Val Lewton’s Films and Why I Love Them
In the 1940’s while Universal was churning out cliché (but enjoyable) monster movies, a producer named Val Lewton did something a little different. He made horror films that relied on plot and good acting, ones that, in my opinion, surpass most other horror films to this day. Unlike other horror films of the time, Lewton’s had strong, 3-dimensional female characters who did more than scream and faint. I encourage you to read on and check them out. They’re available on Netflix (and you get 2 movies on each disc!) and each film is less than 90 minutes long. If you’re a fan of horror or 1940’s cinema, do yourself a favor and discover his genius.
Cat People (1942) starring the phenomenal (and gorgeous) Simone Simon, is about a Serbian immigrant who fears that she will turn into the cat person of her homeland’s fables if she is intimate with her new American husband, which leads to aggravation on his part and danger on hers. While the premise of this movie may sound a little iffy, it’s actually quite spectacular. Simon is a tour de force in this role and the audience immediately latches on to her and feels every moment of pain and anguish she feels. Cat People also plays into the idea of suspense very well, with shadows added at just the right moments to keep the audience alert.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is about a young Canadian nurse who goes to the West Indies to care for the wife of a plantation manager who seems to be suffering from a kind of mental paralysis as a result of fever. Romance, voodoo, and family all intermingle in this refreshing Island tale. This is not a modern-day zombie tale, but deals with the sort of zombies that show up in voodoo practices. The main girl is just the right amount of strong and feminine and the imagery in the film is impressive and not too overdone.
The Seventh Victim (1943) is about a woman in search of her missing sister who uncovers a Satanic cult in New York’s Greenwich Village, and finds that they may have something to do with her sibling’s random disappearance. A horror noir masterpiece that holds up even today. This is a movie that I think could be remade exactly (or better yet, re-released in theaters) and not lose touch with the audience.
Ghost Ship (1943) is about a young man who becomes third officer of a ship and suspects that his Captain is a psychopath after some strange deaths occur. Without giving anything else away, Ghost Ship is one of many people’s favorite Lewton films.
The Leopard Man (1943) is about a series of gruesome killings in New Mexico that may or may not be by a nightclub performer’s escaped pet leopard. The attractive and glamorous characters mixed with the uneasiness of the situations creates an atmosphere that is half Hollywood and half horror. You’re kept guessing until the very end.
Curse of the Cat People (1944) shows what many of us have always wanted to see. It shows the aftermath of a horror film (Cat People) and how the characters lives’ are changed forever from it. This movie features an imaginative child who has trouble differentiating fantasy from reality. Watch this one after Cat People, as it deals with the repercussions of the first film and features returning characters. Part ghost story and part family drama, Curse of the Cat People is quite unique.
Isle of the Dead (1945) shows how superstition and fear can become out of control when several people are trapped by quarantine for the plague on a Greek Island. One of the people, a superstitious old peasant woman, suspects a young girl of being a vampiric kind of demon called a vorvolaka. This one stars Boris Karloff. Even though suspicions of vampirism are rampant, this is not a vampire film. Instead, it is a look into the psychology of what happens when people are locked together and in fear.
The Body Snatcher (1945) tells the story of a ruthless doctor and his young prize student who find themselves continually harassed by their murderous supplier of illegal cadavers. This one stars both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and is based on the famous Robert Louis Stevenson.
Bedlam (1946) is about a young woman who becomes interested in the conditions of notorious St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum (Bedlam) and tries to reform the conditions, while earning the wrath of those in charge and eventually being committed herself. The performances in this film are top notch and blow away any of the actresses in the competing monster movies. This movie will not only entertain you, but it will provide you with something to think about after it’s over.
I love Cat People… and, I’m almost ashamed to say, I really liked the remake :S
Very concise and evocative overview of Lewton’s productions. Since it was Lewton’s view that the horror should be psychological and not visually seen, an interesting follow up to his features is Jacques Tourneur’s “Night of the Demon” which was also intended to follow in the “unseen horror” tradition but then the producer was persuaded to feature a last-minute monster: even though the film retains the original last line conceding that maybe it’s better not to know whether the menace was actually real. Of course, we know it is. It has been argued endlessly whether this ruins the film, improves it or makes no difference, but it’s an area of argument only possible through the fine example of Lewton’s (and his directors’, including Tourneur) intelligent design. Wonderful stuff.
I’ve always loved The Body Snatcher just because that one scene with Karloff and Lugosi together was nothing short of perfect.
Fantastic article Jamie and thank you for these great suggestions. The only one I’ve seen is Ghost Ship, which I loved. I want to check out all of these. My first are definitely going to be Cat People and then The Curse of the Cat People. What a unique idea to show us what happens after the credits role. How the people go on living after the true horror they’ve been put through. Sounds really interesting! There are no true happy endings for characters of a horror movie.
Thanks for taking the time to put this together. As always, another stellar job.
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