)(5-Pack)Val Lewton, a popular RKO Radio Pictures producer, redefined the scary genre with low-budget, high-box workplace films. Now offered are nine of these scary classics on DVD in the all brand-new Val Lewton Horror Collection. Unique to the collection are a brand-new documentary on the producer and 3 of the 9 films.]] >
Val Lewton's name is synonymous with the subtlest, most strange brand of scary filmmaking in Hollywood's golden era, and the nine scary classics he produced at RKO between 1942 and 1946 constitute the most amazing cycle of imagination in B-movie history. (For the record, the Lewton/RKO tradition also consists of 2 non-horror entries, Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi.)
Before ending up being a movie producer, the Russian-born Lewton was a prolific writer of pulp fiction, nonfiction, and a couple of adult books. He also worked for years as assistant to David O. Selznick, a famous producer with an unique individual signature-- and a flair for grandiosity Lewton himself never replicated. It's ever so revealing that, on Selznick's Gone With the Wind, it was Lewton who came up with the concept for the famous rising shot of the Atlanta railyard filled with Southern wounded, with the Confederate flag streaming above-- just he idly proposed it as a joke, never imagining that anybody would actually film such an amazingly enthusiastic scene.
In 1942 Lewton left Selznick to carry out a series of scary films for RKO Radio Pictures. The studio would offer him a budget plan around $200,000 per photo and a title RKO considered to be grabby; Lewton would have a liberty as long as he remained on budget plan, utilized the title, and gave the studio a profitable motion picture of second-feature length (around 70 minutes). Gradually, Lewton would progressively have problem with studio managers, but RKO was the right place for him. Although low in the pecking order amongst Hollywood majors, the studio offseted its lack of MGM-style beauty and Warner Bros. grit-and-gusto by working in a carefully filigreed, nearly miniaturist design. The art department under Van Nest Polglase and Albert S. D'Agostino can exquisite artisanry, and in Nicholas Musuraca, a master of low-key cinematography and supple camerawork, Lewton discovered an important collaborator in developing moody shadow-worlds where what you could not see was more disquieting than what you could.
He was also fortunate in having Jacques Tourneur to direct his first 3 efforts (they had teamed years earlier on the Bastille-storming sequence for Selznick's A Tale of Two Cities). They scored very first time from the gate with both a popular hit and a work of art: Cat People (1942). The story involves a very young Serbian female in Manhattan (Simone Simon) persuaded that her ancestors had practiced animal praise during the Middle Ages-- and that she herself might shape-change into a lithe, ravening panther if her interests were excited. The film is uncannily effective in keeping the audience guessing whether this is a fear borne of morbid obsession and sexual repression, or a genuine, horrific possibility. There are 2 series of matchless artistry and nearly intolerable suspense-- a lonely, echoing walk through pools of lamplight along with Central Park, and a late-night swim in a deserted indoor pool-- that construct to throat-grabbing climaxes and continue to be turning points in the history of screen scary.
Lots of critics feel that the second Lewton-Tourneur undertaking, I Walked With a Zombie (1943), is both men's finest work. The title is so lurid that the heroine-narrator (Frances Dee) must shrug it off with her primary words, yet the motion picture is an amazingly fragile and poetic piece of spellbinding-- absolutely nothing less than a reworking of Jane Eyre on a voodoo island in the Caribbean. Other scary enthusiasts prefer the more mainline ferocity of The Leopard Man (1943), an adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story about a serial killer scattering remains along the U.S.-Mexican border. Although on one level this is the Lewton film that veers closest to traditional mystery-suspense, there's no end of disturbing ambiguity (another black panther on the loose!) and hints of occultism and religious mania.
RKO promoted Tourneur to A-movies after this; Lewton would never once more have so masterly a directorial partner. In an odd sense (which is just proper), this underscores how much Lewton-- with his wealth of arcane historic lore and storytelling archetypes, his quiet, patient attention to detail, and his taste for oblique story-- was the vital auteur of all his films. Promoting first Mark Robson then Robert Wise from the modifying table, Lewton went on making the deeply strange The Seventh Victim (1943) and The Ghost Ship (1943), 2 films where such monstrous components as Satan praise and murderous psychopathology are folded away inside strangely drifty, nearly becalmed sleepwalks into everlasting night. The Seventh Victim-- a movie occupied with more strolling dead than Lewton's out-and-out zombie photo-- is among the cinema's supreme meditations en routes lives brush versus one another in the areas of a terrific, impersonal city. And The Ghost Ship (the rarest of Lewton's films, owing to a crippling copyright match) resembles a fever dream from which the audience never awakens.
That's enough for a legacy, surely. There continue to be The Curse of the Cat People (1944), a sequel that is not quite a sequel, a pretend-horror motion picture that's actually a contemplation of the fragility of childhood; Isle of the Dead (1945), a doomed reverie about tourists who escape the Goya-esque turmoil of a 19th-century war just to be besieged with pester on a miasma-shrouded island; The Body Snatcher (1945), an atmospheric Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation that invokes the grisly history of graverobbers Burke and Hare, and supplies a together-again-for-the-last-time event for Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi; and Bedlam (1946), the Hogarth painting come to life to portray the real-life horrors of an 18th-century crazy asylum. Chaos's vital and box-office failure ended Lewton's quasi-independent status at RKO; he would live making just 3 other, unsuccessful films.
James Agee, the premier American film critic of the 1940s, reckoned that Val Lewton was one of the 3 foremost imaginative figures in Hollywood-- an evaluation yet more impressive when we think about that the other 2 were Charles Chaplin and Walt Disney. His biggest films--Feline People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Seventh Victim-- are towering achievements, as well as his half-realized projects are haunting experiences, the products of an absolutely unique perceptiveness. This is an amazing collection. -- Richard T. Jameson