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Reach Out and Claw Someone: An ancient curse drives Simone Simon in Val Lewton's 'Cat People.'

I Walked With a Producer

Val Lewton's sensationalistic titles belied the sophistication of his elegant horror films of the 1940s

By Richard von Busack

GOOD HORROR FILMS come in waves. First to arrive were the pioneers: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. Later came the Universal monster movies of the 1930s. Bela Lugosi, like his colleague Boris Karloff, made a virtue out of deliberate slowness. Both played immortal monsters, with all the time in the world. Lugosi's one of a kind; still, despite the uneveness of the wave of British Hammer films of the 1950s and early '60s, Christopher Lee is more my idea of Dracula--fast, sexy, a hawk instead of a bat.

The horror films from the late 1960s and early '70s have their appeal, too. As the recent documentary The American Nightmare suggests, these films were bloody mirrors of societal breakdown outside the theaters. And they had a range; they were as peaceful as the zombieburg in the first episode of Halloween, as fiery as the high-school inferno in Carrie, as oddly plausible as the foaming maniacs at the mall in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.

In the 1980s, David Cronenberg's The Fly served as a metaphor for terminal cancer--a monster within. And David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway, in the '90s, both concerned madness that bends time and space with its dark gravity.

A century's worth of good stuff, in short. But among the most elegant of horror films were those made in a short wave during the 1940s. They were the work of a producer named Val Lewton, who is not so well remembered as the others. Lewton did for the horror movie exactly what Ernst Lubitsch did for the romantic comedy. At RKO Studios during the years 1942-46, Lewton gave horror a level of sophistication that set the highest standards.

During a month-long series of classic horror films at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, Lewton's films get a rare revival giving an audience burned out with Scream knockoffs a chance to see how Lewton took bare-bones budgets and created effects that are still fearful and unsettling today. (The Stanford also includes a selection of better-known Universal horror films in new prints.)

Lewton's horror films are a product of a sensitive filmmaker working during WWII; each one seeks a rational understanding for violence. These films hear out the psychiatrists and doctors who try to explain away superstition. Still, all of Lewton's horror films turn back to admire the myths of the past, for these myths are the simplest way to explain human evil.

BORN VLADIMIR LEVENTON in Russia, and dead before he was 48, Lewton made nine films about the uncanny. All are brief--none exceeds 80 minutes. All are as economical in running time as they were in cost. And apparently, Lewton wasn't just an artistically successful director, but a pleasure to work with.

Robert Wise, who co-directed The Curse of the Cat People, Mademoiselle Fifi (a rare romantic film by Lewton) and The Body Snatcher, describes his old boss with nothing but praise. "He was lovely, warm, friendly, well educated, very interested in politics and people's lives," Wise recalls during our interview.

Wise, who edited Citizen Kane and went on to direct West Side Story and The Sound of Music, replaced the too-slow director Gunther von Fritsch on 1944's The Curse of the Cat People, the sequel to Cat People, Lewton's best-known film. Wise was given 10 days to complete the film. He brought it in on time and thus began his career as a director.

Wise's story is a reminder that Lewton's painterly horror films were made fast as well as cheap. Lewton's gift, then, was creating calm in the middle of studio chaos. The producer was an organizational genius, using recycled sets and shock-laden, ticket-selling titles for his elegant films, rewriting as he produced.

"He did all the final drafts," Wise says. "He did so much of the script for The Body Snatcher that the Writers Guild made him take credit. Val used the name Carlos Keith, a pen name used for some swashbuckling novels he wrote."

How to describe the Lewton touch? As Wise suggests, the producer had a wide knowledge of history, using it as an unusual setting for horror films.

Bedlam (1946) is the story of the first mental hospital, opened in the early 1700s in London. And the adventures of the Scottish "resurrectionists" of the 1830s is the backdrop for The Body Snatcher (1945). Isle of the Dead (1945) uses the vicious Balkan wars of 1912-13 as a mirror for the final days of WWII--Karloff witnesses a wagon load of the dead being hauled away, in a scene that could have come from the ruins of Nazi Germany.

In the 1940s-set I Walked With a Zombie (1943), the island of "St. Sebastian" is under the shadow of slavery, a memory still very much alive for the islanders. The zombie curse that strikes the local white landlords represents the chickens coming home to roost.

