphasis on fleshly horror: body parts, dissections, hands-on murders. We also have a change of directors, from Jacques Tourneur to Robert Wise, who would go on to helm one of the greatest of all horror films—The Haunting (1963). Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson story of the same name, The Body Snatcher takes us to 1831 Edinburgh, just three years after the notorious grave robbers and murderers Burke and Hare were brought to justice. Even though the people of Edinburgh have taken to setting guards over the graves of their loved ones to thwart the resurrectionists, the sinister Gray (Boris Karloff) still goes about his grisly work of disinterring the dead for profit. His customer is distinguished but arrogant Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), who needs cadavers with which to teach his anatomy students. When naïve medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) takes an interest in the case of a pretty young widow with a crippled daughter, he is soon plunged into the sordid process of procuring dead bodies for medical use—and discovers the ominous power that Gray wields over MacFarlane.
Although we see almost nothing of the actual specimens, the subject matter itself was shocking in its day; even now, the suggestiveness of scenes in which Gray brings a shovel down brutally on an off-screen dog, or tracks a hapless balladeer into the darkness and cuts her song short, is highly effective. The final scene, which is taken from Stevenson's story, plays out with grotesque power. Unfortunately, though, the film as a whole doesn't have the impact of some of these isolated sequences. The crucial character of Fettes is the most glaring defect. At first this idealistic young medical student, who is initially shocked and sickened by Gray's activities, seems to be the audience surrogate and the moral compass of the film. Yet he is capable of changing his attitudes entirely (and back again) without any inner struggle or sense of conflict. He emerges as a weathervane bereft of any self-reflective instincts, and his actions throughout the film don't seem to follow any consistent logic. I think Russell Wade's performance is to blame rather than the screenplay; a more skilled actor could have given us the sense of a good man struggling to find his way out from under the powerful influence of a moral corruptor. Instead, he simply comes across as a patsy.
The two other most important performances, however—Daniell's and Karloff's—are solid. Karloff's Gray is authentically creepy, with his malicious smile and sadistic delight in pulling MacFarlane's strings. He is entirely without conscience; I shivered at the moment when, having just committed murder, he crouches over the fresh corpse and strokes his pet cat. It's a meaty role, probably one of the most substantial of Karloff's horror career, and he relishes every moment of it. Similarly, Daniell here gets to stretch in a role that is much bigger than his usual fare. Daniell's gift for chilly, snide villainy is evident in his work in such films as Camille and Jane Eyre, but here he gets to play a more complex heavy, and he rises to the occasion with a strong performance. The other big name in the cast, Bela Lugosi, plays a small, tangential role—little more than a celebrity cameo—and the audio commentary points out that his being involved at all was the studio's idea, not Lewton's.
This commentary is a worthy supplement to the film. The late Robert Wise speaks for about the first 50 minutes, discussing how he came to work with Lewton before getting around to specifics on the movie at hand. Among the inside information he provides is the tantalizing revelation that he and Lewton had planned to do a film adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's classic story "Carmilla" (the basis for the subgenre of lesbian vampire films). What a gem that would have been if it had come to fruition! After Wise is finished speaking, film historian Steve Haberman picks up the commentary with a slew of background information on the Stevenson story, the casting, and the response of critics of the time. His credibility diminishes when he makes a major error about the plot of Stevenson's story, but his enthusiasm for the movie is enjoyable, even though his praise strikes me as over-lavish. The other extra for this film is the trailer, a prime example of misleading advertising in that it plays up the "partnership" of Karloff and Lugosi, whose interaction in the film is brief and decidedly not a partnership.
A more cohesive double feature would have paired I Walked with a Zombie with Lewton's The Seventh Victim, since both make use of a story structure in which innocent heroines venture into an often frightening unknown world and find danger and romance—and it would have been nice to have two strong performances by the suave, underrated Tom Conway on one disc. Nevertheless, this disc provides an interesting study in contrasts and allows viewers to compare Lewton's collaborations with two different directors. For the many viewers who will seek this release out merely for the excellent I Walked with a Zombie, the presence of another, if less memorable, Lewton film will simply be the garnish on the sundae—or should I say the flowers on the grave?
