The dark brilliance of Val Lewton: RKO’s Other Genius

 

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‘There is no beauty here, only death and decay’ – Paul Holland ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ (1943)

So another Halloween has passed by, where people not only decided what to wear at parties (or when trick-or-treating) or what party to go to but also what horror films to watch. TV horror marathons ensued, playing everything from classic Universal to 50s sci-fi to slasher films. It’s always an interesting time from the point of view of film fans, as we get to share with others our favourite classic (and not-so-classic!) horror films. It’s always interesting to read must-see lists and top ten lists of all kinds. At times, we even discover something new – perhaps a gem from the past that we overlooked or a little-known film that finally gets some notice.

I’ve been looking at a number of lists, posts and articles on Halloween horror viewing across a range of FB groups, links and blogs. There were the obligatory Halloween movie marathons across a range of free-to-air and cable stations. There have been some fantastic and interesting opinions and thoughts being shared. However, I couldn’t help noticing that the brilliant work of Val Lewton was often ignored. 

Throughout the 1940s, Lewton’s production unit at RKO was truly a godsend for horror film. The horror genre, long dominated by Universal Studios, had become associated with the B-feature and production values were focused more on profit gain, than creating an art form. Karloff pointed out years later that the big budgets, time and effort afforded the classic horror films of the early to mid 1930s were no longer present by that point. Monster mash-ups became the norm of the 1940s and whilst still fun, certainly did not have the quality of direction, script and setting, depth of performance nor the pathos of the original films of the 1930s. No one seemed to find another angle.

Enter Val Lewton.

Val Lewton came to RKO as head of the new ‘horror unit’ in 1942. After the huge investment and disappointing financial results of Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), RKO needed to replenish the coffers and saw low-budget horror as a sure-fire success. RKO’s vice-president in charge of production, Charles Koerner set Lewton’s brief: to create films that stayed under a set $150,000 budget with a screen time that stayed under 75 minutes. There was a bonus, however. Lewton did not have his hands tied by material and thematic concerns. As a result, Lewton did have some freedom and had the opportunity to look at what he found interesting. 

By most accounts, Lewton was not a fan of the genre, believing it to be the equivalent of pulp for mass consumption. Yet he was incredibly successful in the genre and created a series of atmospheric, psychological horror films and explicitness through subtlety.

Lewton’s time as head of the unit was relatively brief and the stress took its’ toll on a man whose health was not the best. RKO went through its’ own upheavals in the late 1940s, particularly after the death of Charles Koerner, who was a supporter of Lewton. Sadly, Lewton himself would die in 1951, after having left RKO a few years before.

My intention is not to write a detailed critique of Lewton’s work nor a biography of the man. However, I feel it worthwhile to list and outline a number of reasons why the films he produced should be celebrated – especially at Halloween.

The Directors

Lewton’s unit utilized some outstanding directors, who got past the terrible titles the studio enforced on them. Jacques Tourneur is probably the most celebrated director to work with Lewton and by all reports, the two got along very well. Tourneur would direct the first and most celebrated production from the unit – The Cat People (1942) starring Simone Simon, creating an incredible film, with suggestive horror, revealed through beautiful use of light, shadow and sound. Arguably, Tourneur would direct the best that came from the Lewton’s unit including I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man (both 1943).

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However, Robert Wise (who would find greater fame later in his career) was also a young, talented director, who directed both Karloff and Lugosi in The Body Snatcher (1945). Mark Robson was the most prolific director in the unit. Gunter V Fritsch co-directed with Robert Wise perhaps the most interesting and personal film for Lewton – The Curse Of The Cat People (1944) – with reflections of Lewton’s own lonely childhood in a dream-like world.

All were craftsmen employing technique and sensitivity, working within the studio’s confines to create haunting, atmospheric and thoughtful films. The audience becoming lost in the story and concerned over the plight of the characters is probably the greatest accolade a director can be given.

