THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)
****/**** Image B+ Sound B
starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, Ann Carter
screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen
directed by Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)
****/**** Image C Sound B-
starring James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway
screenplay by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray
directed by Jacques Tourneur
THE LEOPARD MAN (1943)
***½/**** Image C- Sound B-
starring Dennis O'Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell
screenplay by Ardel Wray, based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich
directed by Jacques Tourneur
THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)
****/**** Image C+ Sound C
starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter
screenplay by Charles O'Neal and DeWitt Bodeen
directed by Mark Robson
THE GHOST SHIP (1943)
***½/**** Image A- Sound B
starring Richard Dix, Russell Wade, Edith Barrett, Ben Bard
screenplay by Donald Henderson Clarke
directed by Mark Robson
THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)
***½/**** Image C- Sound C+
starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater
screenplay by Phillip MacDonald and Carlos Keith
directed by Robert Wise
ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)
*/**** Image B- Sound B-
starring Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer
screenplay by Ardel Wray & Josef Mischel
directed by Mark Robson
*½/**** Image B- Sound B-
starring Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House, Richard Fraser
screenplay by Carlos Keith and Mark Robson
directed by Mark Robson
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNINGS IN EFFECT. It's not too much to speak of Val Lewton as the American Jean Cocteau. An enigmatic figure with his hand, like Cocteau, in more than one media (a novelist, he often did uncredited work on the screenplays for his films), the movies produced under his RKO watch are a repository of dream sleep, enough so that an overview of his key pictures--something made possible by Warner's rapturous DVD collection of his horror fare--uncovers a treasure trove of indelible nightmare images. Where Cocteau affected a studiedly casual mien and came to film in his sixties, however, Lewton (who died at 47) seems the product of financial expediency and, perhaps more impressively, stamped the products of his hand despite roadblocks placed in his way. Yet the similarities are striking: Above and beyond the dreamscapes affected, there's a common fascination with masks and false identities; an obsession with budding sexuality turned subtly aberrant; and a cycle of seduction tied to corruption in the move from innocence to experience. I see in these recurrent themes a man fascinated by the blinds that men throw before them to deny the unknowable tides governing their emotions and actions. It's that illusion of civilization that informs Lewton's pictures; the horror of them is in the ripping away to expose the insect underneath.
The first Lewton-produced film I saw was the first Lewton-produced film, as it happens, the Jacques Tourneur-directed Cat People, with Simone Simon as a woman who believes that sex will turn her into a panther--a curse of the Keatsian "consummation sublime" made manifest, a Henry James parable, a post-modern palimpsest with Prufrock's peach the fruit poisoned (fatally) with serpents of disappointment. Cat People, like every Lewton film, is about pursuit in a dreamscape: running in place or sinking into the soft and wet. Its most famous sequence ends with the arrival of a bus at a stop (or an escape into the middle of a pool in a dark antechamber); its most alluring mystery is a drawing the girl never lets her lover see. Lewton's pictures float along on null energy--they're subjective, unsettling, unsettled. When you watch The Seventh Victim's angelic heroine (fresh from boarding school, no?) castrate a hardened gumshoe into doing the absolute stupidest thing to a dimly-lit corridor (i.e., penetrating it), the shiver is recognition of how sex is not only transgression, mutable and terrifying by its nature, but perhaps also the wellspring of every fear. It came as no surprise to me to learn that Lewton was an uncredited story editor on Hitchcock's haunted, voluptuously necrophilic flick Rebecca.
