For nine years, starting in 1942, a remarkable string of low-budget films were produced at RKO Studios. They were produced by Val Lewton, a Russian-Jewish emigre born as Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon. He was the nephew of Alla Nazimova, the scandalous actress who played in Camille opposite Rudolph Valentino, as well the title character in the insane, all-Gay 1923 film of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which you can see here.
After working for David O. Selznick, even contributing a scene or two to the script of Gone With The Wind, Lewton moved to RKO to head a unit charged with making B-pictures, i.e., movies intended for the second half of a double-bill. He was instructed to create films that would be competition for the horror classics coming out of Universal Studios (Frankenstein, The Wolfman, etc.) He was given a minuscule budget, sometimes as low as $100,000. He and his crew would tell the powers-that-be that the were working of projects like I Walked With A Zombie or The Curse of the Cat People. Satisfied that Lewton and company were churning out cheap horror programmers, the money men left them alone.
This was perhaps Lewton’s greatest stroke of genius. By supplying lurid titles and, more importantly, delivering the movies on-time and under-budget, he was free to exercise a great deal of artistic freedom. The result is a group of surprisingly literate Hollywood films suffused with a magical Gothic sensibility.
Lewton’s early death from heart disease in 1951 at the age of 46 prevents us from knowing what A-pictures he would have surely been given to work on. However, what we do have are treasures.
The first of these movies is the landmark Cat People. Much has been made of the fact that limited funds forced Lewton to create his horror effects more by suggestion than by explicit special effects. True, much is done with sound and shadows, but I think it would be selling Lewton and company short to suggest that economy was the only reason for the films looking and behaving the way they do. Of the string of films we are discussing, Cat People is one of the few with overtly supernatural elements. Up until the very end, whether what is happening is happening due to unearthly or psychological causes. The story it tells ties the horror elements with an unmistakable sexual component. However the treatment of the sexual component is much more subtle than the hilarious, over-the-top marketing of the time would suggest.
The walk through the park at night with its ominous footsteps, as well as the magnificently edited scene in the swimming pool makes this 73 minute a classic of the genre. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur, perhaps most famous for directing Out Of The Past, a film which is to Film Noir what Cat People is to horror.
Cat People was a huge success and the money men asked for more of the same. Lewton delivered a sequel a few years later, not surprisingly called The Curse of the Cat People. Who knows what grisly images that title conjured up for the audiences of the time? Instead of more sexually-related cat delerium, we are given a touching story of a very misunderstood and confused child. The horror here is not from another world. It comes from adults who fail to understand the child’s world and their complicity in creating the self-preserving fantasies she has created for herself. It is extremely moving.
Once again the marketing folks had a field day with the title, basically ignoring what the film was about.
The films appeared quickly one after the other. The best of them is probably The Isle of the Dead with a magnificent performance by Boris Karloff as a brutal Greek general whose superstition leads to tragedy when he is trapped on a cemetery island that is quarantined due to an outbreak of plague. No supernatural horror here, just the human horrors of prejudice and small-mindedness, with a dash of narcolepsy thrown in for good measure.
By far the strangest and most Gothic of the series has to be The Seventh Victim, a very strange and somewhat messy story of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village. It contains a creepy shower scene that presages Psycho by a good 15 years. The meditation on suicide and living with your burdens, along with quotes by John Donne, ensure this is not your typical B-movie horror film. It looks gorgeous, too.
The most famous of the films, outside of Cat People, must be I Walked With A Zombie, a title to warm the hearts of the RKO moneymen. “That should pack ’em in!” In actuality, it is a moody story of voodoo and family trouble in the fictitious Caribbean island of San Sebastian. The night-walk through the sugar-cane to get to the voodoo temple is one of the most haunting sequences I know of. The movie doesn’t entirely work and though you will often hear that it was a variation of Jane Eyre, I don’t see it. There is enough great stuff in this film. It doesn’t need the Bronte imprimatur.
Along with the so-called horror films, Lewton also produced a film based on a Guy De Maupassant story (Mademoiselle Fifi) , a spiffy Western (Apache Drums) as well as a the-trouble-with-kids-today film (Youth Runs Wild).
A complete list of the films follows.
All the films are worth trying. I am curious to hear what you have to say.
If you found this interesting, please have a look at my general intro to Horror.
Cat People (1942)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
The Leopard Man (1943)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Ghost Ship (1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)
Youth Runs Wild (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Apache Drums (1951)