The Stories

Rarely does a bad title betray a good film. Selznick himself congratulated Lewton after the success of The Cat People, telling him “I know no man in recent years who has made so much out of so little as a first picture.”

We are drawn into the stories, ever so gently by the dream-like state that the directors shaped. The turning points in the stories effectively drive the story, existing for that purpose rather than a cheap moment to frighten us. The horror lies in the constant battle between what we perceive and what might be, with the plot shaped around this premise. The ‘monsters’ in these films were not manifested in creatures or ghouls but in the darker elements of the human soul – an even more terrifying prospect. Unlike the original Dracula and Frankenstein, these are not dark fairy tales but nightmarish dreams, where respite is not easily acquired.

Lewton was able to draw inspiration from a very literary field of art forms. I Walked With A Zombie obviously appropriates the classic novel Jane Eyre and Goya’s The Disasters Of War is certainly an inspiration for Isle Of The Dead. Bedlam would be inspired by the engravings of William Hogarth and The Body Snatcher was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story.

Whilst Lewton may have not been a huge fan of the horror genre and relegated it to mass consumption, he still treated his audiences with respect and intelligence. This is more than evident in the stories that were brought to the screen, within such difficult confines to operate.

Thematic Concerns

The horror is never outwardly explicit or confined to obvious make-up, special effects and automaton-like monsters that had been extended beyond their use-by-date. The ‘monsters’ are within the characters and the ambiguity is never answered directly, allowing us to explore our own human psychology. Whereas Universal’s The Wolfman (1941) sees a complete physical transformation from man to beast, the protagonists in The Cat People and The Leopard Man never seem to explicitly make that change. Any physical transformation is implied through use of light and sound. However, the deeper emotional and psychological impacts of the change are explored and drive the story.

The sheer loneliness and isolation suffered by characters is also a very real concern that is examined. The lack of understanding from others and the inability to transcend the fear become our concerns as well. Each film looks at the darkness of humanity and the difficulties in finding the light again; and the constant battle to determine what is real and what is not, in a skewed world filled with that very darkness. The existence of the supernatural, whilst obvious and overt in the Universal horror films, becomes hidden and the search for answers sends both protagonist and audience into a deeper and darker spiral. The Seventh Victim (1943) is an excellent example of this, where escape from a dark environment becomes fringed with deeper psychological issues. The city itself becomes a strange dream cum nightmare, from which the protagonist tries to emerge with sanity intact, appearing as a dark angel seeking redemption of self.

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Characterisation

Perhaps the greatest strengths of Lewton’s films are the characters. Avoiding the one-dimensional and clichéd norms that audiences may have expected from B-feature horror (or even one might add A-feature productions), Lewton’s characters not only have an incredible depth but delve into areas of the human psyche that were not normally touched on. Even the supporting cast and secondary characters have this incredible depth and back-story that add meaning and context to the greater story and experience of the film.

There are many moments where we find even the smaller roles, seemingly providing nothing more than plot device to drive the story, conveying much more than what we initially assume. Stanford University’s Alexander Nemerov in his aptly named book ‘Icons Of Grief’ expands on this point. He illustrates that Lewton’s films reflect the grief, sadness and anxiety experienced by Americans during World War Two, especially on the home front, in sharp contrast to the propaganda laden films of the major studios which promoted and expected patriotic fervor, staunch optimism and courage. He calls them ‘apparitions of sorrow’ and we see this more than evident in Lewton’s films; the strange woman that calls Irena ‘sister’ in the restaurant reflects this. She seems to be a woman desperately seeking connection. The second time she calls Irena ‘sister’, it sounds more like a plea, a desperate calling to someone in her own dark loneliness. We wonder what trauma the mute sailor in The Ghost Ship has experienced to cause his affliction and if he could speak, what would he tell? Perhaps one of the most chilling is the tall ‘zombie’ guardian in I Walked With A Zombie, a testimony to the horrors of slavery and the very ‘icon of grief’ which Nemerov talks about. Paul Holland (George Sanders) makes this point very clear:

That’s where our people came from. From the misery and pain of slavery. For generations they found life a burden. That’s why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial… I’ve told you, Miss Connell: this is a sad place.