I discovered Cat People through a childhood obsession with "The Twilight Zone" and one episode in particular, "Night Call," a fifth-season classic that's stuck firm in my craw to this day. It's about the very definition of a missed connection, as an old widow gets a spooky call one dark and stormy night--and again the next night, and again the next--only to trace the caller back to a downed phone line draped across her husband's grave. Rich with the kind of black irony for which the series is known, "Night Call" has a richness of atmosphere, a certain thickness in its terror, that early in my auteur-tinted life as a spectator compelled me to track down its director, one Jacques Tourneur. Cat People's title is a word salad tossed at Lewton by the powers-that-be along with a piddling budget and the mandate that he deliver a cheapie on the fly to refill the studio's Orson Welles-drained coffers. It's during this period that the company's mission statement shifted from genius to commerce--that the final cut of The Magnificent Ambersons was handed over to editors Robert Wise and Mark Robson while Welles was away shooting his abortive Heart of Darkness. The result was the first of Lewton's three collaborations with Tourneur, a mad financial success that briefly brought RKO back from the brink--and initiated a spate of films, at least three of them masterpieces flat-out, that whatever their contemporary popularity seem ever-contemporary.
The Lewton protagonist is milquetoast, sex victim, passive even in action. In time, he'll be compared against a more traditional man's man and found wanting in the jungle, the champion of civilization. He's mired in a dream state, his experience packed in cotton and the reactions of the people around him arcane and meant, so it will appear to him, to exclude him from solving the puzzle. The roots of the paranoia picture are here, the ties to horror largely atmospheric in that Lewton's films are about the impossibility of non-carnal knowledge to affect change, offer succour, or effect salvation. The moral of Lewton's stories is that the world is chaotic and governed by unknowable, arbitrary forces--that everything is coloured in shades of grey. (In this way, count Lewton as a good decade ahead of his peers.) There's not an interest in the restoration of societal order in his films, only the feeling that the animal processes with which our behaviour is hardwired results in very specific eventualities: kill or be killed; fuck or be fucked. Lewton isn't a nihilist, he's a humanist, invested in the philosophy of a shrug and content to be a chronicler through the province of his penny-dreadfuls of the ways that men are animals and how anything that hides that, or distracts from it, is a temporary patch on an eternal condition.
Cat People concerns young lovely Irena (Simon), given to sketching panthers in charcoal and avoiding carnal relationships that tend to awake in her the literal animal within. Because she's cursed with a brand of werecat-ism along her matrilineal bloodline (tied to the erotic rather than to the euphemized eroticism of the moon's waxing), her poor, plain American beau Oliver (Kent Smith) is implicitly asked to bear the brunt of terminal blue balls long past their nuptial vows. Of course Oliver begins a vague flirtation with office mate Alice (Jane Randolph), and of course, if marital sex didn't do it, a little whiff of that old-time adultery will. A scene where Irena stalks Alice in human or animal form (it's unclear) into an underground swimming pool is legendary in the annals of classic horror for all the atmosphere and menace Tourneur brings to it, sure, as well as for its deep-Freudian depth charges of a jealous, psycho-sexual descent into not just a basement chamber, but also the body of water that's found there. In its complexity, it functions as a sharp, canny blueprint for the rest of Lewton's pictures: sexual perversion, emotional arrest, birth imagery, submersion, escape. Striking an archetypal chord, Cat People proved immensely profitable for RKO and bought Lewton a bit of carte blanche in his future projects (a currency he'd spend on his next, most personal project, never to completely recoup). I'd argue that its success has everything to do with the sense of black taboo Lewton shoves in there--it's a work of fantasy that, like every great work of art, speaks intimately to the undiscovered countries of the individual shadow.