Judge Brett Cullum: The Leopard Man
The Leopard Man feels more like the sequel to Cat People than that film's puzzling official follow-up, The Curse of the Cat People. First off, the feature reunited Val Lewton with director Jacques Tourneur, and the two give the story a similar feel. Also making a memorable return to the screen was one of the unsung stars of Cat People, a trained black leopard named Dynamite. But as one can surmise from the title, the danger here is from a man instead of a kittenish femme fatale. Sexuality still plays a big part in the film, but this time the leopard is lusting after lone girls under the cloak of darkness.
The story is set in New Mexico, where a struggling singer named Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks) decides to spice up her act by making a splashy show-stopping entrance with a live leopard. It certainly is unforgettable, especially when the cat is provoked by a jealous castanet artist, Clo Clo (played by the mysteriously singularly named Margo), who clacks her hands to spook Mr. Leopard (the aforementioned Val Lewton veteran Dynamite). The wild cat runs off, mauling the hand of one of the wait staff along the way. Soon the community is gripped by fear as the bodies pile up—it looks like the escaped cat has developed a ravenous taste for young girls out alone in the dark of night. But the owner of the leopard and a professor (James Bell) at the local museum lead Kiki and her boyfriend (Dennis O'Keefe) to doubt whether the victims were really mauled by the animal on the loose. Could there be a more sinister threat lurking in the alley?
The Leopard Man marked the third and final collaboration between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. It's the weakest of their three efforts (the other two being Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie). The film's structure—lacking a true lead—was certainly ambitious. The entire story is played out in vignettes strung together, giving it a stream-of-consciousness effect. Tourneur wasn't completely satisfied with the end result, claiming this loose narrative approach worked against the film and rendered it "too exotic" and "neither fish nor fowl."
Despite the shortcomings, there are undoubtedly more than a handful of great moments to be found in The Leopard Man. Chief among them is one of the most brutal death scenes captured on film, with a terrified mother on the wrong side of a locked door listening to the pounding and screaming of her ill-fated daughter. Many of the night sequences in New Mexico are dramatically lit, and we get the trademark "walking at night" sequences Lewton made famous. The murders are appropriately shocking, and even though the mystery is a touch short on suspects, it still packs a solid punch when resolved.
The transfer of The Leopard Man is clear enough, but the print has quite a few scratches—it looks like Dynamite may have played with the negative used for this disc. Since the sequences are so shadowy, these imperfections leap out of the screen. But black levels are strong, and I've never seen this film in as good shape as we find it here. The sound mix is dynamic, and reveals Clo Clo's castanet performance was dubbed in post production. In addition to the spoiler-ridden trailer, there is an engaging commentary from William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist). He confesses how much these Lewton films influenced his own work, and chats nonstop about how much he idolized the smart and skillful way this production unfolds. He's no film historian, but it's fun to hear Friedkin "geek out" in adoration of one of his idols.
Judge Brett Cullum: The Seventh Victim
Sweet young Mary (Kim Hunter, in her first role) heads to New York City to locate her missing sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, in a shockingly blunt black wig). She finds a disturbing scene left by her sibling in a room: a chair and a noose. Seems Jacqueline is out there, ready to die very soon, and Mary has no idea why. With the help of her sister's estranged husband (Tom Conway) and a well-meaning psychiatrist (Hugh Beaumont, before he became Ward Cleaver), Mary uncovers a shocking link to a Satanic cult. Now she has to find Jacqueline before she becomes The Seventh Victim of the Devil himself.
The Seventh Victim was Val Lewton's most misunderstood film when it was released, but also his most influential as far as lasting impact. It was filmed a full year before Laura, and seemed to influence that noir project with its pitch-black mystery about a young woman who is apparently dead. The film became a model for Roman Polanski, who would hardly change a thing when he depicted a New York coven of Satanists in Rosemary's Baby. Yeah, The Seventh Victim was far ahead of its time and influenced everybody. It even contained a rather scary shower scene a full twenty years before Psycho—the similarity in the setup is amazing.