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The Curse Of The Cat People is a terrible title yet Lewton and director Fritsch were able to create a beautiful and haunting tale of child psychology. The ‘curse’ is verbalized by the little girl’s father, concerned that his daughter could have the same inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. He states that he has seen it before during his first marriage to Irena (Simone Simon). Incredibly, his deceased wife has become the magical friend of the little girl. The audience also wonders what is real or not. The tragedy of loneliness and deciding what is real or not, is also evident in the secondary characters. The old woman, who befriends the girl, lives in the past and ignores her own bitter and broken daughter. In some ways, the secondary characters are the most tragic of all.

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Boris Karloff

By the 1940s, Karloff was certainly not struggling to find work. However, the quality of that work was a struggle to find. Despite his incredible stardom of the 1930s (only two stars had only their last names appear on marquees – Karloff and Garbo), Karloff’s films of the 1940s suffered from the world of the repetitive Universal horror cycle, serials and B-features. Karloff would be forever thankful for his performances in three films made with Lewton; The Isle Of The Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam. Karloff was able to extend himself beyond the usual fare that was dished up to him and gave interesting and chilling performances.

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Aside from Karloff’s work with Universal during the 1930s, his three films with Lewton as RKO are among his best and it becomes required to viewing if one wishes to see the master truly at work.

Of particular notice is his role as the war-weary general in Isle Of The Dead. An island populated by ex-soldiers, as well as local superstitious villagers is hit by plague and the general must maintain a quarantine on the island. What causes the deaths becomes conjecture and Karloff plays a role, tired of war and now imprisoned on a place surrounded by death and superstition. The fine line between Karloff’s fatigue and obsession is one of his finer roles.

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Interestingly, Bela Lugosi would also appear with Karloff in The Body Snatcher but Lugosi’s career and personal life had slid into a sad decline by the mid 1940s. 

Cinematic Technique

Within the allotted budget, the Lewton unit was able to flex and expand the tools of their trade to accommodate their objectives, as Minnelli’s brilliant 1952 insight into the industry The Bad And The Beautiful depicted in one particular scene (see below).

The perfect concoction of sound, lighting, camera angle and musical score brought to life the terror and mystery in a way that no horror film had done before. Again, the directors were subtle and even hypnotic in their approach. The very essence of film noir technique is obvious, allowing the ambiguity to come to the fore and perpetuate the sense of mystery. The directors want us unsure of our footing as we journey and thus the shadows envelope our senses, leading us to where we know not. Never is this more than evident in I Walked With A Zombie where Tourneur’s smooth and elegant camera moves through the sugar cane fields, tracking Frances Dee leading the somnambulant wife. Not a word is spoken, heightening the mystery and we cannot help but wonder where they are headed.

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As a result, Lewton’s films are a foray into a mysterious fog, sometimes blown away by a sudden horrific moment from which we struggle to recover, before the shadows claim us again. The suggested violence is often more explicit and horrific than what could have been shown. The first murder of a young girl, Teresa in The Leopard Man (1943) illustrates the point, where the desperate girl banging at the door is mistaken by her mother as over-dramatic and pointless fear, until the banging and screaming stops and bloods pours in from under the door. 

Of course the famous scene from The Cat People showing Jean Randolph ‘menaced’ by what may or may not be a stalking panther, is a film school lesson for how to use lighting and shadow to lead an audience where you want them. It may reflect the resourcefulness of Lewton and the need to stay under budget but it also indicates the insightful eye of director Jacques Tourneur (see below).

 

The ‘stalking scene’ is also a beautiful piece of work – where Turner not only uses outstanding tracking – close-up shots of our heroine walking alone but combines the moment with a clever contrast of sound and silence to heighten the tension (see below). Everything and nothing is suggested and both the characters and the audience are left wondering.