ONE CONTINUING THEME in Lewton's films is the fear of cats. Lewton was reputed to be terrified of the beasts. Wise laughs and says that it wasn't the case, even though Lewton made three films about were-panthers.

In Cat People (1942), a woman (Simone Simon) afraid of love believes herself under an ancestral curse: that sex will turn her into a bloodthirsty animal.

The motif appears most tellingly in The Leopard Man (1943). A press agent named Jerry (Dennis O'Keefe) and his girlfriend, the skidding star Kiki (Jean Brooks), come to a picturesque New Mexico town. To give Kiki's nightclub act a push, they rent a black panther as a prop. It escapes.

While loose, the beast apparently kills three women. On closer examination, a man turns out to be responsible for two of them. When the killer is revealed, his only explanation for his murder is that he saw fear in a woman's eyes, and it made him strike. He saw weakness, and he acted like an animal. The confession moves Kiki and Jerry, causing them to reconsider their own arrogance toward the rest of the world.

The beast within plays a part in most of Lewton's film. In the beautifully made, albeit overwritten, The Ghost Ship (1943), our "villain" is ship captain Will Stone, played by the warm, broad-faced Richard Dix. He is a well-liked skipper, but his firmness turns out to be the first sign of mania.

His motto, "Who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock," might be a lesson to the crew, but it's useless to Stone--the captain's hands are white-knuckled on the rudder. Only one ship's officer, (Russell Wade) sees the wreck coming.

In The Body Snatcher, a renowned doctor (Henry Daniell) is ruined by his peremptory bedside manner. Even a crippled girl can't thaw him. And to Lewton's credit, we understand why he's abrupt--he has forgotten his own poverty-stricken background (this time in the Edinburgh slums), with the resulting touchiness and arrogance it bred.

This doctor needs medical cadavers, and so he illegally requisitions them from a partner from the old days. It's Gray, a grave-robbing coachman, played by Boris Karloff as basically the nicest strangler you'd ever hope to meet.

One night when bodies are hard to come by, Gray goes out to stifle a live victim. The body is a necessary one, we're assured, to help save the aforementioned little girl. Not that Gray knows or cares about such stuff, but the necessity makes the upcoming killing all the worse.

We have a long shot, the camera stock still. We see a tall, damp tunnel with the light at the end. Beyond the reach of the light, an unseen beggar woman is singing a ballad. Karloff, taking his time as always, ambles off into the dark. In a moment, the song is cut off in midnote by Karloff's hand. "That was Val's idea," Wise says simply.

THE MAYHEM in Lewton's movies is never rigged. Every victim, however flawed, is missed and mourned for. Every life has value, every madman is a tragedy and pity always matches the possibility for horror. Watching the decline of Captain Stone, or the Greek general Karloff plays in Isle of the Dead, you can think, Oh, what a noble mind is here overthrown.

Lewton's films are a total disappointment to gorehounds, though. The ghastliest moment in all his films occurs in The Leopard Man: a few tablespoons of blood oozing under a door. Lewton later apologized for that excess.

This apology was in keeping with the producer's insistence on psychology over sensation. It's Lewton's sense of sadness and loss that makes his films resonant, as resonant as the unaccompanied voices of the singers he used in virtually all of his movies.

Lewton's work stands in opposition to the modern horror film, where all the characters get what's coming to them--those popular horror comedies that are fool's parades into the slaughterhouse. In the recent slash-and-slapdash horror movie Final Destination, one character was named "Valerie Lewton." Nice that they remembered, anyway.

Classic Horror Films screens at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto (see Showtimes for details.) Films marked with an asterisk are Lewton's.

*Cat People/*The Seventh Victim (Nov. 1-3)
The Old Dark House/The Invisible Man (Nov. 4-5)
*The Body Snatcher/*The Leopard Man (Nov. 8-10)
Bride of Frankenstein/The Black Cat (Nov. 11-12)
*I Walked With a Zombie/*Bedlam (Nov. 15-17)
The Mummy/Dracula (Nov. 18-19)
*The Isle of the Dead/*The Ghost Ship (Nov. 22-24)
The Wolf Man/Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Nov. 25-26)
*Curse of the Cat People/*Mademoiselle Fifi (Nov. 29-Dec. 1)

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From the November 2-8, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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