I've been plowing through the DVD boxed-set of producer Val Lewton's horror classics from the 1940's this past week or so and I figured I should, even if only briefly, document my impressions of his films. If you don't know anything of Mr. Lewton's legacy, check out his Wiki page; here's the basic gist:
"In 1942, Lewton was named head of the horror unit at RKO studios, at a salary of $250 a week. As head of the B-horror unit he would have to follow three rules: each film had to come in under a $150,000 budget, each film was to run under 75 minutes, and Lewton's supervisors would supply the title for each film."
The films did pretty well financially and seem to constitute their only little period-specific sub-genre of horror; it's a sub-genre I'd never peered into, and since I knew it to be an integral series in the genre as a whole decided to try and take it on in one large swoop. So far I've watched four of the nine Lewton-produced titles, and here are some brief thoughts on each.
Cat People (1942) - This film was Lewton's first production and was terrifically successful, which emboldened the studio's faith in Lewton and made the continued production of his films possible. I also recall having seen bits of this film as a child, so it's the only one (as of yet) that seemed familiar to me. It was remade in 1982 by Paul Schrader, starring Natassja Kinski (I haven't yet seen the remake).
It tells the story of a simple girl from Serbia who comes to America and meets a dreamy ship-designing stud named Olly, but unfortunately finds out that the basic marital responsibilities (i.e. kissing) turn her into a ferocious panther cat. Eee!!! Anchored by a terrifically spaced-out lead performance by actress Simone Simon as well as numerous shots of what seems to be an actual panther jumping on people's heads, I found Cat People to be delightfully, hypnotically strange even 65 years after being released. Favorite Moments: Simone Simon throwing her dead pet bird into the panther cage at the zoo; An eerie cat-shaped phantom terrorizing that man-stealing witch Alice in the swimming pool.
I Walked With A Zombie (1943) - The highlight of my Lewton-viewing so far, in that I found IWWAZ to have the most genuine lingering creepiness of the bunch. Directed by the same guy who directed Cat People, Jaques Tourner, IWWAZ tells the tale of a simple girl (yeah, notice the through-line yet?), Betsy, who travels to the West Indes to be the nurse for a rich, white comatose woman there, only to find out that DUNDUNDUN! all is not as it appears! There's some gorgeous cinematography to be found here, especially of the women wandering though the woods and sugar-cane fields at night, and the appearance of the zombified-slave Carrefour is one to haunt your nightmares:
Favorite Moments: Any time Carrefour's around; the creepy ritual of the voodoo doll dance.
The Curse of the Cat People (1944) - What a fraud! If I'd been alive back when these flicks had been released and had gone to the theater expecting more Cat People-y goodness only to be met with this panther-less weird-little-girl flick I would've figured out whatever the 1940's equivalent to an angry blog post would've been and done that, ten-fold. We get a bunch of the same characters from the first film - Olly and his replacement gal Alice have moved to the 'burbs and had a daughter who seems to be NOT RIGHT, and Olly's being a prick because of how his first wife, She Who Turned Out To Be A Cat Lady (Like A Real Cat Lady, Not A Jocelyn Wilderstein Cat Lady), was NOT RIGHT and he doesn't want his little girl turning into a head-hopping panther-girl like that. Problem is, his daughter's been given a wishing ring by some deranged neighborhood lady who's trapped in her apartment and sits around wearing 5000 pounds of diamonds given to her by Spanish princes and the daughter used said wishing ring to summon a friend; a friend who just happens to come in the form of the Deceased Cat Lady, only instead of using the daughter to plot the demise of that Home-Wrecking Witch Alice all Ghost Cat Lady does is play catch and make the trees light up and stand in the snow in an enormous white cape, and continually manage to get Olly's daughter in trouble for mentioning her. Shitty pretend friend, that. I mean, if you're going to summon a crazy panther-woman from the great beyond with a wishing ring, the least said panther lady could do is I dunno turn into a panther at some point. Ya know?
Writing about this movie is a lot more entertaining and satisfying than watching it, by the way. I have no idea what they were thinking with this movie. Favorite Moments: Rich Old Lady scaring the bejesus out of the little girl with her telling of the Headless Horseman story.
The Body Snatcher (1945) - This flick has a lot going for it that I was unaware of going in (proving what a lousy horror buff I am in the process) - it was directed by Robert Wise, he who directed the 1963 film The Haunting (still the scariest ghost movie ever made) and stars both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (although Bela's part is pretty small; much smaller than the advertising campaign for the film would lead one to believe, for sure) which leads to a scene that's like the horror-fan's version of that scene from Heat where DeNiro and Pacino sit and have a chat - only one of 'em kills the other! Kick ass, watching Lugosi and Karloff rolling around on the floor. Favorite Moments: Said fight between Lugosi and Karloff; The assistant doctor, played by Russell Wade, is kinda dreamy (<---), and there are a load of homo-undertones to his relationship with his boss.
Okay, so the films I have left from this collection are as follows: The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). There's also the Martin Scorsese-produced documentary on Lewton, called The Man in the Shadows. It'll probably be a few weeks - considering my vacation next week - before I get around to viewing and reviewing each of them, but stay tuned! And check out these flicks if you haven't seen them (especially I Walked With A Zombie and Cat People)! And if you have, tell me your thoughts in the comments.