Where Cat People deals with fears of sexual intimacy on at least occasionally literal levels, the Wise-helmed sequel The Curse of the Cat People pulls the conversation entirely into the realm of fairytale with a Little Red Riding Hood lost in the woods, proverbial wolf at her heels. She's Amy (Ann Carter), a lonely little girl who befriends old Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean) down the lane, tries to mail notes in the hollow of a tree, and talks to an imaginary friend who happens to be the ghost of daddy's dead first wife, Irena (Simon, reprising her role). Shot through with dread, the picture is a diary of anxiety describing a child's first steps into the larger world without the crutches of storybook, nightmare, or other nocturnal delusions. DP Nicholas Musuraca finds the menace in every shot--every shadow is black water, and the opening's troop of schoolchildren at play in Sleepy Hollow (of all places), discovering a black cat in the crook of a tree before playing at its death, is deeply involved in the intersection of absolute innocence and absolute corruption. When Amy, dressed as Alice, speaks to a butterfly in the Sylvan grove of her ingenuousness, hear in it faint echoes of Pamela Franklin's rapture with a spider and its moth in Jack Clayton's later The Innocents. Concerned paterfamilias Oliver (Smith) fears that Amy is descending into the dreamlife of crazy Irena--a fear borne out to some extent by Amy taking her father's hand and leading him down a path. The focus of the picture is superstition and ritual--how they mutate (or fail) through the passage of time and how isolation can breed the need for compensatory relationships and vivid wonderlands. Amy's lost among the gargoyles of Mrs. Farren's haunted house, instantly identified as the antagonist of Mrs. Farren's grown daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell) in exactly the same irrational way Hitchcock's Marnie hates the prepubescent rival to her mother's affections. Farren believes, you see, that Barbara died at Amy's age. Don't we all.
If the first film is about a futile resistance to experience, this second is acknowledgement that life is doomed to experience. Shots of some unobserved observer answering Amy's wish for a friend make sense in that context: The child is haunted, nay, possessed, by the promise of too much knowledge pressing in against her from every direction. In typical Lewton fashion, the strangeness of the film has nothing to do with the supernatural and everything to do with its protagonists embarking on explorations of the Jungian Shadow, collective and personal. When told that her tree-knot mailbox is a lie, she moves into the shadow of a haunted house; when confronted with the sadness of being ostracized for a bizarre, incongruous, doyenne innocence that indicates an immense wisdom in her cupidity ("We never have any fun with Amy"), she conjures friends with magical rings and fairy circles. Amy is the embodiment of transgression, Red Riding Hood without the Woodsman; she leaves the path, opens locked doors, ascends barred stairs, reads books she shouldn't read, inserts herself into voraciously self-devouring relationships, and catalyzes her own inevitable change. Her progress (or lack of it) is mirrored by Oliver's own penchant for skylarks and his persistent guilt over the loss of his fair Irena--ostensibly because of his inability to control sexual desire, emblematized as a return of the repressed in photographs of Irena that constantly surface throughout Amy's home. The real "haunted" house, literally/figuratively, is Amy's. In no uncertain terms, the film is sadness: childhood's loss, childhood's fear, and childhood's end. Though the picture concludes with the uncertain couple of the first film married now and living blissfully in middle-of-Rockwell America (he works for the war effort as a ship designer, she vacuums and cooks in pearls), Lewton's real Americana is strafed with images of boats: longings for seaworthy escapes from monsters surfacing from the Id.
The Curse of the Cat People is Lewton's masterpiece, though Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie is more often spoken of in those terms. Lewton's literary roots flourish in what may be the best adaptation of any of the three Brontë sister's gothic melodramas, a retelling of Jane Eyre set in the West Indies and contaminated with local superstitions involving zombies and arcane rituals and religions. Something about the tropical reboot and the (even more) stark evocation of social difference and torpid, heat-struck love agrees with the novel. (Jean Rhys did a similar redux with her Wide Sargasso Sea.) A case could be mounted here, and with The Curse of the Cat People, that Lewton's key influences are clearly marked by Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, Lewis Carroll's perverse prose, and Daphne Du Maurier's own saga of a consuming demon lover, Rebecca, which Lewton, again unsurprisingly, would help Hitchcock adapt for Selznick and his own American debut. Both films, in fact, open with similar voiceovers that have their respective heroines speaking from a post-narrative point in time that contextualize the pictures as sepia-tinged reflection.
