With the possible exception of Hammer Films, Universal Pictures is probably the studio best known for its horror movies. After all, from the Thirties into the Forties they produced such classic films as The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula's Daughter, and The Wolf Man. For a time in the Forties, however, among the best horror movies were made at RKO. From 1942 to 1946 producer Val Lewton headed up a unit at RKO which made some of the greatest horror movies of all time.
Val Lewton was born Vladimir Leventon in 1904 in the Ukraine. At age six, his mother immigrated to the United States with his sister and himself. His aunt, actress Alla Nazimova, suggest that his name be changed to the more American sounding "Val Lewton." Lewton majored in journalism at Columbia University. Before his film career had already begun, Lewton was already quite accomplished. He worked as a journalist and also wrote short stories and novels. One of his books, No Bed of Her Own, was even adapted (although very loosely) as the film No Bed of Her Own. Lewton entered the film business in 1934 when he was offered to work on the screen treatment for a screen adaptation of the Russian novel Taras Bulba. By 1935 he received his first screen credit, for arranging scenes of the French Revolution in David O. Selznick's A Tale of Two Cities. He also worked on Gone With the Wind and Rebecca.
It was in 1942 that Val Lewton was given the chance of a lifetime. At the time many of the films made at RKO had failed. Clearly the studio had to do something to increase their cash flow. Looking at the renewed interest in horror movies sparked by such Universal Films as Son of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man (after all, this was the Second Golden Age of Horror Movies), RKO decided that low budget horror movies could be just what the studio needed to bring in much needed cash. It was for that reason that RKO's head of the time, Charles Koerner, offered Val Lewton the chance to head a head a special production unit at RKO.
Koerner's offer to Letwon was a novel one. He gave Lewton complete artistic freedom on his productions provided that he agreed to make horror movies with budgets under $150,000, to use titles developed by RKO through their marketing research, and to only work for a salary of $250 a week. Lewton agreed, realising that with complete artistic freedom he could make a completely different sort of horror movie from the sort that Universal had made for years. Of course, part of this was also due to economic necessity--without the budgets of the Universal horror films, Lewton could not make movies that relied heavily on makeup and special effects. Instead, Lewton would create horror films that relied more upon the suggestion of horror than anything horrible itself. I was very rarely in the horror films that Lewton made for RKO was the source of the characters' fear ever shown.
No better example of this could be found in any of Lewton's films than his first horror movie, Cat People. The plot concerned a woman, Irena, who when aroused, transforms into a panther. Among the most famous scenes in the film featured a co-worker of the Irena's husband, Alice, at an indoor pool late at night. She becomes alarmed when she notices the shadow of a rather large cat cast upon the pool's wall. Another famous scene was Alice walking in Central Park, in which the sound of her high heels on the sidewalk was intercut with the growls of a large cat. In the film there were only a very few shots of the black panther into which Irena allegedly transformed. In fact, RKO's head, Koerner, was a bit apprehensive about the film upon its completion. Regardless, Cat People became a smash hit. A film made on a shoestring budget eventually grossed $3 million.
The success of Cat People largely rested in the fact that it was very much a psychological horror movie. Beyond the fact that audiences were only given glimpses of the panther and the film relied more upon the suggestion of horror than anything horrible in and of itself, the movie was steeped in sexuality. Irena only transforms into a panther if she is sexually aroused or aroused in some other way (such as through the jealousy of her husband's co-worker Alice). To this end, Irena is emotionally distant to her husband, perhaps driving him into the arms of Alice. Cat People was sophisticated in a way that very few of the Universal horror movies had been since the Thirties.
Lewton's next film was I Walked with a Zombie. For the script veteran screenwriters Curt Siodmak (who had written the screenplay for The Wolf Man) and Ardel Wray adapted, of all things, the novel Jane Eyre. Siodmak and Wray did thorough research into voodoo, making I Walked with a Zombie the most accurate film on the subject yet made. Despite its subject matter, I Walked with a Zombie followed in the footsteps of Cat People in relying more upon the suggestion of horror than horror itself. In fact, there is an ambiguoity in how much of what unfolds in the film can be interpreted. Indeed, it is questionable in one sequence in the film whether the character of Jessica has become a zombie or simply entered a catatonic state due to her husband's indifference to her. Among the most terrifying sequences in the film was a trip made by Betsy, the nurse hired to care for Jessica, and Jessica herself through Haitian cane fields. I Walked with a Zombie is considered by some to be the best of the Lewton films.