The film itself is one you should watch as late as possible, preferably after more than one glass of wine. It's not a traditional horror flick; it's an amazingly deep meditation on what it means to want to die. Although the film concentrates mainly on Mary's Alice in Wonderland journey into the dark rabbit hole of Manhattan, it is Jean Brooks as Jacqueline who paints the most vicious, lasting portrait of a woman doomed. What a shame that only three years after this film Brooks would flee the movie business to pursue a career selling newspaper advertising. This is a wild performance piece that, true to most of Lewton's pictures, contains subtle, brilliant acting. Hunter had come from the stage, and was frustrated by Lewton's insistence she tone down her acting technique for his film.
The transfer of this film looks stunning when you compare it to the crappy (and hard-to-find) VHS copies. There's not much wear on this one, and the sound seems intact as well. Extras include a commentary by film historian Steve Haberman. He knows his stuff, and provides a talky, full track with tons of tidbits and insights into what makes this film so special. It also includes a rather silly old trailer for nostalgia's sake.
Judge Brett Cullum: The Ghost Ship
There have been few sightings of The Ghost Ship over the years. Two weeks after it was released, two writers sued RKO Pictures, claiming their idea was stolen. The two men said they had submitted a script to Lewton for consideration, and implied the producer had stolen ideas for the story from their work. Lewton's defense was that he had never read the script, and had it in his possession still unopened. The studio thought the claims had little merit. But somehow the writers won a settlement and the picture was pulled from screens. It was never sold to television, and it has been only rarely screened at very low profile film festivals since. So here is a lost Lewton gem which will make a purchase of The Val Lewton Horror Collection quite tempting for fans of hard-to-find cinema.
Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is a seaman who has just earned officer status. For his first officer voyage, he is assigned as a third officer on the Altair under Captain Stone (Richard Dix). Things seem to go well, and Tom creates a strong bond with his superior officer. But once the ship is far out to sea, the Captain begins to exhibit some strange psychotic behavior, and Tom begins to think he may have signed on for more than he bargained. The two begin a cat-and-mouse game which leaves both men with nowhere to run.
The Ghost Ship is a claustrophobic thriller that feels like a Hitchcock potboiler. It's suitably spooky, but a little heavy-handed. Captain Stone gives so many proclamations on his authority I was waiting for South Park's Eric Cartman to pop up and demand respect for it. Still, it's a handsomely shot film with visual flair and quite a few memorable characters. The two leads carry the movie quite effectively. The best parts include the often gory standoffs between Stone and Merriam. The entire film is a tight tale that obviously influenced modern movies such as Dead Calm.
The transfer for this feature is spotless. Seems the less the movie was in distribution, the better the print is for transfer to DVD. So The Ghost Ship is in near pristine condition, due to its lack of release. There is hardly a scratch or speck of dirt to be found. The sound mix is the original mono, and it's clear as a bell. There are no extras for the feature—not even a trailer, given that none was made for the feature.
Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger: Isle of the Dead / Bedlam
The RKO logo gives me warm fuzzies because I associate it with great, but obscure, film noirs (that are often good because they're so bad). So when I heard about this guy Val (no relation to Val Kilmer, I assume) and his cerebral, moody horror flicks made under the RKO banner, I was intrigued. Would his films employ the same visceral chiaroscuro that gives me chills in even mediocre noirs? Could this B-movie director pull me into a fantastic world of horror, touch something deep in the back of my mind that would send me scurrying for the covers? He's got two shots: Isle of the Dead and Bedlam.
Isle of the Dead gives us Boris Karloff as General Nikolas "The Watchdog" Pherides, one of Greece's fiercest, least sympathetic military men. He takes a break from shelling villagers to visit his wife's island grave with war correspondent Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer, The Adventures of Don Coyote). While on the island, the pair comes across the lively house of the cemetery keeper and a gaggle of quirky houseguests. Among them is Thea (Ellen Drew, Man in the Saddle), who is whispered to be a Vuldrini (wait, that's Ghostbusters). Anyway, she supposedly kills people, and people start dying on the island. It might be the plague. It might also be this vampire chick, Thea, so the General talks about killing her. But he never really does; instead, he mumbles a lot and waves his arms wildly whenever Thea walks into the room. Then a nice lady gets buried alive, people run around, and the end credits roll.