Sultry, claustrophobic, the guilt repressed here is the spectre of slavery stencilled over another abandonment of another wife, ending with another ambiguous two-shot of a pair mated in shame beneath the umbrella of some greater sin. Calypso singer Sir Lancelot takes a larger role here than in The Curse of the Cat People (where he was house servant instead of racial provocateur), a sharp template for Lewton's sensitivity to his minority characters and the role that said minorities play in infecting these films with the repression of a nascent, overriding cultural penitence. When a shipmate (on a schooner very much like the model in Oliver's study in Curse) of our heroine offers en route to her deliverance onto the central stage that "everything good dies here, even the stars," he's speaking as much to Lewton's ongoing concern with the essential hopelessness of ever overcoming our base programming. It's florid, certainly, purple in a manner that betrays Lewton's literary roots--but with the recurring figurehead of St. Sebastian looming throughout before playing a critical role in the climax, the benefits of a strong literary background as it manifests in eloquent symbols and extended metaphors are obvious.
A film composed of the dread of the inexplicable and the pleasures of the image, its signature moment is when our nurse Betsy (Frances Dee), in the middle of a black night, meets zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones) in a head-high field of sea grass as a voodoo chant winds its way through the soundtrack. The contemporary equivalent of a jump-scare, the moment works because the atmosphere is relentlessly close. Tourneur's artfulness marries so well with Lewton's scholarship that the product of that marriage is a meaningful chimera half the shadow of night, half the light of erudition. The perfection of that balance is evoked in the colour of the colonial interlopers and their involuntary hosts (spoken of in stark terms in our introduction to the island) and repeatedly in the shadows juxtaposed against white sands and thrown jagged upon monastic stairwells. I Walked with a Zombie is thought of so highly because it's a film of great visual beauty and menace. It's a tight thematic ship that uses genre as a means through which Lewton/Tourneur play out an archetypal melodrama: love, death, and betrayal. At the end of it all is this notion that a bold sacrifice, a gesture of some gravity, has been made but not without regrets. It has about it the feeling of wisdom hard-won and of an old story told in a new way with ingenuity and a passion for essential texts powering its endless, compulsive invention.
Tourneur, determined to be too much the talent to stay with B-pics (though whether Tourneur agreed with this is unclear), would collaborate just once more with Lewton before casting off for shallower waters. That film, The Leopard Man (1945), predicts the skeezy, south of the border noir of Touch of Evil in its setting almost-south-of-the-border, a New Mexico town dominated by the nightclub antics of castanet-clacking saloon girl Clo-Clo (Margo), who, in what you might call an ironic stroke, is dispatched one dark, sleazy night by Kafka's devourer of the hunger artist: a big cat. The small town terrorized, blame falls on the escape of a performing leopard. And while blame falls, too, on the studio for conjuring another feline-based title to try to capitalize on the financial success of Cat People, credit Tourneur and Lewton for understanding that the implications of a half-human, half-cat demiurge is delightfully Egyptian. Freudian, too.
Ahead of its time as a slasher-flick prototype, complete with surprise bogey and specialized murder weapon, its treatment of the murders as set-pieces (a cemetery, a railroad trestle, a walk home from the bakery, a festival) anticipates, fascinatingly, the evolution of the slasher from grindhouse to arthouse. Best remembered for a sequence in which a mother is incapable of unlocking a door in time for her poor, abused daughter to escape the claws of, we think, the escaped cat--detailed by Stephen King in his musty Danse Macabre long before copies of the picture were freely obtained on home video--The Leopard Man, upon further review, reveals itself as evidence of Tourneur-Lewton's iron-clad control over the medium, from its explosions of sound to its complicated use of foreground (thinking of a moment resurrected in 2008's Let the Right One In in which a train barrelling overhead is used to punctuate calamity below). The nightclub interplay between Clo-Clo and whitebread hero Jerry (Dennis O'Keefe) is loaded with the promise of sexual punishment and the sense insurmountable that what's about to happen in this border town collapsing beneath the weight of the new is only what's always happened. Lewton's auteur signature is as hidden and ashamed, localized and essential, multi-purposed and super-charged with import, as the iconography of genitalia.
