London After Midnight (1927): The Movie and The Myth

by Paul Batters

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Around mid-February this year, a rumour did the rounds on social media and film-sites that a certain lost classic film had indeed been found. Or to be more correct, the headline was click-bait and the generally short article which followed was a rumour about a rumour that a certain lost classic film had been found. Nothing substantiated and the same oft-repeated story that is recycled every so often spoke about a print in Spain (or was it Cuba?) or a private collector in possession of a print who just before releasing it, decides against it and thus the story leaves a haze of smoke (excuse the poor joke) before we all move on.

There are a number of lost films which gather the excitement of film fans and in some cases the excitement is warranted. A good example is the recently restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which is considered almost fully restored after a damaged print of Lang’s complete film was found in an Argentinian museum. But versions of the film had been around previously and it was not a totally lost film. A film like Erich von Stroheim’s 1922 epic Greed has become legendary for its’ missing footage which reportedly runs into hours and the final MGM cut was not in line with von Stroheim’s vision. Again, rumours of missing footage surface from time to time – all proving false. There are countless other films, particularly from the silent era, which are considered lost and perhaps, sadly, always will be.

So when the rumour arose earlier this year that Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) had emerged, the ardour of fans was cautioned by the usual disappointment that follows. Like Greed and a number of other lost films, London After Midnight has been dubbed the ‘holy Grail’ of lost films – a term almost clichéd, as I have the distinct feeling that if it is ever discovered, the initial excitement of film fans will soon become muted.

London After Midnight was destroyed, along with hundreds of other films, in the MGM vault fire of 1967. Ironically, MGM was perhaps the only studio that worked to preserve its’ films, using contemporary technology to protect the original nitrates as well as convert them to safer film. Many of the other studios tragically allowed their film stock to crumble and even disposed of them. At any rate, London After Midnight was only one film among many that were destroyed.

This article will not endeavour to outline the plot in detail and nor review the ‘restoration’, which is a 45 minute collection of stills and promotional images. Nevertheless, the film is perhaps more correctly defined as a thriller/mystery, going by contemporary reviews. Lon Chaney Snr plays Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard, who is investigating a death that five years earlier had been designated a suicide. The house in which the victim died has new tenants who are spooked by two eerie and frightening figures, having the appearance of a vampire and his undead companion, Luna (Edna Tichenor). But as the story unfolds, the audience discovers that the spooky goings-on are all part of an elaborate plan to uncover the truth behind the death and the ‘vampire’ is actually Inspector Burke in disguise and Luna is an actress from the theatre. In the end, hypnosis is used to discover the killer by inducing him to re-enact the crime.

If you’re confused by the storyline, you’re not alone and some film historians are even more confused as to why the film is so highly sought after. Yet the news that London After Midnight was lost saw its’ legendary status take root in the imagination of film historians and movie buffs.

So why has it received such legendary status?

The film’s destruction occurred at a time when there had been a resurgence of interest in classic films, with quite a number of films being shown on television for the first time in years. Additionally, classic horror films had regained their popularity, assisted in great part by fanzines and popular monster movie magazines such as ‘Famous Monsters Of Filmland’. The great Lon Chaney Snr was in some ways a star all over again and his ability to play a variety of roles was certainly a point of interest; in this case particularly featuring Chaney in a dual role.

The incredibly striking images of Chaney as a vampire which appeared in such magazines, naturally stirred horror films fans to want to see the legendary Chaney in that very film. Indeed, the make-up used by Chaney is haunting and creepy, and certainly matches his efforts from The Phantom Of The Opera (1925). The rows of sharp teeth, fixed in a permanent smile of death coupled with a pair of dead, drooping eyes staring at the audience, still evokes emotions of dread, terror and repulsion. Stooping and leering at Edna Tichenor in beaver hat, evening dress and bat-winged cape all still remain powerful images for horror film fans and even moreso because they are all we have due to the status of the film as lost.

Along with horror film magazines, the many horror film books also published over the years by authors such as Alan Frank have also discussed the film, further adding to its’ legendary status. With Chaney’s deserved reputation as a legend of film, and his place in horror film history assured, his only film role as a vampire would certainly be fascinating both to horror film buffs and students of classic film. After all, it would be one of the first films after Nosferatu (1922) to depict a vampire in such an explicitly terrifying way (notwithstanding the fact that Chaney is playing someone disguised as a vampire).

