The course of American horror movies changed because of a misunderstood line. At a Hollywood cocktail party, Val Lewton was pointed out to Charles Kerner then head of RKO Pictures as "someone who wrote horrible novels." The Studio Head thought he said "horror novels" and he approached Lewton with a job -- to run a new B-picture unit to crank out horror films that could compete with the 30's classics made at Universal and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The offer came with restrictions -- he needed to utilize standing sets from other RKO Productions, and since he couldn't use any of the classic monsters owned at that time by Universal Pictures, he needed to use pre-tested titles from audience surveys like "Cat People" and "I Walked With a Zombie."
Previously, Lewton had worked as a story editor for David O. Selznick, when he had made the error of advising Selznick to turn down "Gone With The Wind". (Studio "boy genius" Irving Thalberg had also erred in this account, by the way, when he told Selznick "forget it, no civil war picture ever made a nickel" That statement, by the way, is actually true, since D.W. Griffith's enormously successful Birth of a Nation is only partially about the civil war and is mostly about the Ku Klux Klan.) However, he also ended up contributing one of the most memorable set pieces in "Gone With the Wind". In trying to come up with a sequence he kept thinking would be abandoned because of its scope, he scripted the long dolly shot pulling away from the dead and wounded in Atlanta after Sherman's March.
Lewton's first three productions were directed by the great Jacques Tourneur who would go on to direct "Night (aka Curse) of the Demon" and "Out of the Past" with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. The first production, "Cat People" (1942), arrives on disc with its 1944 sequel, "Curse of the Cat People" and sets off a high standard for both the genre and this well worth the steep price (sixty clams) 5-disc box set from Warner Home Video that packages the output of Lewton's amazingly inventive B-unit for RKO into one big box of creepytime fun.
The clean up on these films is amazing. Previously the best copies of these films were the Nostalgia Merchant VHS tapes from the 1980's, and those were washed out, with the subtle shadow work created by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca rendered unintelligible by globs of black. "Cat People" and every other film in the set looks really good, with a fantastic gray scale that really sells the poetically haunting visuals contained therein. In "Cat People", fool Oliver Reed (a stoically naive Kent Smith) rushes in where angels fear to tread with the sexy Irena (played with eceentric va-va-voom by Simone Simon) and breezes past a number of red flags (such as her creepy obsession with panthers at the zoo and the hostile reaction she receives from any other animal he attempts to woo her with, like a little kitten or a canary that tawt-it-taw a puddy tat when Irena reaches into its cage to "play" with it. He marries her and finds that she isn't willing to consummate the marriage because of an ancient Siberian legend that says she will turn into a wild animal and kill him (she should have realized some fellas might like that kind of thing). Maybe he should have listened to the feline woman who showed up at his wedding and speaking in a voice that sounds strikingly similiar to his wife's (since it was dubbed by Simone Simon to creepy effect in post-production) referred to Irena as something that sounded sinisterly like "my sister".
They turn to a therapist, Dr, Judd (a greasily urbane Tom Conway) who sets eyes on Irena and decides to try a cure that would probably get his license to practice yanked, although as time goes on and the therapy continues, Oliver starts to get eyes for his coworker Alice, and romantic rivalry starts to unleash some strange episodes of passion in Irena that suggests there might be some truth to the legend after all. "Cat People" is presented full frame (as are every other film in the set) to fully capture the square screen compositions that prove you didn't necessarily need cinemascope to make a picture look good.
Both this film and its sequel, "Curse of the Cat People" get commentary tracks by Greg Mank that include audio segments from a 1990's telephone interview he did with Simone Simon about her work on these two films and some of her general opinons about producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. They also feature theatrical trailers, and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
The first change that Lewton's films made is in setting from the faux European Gothic settings of the Universal pictures (descended from German expressionism via the like of individuals such as master cinematographer Karl Freund and directors like Edgar G. Ulmer) to working class American settings, in offices and cramped apartments (albeit still furnished with great stage pieces like fireplaces and stairways from "Citizen Kane") a sea change that would ultimately bear fruit in the 1960's and 70's work by dear old George Romero and John Carpenter, to name a few (not forgetting the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Russ Meyer, to be sure), he showed how much you could accomplish without showing much, and how you could exploit the creaking of floorboards just as well in a New York six-flat as you could with a decaying castle.
