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A Tribute To Val Lewton

My Opinion

Val Lewton almost single handedly saved horror films from their early 40s degradation and slide into camp sequel Hell. While Universal set about making "The Mummy’s Hand", a film that looks and feels devastatingly dated, Lewton’s RKO unit was turning out moody B&W films like "Cat People" and "I Walked With A Zombie", which were much more reflective of Universal's early horror efforts like "The Black Cat", and which hold up much better to this day. Lewton’s films are often forgotten by today’s horror fans as they are slow, moody, and more cerebral than scary, but few horror films are as well made as Lewton’s RKO pictures and they are required viewing for the hardcore horror fanatic.


from: Wikipedia.org/

Val Lewton (7 May 1904- 14 March 1951) was an American film producer and screenwriter, who is best known for a sequence of nine brooding horror films he produced for RKO Pictures in the 1940s.

Lewton, born Vladimir Ivan Leventon, was born in what is now Yalta, Ukraine. He was a nephew of the actress Alla Nazimova. In 1909, he immigrated with his sister and mother to the United States, where his name was changed to Val Lewton. He was raised in suburban Port Chester, New York.

He studied journalism at Columbia University and authored eighteen works of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Lewton once lost his job as a reporter for the Darien-Stamford Review after it was discovered that a story he wrote about a truckload of kosher chickens dying in a New York heat wave was a total fabrication.

In 1932 he wrote a best-selling pulp novel No Bed of Her Own. The book was later made into the film No Man of Her Own, with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

Film career

Lewton worked as a writer for the New York City MGM publicity office, providing novelizations of popular movies for serialization in magazines which were sometimes later collected into book format. He also wrote promotional copy. He quit this position after the success of his 1932 novel "No Bed of Her Own," but when three later novels that same year failed to succeed as well, he journeyed to Hollywood for a job writing a screen treatment of Taras Bulba for David O. Selznick. The connection for this job came through Lewton's mother, Nina Lewton.

Though a film of Taras Bulba did not follow, Lewton was hired by MGM to work as a publicist and assistant to Selznick. His first screen credit was "revolutionary sequences arranged by" in David O. Selznick’s 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities. Lewton also worked as an uncredited writer for Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, including writing the scene where the camera pulls back to reveal hundreds of wounded soldiers at the Atlanta Depot. Lewton also functioned for Selznick as a story editor, a scout for discovering literary properties for Selznick's studio, and acted as a go-between with the Hollywood censorship system.

In 1942, Lewton was named head of the horror unit at RKO studios, at a salary of $250 a week. As head of the B-horror unit he would have to follow three rules: each film had to come in under a $150,000 budget, each film was to run under 75 minutes, and Lewton's supervisors would supply the title for each film.

Lewton's first production was Cat People. The film was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who subsequently also directed I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man for Lewton. Made for $134,000, the film went on to earn nearly $4 million, and was the top moneymaker for RKO that year. This success enabled Lewton to make his next films with relatively little studio interference, allowing him to avoid the sensationalist material suggested by the film titles he was given, instead focusing on ominous suggestion and themes of existential ambivalence.

Lewton always wrote the final draft of the screenplays for his films, but avoided an on-screen co-writing credit except in two cases, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam, for which he used the pseudonym "Carlos Keith", which he had previously used on the novel, Where the Cobra Sings.

After Jacques Tourneur left RKO's horror film unit, Lewton gave first directing opportunities to Robert Wise and Mark Robson. When RKO head Charles Koerner died in 1946, the studio went through personnel and management upheavals, ultimately leaving Lewton unemployed and in ill health after suffering a minor heart attack. Through connections, he rewrote an unused screenplay based upon the life of Lucrezia Borgia . The actress Paulette Goddard at Paramount Studios particularly liked Lewton's treatment, and in exchange for the script Lewton was given employment through July 1948. (The Goddard film "Bride of Vengeance," heavily rewritten, was released in 1949.) While at Paramount, Lewton also produced the film "My Own True Love," released in 1949.

Following his association with Paramount, Lewton worked again for MGM where he produced the Deborah Kerr film "Please Believe Me," released in 1950. During this time Lewton attempted to begin an independent production company with his former protégés Wise and Robson, but when a disagreement over a first property to produce arose, Lewton was kicked out. Lewton spent time at home working on a screenplay titled "Ticonderoga" about the famous American Revolutionary War battles at Fort Ticonderoga. Universal Studios made an offer on the work, and though the screenplay was not used, Lewton was given producer duties on the film "Apache Drums," released in 1951. This film is usually considered the film most like Lewton's earlier RKO horror films.

Hollywood producer Stanley Kramer tendered an offer to Lewton to work as an assistant producing a series of films at Columbia Studios. Lewton resigned at Universal and began preparation to work on the film "My Six Convicts" but after suffering gallstone problems, he had the first of two heart attacks which weakened him such that he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on March 13, 1951, at the age of 46.

A number of books and two documentaries on Lewton have been produced. A 2008 documentary film on Lewton, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, narrated by admirer Martin Scorsese, premiered on Turner Classic Movies on January 14, 2008.


RKO films

Cat People (1942)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
The Leopard Man (1943) based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Ghost Ship (1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)
Youth Runs Wild (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945) based on the short story The Body Snatchers by Robert Louis Stevenson
Isle of the Dead (1945), suggested by the two paintings with that name by Arnold Boecklin
Bedlam (1946) suggested by the eighth (and last) engraving in the series The Rake's Progress by William Hogarth.

