When I discovered there was to be a Val Lewton blogathon hosted by twitter film pals Stephen aka @sreggie and Kristina aka @HQofK , I just had to to get in on the action. This post is part of the Val Lewton blogathon hosted by Stephen aka Classic Movie Man and Kristina of the Speakeasy blog.
I’m a fan of the horror genre. Not the typical youthful fan that enjoys ‘the more blood splatter, the better’ school of thought though. Most of the horror genre I love generally falls into ‘classic horror’ camp. I want to be scared in a slowly building process. I want the fear to hit me at the core only after it’s gotten inside my head, in that more subtle way. When I think of a filmmaker who was masterful at doing this in a most beautiful way, I think of Val Lewton.
Lewton was Russian-born as Vladimir Leventon in 1904, then landed in the United States in 1909 after a brief few years in Berlin. He was a natural storyteller from a young age. Raised in a suburb of New York, he then studied journalism at Columbia University and went on to write 18 works of both fiction and non-fiction. He worked for a stint writing copy and promos at MGM’s Publicity department. While writing a few novels on the side, only “No Bed Of Her Own” brought success at that time. So he quit and moved to Hollywood to work for David O.Selznick, as his assistant and publicist throughout the late 30’s. Here he gained some good experience and better exposure. He was known for suggesting the aerial wide-shot view of streets chock full of dying soldiers scene in GONE WITH THE WIND, which Selznick chose to add.
But in 1942, Lewton was offered a lucrative deal as head of the Horror Dept. for RKO. He was paid handsomely but his burden was to crank out horror flicks fast and furious on a low budget with catchy titles. RKO wanted to capture the same magic Universal experienced with it’s line-up of horror genre films that headlined Karloff and Lugosi. Val Lewton had an uncanny ability to remain true to his responsibilities to please RKO, yet still managed to turn out his own magic within these low budget films. One of his most well-known of these RKO horror flicks was his very first production, Jacques Tourneur’s CAT PEOPLE (1942).
CAT PEOPLE (1942) is such a great example of the Val Lewton style. Filmed in a beautiful noir shades of black and white, it imbues a sexy tone in more ways than simply via the plot. It oozes a moody eroticism in imagery. It’s a psychological thriller that builds suspense gradually and never overtly. Serbian Irena Reed (played by Simone Simon) falls for an American man whom she then loses to another woman, Alice Moore (played by Jane Randolph). With a brief yet bizarre encounter with a strange woman in a restaurant, Irena becomes convinced she’s part of ancient tribe of ‘cat people’ who turn into panthers whenever passionate jealousy is triggered. There are two scenes in this film that remain in anyone’s memory whose seen this film. One is the infamous pool scene, where Alice is in a pool alone, yet becomes terrified as she ‘senses’ the presence of cat people/stalker, Irena. The other scene is where Alice is walking along a dark street, passing under street lamps and while we initially hear nothing but the clicking of her heels as she walks along, she also begins to ‘sense’ another presence following her and we see her terror gradually set in.
What’s key about these scenes and reflective of the Val Lewton style, is that they exhibit a building tension that is truly more terrifying that any typical blood fest film. With little dialogue and no tricks nor props, Lewton creates horror by getting inside our heads and arousing our senses slowly. Everything about Irena’s character is sexual and primal in nature, just like a black sleek panther. The symbolism is haunting and erotic.
I’ve always been drawn to Lewton’s style and any films that exhibit such similar style. I think Lewton’s approach was unique and he was an original in horror genre and film-making. Impressive considering his low budget restraints. He influenced countless others but he was an original in creating this magnetic quality. It’s said that he’s influenced Alfred Hitchcock (whom he was instrumental in bringing to the U.S.), Martin Scorsese, George Romero and Robert Wise to name a few. Personally, when I think of the horror genre films that followed his productions, there are many who clearly took cue from the Lewton style book. One such example of an attempt at a Lewton style for me, is the popular TV show, F/X’s “American Horror Story.” Although it clearly infuses the modern elements of horror, it also blends in the Lewton influence. Now in it’s 2nd season, this show takes moments to create a sexy, often primal tone. From it’s characters to plot points, there is a decidedly sexual tension as the show moves through fascinating story lines.
I encourage you to test my theory. Please watch CAT PEOPLE (1942) and all of Val Lewton’s productions, then watch horror films, especially films that followed by the aforementioned filmmakers and even “American Horror Story” and “American Horror Story:Asylum” (2nd season). Then, watch for potential connections of style and tone. Be sure to let me know if Lewton affects you in the same way and whether you see his ongoing influence today.