A large number of directors and producers have gone on record lauding the work of the Lewton unit, as being major influences on their careers. It is not difficult to see why.

A New Horror Angle

Lewton knew and understood that audiences wanted thrills and chills but avoided the cheap tactic to scare an audience. The slow burn is an important element to the horror. Monsters aren’t revealed because they prefer the shadows anyway. The pragmatic and economic problem of creating believable monsters allowed Lewton to seek the horror elsewhere. He revealed it in places audiences had not looked into before. To paraphrase George Sanders in I Walked With A Zombie, death is all around – even in what appears as beautiful. The ever presence of death and our futile desire to escape its’ clutches may be the real horror.

Setting

Lewton’s stories are not confined to some fictional place nor the past. He saw the themes he wanted to address present across the human experience. At no point does he lose, however, the lonely, dream-like state that permeates the journey and the atmosphere of despair, fear and terror remains. The Seventh Victim occurs in the big city, yet the streets seem deserted and terrifying because they are empty. The Cat People also occurs in a city yet Irena cannot escape what she perceives as her curse. The horror of isolation in a place surrounded by death creates the morbid setting of Isle Of The Dead. Whether the setting is Haiti, 19th century Scotland, 18th century London or contemporary small-town America, these themes and concerns loom in the mind of Lewton and the settings are shaped appropriately and convincingly. As Holland points out to the naive heroine in I Walked With A Zombie, there is nothing beautiful in the night sky or the sea, it only reflects death. The fields are not places of life and business but silent pathways to darkness. 

The house where the old woman lives in The Curse Of The Cat People, looms over the little girl. Like an old, dark house, it contains the ghosts of the past – memories of an old woman who has become shut off from a changing world. Additionally, the film is set in a real town with its’ own legends and tales – Sleepy Hollow. 

The settings are dark, morbid places where death and sadness have left a permanent mark.

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There may have been a formula to the approach, dictated by the bosses at RKO but Lewton also had freedom in regards to the material. Certainly, if the films had flopped at the box-office, it would have meant an immediate end to his time at RKO. But he made huge profits after filming under-budget and did have a champion in Charles Koerner. Lewton smuggled his material onto the screen and is still an icon to film-makers who want to circumvent the administrators, bean-counters and cynics. 

The RKO publicity machine never really promoted Lewton’s films accurately, as emphasised in the colourful and interesting promotional stunts used by the studio, and to a lesser degree the posters used to advertise the films. But audiences certainly warmed to them and they made big profits for RKO. 

Newton would produce two films which stepped outside the horror them – Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) which failed at the box office and Youth Runs Wild (1944) which Lewton was frustrated by due to the censorship by RKO that marred the film.  Whilst unsuccessful, they offer an interesting insight into Lewton’s sensitivity to themes and the desire for more literary content in his films. 

The Harvard Film Archive provides an astute assessment of Lewton’s productions:

‘…we may still find ourselves caught off guard to discover such precise characterizations and poetic effects waiting behind a title like “The Curse of the Cat People”…’

Precisely the point. Lewton still has us off-guard as we experience and enjoy his films.

Don’t wait till the next Halloween, enjoy them now!

The Films

Cat People (1942) Directed by Jacques Tourneur
I Walked With a Zombie (1943) Directed by Jacques Tourneur
The Leopard Man (1943) Directed by Jacques Tourneur
The Seventh Victim (1943) Directed by Mark Robson
The Ghost Ship (1943) Directed by Mark Robson
The Curse of the Cat People (1944) Directed by Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise
Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) Directed by Robert Wise
Youth Runs Wild (1944) Directed by Mark Robson
The Body Snatcher (1945) Directed by Robert Wise
Isle of the Dead (1945) Directed by Mark Robson
Bedlam (1946) Directed by Mark Robson

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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