My Reviews

Cat People (1942)- Strange and original little flick. Not strictly horror I guess but not really anything else either. A man falls in love with a woman who emigrated from a country full of superstition. She is from a family with a strange curse. Kind of an odd play on the werewolf/Dr. Jeckyll Mr. Hyde theme. She wants to love him but is really too weird, or maybe it's something else. Despite its subject matter it is played out in a pretty believable way and has a modern feel to it by working in psychiatry instead of silver bullets. Great black and white cinematography too. B+.

The Ghost Ship (1943)- Val Lewton had a way with production and telling tales that otherwise might fall flat. This is a simple story of an old ship's captain taking on a new third mate and hoping to train him in the ways of authority. The captain is obsessed with the subject and spouts off snippets of his wisdom from years in charge of men at sea. Soon we begin to see many sides of the issue of authority, we see the pressure of constantly being 'in charge' and responsible for everything, including the men's lives, we see the effects of abuse of power and we see people acting as sheep and blindly following their leader. Pretty powerful stuff in this low budget thriller. And again, Lewton's production, despite a lower budget, looks great. Great black and white photography great acting, and great sets. A.

The Leopard Man (1943)- Sort of following the basic plot of "She-Wolf of London", 'is it a wild animal or is it a serial killer?' premise. Nicely paced thriller with the usual Val Lewton production values. A performer is asked to walk a black leopard out with her for her act but another jealous performer scares the leopard off and before long girls begin to die in horrible ways. The end, taking place during a procession honoring Indians who had been killed by Conquistadors, is pretty effective. I wasn't surprised by the revelations at the end but I was surprised at what happened after those revelations. Ahead of its time. B.

7th Victim, The (1943): Very interesting and very dark Val Lewton flick. A girl's sister disappears and is no longer paying her way at school, she decides to head to the big city to find her. She meets a load of strange characters that each probably represent something but I won't get into that. (Although it is interesting that Beaver's dad Ward Cleaver is in the film and his last name happens to be Ward in the film, OK, not that interesting but a nice trivia question.) Anyway, one thing leads to another and it turns out her sister ran with some... Well now, I really don't want to give too much away. Lewton flicks are deliberately paced, which is a good kind of slow if you like mystery and suspense and this one is no exception. Plus it has a pretty dark non-Hollywood ending. A+

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)- Very effective and atmospheric tale about a woman who is acting very strangely (actually the whole family is a little off its rocker) and may in fact have been zombified. A nurse comes to the island to help her and a love triangle starts, or is it a love square. This movie purposely avoids judging the zombie angle and the whole thing works really well in a subtle suspense horror way. It starts on a ship and a woman observing how beautiful dolphins are jumping in the ocean. A man remarks that they fear for their lives and that's why they are jumping. It's all down hill for the characters from there. Very dark and there are some creepy Voodoo ceremony scenes. Val Lewton produced and his RKO Productions would save the horror genre from inept no-budget quickies and the "Curse of the Sequels" suffered by the small indie studios and Universal respectively. A+.

Curse of the Cat People (1944): This isn't really a horror movie per se but was a sequel to "The Cat People". Val Lewton was kind of tired RKO handing him "audience tested titles" so he went off on his own with this little tale of a girl with an over active imagination... or is it just her imagination? Yeah, it probably is. It's also adults trying to crush that imagination out of her and make her like everybody else. Interesting for its themes of imagination and conformism. Nicely paced well-directed story. Not scary in the literal sense but pretty good stuff. B+.

Isle of the Dead (1945)- I was stoked to see this Val Lewton flick, but then felt a little let down. Karloff is a general taking a break after a terrible battle has thinned his troops and weakened his lines. He heads to a small island where his wife is buried and is angered to find the tombs disturbed. He finds a cast of strange characters visiting the island for different reasons. Some live on the island and some are bound by old superstitions. When members of the group begin showing signs of a plague Karloff forbids them to leave. Science meets superstition as the debate between plague and wardaluck (vampire type creature) take front stage. Karloff is no nonsense but in the end is faced with the fact we all are powerless, even great generals, science or superstition. This was a good movie with good atmosphere and acting. It was suspenseful and moved along nicely. But in the end I just felt disappointed. I really am unsure why, I just never really got into it and the end was a little disappointing. C+.

The Body Snatcher (1945)- Val Lewton classic with Boris Karloff as the title character. Karloff is a "kindly" cab driver but to make extra cash he provides cadavers for a medical school. How he comes by those cadavers becomes problematic as does his black mail techniques he uses on the not so good doctor. Bela Lugosi has a small role as servant who has some black mail ideas of his own. The black and white photography is great as is the direction and acting. Some critics say Karloff's portrayal here is second only to his Frankenstein's Monster (I'd say his Mummy would be third). They're probably right. A well presented story with a nice twist ending. A.

Bedlam (1946)- More a Val Lewton thriller than horror but here ya go. It's the 1760s, an age of reason, and a fat and powerful English Lord likes to laugh and likes to make fun of the "loonies" in the local asylum run by Boris Karloff. Karloff is a very wise politician and likes things to stay status quo so he uses his powers of persuasion over the none too bright Lord to get his way, like keeping the asylum just the way it is and making sure anyone who wants to make changes ends up as his guest in the asylum. The cunning work and great acting by Karloff carry this one. It's dated and slow moving at times but remains a pretty good story with a pretty good ending. B+.

Pure Bedlam