The sequel, "Curse of the Cat People" is a different sort of animal altogether (ba-dum-bum) as it's not really a horror film but more of (dare I say it?) magical realism and modern psychology as a continuation of the original's surviving characters. Oliver (again played by Kent Smith) has more or less started to move on, though he has an all-new disfunctional relationship to deal with -- his young daughter just seems to be too much of a loner, too much of a dreamer, and when she receives a wishing ring from one of the most theatrical old lady types you can find in a movie, she is visited by the ghost of Simone Simon's character from the first film, and she begins a ghostly friendship with Irena, who becomes a secret confidante to the young girl, and she also begins a friendship with the aging doyenne, who gets a certain degree of pleasure telling the young girl scary stories like the Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Lewton actually did spend his life from age nine to his early twenties in nearby Tarrytown, New York and this is one of the many biograhical bits contributed by Lewton to the shooting script of the film). As I mentioned earlier, both films look fabulous and this disc is worth picking up even if you don't buy the set, as it's one of four discs in the five disc set that are also available separately.
Lewton and Tourneur worked together again in what is my favorite film in both their filmographies, "I Walked With a Zombie", in which a young nurse, Betsy (Frances Dee) is dispatched to the fictional (but wholly believable) island of San Sebastian in the West Indies in order to care for the very ill Jessica, the wife of Wesley Rand, a wealthy plantation owner played with equally enjoyable cynicism by Tom Conway, who equals, and perhaps even tops, his portrayal of the amorous psychiatrist in "Cat People". Jessica was the center of a romantic triangle between the plantation owner and his studly younger (and alcoholic) brother when a fever suddenly left her seeming like, well, a zombie, minus the urge for brains and entrails that usually motivates the ghouls in American zombie films. Jessica walks around in a manner that would make the most ardent Bauhaus chick envious, white billowy robes blowing eerily in the wind and no fear at all of the movie's other zombie, a gaunt giant with tragic eyes played by Darby Jones. Before long, local legends and a not so wise infatuation with her employer motivate Betsy to take Jessica to the local houngan (voudou priest) to investigate a cure for the woman, but upon discovering her the houngan has very different ideas in mind. Highlights include a creepy calypso number performed by a singer named Sir Lancelot (who appears in two more of Lewton's films) and a memorable walk through some of the least inviting sugar cane reeds in cinema history. The film arrives on disc paired with Lewton's 1945 "The Body Snatcher", notable both as a few firsts (it was the first solo directing credit for Robert Wise, who would go on to direct "The Haunting" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and great noirs like "The Set Up", and was the first of three collaborations between Val Lewton and Boris Karloff) and last (it was the final pairing of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and is arguably the last great movie in which Lugosi would appear (sorry Ed!)).
Based on both a story by Robert Louis Stevenson and the notorious Burke and Hare case in 1840's London, the Body Snatcher features Karloff as someone who has grown a little weary of a life of procuring cadavers for the icily aloof Dr. MacFarlane's medical school (whom Karloff has sadistically nicknamed "Toddy") ... but these cadavers, pulled from fresh graves, are making possible advancements like the experimental spinal surgery Dr. MacFarlane performs on a young crippled girl. The film is well paired on dvd with "I Walked With a Zombie" as it marked a stylistic change from the two "Cat People" pictures in that they are in foreign settings (the West Indies of the time of "I Walked With a Zombie" and a kind of Dickensian England in "The Body Snatcher" -- still pulled off using the RKO soundstages with standing sets from classics like "Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Magnificent Ambersons"). Both films feature commentary tracks, with Kim Newman and Steve Jones providing informative commentary on "Zombie" and Steve Haberman and director Robert Wise providing insights into "The Body Snatcher", as well as the trailers for both films. It too, is available separately but at this point, if you're buying two of these discs for twenty bucks each you might as well just shell out for the set, trust me it's worth it.
The third and final pairing of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur is "The Leopard Man" arriving on a third disc in the set that features a commentary track by "Exorcist" and "French Connection" director William Friedkin that is informative, and it's nice to hear a director talking about a film of which they are a big fan.
