Product DetailsVal Lewton's name is synonymous with the subtlest, most mysterious brand of horror filmmaking in Hollywood's golden age, and the nine horror classics he produced at RKO between 1942 and 1946 constitute the most remarkable cycle of creativity in B-movie history. (For the record, the Lewton/RKO legacy also includes two non-horror entries, Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi.) Before becoming a film producer, the Russian-born Lewton was a prolific writer of pulp fiction, nonfiction, and a couple of pornographic novels. He also worked for years as assistant to David O. Selznick, a legendary producer with a distinctive personal signature--and a flair for grandiosity Lewton himself never emulated. It's ever so revealing that, on Selznick's Gone With the Wind, it was Lewton who came up with the idea for the famous rising shot of the Atlanta railyard filled with Southern wounded, with the Confederate flag streaming above--only he idly proposed it as a joke, never imagining that anyone would actually film such a spectacularly ambitious scene. In 1942 Lewton left Selznick to undertake a series of horror films for RKO Radio Pictures. The studio would give him a budget around $200,000 per picture and a title RKO deemed to be grabby; Lewton would have a free hand as long as he stayed on budget, used the title, and gave the studio a salable movie of second-feature length (around 70 minutes). Over time, Lewton would increasingly have trouble with studio supervisors, but RKO was the right place for him. Although low in the pecking order among Hollywood majors, the studio made up for its lack of MGM-style glamour and Warner Bros. grit-and-gusto by working in a finely filigreed, almost miniaturist style. The art department under Van Nest Polglase and Albert S. D'Agostino was capable of exquisite artisanry, and in Nicholas Musuraca, a master of low-key cinematography and supple camerawork, Lewton found an invaluable collaborator in creating moody shadow-worlds where what you couldn't see was more disquieting than what you could. He was also fortunate in having Jacques Tourneur to direct his first three efforts (they had teamed years earlier on the Bastille-storming sequence for Selznick's A Tale of Two Cities). They scored first time out of the gate with both a popular hit and a masterpiece: Cat People (1942). The story involves a pretty young Serbian woman in Manhattan (Simone Simon) convinced that her ancestors had practiced animal worship during the Middle Ages--and that she herself might shape-change into a lithe, ravening panther if her passions were aroused. The film is uncannily successful in keeping the viewer guessing whether this is a phobia borne of morbid obsession and sexual repression, or a genuine, horrific possibility. There are two sequences of matchless artistry and almost unbearable suspense--a lonely, echoing walk through pools of lamplight alongside Central Park, and a late-night swim in a deserted indoor pool--that build to throat-grabbing climaxes and remain milestones in the history of screen horror. Many critics feel that the second Lewton-Tourneur endeavor, 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 very first words, yet the movie is an amazingly delicate and poetic piece of spellbinding--nothing less than a reworking of Jane Eyre on a voodoo island in the Caribbean. Other horror aficionados prefer the more mainline ferocity of The Leopard Man (1943), an adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story about a serial killer strewing corpses along the U.S.-Mexican border. Although on one level this is the Lewton film that veers closest to conventional mystery-suspense, there's no end of unsettling 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 again have so masterly a directorial partner. Yet in a weird sense (which is only appropriate), this underscores how much Lewton--with his wealth of arcane historical lore and storytelling archetypes, his quiet, patient attention to detail, and his taste for oblique narrative--was the essential auteur of all his films. Promoting first Mark Robson and then Robert Wise from the editing table, Lewton went on to make the deeply mysterious The Seventh Victim (1943) and The Ghost Ship (1943), two films in which such grotesque elements as Satan worship and murderous psychopathology are folded away inside eerily drifty, almost becalmed sleepwalks into eternal night. The Seventh Victim--a movie populated with more walking dead than Lewton's out-and-out zombie picture--is one of the cinema's supreme meditations on the ways lives brush against one another in the spaces of a great, impersonal city. And The Ghost Ship (the rarest of Lewton's films, owing to a ruinous copyright suit) is like a fever dream from which the viewer never awakens. That's enough for a legacy, surely. Yet there remain The Curse of the Cat People (1944), a sequel that is not quite a sequel, a pretend-horror movie that's really a contemplation of the fragility of childhood; Isle of the Dead (1945), a doomed reverie about travelers who escape the Goya-esque chaos of a 19th-century war only to be beset with plague 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 occasion 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 insane asylum. Bedlam's critical and box-office failure ended Lewton's quasi-independent status at RKO; he would live to make only three other, unsuccessful films. James Agee, the premier American film critic of the 1940s, reckoned that Val Lewton was one of the three foremost creative figures in Hollywood--an assessment yet more impressive when we consider that the other two were Charles Chaplin and Walt Disney. His greatest films--Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Seventh Victim--are towering achievements, and even his half-realized projects are haunting experiences, the products of an utterly distinctive sensibility. This is an extraordinary collection.
Store CommentsSpecial Features Cat People / Curse of the Cat People Commentary on both movies by Historian Greg Mank, with audio interview excerpts of Simone Simon Theatrical Trailers I Walked with a Zombie / The Body Snatcher Commentary by Film Historians Kim Newman and Steve Jones on I Walked with a Zombie Commentary by Director Robert Wise with film historian Steve Haberman on The Body Snatcher Isle of the Dead / Bedlam Commentary by Film Historian Tom Weaver on Bedlam The Leopard Man / The Ghost Ship Commentary by director William Friedkin Theatrical Trailer The Seventh Victim Commentary by Film Historian Steve Haberman New Documentary Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy featuring interviews with Val Lewton, Jr., Sara Karloff and directors George Romero, Joe Dante, John Landis, William Friedkin, and Robert Wise
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