Enter The Seventh Victim (which stages its set-pieces in two vaginal tunnels and a shower), the gauziest, maybe the most influential, surely the most underestimated, Lewton production. It's the second of three screenplays penned for Lewton by DeWitt Bodean (the others the two Cat People flicks) and an examination, fast and true, of the development of female sexuality. It's as interested in women as Lewton's later films are interested in men (a good conversation to have would be how the first half of Lewton's output revolves around women, the second around men), finding in its sleuth a gynaecological Nancy Drew named, naturally, Mary (Kim Hunter), who, through the course of the picture, identifies the Masculine as a series of phallic instruments at the mercy of empty nooses. She leaves the sanctuary of her private Catholic school to search for her missing sister in the big city. (She only knows that her sister is missing, by the way, because she's failed to pay Mary's tuition. Not exactly joined at the hip, these two.) Because this is a film post-Maltese Falcon, her first task is hiring a private detective (Lou Lubin). From there, it's Satanic cults and a lowering atmosphere of real resignation, as it doesn't seem like Mary is interested in locating her missing half as much as she is in exploiting her budding ability to get men to do anything she wants. Tellingly, Mary's harem is comprised of representatives of the arts (Erford Gage), the sciences (Tom Conway), and the Law (Hugh Beaumont)--Mary is the mistress of every masculine endeavour towards empowerment. The picture's connection to Psycho is more pronounced than just that amazing shower sequence, as many of the characters in the film have Norman's quality of fatalistic inertia. Its mystery plot revolves around a missing family member fallen in with the wrong crowd, while its most powerful creature is an idea given corporeality by its physical players. Like Psycho, its language is that of nightmares, and like it again, it holds up under countless viewings.
In The Ghost Ship, third officer Tom Merrian (Russell Wade) signs aboard the Altair under legendary, mad-as-a-hatter Captain Stone (Richard Dix). (It's almost noir in its pitting of an individual against a closed society, displaced by the surrealism of a bellicose, capricious world and tasked single-handedly to restore moral order.) Tom represents emotion, Stone represents reason; Tom values the person, Stone values the body politic. When an able seaman is accidentally crushed beneath a ton of chain in the film's queasiest sequence, rather than admit it's an accident, Stone uses the tragedy as a test of his men's, particularly Tom's, fealty to the collective. In the end, it's Finn the mute (Skelton Knaggs), the most individual of the crew by virtue of his isolation, who provides the film its frame, its narrative, and its restoration of order. Consider that The Ghost Ship isn't resolved with Court Martial (justice isn't in the courts) or mutiny; the silencing of the communications officer (Edmund Glover) and the lack of significant female presence for the first and only time in a Lewton speak to the gravity of masculine disturbance.
Reeling now after Lewton can't recapture the financial success of Cat People even with its erstwhile sequel and a third flick about a cat, RKO secured the services of Universal horror vet Boris Karloff, instructing Lewton to construct future projects around his craggy genre countenance. The result is a trilogy--one hit out of the park and two forgettable entries in Lewton's brief tenure at the studio. Start with the best of them, The Body Snatcher (1945), which retells the ugly saga of Burke and Hare from the prism of the Robert Louis Stevenson short story. Beginning as common gravediggers, the pair graduates to murdering unfortunates they would subsequently supply to doctors for the purposes of dissection and furthering the medical arts. Directorial reins handed over to Wise following his debut as pinch-hitter on The Curse of the Cat People (taking over there for Gunther von Fritsch), the film paints a complex portrait of power and weakness in relationships among men. Introduced first in Robson's The Ghost Ship but now fully incorporated into the Lewton stable is the figure of the effete fatale, who interferes in the dedicated, brute affairs of his more-bestial brothers--those governed by masculine traditions forged in fires of uncomplicated testosterone--and facilitates the changing of the ritual old guard into the "soft" façades worn by feminized civilization.