When a Leopard meant to be used as a publicity stunt for a nightclub act ends up escaping out into a small southwestern town, it ends up the object of a manhunt by the town after it stalks and kills a young girl in the film's big set piece of suspense. But there's something strange about the future killings that occur in this small town, and they may be comitted by something more sinister than a frightened, hungry animal.
"The Leopard Man" contains some interesting twists and is as rich with suggestion and symbolism as the other films in the set directed by Tourneur, but the studio put Tourneur in the director's chair on A-level productions and Lewton, loyal to his collaborators on the B-unit, ended up staying in low budgets and handing over most of the directing duties to Mark Robson, the editor on Lewton's earlier productions who also went on to quite a successful career as a director of big budget studio pictures like "Peyton Place" (I'm sure the check was huge), "The Harder They Fall" and "The Bridges of Toko-Ri".
One of Robson's films for Lewton was "The Ghost Ship", which is paired with "The Leopard Man" on a disc that is also available separately (but please stay tuned to this review and I'll explain why the box set is your best frightertainment value), and this long-unavailable on home video title is an interesting, if minor, entry in the Lewton production cycle. A young officer is on board a ship where the captain is quite obviously losing it and misplaced loyalties keep the crew in denial until a climax that resolves itself a little on the hasty side. Not really scary, but still intriguing, the film is told from the point of view of a man who has seen someone die on the ship but whose story is unable to hold up under investigation that is suddenly free of willing witnesses to help prove the tale. There are no ghosts on board the ship, but at least it's better than the more recent film made with the same title.
Mark Robson's first directorial outing for Lewton, and the only film unavailable except as part of the boxed set, is "The 7th Victim", a suspenseful melodrama about a cult of Satan worshippers in New York that is as good as a number of Alfred Hitchcock's movies of the time. Young Mary (Kim Hunter, in her film debut) comes to New York city looking for answers after her older sister Jacqueline disappears. Her main clues seem to be strange symbols which lead her to a New York coven of witches that brings to mind "Rosemary's Baby" (which this film of course pre-dates). Many fans consider this film to be the best of the Lewton productions (my vote remains with "I Walked With a Zombie" but this film comes pretty damn close) and it's sneaky marketing on the part of Warner Home Video to make this one the only title not available separately.
Features for this film include a commentary track by Steve Haberman which keeps up the high standard of Warner's scholarly dvd tracks and an original documentary about Val Lewton called "Shadows In The Dark" which features directors like George Romero, William Friedkin, Joe Dante, and Guillermo DelToro and writers like Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman and Ramsey Campbell discussing Lewton's work, with Lewton's son providing some biographical details.
The fifth disc contains the last pair of Lewton's horror films to be released theatrically (both directed by Mark Robson) and is probably the disc available separately that will sell the most titles, since both films feature Boris Karloff in a pair of fiendish roles that I'm betting a lot of his fans haven't seen. In "Isle of the Dead", Karloff is a Greek Soldier(!) trapped by quarantine on an island where one of the fellow inhabitants lives in Madeleine Usher-esque fear of being buried alive. I can't really tell you whether or not this happens to her, but this being a horror film with Boris Karloff what do you think is going to happen? The film has a couple of creepy set pieces toward the end and a very interesting performance by Karloff to keep you interested until they come up.
The most strikingly different in tone and execution from the other production is the film that was Lewton's last production for RKO, Bedlam, which stars Karloff and 40's starlet Anna Lee as, respectively, the cruel warden of an asylum for the mentally ill and an idealistic young woman determined to implement some changes in the treatment of the patients. Like a couple of other titles in the set like "Ghost Ship" and "Curse of the Cat People". "Bedlam" isn't really a horror film, it's a more of a historical melodrama with a ghoulish side due to its mental hospital setting and Karloff's wicked performance. But it's a hint that if Lewton were allowed to really continue his career with the resources and level of control he craved he might have gone on to more and more interesting heights. It was, alas, not to be. Lewton would produce just two more movies after leaving RKO (a western and a costume melodrama) before dying of a heart attack in 1951.