At last the collected masterpieces of one of the greatest producers in Hollywood history has been released in a boxed set. The name Val Lewton may not mean much to you, but his legacy as the greatest producer of B-grade horror movies can be felt in every A-grade horror movie of the last thirty years.
The Val Lewton Collection includes all the great classics that made Lewton’s name synonymous with eerie, atmospheric horror. Probably the most famous movie in this collection is Cat People, which is unfortunately the most famous because of the bizarre 80s remake by Paul Schrader. The remake is actually not that bad, but in comparison to the original it certainly pales.
What sets Lewton’s horror films apart from most of its rivals, and almost all horror movies made today, is that his films are built upon the subtext rather than the desire to scare the poop out of you. For instance, Cat People contains many unsettling scenes, and one in particular that will make you jump in your seat, but the strength of the movie lies in its brilliant psychological examination of female jealousy.
The movie should rightly be called Cat Woman, because what this incredible film is really about underneath all the frights is the Freudian picture of the repression of female sexuality and what happens when what is repressed rises to the surface. This the story of what happens when a woman is pushed past the limit of jealousy and into psychosis. Forget Fatal Attraction, if you really want to see a masterpiece about jealousy gone mad, watch Cat People.
Oddly, the “sequel” to this film, Curse of the Cat People isn’t a horror film and really isn’t a sequel at all. It’s a fantasy about a young girl’s fantasy life, except that her fantasy life may not be a fantasy at all. The Cat Woman from the first film reappears, as does her ex-husband and his new wife, but the story is 180 degrees away from the first film. The young girl becomes friends with the Cat Woman who, and this isn’t really a spoiler, supposedly died in the first film.
The crux of the movie turns on whether the young girl really sees the Cat Woman or not. Unlike The Sixth Sense, however, this movie doesn’t cheat the audience (by filming scenes that give the impression that Bruce Willis was alive and talking to his wife and other people who couldn’t see dead people, how that movie was nominated for Best Picture and is considered such a great movie is beyond me) and the final scene is brilliantly realized in the way it leaves the question open.
The Seventh Victim also ends with a final scene that leave the audience questioning the validity of what they’ve been led to believe up to that point. This may well be one of the first serious Hollywood examinations of devil worship and it’s one of Lewton’s high points.
In fact, given the choice between Polanski’s film of Rosemary’s Baby and this one, I would choose this as the better film about devil worship that Hollywood has released. In addition the devil worship, there are also undertones of the often violent effects of sibling rivalry. It also marks the film debut of Kim Hunter, perhaps best known as either Stellllaaaaaa! in Streetcar Named Desire or as Zira in Planet of the Apes.
The Leopard Man no doubt left audiences scratching their heads wondering why it wasn’t about a man who turned into a leopard. In some ways, this is more a film noir than a horror film, but truly achieves horror in its most chilling sequence involving a young girl who leaves the house to buy cornmeal for her family. This is an excellent example of Lewton’s low budget reliance on mood and atmosphere as the girl’s trek is heightened by cinematography and music.
The surprise is that the girl isn’t attacked until she finally makes it back home and the scene in which she is attacked by a leopard is shockingly grisly considering when this movie was made. The cat is never seen and it’s hard not to imagine that Hitchcock was deeply influenced by this scene when filming the shower murder in Psycho.
Two films starring Boris Karloff make in into this collection. The Body Snatcher and Bedlam both show what an underrated actor Karloff was. For those who know Karloff only from his silent performances as Frankenstein’s creature, these two movies will be a revelation. Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, author Jekyll & Hyde, that was in turn based on a true story, The Body Snatcher features not just Karloff but Bela Lugosi as well in a story about stealing bodies for medical experiments in the early 1800s. It features a terrific final sequence guaranteed to surprise.
Bedlam, in turn, has often been cited as the first feminist horror film. The lead female character tries to reveal what is really happening at the real-life insane asylum that came to be known as Bedlam. As punishment for her transgressions, she herself is declared insane and committed. This is a truly amazing film, way ahead of its time.
Probably Lewton’s finest film is also included, the luridly titled I Walked with a Zombie. Don’t let that title fool you. This is as serious a horror film at Kubrick’s version of The Shining, finding the horror directly in the heart of the family. The film is constructed upon a series of opposites: white/black, Christianity/voodoo, living/dead, lightness/darkness, white society/black society.
And then it goes about blurring all those carefully constructed oppositions and eventually every single character’s motivation is up for grabs. Lewton’s single greatest filmic sequence occurs in this film, the sequence when the two women sneak out into the night to search for the voodoo witch doctors and the audience is finally treated to their first sight of a zombie, in this case a seven feet tall man.
In addition to all these classic examples of Hollywood horror at its best, the Val Lewton Collection DVD also features The Ghost Ship and a documentary about Lewton, Shadows in the Dark.