Feline friends: Will desire awaken her family curse (that she ll turn into a vicious leopard)? As with many Lewton films, the concept is supernatural but the execution is psychological in The Curse of the Cat People.

Val Lewton's Brooding Mood, Chilling Themes

Dennis Harvey January 21, 2010

The horror genre has only grown stronger in recent years–not just commercially, but also in terms of creativity (albeit the latter mostly in the genre’s non-mainstream efforts). Throughout cinema’s first decades, however, horror movies were dismissed by most grownups (and nearly all critics) as juvenile, silly, even offensive.

We can look today at the peak work by 1920s horrormeister Todd Browning (director of Lon Chaney’s greatest hits) and his 1930s successor James Whale (of the first Boris Karloff Frankensteins, plus The Invisible Man) and realize they made some of the finest films of their Hollywood era. But at the time, theirs and all other horror films were considered basically stupid–as was anything that hinged on superstition.

First to seriously challenge that assumption was a producer who getting a major retrospective, “Complicated Shadows: The Films of Val Lewton,” at the Pacific Film Archive January 22-February 13. Lewton’s films demanded respect–even if they didn’t always get it–for emphasizing atmosphere and artistry over cheap thrills.

When producers become famous, it’s usually as showmen, businessmen, sometimes as con men. It’s very seldom for having a particular artistic imprint–credit for that, rightly or wrongly, is typically ceded to the director. But Lewton’s major work–a remarkable run of features between 1942 and 1946–are so much of a piece in their brooding mood and chilling themes that he seems their primary architect, despite the employment of several talented young directors and other regular collaborators.

Born in the Ukraine, he moved to the U.S. as a child, winding up working in various capacities for David O. Selznick (the very definition of producer as showman) before arriving at not-quite-major studio RKO. Once the home of King Kong and Astaire & Rogers, RKO had lately suffered a series of financial setbacks (not least Citizen Kane), and now determined to play it as safe as possible. Ergo Lewton was hired for the not-especially-promising job of heading a new horror division dedicated to low budgets (usually about $150,000) and lurid titles. Beyond that, the suits let him do pretty much what he wanted, as long as it turned a profit.

They probably didn’t expect the films to be as profitable as they were, let alone so creatively impressive. Moving in a direction opposite those of the day’s increasingly silly competing horrors–even mighty Universal edging toward self-parody with the likes of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein not far off–Lewton took brilliant advantage of his budgetary limitations by withholding the obvious.

As noted in the PFA calendar, he said “If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want. We’re great ones for dark patches.” Thus his movies, despite their ghoulish monickers (I Walked with a Zombie), suggested far more than they actually showed–realizing that creeping dread of the unknown is much more frightening than the fleeting “gotcha!” of some lumbering monster.

First up was Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur, about a woman (visiting French star Simone Simon) who fears desire will awaken her family curse: She’ll turn into a vicious, leopard-sized feline. As with many Lewton films, the concept is supernatural but the execution is psychological–we never see our protagonist “transform,” and there is serious reason to question whether she actually does. Is the real monster sexual repression that provokes delusional fantasy? Either way, it’s deadly business.

RKO was doubtless thrilled by this surprise hit, giving Lewton free reign–so long as his projects were vaguely in the same terrain (and used their front-office-decreed titles). In 1943 came Tourneur’s Zombie and The Leopard Man. Mark Robson directed The Ghost Ship and The Seventh Victim, the latter about a young woman (Kim Hunter, later Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire) menaced by a cult of Satanists in Greenwich Village. Once again, these were films as much about tremulous sanity as the occult, neurotic and morbid, with evil always approaching yet just out of sight.

The following year Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise (the latter a long way from The Sound of Music) co-directed The Curse of the Cat People –not exactly a sequel and not really horror, either, but rather a surprisingly delicate fantasy in which Simon returns as the imaginary friend conjured by her surviving husband’s lonely daughter by second marriage. Another stretch for Lewton & Co. that year was the seldom-seen Youth Runs Wild, a juvenile delinquency flick with no supernatural content whatsoever. There was also Simone as Mademoiselle Fifi (not in the PFA series), a noirish spin on a Guy de Maupassant story.

RKO probably wasn’t as thrilled with these digressions, so 1945 saw a full-bore return to the macabre, with a double dose of Boris Karloff, no less. In Wise’s The Body Snatcher he’s an insidiously smiling Victorian thug who robs fresh graves for a supercilious doctor’s dissections. When not enough folks are dying of natural causes, he’s quite willing to provide unnatural ones. Robson’s Isle of the Dead provides Karloff with one of his most genuinely chilling roles. He’s a real-life “monster”–a military commander so accustomed to exercising harsh discipline that he becomes a greater menace than the plague outbreak that’s confined a group of strangers to a remote island.

The year 1946 saw the baroque Bedlam, with Anna Lee as an actress seeking to expose conditions at a notorious mental institution. Instead, she finds herself committed to it, and at the mercy of its sadistic warden (Karloff). But changes in RKO management abruptly left Lewton unemployed, cut off from his reliable stable of actors, designers and crew. He freelanced, producing a romance for Paramount, a comedy for MGM, and a western for Universal. None were anything special, and ill health compounded Lewton’s career woes. He died in 1951, just 46 years old.

It’s remarkable that the industry couldn’t appreciate such a distinctive, lucrative multitalent (he also had a big hand in his films’ scripts, usually uncredited) enough at the time to sustain him. But posterity has only made his contribution loom larger. One can only imagine what he would have thought of today’s largely “slasher” (when not “torture porn”) oriented mainstream horror films–movies so much less scary for bluntly showing us every nasty thing, all the time.