It may not be in my best interest to admit this, but I'd had a rather large beer before sitting down to Isle of the Dead (a 750 of Duvel, if anyone is curious, and it was great). I admit this in the interest of full disclosure, so that Val Lewton enthusiasts can decry me as a drunken heretic before ripping me in two. Perhaps it was the beer that dulled my senses so, clouded my vision, and sent me into a stupor. Perhaps, but I think it was the movie.
Isle of the Dead spent its 72-minute run time looking for something scary to spook us with, and came up with some folderol about a woman in a crypt at about the 168-minute mark. Is it about man's inhumanity toward man? The subversive power of suspicion and fear? The primitive desire to hold onto tradition? I'm not sure, and I don't get the feeling that Isle of the Dead is either. The script was constantly setting up horrific scenarios, only to discard them a couple of scenes later.
More damning is my niggling suspicion that Isle of the Dead was attempting to create a cloistered atmosphere of forced isolation, a stifling island quarantine that was driving people mad. If that is indeed what Val was shooting for, he missed the mark by a wide margin. The prisoners are too blithe about their situation: No one really seems to mind being cooped up all that much. Blocking emphasizes their forced proximity, but the sets don't properly convey isolation. Many a film has created more tension out of much less raw material.
But the weakest link in Isle of the Dead's paper chain is the characters. I don't know whether listless acting begat uninteresting characters or vice versa. All I know is there wasn't a compelling character in the lot, and that includes Karloff's General Pherides. Karloff gets points for his restrained take on the material, and his face is as expressive as ever, but he simply wasn't as gripping as I'd hoped. That goes double for his supporting cast, who as a group failed to create much spark. Ellen Drew is bland even in a can't-miss role, the misunderstood hottie on an island full of trapped, suspicious, lustful men. I only watched this film yesterday, and I'm struggling to recall a memorable look or turn of phrase from her (this from a guy who could find the contents of the fridge sensual in the right light).
Speaking of the right light, Isle of the Dead didn't use it. There were two modes: dingy grayscale and extreme darkness. Most of the would-be scary scenes were shot in such a dark key that I couldn't tell what was happening. There were exceptions to the rule, such as the fantastically lit opening sequence in the general's tent. Otherwise, Val seemed to think that the mere image of a black screen with three highlit bricks would send us into convulsions of fear.
In the end, I wasn't sure whether I was supposed to be scared of boogiemen or appalled at humanity. I didn't know whether the film was creating a surrealistic fantasy world or was firmly set in reality. As it stands, Isle of the Dead is an ill-formed slog through a garden of little seeds that might have blossomed into horror had they been nurtured. Even one of the microthemes could have been something worthwhile—but none of them got their day in the sun.
With my introduction to Val Lewton out of the way, it was time to tackle Bedlam, though I held little hope. With Isle of the Dead, Boris had shown me why he was considered a perennial B-movie actor (granted, a wildly successful one). Val had proven to be dingy mirrors and small puffs of smoke. I grabbed the Duvel just in case and gave Bedlam a spin.
Hark, what light through yon screen breaks? Could Bedlam be an honest-to-goodness B-movie treasure? Indeed.
Bedlam takes us (unsurprisingly, given the title) into the asylum of Bedlam, administered by Master George Sims. In contrast to his stupor in Isle of the Dead, Karloff is immediately ominous as the grimy apothecary general. He's like a smarter Grima Wormtongue, a man who is just obsequious enough to fit in with nobility. Unlike General Nikolas, Master George Sims radiates a real sense of malice and cunning.
His foil is well played by Anna Lee, who crafts Nell Bowen into one of the most dominating female characters I've seen on the silver screen. Like Master Sims, Nell comes from humble roots and seeks an easy life at the elbow of nobility. Unlike Sims, she is staunchly individualistic, retaining pride and a willingness to leave the easy life if it compromises her scruples. Anna Lee lives the role, carries herself with strength and grace, and spouts dense, scornful dialogue fluidly. She also conveys compassion and uncertainty through understated eye movements. Between Karloff, Lee, and keenly observant supporting actors, the acting in Bedlam is superior all around.