The masculine struggle in The Body Snatcher is between intern Fettes (Russell Wade)--naïve, well-meaning, and inflated by his own sense of unflagging do-gooderism--and old guard (read: ogre) Dr. Toddy (Henry Daniell), who, in his rage for knowledge, leaps any number of moral hurdles. Specifically, he buys bodies, some suspiciously fresh, from professional creepy dude Gray (Karloff), and turns a blind eye once he begins to recognize his subjects as recent customers and, eventually, friends. Karloff is a magisterial Gray: likeable, appalling, cadaverous; if Karloff's gift is literate mordancy, it fully flowers in this dignified ghoul. Bela Lugosi cameos as a lab assistant (how far the mighty have fallen), delivering a poignant death at the hands of his real-life rival (bitter fuel for a martyr's state?) before the film climaxes with a lovely, impressionistic nightmare sequence in a runaway coach along a darkened moor. Wise turns out to be a deft translator of Lewton's fairytale landscapes, going from here to a few under-seen noirs of his own--his portion of flesh for desecrating The Magnificent Ambersons, perhaps--and able to illustrate, wittily, Lewton's interest in the existential conundrum of the one sacrificed to the needs of the many versus the preservation of the collective good. It's ambiguous as to whether Fettes's bleeding heart is valued in Lewton's doctrine. More, there's a fascination with the ultimate futility of ever being something beyond opportunistic and solipsistic. You could argue that Fettes is motivated by the prospect of curing a crippled little girl--but then so is Dr. Toddy, and Dr. Toddy isn't also interested in banging the child's grieving mother. The restoration of order at the end of The Body Snatcher is this nuclear family, complete with sexual access bought with the mad scientist's "evil" experiments. It's moral relativism writ as the marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Body Snatcher is closer to convention than any of Lewton's prior work, but it's good.
Isle of the Dead, on the other hand¸ is quite bad. Karloff is General Pherides. Marooned on a Greek Island in wartime, circa 1912, he discovers his wife's grave ransacked before happening upon a klatch of archaeologists, auto-quarantined to prevent the spread of a virulent plague. Trapped with a bunch of eggheads and one hysterical maid who believes the virus is vampirism or something, Pherides is invited to use his military training to side with superstition, or science, or military science, or religion, before concluding, in a most unsurprising revelation, that death, in all its forms, is inevitable no matter the curveballs thrown its way by myth or reason. Lewton's artful artifice (necessity here and in Ulmer's Detour and other contemporary Bs, form and function in Douglas Sirk, late Hitchcock, and Fassbinder) loses its metaphorical lustre in Isle of the Dead--its meticulous depiction of every method of extinction (suicide, murder, war, disease, decrepitude) through every avenue of coercion, betrayal, inattention, sexual jealousy, and sexual desire, is hackneyed and heavy-handed. Lewton's best pictures are like Salome, peeling away veils in archetypal dances as the wicked watch transfixed. They're looking glasses, not pulpits. When Pherides and his weak man-boy Oliver (Marc Cramer) enter the titular island beneath a statue of Cerberus, Lewton trips all the obvious traps 'til now so deftly evaded that they seemed more the mother of invention than the set-up for RKO's commercial mandate to produce cheap, pretentious, incoherent pap.