For Lewton's next film, they turned to the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich. Despite its title, The Leopard Man was not about a man who transforms into a leopard. Instead, it was one of the earliest films about a serial killer. Although it was not as psychologically complex as either Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man is still very effective as a horror movie. Like the others, it relies heavily on suggestion, although it features at least one scene of actual violence. Perhaps the most terrifying scene in the movie involved a young girl returning from the store. Her angry mother refuses to let her in the house, even as she is screaming in terror. The mother only rushes to the door as the girl's blood begins to seep under the door.
The success of Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man resulted in RKO giving Lewton a promotion from B movies to major feature films. The producer and the studio came to heads, however, when Lewton wanted film editor Mark Robson as the director on his first film. RKO wanted someone more experienced, and as a result Lewton asked to return to his B movie unit. Mark Robson would direct Val Lewton's next film, but it would be another low budget horror movie. Namely, it would be The Seventh Victim, one of the first movies to deal with Satanists (called Pallidists in the film to avoid offending Bible Belt sensibilities). The film centred on a young woman, Mary, desperately searching for her sister who has run afoul of the Pallidists.
Although some might argue that I Walked with a Zombie was Lewton's best horror film, arguments could be made for The Seventh Victim as well, Indeed, there is one scene in which Mary, while in the shower, is approached by a woman (seen only in shadow) who warns her to cease looking for her sister. The scene may well have influenced the infamous shower scene in Psycho. Another scene revolved around Mary's sister, who flees the Palladists through dark alleys, only nearly avoiding a man with knife stalking her. Not only does The Seventh Victim rely heavily on suggestion for its sense of horror, but it feeds upon what could be the most primal of man's fears: the fear of death. Indeed, one memorable scene involves a conversation between Mary's sister and a woman who believes that she is dying, but is afraid of death. The Seventh Victim is perhaps the darkest of Lewton's horror films, even ending unhappily, in stark violation of the Production Code of the time.
Due to budget constraints, Lewton was often forced to borrow sets from previous RKO productions. This was particularly true of his next horror movie, The Ghost Ship. The sets for the ship had originally been used on the 1939 RKO feature Pacific Liner. The film centred on a ship on which members of the crew are dying mysteriously. Eventually, one of the officers suspects that the deaths are the work of a serial killer. Like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship was a deeply psychological film in that it actually delves into the madness of its killer--alongside Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt it was the first film to do so besides Fritz Lang's M. And like Lewton's other films, he used the power of suggestion as a source of terror in this film. There is perhaps no better of example of this than a scene in wihch the hero, knocked out while saving a fellow crewman in a fight at a port, awakens about the ship with the faintest of memories and the suspicion that he is going to be the next victim.
Sadly, The Ghost Ship would be kept out of circulation for nearly fifty years. Two playwrights, Norbert Faulkner and Samuel R. Golding, sued RKO and Val Lewton for plagiarism. They claimed that they had submitted their play The Man and His Shadow to RKO and they had turned into The Ghost Ship without their permission. Despite there being little resemblance between the two, Lewton ultimately lost the suit and the film was withdrawn from distribution until 1991.
For Lewton's next film they obviously wanted a sequel to the highly successful Cat People--the title he was assigned was Curse of the Cat People. Val Lewton was none too happy. The movie Lewton ultimately created does include some of the same characters from the first film. Irena's husband Oliver and Alice, now married, both play major roles. In the end, however, it is a very different film. The movie centres on Oliver and Alice's daughter, Amy, a child who spends much of her time in a fantasy world, or another world that could be all too real. Curse of the Cat People also broke with Lewton's previous efforts in the horror genre. It is less a horror movie or a suspense film than it is a movie about childhood daydreams. This caused problems for Lewton with RKO's publicity department. Lewton wanted to insure that the public knew this was not a horror movie. To this end he decided up the font Calson Old Style for the titles, a font very uncharacteristic of the horror genre. He also asked the publicity department to follow suit in avoiding any fonts associated with horror or suspense movies. Despite this, the RKO publicity department insisted on advertising the film as a horror movie and even indicated that the "cat people" of the original film would play a major role in the new one.