Most of these characters thrive because their dialogue sings. Each word tells something about the man or woman portrayed, from the no-nonsense clipped speech of politicians to the smarmy wheedlings of Master Sims. I started to write down the lines that struck me, but gave up because there were so many. Yet this gem from Nell must be mentioned:
"My heart is a flint, sir—it may strike sparks, but they are not warm enough to burn. I have no time to make a show of loving kindness before my fellow men—not in this life. I've too much laughing to do."
Like Isle of the Dead, Bedlam opens with a dot of pure white writhing against darkness. Isle of the Dead's opening shot was of white lather coating the grimy hands of General Pherides as he washed them. The sickening contrast of grime against foamy suds was perhaps the most effective shot in the film. Bedlam presents us with a white-shirted man scaling the walls along the top story of Bedlam. His pristinely clad form struggles in vain against the cold blackness of the asylum, as though the people inside are lambs and the asylum is the real lunatic. Unlike Isle of the Dead, Bedlam follows its opening with a stream of dramatic lighting, rich visual texture, and fine composition. Interior shots of Bedlam are accentuated by steeply angled shafts of light and shadow, as though the place itself is off kilter. The crane shot used to show us Nell's initial reaction to the place is dramatic and disturbing. The sets are artistic, like moving paintings, which was in fact the goal: Bedlam is based on a Hogarth print. Hogarth was referenced for most of the sets, causing commentator Tom Weaver to remark that Hogarth was the art designer for the film. Bedlam is a visual feast. (Incidentally, Weaver's commentary is brisk, lively, well researched, and keenly perceptive about the visual, conceptual, and performance aspects of the film. It is well worth a listen.)
Most of all, I appreciate Bedlam over Isle of the Dead because it has a clear direction that is executed firmly. There's no question of superstition or paranormal activity; Bedlam is firmly rooted in the horrors of humanity. The costumes, sets, speech, and props convey 18th-century England with authority, and the actors are composed enough about the period aspect to sell it. Rarely has a film been so convincing, taken me so completely into a past era.
For all of its strengths, Bedlam is not what it could have been. I'll wager that ninety percent of its subdued impact is the work of the censors. Certain themes, such as rape, torture, and trepanation, are merely whispered instead of directly addressed. This discretion gives Bedlam modest charm, but it could have been a masterpiece of psychological terror and brutality had the narrative been more explicit. Even without the benefits of our modern ratings approach, however, Bedlam rustles up plenty of tension and fear.
The Val Lewton Horror Collection includes a documentary called Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy, which runs almost a full hour. During the course of the feature, Guillermo Del Toro, George Romero, John Landis, William Friedkin, Joe Dante, and Robert Wise all chime in about how Lewton forever changed film and the art of horror. I can't imagine a more fitting tribute for a dreamer like Lewton than to have some of the hottest current names of Hollywood talking about how his films work and influence them to this day.
Val Lewton died prematurely in 1951 at the young age of 47. He left a legacy of moody horror flicks that did the impossible—they made people think. I can't imagine waking up at 3 AM thinking about The Wolf Man, but after watching Cat People or The Seventh Victim, it's inevitable. He hid more than he ever showed, and in doing that made his films much more spooky than a man in a mask could ever be. The secret was he was tapping into our primal fear of having the mask ripped off, and seeing what it was really hiding. The monsters were inside us all, and that was far more frightening than worrying whether Dracula might show up at your window. He knew the secret—true horror comes from not knowing about the person next to you. His films were set in the real world, were about real people, and were palpable exercises in psychological horror.
If you're one of that strange breed of people who think black and white is not a viable color scheme for a movie, or that all acting before 1960 was terrible, then get ready to be shocked. Lewton's films wouldn't work in color, and he demanded his actors keep everything as real as they could manage. He believed even the smallest production deserved to be taken seriously, that horror should be smart, and that a "B-picture" could be beautiful. The Val Lewton Horror Collection is an amazing testament to the eternal power of cinema—a film that was spooky in 1943 can still haunt the dreams of movie fans sixty years later.
Guilty of casting a long shadow over every horror movie made after 1943. Val Lewton created the "boo" moment (often called a "bus" after his sequence in Cat People), defined noir for the next two decades, and invented psychological horror. Without his legacy, Norman Bates would have never stalked a hotel, Michael Meyers would have never gone after a group of babysitters, and the Blair Witch would have stayed undiscovered.
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