Furthermore, those who saw the film upon its’ release have all passed on and any contemporary accounts of the film are left to the reviews from critics. But negative criticisms have tended to be drowned out or muted as the generation that made those critiques and/or originally viewed the film are long since dead. All that is left is the legend and the myth. Added to this is the fact that the generations holding a torch for the film grew up believing in the legend and have thus carried those impressions into the present.

And of course, the primary reason for seeing it would be the star of the film – Lon Chaney Snr. By the time the film was made, he was one of Hollywood’s greatest stars and indeed a name known the world over. It would be a fatal mistake to assume that his stardom was due to his abilities with make-up in creating startling characters. On the contrary, the pathos and emotion of the characters Chaney portrayed on the screen transcended make-up and his screen presence is as potent today as it was during the silent era.

So why would the film disappoint?

By all reports, London After Midnight was a decent earner for MGM in 1927 but it was not a tearaway success and critics at the time were not particularly kind to the film. Soister and Nicolella in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 (2012) point out that critics saw the story lines as ‘nonsensical’ and Variety did not rate the film highly, calling Chaney ‘just fair’ in the role, adding that it was ‘not much of a drawing card’. The New York Times was lukewarm in its’ appraisal, also calling the storyline ‘incoherent’ and it didn’t seem impressed by Chaney’s ‘uncanny disguise’.

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Film historians such as William K. Everson have shown greater control and offered critical discussion when discussing the film and make the point that it’s reputation had been blown all out of proportion, particularly by horror film publications geared towards mass consumption by the kiddie and teen markets. As a result, London After Midnight is a film that is perhaps more enigmatic than it deserves to be, if we go by contemporary critics. Our own childhood memories of films are sometimes turned sour upon viewing them as adults and the magic seems to have departed. A viewing of London After Midnight could very well have a similar effect.

Additionally, the film is often mentioned in the same breath as The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) and Paul Leni’s The Cat And The Canary (1927) because of their prosaic endings, as pointed out by Olaf Brill in Expressionism in the Cinema. American audiences at the time would simply not accept supernatural films, in the same way that European audiences did. Whilst much is made about Browning’s ‘cheat ending’, in context audiences at the time may not have been so disappointed. When comparing to the Browning remake of 1935’s Mark Of The Vampire with Bela Lugosi, audiences had made that jump into accepting the supernatural primarily because of the Universal horror cycle of the early 1930s –and ironically it was Browning’s 1931 classic Dracula which started it all. It makes sense that a 1935 audience would have felt ‘cheated’ but what does that mean for today’s audience viewing London After Midnight, after decades of conditioning to accept otherwise and then some?

The existing and remaining stills are certainly thrilling and capture our imagination and it is only natural that we want to see more. But what are we seeing? Are we imposing our own predisposed notions upon those stills, fuelled by our long-held desire to see a lost classic? They are images that promise much but can they deliver?

Perhaps most damning of all, according to Jon Mirsalis, is the claim from Everson and fellow film historian David Bradley that they viewed the film in the early 1950s and it was inferior to its’ 1935 remake Mark Of The Vampire. Mirsalis also adds that:

‘the eerie Cedric Gibbons-Arnold Gillespie sets, and Chaney’s stunning vampire make-up, make for intriguing still photographs, but these scenes account for only a small portion of the film, the rest of the footage being devoted to Polly Moran’s comic relief, and talkie passages between detective Chaney and Walthall…’

Such a claim does not inspire confidence!

As much as other classic film fans, I would still be thrilled and terribly excited to see a re-discovered London After Midnight. The prospect of seeing those famous stills come to life after decades of being captivated by them would be too enticing to ignore. But I fear that if it is re-discovered, for all the brilliance of Lon Chaney Snr, it will not be the classic that we are anticipating.

 

This article is a part of the 2018 Lon Chaney Snr Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films – https://maddylovesherclassicfilms.wordpress.com/2018/05/05/the-lon-chaney-sr-blogathon-day-one/ and Silver Screenings – https://silverscreenings.org/2018/05/06/the-lon-chaney-sr-blogathon-day-two/. Please click on the links for other great articles on the legendary Lon Chaney Snr. 

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.