The fatigue evident by Isle of the Dead comes into sharp relief in Lewton's last RKO picture (his last, too, with Karloff), Bedlam, based on a Hogarth painting called "The Raven's Progress." The central social issue that came so easily for Lewton in his early films now shows the strain of too many camels forced through too many pinheads. Karloff is evil asylum warden Sims and his foil is bleeding-heart liberal Nell (Anna Lee), who doesn't like that the inmates of Bedlam are treated like zoo animals for the amusement of the paying public. Naturally Sims gets her committed and naturally he will find the tables turned in the last act as the plaintiff in a kangaroo court composed of his former charges. Mannered, stilted, suffocatingly stage-bound, Bedlam is tired in every aspect of its execution--an inauspicious end to one of the most fruitful and influential creative periods of any artist in Hollywood history. Lewton had something to say. Perhaps inevitably, he found less interesting ways of saying it over the course of nine films in a short four years.
Bundled with 2005's "The Val Lewton Horror Collection" in an otherwise-straightforward 2008 reissue, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, produced and narrated by avowed cinephile Martin Scorsese, affords a lovely, if unspectacular, retrospective gaze at Lewton. Without surviving video or audio of the auteur, Scorsese and director Kent Jones weave a portrait of a man who eschewed the spotlight (using noms de plume when he's the prime mover) in what turns out to be hagiography--useful hagiography, mind. The hullabaloo over The Ghost Ship is skated over without much attention, calling into question the integrity of the documentarians, though all is forgiven by Scorsese's suggestion that Tourneur's defection to "A" pictures may have been more betrayal than mutually-sanctioned promotion. Lewton's untimely death is blamed on his workaholism (by his son, no less), and his subsequent failures post-Bedlam show the piece to be, if not entirely forthright, at least conflicted. What I wouldn't give, I might add, for a Scorsese commentary on any of the abovementioned films. Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows is such a multimedia casserole that sound and image are pointless to evaluate.
Doubling up the aforementioned films on a series of DVD-9s, "The Val Lewton Horror Collection" is one of those holy objects that anyone serious about film has probably already acquired. Decorated with the original, lurid RKO poster art, all but two of the films sport commentary tracks and, where possible, original trailers rescued from their nitrate oblivion. Indispensable to say the least, Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People dock in their original academy ratio with exquisite clarity and not much in the way of edge enhancement or digital artifacting despite that the two films (however short) are crammed onto one platter. Of the two, Curse looks slightly better, with Cat People suffering from a couple of brief stretches of popping and noisy grain. Their audio is DD 1.0 mono and likewise sharp and distortion-free, unless you factor in the background hiss (worse on Cat People). (Tech specs are the same from here on out, by the by: b&w fullscreen video, centre-channel Dolby mono audio.) Greg Mank does yeoman's work on companion running commentaries for the films, interspersing his observations with excerpts from a telephone interview with Simone Simon that reveals that for as grateful as she remains for the opportunity of the first film, she recognized from the start that the sequel really had nothing to do with her. (She mentions a sense of indebtedness leading to her participation.) Mank is no Tim Lucas--who is?--but locates the interest in the pictures with anecdotes about their production histories plus digressions during the second film about Wise's role in the editing of Welles's first two films and how they may have influenced the aesthetics of these Lewton pictures. With two documentaries included in the package, Mank doesn't bring much new to the table regarding Lewton himself, but for lecturers and teachers of these films, it's worth the listen. Sensationalistic (and misleading--the more things change...) trailers for the two films are in pretty terrible shape. Needless to say, it doesn't matter.
