• Chance Freytag

An Introduction to Val Lewton

Imagine me a salesman. The rambling, the manipulation, the Mid-Atlantic accent. What am I selling? Why, Val Lewton’s legendary nine movie run in RKO’s horror department, of course. My pitch is for the uninitiated, those yet to experience the shadowy wonder and dread of Lewton’s world, but it’s also for myself. This introduction is the beginning of what I imagine to be a lifelong affair with Lewton’s work and if I only succeed in making myself love these movies all the more, so be it. However, it is my express intent to indoctrinate as many readers as possible into the Lewton cult, for their benefit as much as my own.

Perhaps best known for the erotic supernatural thriller Cat People (later remade by Paul Schrader), Lewton’s horror cycle begins with all the elements that he would use to redefine cinematic horror firmly in place. A former golden boy of David O. Selznick, Lewton arrived at RKO with only three restrictions: no movie could run more than seventy-five minutes, the budget would not exceed $150,000, and the studio would pick the titles. Otherwise, Lewton had total freedom, so he used it. The moment the title Cat People was handed to him, Lewton set to work recruiting the behind the scenes super team necessary to take a pulp title, one designed to compete with Universal monster movies like The Wolf Man, and turn into something truly sinister. His picks: longtime friend and as yet unproven director Jacques Tourneur, master noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and, as his co-writer, DeWitt Bodeen, still mostly unknown to this day.

Together, they crafted the Lewton world, one veiled in deep shadows and plagued by atavistic longings for death. Introduced in Cat People is the less-is-more technique that defines the horror aspects of Lewton’s work. Shadows disguise vague shapes that stalk through the night, accompanied by anonymous, unrecognizable sounds, all forcing the viewer to imagine a reality more terrifying than anything that could be put on screen, Hays Code or no. It goes without saying, I’m certain, that the film Cat People was a masterpiece and a massive success. Most viewers stop here.

“If Cat People is the only Lewton flick with a Criterion release, how good can the others be?” Firstly, how dare you. Secondly, never put your faith in a home video company. Thirdly, incredible. The other movies are incredible. Director Tourneur departed the RKO horror team after the three movies, but despite the loss of the greatest directorial talent he would ever work with, Lewton proved himself something of an auteur in his own right. While he is only credited as a producer, Lewton fanatics know that he was a screenwriter on every single one of his films. More often than not, Lewton devised the premise and the story, and without fail, Val would hole himself up in his office for days on end to write the final draft. In fact, Lewton is actually credited twice onscreen for the screenplays of The Body Snatcher and Bedlam, but under the pseudonym “Carlos Keith.”

Despite the revolving door of stars, from Tom Conway to Boris Karloff (from whom Lewton drew his best performances), and the endless parade of screenwriters, directors, and editors, the RKO horror department was always guided by the fears and fascinations of Lewton himself.

Personally, my favorites of the cycle are I Walked With A Zombie, The Curse of the Cat People, and The Body Snatcher. In viewing all of them, I find an otherworldly power, one strong enough that I considered writing that they “took me through the looking glass,” but I’m too much of a coward to say that outright. More than any of Lewton’s other work, The Curse of the Cat People lays bare his inner world and, in doing so, demonstrates what I love so much about his films. Barely able to be considered a horror film, this sequel is a borderline autobiographical exploration of childhood, imagination, authority, and the disquieting ties between sleep, dreams, and death.

As with many of his films, Curse takes place in an ethereal reflection of our world, afflicted with lingering remnants of the supernatural that take hold of the characters and drag them towards a seemingly nightmarish fate. Death, adulthood, or an unknowable destiny, more horrible than our minds can comprehend. Yet, despite the expressionist images and tinges of magic, one foot remains firmly planted in reality. For Lewton himself, these stranger remainders, perhaps leftovers from his childhood, pulled him ever onwards into his work and towards the fulfillment of the same prophecies of doom that filled his stories. By the age of forty-six, Lewton had pushed his body to its limits. He died with twelve movies bearing his name.

Where, then, does this salesman tell you to begin with Val Lewton? Like me, you can save The Curse of the Cat People for last and cry your eyes out if that’s what suits you, but I encourage all newcomers to follow their fascinations. Should you be interested in grim, archaic brutality, try his Karloff trilogy, starting with The Body Snatcher. For something less bombastic and more immediately recognizable, his infamously confounding film about the waning pleasures of life, The Seventh Victim. Down whichever path of fear and shadow you choose to venture, I wish you all the luck in the world.