The Top Five Great Performances Of Bela Lugosi

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by Paul Batters

‘To die, to be really dead…that must be glorious’ Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931)

Halloween is upon us! And without a doubt, film fans are finalising their viewing lists for the evening. I’m always interested in the carefully chosen lists of film buffs – lists that often stay thematic (or within a sub-genre) or offer a smorgasbord of horror delights or are even look quite eclectic.

For fans of classic film, the horror genre is rich with great films to enjoy, particularly during Halloween. And of course there are countless B-features and horror schlock quickies that are guilty pleasures, as well as the great classic films that broke ground and established two of horror’s greatest stars in the early 1930s – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Of these two, Karloff’s career was perhaps the more successful and long lasting. While typecast in the horror genre, Karloff was able to eventually embrace it. Lugosi was not so fortunate and perhaps did not manage his career as well as Karloff did. Despite starring in some successful film, Lugosi would sadly find a career relegated to Poverty Row films, which would dwindle in his final years to films remembered for the wrong reasons.

Despite Lugosi’s less than glamorous final years, he is immortal amongst classic horror film fans. Yes there may have been some clunkers in which he starred but Lugosi alone often pulled the film out of the doldrums simply due to his presence.

So when considering your Halloween viewing lists, consider the following performances, which I feel are his best.

Just for the record, the aim here is not to critique the films per se but Lugosi’s performances. Even a bad film can have an interesting and/or fantastic performance.

  1. Murder Legendre – White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie was an independent production by the Halperin brothers, which was not kindly received by critics at the time. Despite harsh criticism of the film’s ‘woeful acting’, most critics were positive about Lugosi’s performance and it is still the best thing about White Zombie. Since its’ initial release, it has seen in a different light and revived to some degree. At best, White Zombie is interesting with its’ creepy atmosphere and strange storyline. If it has any life in it, it’s due to the Bela Lugosi’s commanding charisma.

Looking Satanic in his goatee, with wild eyes and imposing stature, Lugosi plays the master of his domain to the hilt. The camera attempts to exploit Lugosi’s hand gestures, emphasising the use of his power over others with close-ups. Lugosi’s voice is also commanding, delivering with intimidation as his eyes burn into those upon whom he fixes his gaze. Sean Axmaker in his Jan. 2013 review of the Kino Blu-ray release of White Zombie for Parallax View makes the following observation of Lugosi:

‘…a languorous hypnotist and voodoo master who dominates the film with his assured bearing and cruel control. Not just menacing, he is ferociously vindictive, supplying the local mills with an army of zombie laborers and turning his enemies into his personal zombie servants…’

The fact that Kino has gone to the trouble of releasing a Blu-ray version of White Zombie is testament to its’ lasting success as a cult film and the fact that it still stands as one of Lugosi’s best performances.

  1. Armand Tesla – The Return Of The Vampire (1943)

 Directed by Lew Landers and released by Columbia Pictures, The Return Of The Vampire was made during a period where Columbia dabbled in a number of supernatural/horror releases. Most critics make it clear that Lugosi is obviously playing Dracula but for legal reasons (namely Universal owning the rights) the character was re-named Armand Tesla.

The Return Of The Vampire feels stranded between an A and B-feature and it is the last time Lugosi would work in such a quality picture for a major studio, not counting his last turn as Dracula for Universal in 1948’s comedy/horror Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein. The plot, set in London, tells of Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort), who is being pursued by a vampire named Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi). After wreaking havoc on her household, he is eventually pursued and a stake driven into his heart by Lady Jane and Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery). However, during World War Two, the cemetery is disturbed by air raids and gravediggers who have been ordered to re-bury the disturbed bodies find Tesla’s body and remove the stake. Tesla is revived and aided by his werewolf servant Andreas (Matt Willis), seeks out Lady Jane and the daughter of Saunders, Nikki (Nina Foch).

Despite a fairly run of the mill vampire story and, I feel, some unfair criticism, the film has some effective scenes and fairly solid production value. True, Tesla is no Dracula but Lugosi is forever the effective vampire and convincing in the role. Lugosi presents a vampire hell-bent on survival, impatient and raw in emotion, unlike the smooth, measured count of his greatest role. Better dialogue is found wanting but Lugosi makes the most with what he has and gives a strong performance.

Lugosi had always hoped for a follow-up to Dracula. There was disappointment for him with Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and though he played his famous role in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Lugosi’s best days were behind him. The Return Of The Vampire was the closest he was ever going to get to a follow-up.

