If you don’t know the work of producer Val Lewton, you should.
Lewton came up working for David O. Selznick, and then accepted an offer from RKO in the early 1940s to head up their horror film unit, using pre-sold titles, miniscule budgets, and existing sets to create a series of Gothic films to rival those of Universal, then the reigning kings of 1940s horror.
Instead, Lewton created a series of poetic, atmospheric masterpieces, working with directors Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson (Wise and Robson both apprenticed under Lewton; Wise, an editor who had cut, among other films, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane , was anxious to direct, and Lewton gave him the chance to do so).
It all happened very quickly, and Lewton’s reign was brief but incandescent; in slightly less than four years, he produced, designed, and brought to life eleven films, of which nine comprise the body of work on which his reputation rests.
Lewton’s key films are:
Cat People (1942)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
The Leopard Man (1943)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Ghost Ship (1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Click on any of the titles above for more information on these films.
Just for the record, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (Jane Eyre transported to the West Indies, with remarkable results), The Seventh Victim (devil worship in Greenwich Village), The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead are my personal favorites.
Much has been written on Lewton’s tragically short career; perhaps one of the best overviews of his films in the first major book on his work, Joel E. Siegel’s Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror; there are also no less than two box sets of DVDs of Lewton’s work, and several documentaries.
Lewton’s films aren’t really horror films at all, as everyone now realizes; they are the deeply personal testament of a literate man, steeped in the classics, who saw a chance to bring his vision of the world to the screen, and seized it with both hands. When Lewton departed from RKO, his career was essentially finished; he died at the age of 46 on March 14, 1951, after a series of heart attacks.
Lewton’s films can be seen again and again, revealing with each viewing multiple levels of depth and detail that makes his work as resolutely modern as Universal’s 40s horror films are now dated; Lewton’s world is the world we all live in, with its joys, difficulties and problems, and his films, very much a product of wartime America, resonate in our consciousness today as much as they ever did.
Below: Val Lewton in the projection room at RKO, mid 1940s.