The Val Lewton Horror Collection: Introduction Review
Some artists are consistently fertile over an extended period of time; others burn brightly but not for long. Val Lewton was an example of the latter. Between the premiere of his first horror film for RKO, Cat People, and his last, Bedlam, was a mere three and a half years. During that time, he produced the nine films (plus two other out-of-genre works) on which his reputation rests, nine films which revolutionised the horror genre in the 1940s and whose influence is still felt nowadays.
Vladimir Leventon was born in Yalta, in what was then the Russian Empire but which is now in Ukraine, in 1904. At the age of five he emigrated with his mother and sister to the USA. An avid reader from an early age, he began to write in his teens, producing journalism and fiction at a rapid pace. One of his novels, No Bed of Her Own, written under the pseudonym Val Lewton, was bought by Hollywood, becoming the 1933 film No Man of Her Own, allowing him to break into Hollywood. After a brief spell in MGM’s publicity department, he went to work for David O. Selznick. His work there included working on the second unit of A Tale of Two Cities with a young director called Jacques Tourneur (the Storming of the Bastille sequence is their work) and writing additional scenes for Selznick’s magnum opus, Gone With the Wind. Frequent clashes with his mentor – and Selznick’s habit of appropriating too much credit for himself – led to Lewton’s leaving for RKO in 1942.
RKO at the time was a struggling studio, following the extravagance and financial failure (though critical success) of their Orson Welles productions, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Seeing how successful that Universal’s horror films had been, RKO decided to set up their own horror division and employed Lewton to produce films for it. Cat People was the first, and was a considerable success.
The term “auteur” is usually used to describe directors, but Lewton (along with some others, including his former boss Selznick) is an example of a rarer breed, the auteur producer. He assembled the cast, recruited the directors (his former colleague Tourneur, and promoting editors like Robert Wise and Mark Robson, who had both worked on the Welles films) and developed a repertory company of actors and technicians. Lewton always prepared the final drafts of the scripts himself – sometimes using the pseudonym Carlos Keith, more often without credit. The scripts are always intelligent (note the sophisticated historical English in Bedlam especially). The films have also attracted attention for their ahead-of-their-time and non-stereotypical portrayal of black characters, and their strong female lead characters. Lewton was very much a hands-on producer, and the workload may well have contributed to his poor health and early death
Although not all of the nine films have supernatural premises, Lewton’s films are all of a piece. They are economically made, with running times around the hour-and-a-quarter mark and are distinguished by literate dialogue and a new approach to horror material. This isn’t so much “not showing the monster” as some people believe, as he did do this, more being careful how much to show, understanding that what you imagine is often scarier than what you see. The use of black and white was inevitable given that these were B pictures, but this is vital to the effect. There’s a school of thought (outlined by, amongst others, Jeremy Dyson in his book Bright Darkness) in that monochrome is vital to the effect of the supernatural horror film, and the genre loses something in colour. That’s not to say that good horror films can’t be made in colour, but something about black and white adds considerably to an atmosphere of the unearthly, the weird, the other-than-normal. In a way, the sensory incompleteness of black and white film (similar to that of radio, for example) which allows our imaginations to fill in the missing details, which adds to these films’ power. Yes, the plantations in I Walked With a Zombie were constructed on the studio backlot, but such is the power of film in the hands of a director like Jacques Tourneur, that it’s a living world with a palpable atmosphere. Key contributions behind the scenes came from cameramen like Nicholas Musuraca, who shot five of these nine films, and whose high-contrast, shadowy style was a key component of the then new genre of film noir (along with John Alton’s work). Some of the Lewtons – the contemporary-set ones in particular - are not very far from noir in style, sharing the same poetic, morbid fatalism of the best examples - which include 1947’s Out of the Past, directed by Tourneur and photographed by Musuraca. In Roy Webb, who scored all of the Lewton horrors except Isle of the Dead, Lewton had a composer who went beyond the obvious in his musical choices. In front of the camera, Lewton could draw upon RKO’s contract players, with a few brought-in stars like Boris Karloff. Many of these people flourished under Lewton, as they would not do elsewhere.
Lewton produced eleven films between 1943 and 1946, the nine in this box set, plus two non-genre items, the contemporary-set drama Youth Runs Wild and the historical drama adapted from Guy de Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi, both directed in 1944 by (respectively) Mark Robson and Robert Wise. An unsuccessful move into A pictures, and higher budgets, resulted in just three more films, which will no doubt be of interest to Lewton fans but are not amongst his best work. Lewton died on 14 March 1951 of a heart attack, aged only forty-six.
The Val Lewton Horror Collection comprises his nine horror films on five DVD-9 discs in a cardboard slipcase. The discs are encoded for Regions 1 and 4 only. Three of the discs, containing two films each, are available separately - Cat People/The Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie/The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead/Bedlam - though I suspect that anyone interested in these films in the first place would be best advised to pay a little extra and purchase the box set. For your money you receive another two-for-one disc (containing The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship) and a fifth disc which holds The Seventh Victim plus a documentary on Lewton, Shadows in the Dark. Unless you are not multiregion - or cannot play NTSC - I would buy this instead of waiting for a Region 2 version. The UK rights to the RKo catalogue are owned not by Warners but by Universal, and it is not yet known if they will release this set at all, or will contain the same extras.
Reviews of the individual discs can be found by following the links below...
8 out of 10
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7 out of 10