The final scene showing Tesla’s final demise exhibits some gruesome horror, befitting the last starring role, which Lugosi would hold for a top line studio.

  1. Dr. Vitus Werdegast – The Black Cat (1934)

When Karloff and Lugosi became stars in the early 1930s, it made sense that Universal would cash in on their success and bring the two stars together. In total, Karloff and Lugosi would work together in seven films. However, the first film they made stands as their best. Both would later add that the film stands as a personal favourite for each man.

The Black Cat (1934) is a masterpiece of the macabre. As a piece of dark poetry, it delves into the realm of perversion far more than the cornerstones of the Universal horror cycle ever did. It descends down a long staircase into the bowels of the bizarre, further darkened by themes which would not be tampered with again for many years in cinema, such as Satanism, torture, human sacrifice and necrophilia (just to name a few).

True, the film has some plot holes an ocean liner could sail through and many critics have stated how little the film resembles Edgar Allen Poe’s original story, despite the advertising using Poe’s name in promotions. But don’t let that distract you. The incredible art deco set alone is an attention-grabber and director Edgar G Ulmer creates an eerie and trance-like atmosphere, in which the young honeymooning couple Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop) find themselves entangled. But they become a plot device for the duel between archenemies Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) and Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), meeting again after 15 years.

Werdegast (Lugosi) is ostensibly the hero of the film, returning to seek revenge on the diabolical Poelzig (Karloff) for his terrible crimes of the past. What follows becomes a game of chess where the two pit their wits against each other, with a horrific climax to the duel that still shocks today.

Lugosi is commanding, showing the perfect balance between restraint and zeal as the revenge-seeking doctor. His channelling of Wedegast’s inner torment is well balanced by his ability to gain our sympathy, whilst his rage bubbles underneath. His first moments in the film are impressive, as Lugosi carries himself with class and charm as he meets the young couple. Early in the film, Wedegast says little in terms of his experiences as a former P.O.W but the weighting that Lugosi carefully places on each word combined with his anguished eyes is enough for the audience to understand what horrors he has survived. Not long afterwards, as the young couple and Wedegast travel on the bus from the station, the driver tells the story of the place they are heading to:

‘All of this country was one of the greatest battlefields of the war. Tens of thousands of men died here. The ravine down there was piled twelve deep with dead and wounded men. The little river below was swollen red, a raging torrent of blood. And that high hill yonder where Engineer Poelzig now lives, was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on its very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world!’

As the driver tells his story, Wedegast re-lives the horror of war and the personal tragedies faced, which Lugosi expresses by simply closing his eyes. Wedegast is a man who has suffered terribly and Lugosi brilliantly conveys that anguish, particularly in the final scenes of the film, where his rage bursts through and the time for masks is over. His glee is unconfined and Lugosi holds nothing back. Whilst there are moments that are disturbing, such as his caressing of Jane as she sleeps and of course the film’s climax, the audience cannot help but feel for Wedegast and the horrors he has endured.

Lugosi’s performance was in need of some tempering by Ulmer. Indeed, the moments when Lugosi encounters the black cat are hammy. According to Bret Wood in his review on TCM:

Ulmer cleverly moderated Lugosi’s performance by limiting his screen time, focusing more on reaction shots of other characters. “You had to cut away from Lugosi continuously,” Ulmer said, “to cut him down.”

I would add that if that is the case, it speaks more for Lugosi who gave Ulmer plenty to work with.

  1. Ygor – Son Of Frankenstein (1939)

Son Of Frankenstein (1939) was the last time Karloff would take on the role of the Monster and whilst an interesting and still entertaining film, it does not have the quality of the prior two and pales in comparison to James Whale’s 1935 classic The Bride Of Frankenstein. Whilst there is no doubt of its’ A-film status, there are hints of the B-films to come in the early 1940s, particularly evident in moments which show the Monster as a mindless brute following Ygor’s orders.

But for all intents and purposes, it’s a valued member of the original Frankenstein trilogy. The premise is simple enough. Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), son of Henry Frankenstein returns to his ancestral home with his wife and son and finds the village haunted by the past and still living in fear. The Baron, also a scientist, seeks to rehabilitate his father’s memory and prove his father was correct. Exploring the castle, he discovers the evil Ygor who leads him to the Monster’s body, in a coma in the family crypt. The Baron is ecstatic but as his father before him discovered, things will not go well!