Lewton also had problems while making the film. He thought the film's original director, Gunther Fritsch (who would go onto direct in television) was moving too slow, so he replaced him with Robert Wise (up until then a celebrated editor, best known for his work on Citizen Kane). It was Wise's second film as a director (the first being Mademoiselle Fifi, also produced by Val Lewton.
The studio heads at RKO were not terribly happy with Curse of the Cat People. They had wanted a sequel that was firmly in the same vein as the original and Lewton gave them a quiet film about childhood and fantasy. Despite only a tenuous connection to the first film and less horror than Lewton's previous entries in the genres, Curse of the Cat People was warmly received by audiences and critics alike.
Through the early films Val Lewton had dealt directly with the head of RKO himself, Charles Koerner. Unfortunately for Lewton, although the films still did well at the box office, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, and Curse of the Cat People did not do as well as the first three films. There can be no doubt that much of this was due to the fact that the horror cycle of the early Forties was winding down. Regardless, RKO decided that Lewton needed supervision. Initially, executive Sid Rogell, who had produced such films as Murder My Sweet and Zombies on Broadway, was assigned to oversee Lewton's work. Lewton and Rogell did not get along very well, however, so Lewton asked Charles Koerner to replace him. He replaced him with Jack J. Gross. Gross had worked as a producer at Universal on the W. C. Fields films My Little Chickadee and The Bank Dick, as well as the horror movies The Wolf Man and Son of Dracula. The two men came from two wholly different schools of horror (Universal's monsters and Lewton's horror by suggestion), so they naturally butted heads. Indeed, Gross went so far as to sign Boris Karloff, the actor perhaps most identified with Universal's horror movies, to a deal in which he would star in Lewton's next few movies.
Initially, Lewton was not happy with having to use Karloff. Lewton's primary concern was that Karloff's reputation as the star of the more obvious Universal horror movies would undo Lewton's more subtle approach to horror. Lewton was pleasantly surprised to learn that he need not have been concerned. Indeed, Karloff had left Universal because he was unhappy with the route that the Universal horror movies had been taking. Karloff felt that the studio's offerings in the genres were not nearly as good as what they had done in the Thirties. In the end Lewton discovered that Karloff was much more in tune with his more subtle approach to horror than the more obvious one that Universal had taken in its more recent films.
Not only was Karloff set for Lewton's next film, but so would Bela Lugosi (best knwon as Universal's Dracula) be. Despite their low budgets, Lewton's films were actually a step up from what Lugosi had largely been doing the past several years. Aside from a few Universal horror movies, Lugosi had been playing in Poverty Row productions (such as Return of the Ape Man). For Lewton's next film, then, he would be working with Universal's two most legendary horror actors.
With Jack J. Gross in the position of executive producer, Lewton was forced to do something he had never done before--he had to submit script proposals for RKO's approval. Initially Gross approved two proposals. The first was an idea based Arnold Böcklin's painting "Isle of the Dead." The second was a film based on Robert Louis Stevenson's short story "The Body Snatcher." The first to begin shooting was Isle of the Dead. Unfortunately, the movie had not been shooting long before Boris Karloff's back once more started giving him problems. Ever since playing the Monster in Universal's classic Frankenstein, Karloff had difficulties with his back. Eventually, the pain became so severe that Karloff had to go to hospital for a spinal fusion. The operation and his recovery took six weeks. By the time Karloff was recovered enough to go before the cameras, The Body Snatcher was ready to start shooting. Isle of the Dead was then shelved for a short time as production was under way on The Body Snatcher.
