When you hear films titled such as these, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For me, when I bought the Val Lewton DVD collection, put out by Warner Brothers initially back in 2005 and then re-released in 2008 with a documentary featuring Martin Scorsese discussing Val Lewton, I expected to see films similar to those of the classic horror pictures of Universal Studios. Films like those in the Dracula and Frankenstein series’. In fact, I expected something much “cheesier” as these titles sound straight out of the Ed Wood filmography.
The closest thing I had to any knowledge of any of the pictures was a friend’s write-ups on the CAT PEOPLE and THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. So, my expectations weren’t exactly set low, but I wasn’t intending to watch anything that would affect me any differently than any of the other horror pictures of the 30s and 40s.
Chronologically I should have begun my viewings with CAT PEOPLE, but since I was somewhat aware of what to expect I wanted to save those films for the end. So, I left it up to chance and the first DVD I grabbed was I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE BODY SNATCHER.
Photographically opulent. Atmospherically eerie. Psychologically complex. Intelligently written. Professionally performed. Well constructed. Unquestionably, and assuredly frightening. These aren’t things that are normally associated with classic horror films, and certainly not associated with B-horror films prior to Romero’s landmark NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. By all accounts and purposes, I should not have seen what I saw.
Had I known beforehand what these films actually contained I wonder if my reactions to them would remain the same. Going in blindly, these films can have a profound effect if you’ve ever watched studio horror from that time period.
The titles to these two films are in every way imaginable misleading. More than likely the amount of money spent on these two films would also lead one to believe they were going to see men dressed as zombies and aliens. Again, misleading. The level of quality these titles should own based on the fact that they were cheaply made, and horribly named, should reside somewhere in the realm of BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA or some bad Twilight Zone episode. Imagine my surprise when I came to find out that these films would be the starting point of my delve into a body of work whose level of sophisticated storytelling, character complexity, and downright perfectly shot pieces of art is almost unmatched in the history of the horror genre.
These aren’t horror films like those of the Universal studios monster films, nor are they films that deal entirely with the supernatural. For the most part these are psychological thrillers, which is a term you don’t hear too often, if ever, pre-Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO; but that’s what these are, and they’re infinitely more interesting than most of what’s been released in the decades since.
They don’t bother with otherworldly fears. Lewton knew when he made these that true fear stems from the things that we experience in everyday life. Dark corners, long silences in the night, voices that you can’t be certain are real, superstitions that coincidentally seem to be making sense; and ultimately, people that we can’t be sure are completely of sound mind. He knew that the greatest way to scare an audience is not to show a threat, but to insinuate one and let the imagination run rampant. If we’re confronted with a situation where we are left alone with our thoughts we’re predisposed to create the worst scenarios that we can. If we’re all alone on a street and hear somewhere in the distance a set of slow footsteps we will almost automatically feel that those footsteps are the last sounds we’ll ever hear as they probably belong to a man with a knife that’s headed for our stomach; when in actuality it’s probably another person who feels the same way about our footsteps.
But, there’s always the chance that your worst fears will come true, and that’s what Lewton likes to toy with.
Interestingly enough, though, Val Lewton is not the director of any of the films in the set. He’s credited only as the producer of each, yet they each bear obvious similarities. I’ve learned since watching them that Lewton was very active in the screenwriting process only he would credit himself under a pen name, or not at all, and was also a hands-on producer. In many ways he can be regarded more as an auteur than just a producer, and after seeing all of the films it’ll be hard to disprove, based solely on the finished products, that they all resemble one another; and the only person that was a constant through all nine films was Val Lewton.
Matching up with his sophisticated stories, Lewton gave great acting gigs to some formidable actors with some of the most intricately layered characters I’ve ever seen displayed on screen in the horror genre. Most notably, these movies show how misused Boris Karloff was in the Universal Monster system.
Imagine, if you will, Tobe Hooper coming up to…I don’t know…Jeremy Irons, and saying, “Hey, Jeremy I’ve got this great role for you. It’s the part of a psychotic and mentally slow chainsaw wielding mad man. He doesn’t really say anything, and you’ll be behind a mask made to look like that of a skinned ex-victim, but I think you can add some real depth to this character.”
And you know what, Irons would take the part and he would add another dimension to the role of Leatherface beyond being just a mentally-challenged chainsaw-crazy lunatic. He’ll probably end up being somewhat sympathetic. That’s what Boris Karloff did for Frankenstein’s monster, and a little in the role of Ardeth Bay in THE MUMMY. But, what I did not realize until I watched THE BODY SNATCHER, is the absolute superior level of acting ability Boris Karloff possessed. His is one of the most dynamic screen villains I’ve ever seen, and Karloff’s performance is fascinatingly dark and layered. He’s got motives, he’s intelligent, he reasons, and he’s relatable while still being revolting and vile. Karloff was born to play roles like this; not Frankenstein’s monster. Albeit, he’s the best Frankenstein’s monster there ever has been, but the role is beneath him.
If you have a world class chef at your disposal you don’t hand him a block of cheese, a slice of ham, and two pieces of bread and have him make you a sandwich. You’ll get a great sandwich (if you like ham and cheese), but it’s still just a sandwich. The chef needs more. More ingredients to create something memorable. That’s what Val Lewton and company provided for Boris Karloff, amongst other actors; and not once, but multiple times.
Three of the nine films I watched from this collection starred Karloff (THE BODY SNATCHER, BEDLAM, ISLE OF THE DEAD), and those three performances were some of the best and most intricate work I’ve seen from any actor. In the same way that David Cronenberg gives actors some of the best roles of their careers, Val Lewton did with similar roles and films nearly a half century prior.
When I finished up the collection with THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE I was planning on discussing the films individually, which I may still do. However, halfway through I stopped, and erased. The reason being is that this collection of films almost demands to be appreciated in its entirety more than singularly. Due to their thematic, and cinematic similarities it seemed as if I was repeating myself with praises for each movie. Each has elements that stick with you, whether it be the performance of an actor, the noir-ish lighting and cinematography, the dialogue exchanges, the uncomfortable atmospheres, the suspenseful stories, or in the case of two or three of them some of the most intense and heart-pounding sequences in any horror film (ISLE OF THE DEAD and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE in particular). THE SEVENTH VICTIM, I feel, has one of the greatest final scenes in film, while films like THE LEOPARD MAN, CAT PEOPLE, and THE GHOST SHIP offer up disturbed personalities that are decades ahead of their time.
The fact that I consider this to be the most impressive body of work in such a short time frame is not without merit. The fact that these are all to be considered horror films makes the claim seem illogical. The fact that they’re not only horror films, but cheap horror films makes my claim sound uneducated. Regardless, if you have seen the films I challenge you to name a more impressive and significant accomplishment from anyone in American film history. Within a five year span, Val Lewton produced nine of the most memorable, and timeless pieces of film art in the history of the medium; all within a genre that time is not kind to pre-PSYCHO. Lewton did this on shoe-string budgets, and was forced to form his scripts utilizing titles handed to him by the RKO executives.
“Hey Val, here’s your next title (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) now go write a script for something that’ll make us some money.”
Just imagine what Val Lewton could have done with SNAKES ON A PLANE.
Tags: Bedlam, Boris Karloff, Cat People, Classic Horror, Horror Retrospective, I Walked With a Zombie, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, The Curse of the Cat PEople, The Ghost Ship, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, Val Lewton