One of the things I wanted to do with The Stop Button, way back when I started it (or, if not started it, when I realized I was going to keep going with it), was watch all the Val Lewton RKO movies.
I discovered Lewton in college. I can’t remember how, whether it was in a magazine or a book, but I got the LaserDisc box set used and wanted to dig into these noirish horror films, so unlike the Universal monster movies of the same period.
I didn’t. I think I watched I Walked with a Zombie and maybe Cat People. It took me years to get through all the films when watching them for the site too. Five years–Youth Runs Wild is a 2008 post, I Walked With a Zombie is a 2013. I distinctly remember wanting to watch the rarer Lewton. Of course, there are eleven films and two of them are rare. They’re the outliers for a variety of reasons.
I was also a big Mark Robson fan in college (I still am, I just don’t watch his movies enough anymore); he might have been how I came across the LaserDisc box set.
Robson directed six of the eleven films, including the best (The Seventh Victim) and the worst (Youth Runs Wild). Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur handled the rest. Tourneur–and I’d discovered him late teens thanks to AMC–brought the most visual distinction to the films, even though he didn’t get the flashiest settings.
Tourneur directed the first three films–Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man. Each of these films has incredible terror sequences. Tourneur, Lewton and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca figure out how to make a long walk alone the scariest thing in the world. The settings are contemporary, not classical. The possibility of horror exists in the real world.
Until college, I was also a fan of the Cat People remake. I fell out with it when I discovered the original. Having fallen out with the original, I’m back to being a fan of the remake. So when I saw the original, I could see the memorable terror sequences in their (superior) original form. I’m not a big fan of most of these films–I just don’t like most of the writing. But they’re so well-made, I’ve got a soft spot for them. None of them run over eighty minutes either, which makes them a lot more welcoming.
Cat People I watched just a couple years ago. 2013 was the year I pushed myself to get the Lewton films watched. I don’t think in preparation for anything, just because I hadn’t gotten it done (I’m similarly always trying to get Die Hard 3 watched since its the only one without a post up).
It’s really xenophobic. Cat People, not Die Hard 3 (well, maybe, I don’t remember). With old movies, there’s often some discomfort in finding the line; you have to look for it and you might really like the stars or something and there’s hesitation. You’re forcing yourself to be negative on something you like. Like when you find out, in addition to being the greatest sidekick of the 1930s and 1940s, Walter Brennan was also a racist.
But Cat People’s xenophobia gets in the way of the story. It clouds the screenwriters, it modifies the film’s potential. Knee caps it. There’s a lack of empathy and it hurts. Now, I’d seen Curse of the Cat People first–and it was rarer than even Cat People back in the eighties and nineties (I’d read about them all in the Maltin guide, I’m sure). I loved Curse of the Cat People when I saw it just after high school. It got me interested in Robert Wise movies.
So when I watched Cat People in February 2013, I hadn’t seen Curse again yet. I still assumed Curse was going to be amazing. I was still hopeful. I just wish I remember where I read about the Lewton films back in 2002 or so. Maybe there was an article in “Films of the Golden Age” but I remember a lot of details about the individual projects.
I Walked With a Zombie, which is Jane Eyre on a sugar plantation with zombies (voodoo zombies), has a bunch of great stuff in it too. My wife and I definitely watched it back in college; I had a lot better memories of it than it comes across. Discovering these films in college, seeing this level of visual craftsmanship–in a low budget picture (seventies John Carpenter and RKO Val Lewton go hand in hand)–is exciting. It’s still exciting now, but now I also see the narrative problems.
I’ll want to see one of them again–The Ghost Ship, The Leopard Man–just because they look so great. Leopard Man takes place in a small Southwestern town and they do a fantastic job with it. Ghost Ship’s on, well, a ship and it gets a lot of visual mileage from that setting. The Lewton pictures have particular personalities to them thanks to the visuals. Frightening, intriguing ones. The movies never get too discomforting you can’t enjoy their production values, even while they’re trying to terrify you.
The last three Lewtons are period pictures–though Mademoiselle Fifi is too. I had originally planned on splitting off the period pictures from the rest but Youth Runs Wild gets in the way. It’s the only Lewton-produced picture I don’t have any interest in seeing again. It got all cut up by the studio and what remains isn’t worth talking about. Though a teen picture is a hard proposition anyway.
Boris Karloff stars in the last three pictures–The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, Bedlam. They’re often creepy. Lewton goes for the jugular on the concepts–grave robbing, false imprisonment in an insane asylum, possession. I think I’d seen Bedlam before, like on AMC, and it still creeped me out. These films were about people who could identify their fears and voice them, preparing the viewer for what was to come.
I think I’d stopped being such a big Karloff fan by college and never had much interest in these final three films. Isle of the Dead is pretty darn good, however. I guess Robson made the two best Lewton films (Dead and Victim). Period pieces were a hard sell for me. They still are. Karloff also has a big onscreen personality; I was worried how the films would deal with it. It seemed gimmicky–horror star Karloff and horror producer Lewton teaming up.
When I did get to Bedlam, however, I had a lot of hope for it. Isle of the Dead had gotten me optimistic. There’s an excitement in the Robson pictures not present in the Robert Wise entries. It’s like Wise knew he was on his way into non-genre pictures but Robson didn’t mind playing in the category. But the Wise ones, even though I don’t have much nostalgia for them, are pretty good films.
Except Curse of the Cat People. That one’s a real disappointment. Especially since I’d loved it so much when I first saw it; I was still in that period when I’d blather on to people about films I’d seen (which actually did stop before the site came around) and I know I talked about Curse nonstop for a day or two.
The Lewton films still have that excitement factor for me. Even I gave most of them ★★, they’re important American films. Some of the excitement might still have to do with them going so long unseen but talked about. Cat People airing on the local PBS station was a cause for videotape planning in the early nineties; people made sure someone (or two or three) was taping it so they could borrow it.
And there’s still Lewton excitement online, which is cool. There was excitement back when the DVD boxset got released in 2005 (which made that LaserDisc box set purchase in 2002 a bit of a waste). The intensity’s changed, but the films availability have made it–for the first time in the films’ seventy year history–easy to see them. Except Fifi and Youth. Those two films are still difficult to see (though PAL DVDs have been released).
Lewton’s films are problematic but it’s impossible not to be a Lewton aficionado.