Like the short story, The Body Snatcher concerned a doctor in 19th century Edinburgh who employs grave robbers as a source for his cadavers. And like the short story, this business deal eventually leads to murder. The subject matter proved to be a hurdle in getting a script past Joseph I. Breen, then in charge of enforcing the MPAA's Production Code. Initially Breen rejected the script "because of the repellent nature of such matter..." Lewton rewrote the script so that it conformed more with the Production Code of the time. Simultaneously, he was being pressured by Jack J. Gross to up the ante on the film's horror content. Despite this, Joseph I. Breen approved Lewton's revised screenplay.
Boris Karloff was cast as Cabman Gray, the grave robber or "body snatcher" of the title, while character actor Henry Daniell (perhaps best known for his roles in such films as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, and Jane Eyre) as the unethical Dr. MacFarlane. The end result was two of the best performances in any of Lewton's horror movies, as Karloff's Gray and Daniell's MacFarlane squared off against each other. Lugosi had a smaller role as Dr. McFarlane's assistant and his performance is not as impressive as either Karloff or Daniell's, but he still proved he could deliver the goods, particularly in a scene in which the assistant, Joseph, tried to blackmail Gray.
Ultimately, The Body Snatcher does rely heavily on Lewton's trademark horror by suggestion. In one memorable scene an old chanteuse is followed by Gray's cab as she enters a dark alley. At the same time, however, it also contained scenes of more blatant terror. There is one scene in which a body, ostensibly dead, stirs back to life. The Body Snatcher did very well at the box office. What is more, critics loved the film. Today it is considered a classic. In fact, there are some who number it among the best of Lewton's horror efforts.
With The Body Snatcher completed, production resumed on Isle of the Dead. It would not be the happiest of experiences for Lewton. Charles Koerner was fighting leukaemia, so Lewton was forced to deal even more with Jack J. Gross. Gross wanted several revisions in the script. Isle of the Dead would also be the costliest of Lewton's horror movies, ultimately costing $246,000. It would only make $13,000 at the box office. The end result, if not as good as The Body Snatcher, was one of Lewton's better films. Karloff played Greek General Nikolas Pherides, on an island of quarantined people during an plague outbreak in World War I. Like The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead combined Lewton's horror by suggestion with more blatant horrors. Perhaps its most terrifying sequence involved a cataleptic woman, presumed dead, who is buried alive.
It was in February 1945 that RKO studio head Charles Koerner died from leukaemia. This meant that there was a total change in regime at RKO. Lewton would not have the influence there that he once did. Worse yet, Karloff had to go to the Pacific to entertain the troops. When he returned to the States, Universal wanted to make a deal with him to appear in three movies. Karloff was not happy when he learned the first film would be another Frankenstein and ultimately only did one movie for Universal. Regardless, it would be a while before Lewton and Karloff go to work together again.
Lewton and Karloff's next project was initially called Chamber of Horrors. In the end it would be titled Bedlam. It used sets left over from the 1945 feature film The Bells of St. Mary’s, so it looked a bit more lavish than Lewton's other features. Bedlam would also be the most intense horror movie that Lewton ever made. The film took its inspiration from William Hogarth's final prints in his series A Rake's Progress. These last prints, entitled "Bedlam," depicted conditions at Bethlem Royal Hospital. even then the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world. The movie Bedlam. was set in 1761 at a fictionalised version of Bethlem Royal Hospital. Karloff played the apothecary general of the hospital, Master George Sims, who may well be be on the edge of sanity himself.
Even today Bedlam remains a very disturbing film. In fact, I rather suspect that if it was submitted to the MPAA ratings board today, it would be rated PG-13 for Mature Themes. Sims beats one patient and later paints him gold to represent the spirit of Reason. In another scene the character Nell is placed in a cell with a crazed murderer. The film is made all the more terrifying by its mixture of darkness and light. In the mental hospital, the shadows are never far away.
Bedlam would be another hit at the box office for Lewton. It also got good reviews. Unfortunately, it would be the last of the low budget horror movies Val Lewton would make at RKO. Lewton had long wanted to make major feature films and was given his chance to do so at RKO. He was put in charge of the film Woman on the Beach, to be directed by cinematic legend Jean Renoir. Sadly, Lewton would not remain on that picture. In fact, he would not make movies for some time. In November 1946, Lewton suffered a heart attack. He would make a few feature films for studios other than RKO (Paramount, MGM, and Universal) before another heart attack ended his life March 13, 1951.