Other than his most iconic role, Lugosi as Ygor is perhaps his best. Lugosi is creepy and unsettling in his portrayal of the demented blacksmith who has survived a hanging. Our first encounter with him eerily playing his flute and then re-telling the story of his escaped execution is thoroughly memorable and off-putting. The audience’s lack of trust in Ygor is confirmed when we finally see his intentions in bringing the Monster back.

Ygor’s plan is to take revenge on those who sentenced him to death by hanging. As demented as Ygor is, he is not foolish enough to execute his plan without careful planning. He bides his time and finds the perfect tool in the Monster. In one particular scene, inflected with a touch of humour, Ygor fakes a coughing fit in order to spit in the eye of one of his accusers. It is an ominous moment, as he will enact revenge on the same man in a far more horrific way.

It is no wonder that Ygor and the Monster form a connection. Both are outcasts and like the Monster, Ygor has cheated death and hates the people of the village. Lugosi’s hideous smile barely hides his evil intentions, leaving the audience feeling uncomfortable. For all the charges made about Lugosi’s heavy accent and lack of versatility, here he uses his voice exceptionally well. Harsh, gruff and menacing in tone, Lugosi makes Ygor a fuller and meatier villain in great part due to the effective use of his voice.

Son Of Frankenstein is a high point in Lugosi’s career and arguably he would never again have such a strong role in an A-film production. J. Hoberman in the Village Voice makes the valid claim that Lugosi ‘steals the movie in his last really juicy role’.

  1. Title Role – Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931) is the film that truly started it all. Not only would it make Lugosi a star but it would also begin the classic horror cycle and take audiences into the world of the supernatural.

Today, Dracula feels dated and even stagey, due to its’ script being based on the stage version, as well as the clunky directing by Tod Browning. The oft-repeated criticism is that it is crying out for a soundtrack and is often stilted. The climax of the film is particularly disappointing and Browning blew a great opportunity for an exciting finish.

The cast has its’ strengths. Edward Van Sloan projects authority and wisdom as the brilliant Dr Van Helsing and I would challenge anyone to find a more disturbing Renfield than the one created here by Dwight Frye, who is exceptional and haunting as the deranged slave to the vampire.

But the true strength of the film is none other than Bela Lugosi. He is supreme with authority as the commanding vampire and uses his gaze to full effect. The supposed weaknesses of his voice are at full advantage when he speaks, with the deliberation and control of one who need not rush for anyone.

The first scenes of the film are amongst its’ best. From the first appearance of Dracula himself in the decrepit bowels of his castle, as he emerges from his coffin along with his vampire wives, the audience is transported into a dark fairy tale where time seems immaterial. When Renfield arrives, he is met by the aristocratic count descending the broken staircase and speaking the cinematically immortal words, ‘I am Dracula…I bid you welcome’. Measuring Renfield carefully like a ‘spider spinning his web for the unwary fly’, Lugosi exudes menace and power as speaks of the ‘children of the night’. Every phrase spoken by Lugosi is just as measured and though he speaks seldom, Lugosi does so with purpose and he is arresting at every word.

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The film starts to slide away when the setting steps into modern London but Lugosi still dominates and his commanding presence is fitting as a count who has lived through the ages. His psychological dual with Van Helsing still impresses and whilst his seduction of his victims is assuaged to some degree, Lugosi still brings controlled energy to each scene.

The love/hate relationship with the character would remain for Lugosi throughout his life. It would typecast him and yet it gave Lugosi his fame. It launched yet also destroy his career, although Lugosi’s choice of roles would certainly play its’ role in impacting on his career.

As wonderful as Christopher Lee and others have been in playing the infamous vampire, they are always measured against the still-haunting and mesmerising performance of Bela Lugosi.

There are quite a number of B-films, serials and even worse that Lugosi made for Poverty Row studios and independent producers. Many of them lack the production value that Lugosi was more deserving of and in some cases the films are outright terrible. Yet many of them still entertain and deserve a little more respect than what is often afforded them. In all the productions Bela Lugosi was involved with, he was the consummate professional. Most of all, he was the first true horror star, sparking off the classic horror cycle and remaining long after his passing as the Dark Prince haunting the broken battlements of his castle.

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

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.