The Leopard Man is paired with The Ghost Ship and unfortunately A/V quality takes a dip from the excellent Cat People disc. Seemingly sourced from a tape-based master, The Leopard Man immediately betrays its status as the more overprinted of the two (this is one title that could've used a pass through the MTI Digital Restoration System); sound is characteristically mediocre on each title, although The Ghost Ship sports a crystal-clear appearance. In an unfortunate case of starfucking (to whatever extent he's a star), William Friedkin does commentary duty on The Leopard Man. It's hard for me to rationalize why you'd ask someone like Friedkin for a scholarly track, particularly as, in the wake of his Blu-ray rape of The French Connection, he's proven himself something of a George Lucas in terms of reverence for legacy. What Friedkin delivers is a fanboy monologue--lots of nothing in the form of obvious pronouncements and plot recitation sans anything that smells like insight into the actual themes driving Lewton or, say, the film's connection to the modern slasher genre and/or Friedkin's own The Exorcist. There's even something worth discussing in regards to the innovative use of negative space that fuels the tension in The Leopard Man and The Exorcist alike. Both pictures are fascinating sociological treatises; both address original sin. While it makes some sense to ask Friedkin, it'd have made more sense to ask an academic. There are no extras tied to The Ghost Ship, meaning that a conversation about how Lewton and RKO were sued, successfully, for ripping off a fledgling screenwriter's unsolicited screenplay (leading to its nigh-impossibility to screen until this release) is left for biographies and critical studies. A trailer for The Leopard Man rounds out the presentation.
Isle of the Dead and Bedlam share a bill, the former popping bright in its earlygoing--something I attribute to an artistic choice: When the horror begins in earnest, the image dims accordingly, albeit without the expected inky blacks. Bedlam is similarly unremarkable in its transfer; the overriding impression one gets from this box set is that the telecine guys were more interested in presentable than in showcase. (If the alternative is nothing, I'm not complaining.) Audio for the two pictures is equally undistinguished. Tom Weaver records a rip-roaring yakker for Bedlam that essays not just the film but Karloff's career as well in an entertaining, information-packed fashion. He touches on the paintings that inspired, directly, sets from the film and talks at some length about concessions that had to be made to appease the Hays Office. Smart and informed, Weaver's organization is much-appreciated, and the passion he brings to this project earns the film a reassessment. I don't like it any better, but it's interesting in its failure.
The Seventh Victim, meanwhile, shares digital real estate with a 2005 documentary on Lewton called Shadows in the Dark, directed by Constantine Nasr. Victim's source print is nearly always dancing with white specks and sometimes fogs up, causing whites to bloom, yet none of it breaks the film's spell. (Ditto the occasionally crackly soundtrack.) Steve Haberman, a co-writer on Shadows in the Dark, contributes a nice commentary to The Seventh Victim, focusing on themes I missed entirely (a Sapphic subtext, in particular, completely eluded me) with a dry, scholarly air that I actually sort of appreciate in these things. More gaps in this one than in the Mank yakker, though Haberman still manages to shoehorn in the all-important production anecdotes in addition to placing the picture in a historical context that explains why people, by and large, stayed away in droves. His breakdown of the shower sequence is solid, while his discussion of Hunter's "seduction" of the private dick gave me the key to my overall analysis of Lewton's oeuvre. Thanks, Steve. As for Shadows in the Dark, it's more overview than analysis, alternating talking heads with film clips. Some of these clips, however, are scenes credited to Lewton from Rebecca and Gone with the Wind, while others furnish glimpses of his non-genre output, all of which currently unavailable on the format.
I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher cohabit the sixth and final platter under discussion. Though the former was taken from a battered source print, it has an organic vitality here that's lacking in the latter's dim, borderline dupey transfer; does no negative exist for The Body Snatcher? (Or The Leopard Man, for that matter.) It certainly looks that way. Their audio is more comparable and again reproduced with clarity. Stephen Jones and Kim Newman collaborate on a nice yakker for Zombie that contains a lot of back and forth and what appears to be genuine respect for one another. They cite a number of peripheral titles, go into detail on some scenes (especially the centrepiece voodoo ritual and, later, the "catcher in the rye" bit), and comport themselves with intelligence and wit. Director Wise and critic Haberman participate in a relay commentary for The Body Snatcher, homey Wise doing his usual sterling job for approximately the first forty-five minutes of the film, covering in a general, non-specific way his relationship with Lewton up to his work on The Haunting before passing the mike to Haberman for a quick background on the process of translating the Robert Louis Stevenson short story into a workable picture. Trailers for I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher close out the disc. Originally published: October 22, 2009.