In the Fifties the French cinema magazine Cahiers du cinéma would argue that the films of any given director should reflect the creative vision of that director. In the auteur theory of Cahiers du cinéma it was the director who should be the primary driving force behind films. It would seem that Val Lewton is one of the very few instances of a producer as auteur. Lewton took an active part in the creative aspect of all the horror films he made at RKO. Even when he was not given credit, Lewton often wrote a good deal of the screenplays for his movies. And he was almost always on the set overseeing the creation of his films. Indeed, while the horror movies Lewton produced at RKO were directed by different men (Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise), they show a unity of vision that could perhaps only have come from one man. Every film relied more upon Lewton's horror by suggestion than anything blatant. Nearly every film delved into some rather sophisticated subjects--the repressed sexuality in Cat People, man's fear of death in The Seventh Victim, and the nature of madness in both The Ghost Ship and Bedlam. In many ways Lewton's films are more terrifying than other horror movies of the era because they are so much darker in their subject matter. Lewton's son, Val Edwin Lewton once expressed the idea that his father was actually very pessimistic, and this pessimism was expressed in the horror movies he made for RKO.
Of course, Val Lewton did not make his movies all by himself. Part of his brilliance as a producer was in assembling one of the best units ever in the history of North American film. Among these were the men he chose to direct his films. Robert Wise was a veteran editor by the time he took up directing, having edited The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Citizen Kane, and The Devil and Daniel Webster. Mark Robson was also a veteran editor. Not only did he work on such films as The Magnificent Ambersons and Journey into Fear, but he would be Lewton's editor on Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Leopard Man. Jacques Tourneur was an experienced director by the time he came to Lewton, and had worked with Lewton as a second unit director on A Tale of Two Cities. That Lewton had chosen his directors well can be seen in their careers after Lewton's stint at RKO had ended. I often think that both Robert Wise and Mark Robson are underestimated as directors. While both directed their fair share of clinkers, they also produced some truly great films. Robert Wise directed The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, The Haunting, and Run Silent, Run Deep. Mark Robson directed Peyton Place, Von Ryan's Express, and Daddy's Gone A-Hunting. Despite his reputation in some circles, I think that only Jacques Tourneur did not live up to the promise he had shown with Lewton. Following his stint with Lewton, his only notable films are Out of the Past, Night of the Demon (I have not seen the film, so I do not know if it is actually any good), and The Comedy of Terrors.
And while Lewton wrote many of his own films, he also worked with some of the best writers in the business. Curt Siodmak, who co-wrote I Walked With a Zombie, had written several classic Universal horror films and would go onto write novels, the most famous perhaps being Donovan's Brain. Philip MacDonanld, who worked with Lewton on The Body Snatcher, had done uncredited work on The Bride of Frankenstein and wrote some of the early Charlie Chan films at Fox. Of course, Lewton himself had been a journalist and novelist before entering the film industry.
Val Lewton's legacy to the cinema can still be seen today. In insisting on suggesting horror rather showing horror, Lewton's films relied heavily on light and shadow, contrast in sounds, and plenty of atmosphere. In this respect Lewton's films would have a lasting influence on experienced directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and future directors such as Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma. But Lewton's influence went even further than this. Prior to the horror films Lewton made at RKO, the best known horror movies were those made at Universal. And while Universal produced some of the greatest horror films of all time, nearly all of their films relied heavily on the supernatural, featuring vampires, werewolves, and other monsters. Lewton expanded the repertoire of horror movies considerably, making films centred on serial killers (The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship), grave robbers (The Body Snatcher), Satanists (The Seventh Victim), and outright madness (Bedlam). His films were also sophisticated in a way that only a few horror movies (the films made by Fritz Lang and other Europeans, as well as the very best films of Universal, such as The Bride of Frankenstein) had been before. In the horror movies he made at RKO, Val Lewton explored repressed sexuality, the fear of death, the thin line between reality and fantasy, and the nature of madness. With the exception of Universal in the early Thirties, no one else had ever made a string of such truly great horror films. And until Hammer Films in the Fifties and Sixties, they would not do so again.