Val Lewton Films (1942-1946)
The movies that Val Lewton helped create are often remembered not for what they show, but for what they suggest by not showing. They allow the atmosphere of terror to build by withholding the shock of horror, turning the horror itself from poison into a sort of antidote to the terror.
The movies are also satisfyingly brief, with most of them clocking in under 90 minutes.
The incredible success of Cat People in 1942 started this string of horror films, and is arguably the best. Simone Simon is mysterious and seductive, while Kent Smith is the ultimate straight man. The movie uses sexual tension in a way that other no other film would have done at that time. The main character’s sexual arousal and mysterious nature essentially becomes her own source of terror.
On one level you could take the events of the story literally, or you could interpret it as an allegory for society’s nature to suppress women’s sexuality. Of course sex is never discussed explicitly, so it’s mostly communicated through body language. And because of this – because it’s never properly addressed by the characters, the issue of sex becomes omnipresent in the story.
I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man continue developing this dark atmosphere. Both films are directed by Jacques Tourneur. The former is heavily inspired by Haitian Voodoo practices, and has a unique flavor thanks to the tropical setting. The film thematically explores the desperate decisions people make when attempting to cure what seems incurable.
The Seventh Victim (1943) has my favorite atmosphere of any Val Lewton film, though the story suffers from severe cuts due to the controversial nature of portraying a satanic cult at that time. The final cut is just over an hour long, but contains very memorable and dark imagery as a girl searches for her missing sister. This is also the first Val Lewton film not directed by Jacques Tourneur, but instead by Mark Robson.
The Curse of the Cat People (1944) is not really a horror film. Simone Simon and Kent Smith are recast in their roles, and the story takes place a few years after the original movie. But the atmosphere is hardly connected to the original. It is a treat for die-hard fans though, if you enjoy Val Lewton’s writing and/or the cinematography.
Finally, there are the movies he made with Boris Karloff from Frankenstein. Though Val Lewton initially dreaded working with him, they went on to make some of their best movies together.
The Body Snatcher was Boris Karloff’s last film with Bela Lugosi.
The Body Snatcher (1945) stands as a peak achievement for both men, and is one of my favorite horror movies. The movie is about grave robbers of course, but also the doctors who need fresh corpses to study and advance their medical research. It’s an age-old moral issue which touches on a sensitive nerve – what lines are we willing to cross in order to obtain knowledge?
The last horror film Val Lewton had a hand in making was Bedlam (1946). The story takes place in the 17th century, which is a bit jarring at first. Anna Lee’s performance is what carries the movie. She has a large, yet slow and gradual character evolution that is absent from most other leads in these films.
She plays an initially cold hearted woman that seeks to help the people kept locked away in the now-infamous insane asylum. But by offending the man who runs the asylum – played by Boris Karloff – she finds herself a prisoner of Bedlam. Once inside the asylum, the atmosphere becomes very haunting as the visuals descend into near total darkness. It also has a few scenes very reminiscent of M by Fritz Lang, with Boris Karloff in Peter Lorre’s position.
Favorite films: Cat People, The Body Snatcher, Bedlam
Kurutta ippēji / A Page of Madness (1926)
Kurutta ippēji is a Japanese silent film made in 1926 by Teinosuke Kinugasa. The film is about a man who becomes a janitor at an insane asylum in order to be near his wife.
There are at times an astonishing amount of quick cuts, as it uses abstract imagery to show the mental patients’ disorienting view of reality. A common technique is to show one of the patients, then cut to a shot through warped lenses to show their perspective. Like looking at the world through curved glass.
Some moments will linger on a facial expression for effect, foreshadowing Akira Kurosawa’s meditative style of filmmaking.
The patients dance so strangely that it’s hard to tell whether the film is running forwards or backwards. Even the walls – painted silver due to the low budget – have a surreal look to them. There are no words in between the scenes, unlike many silent films. But thanks to the clever visuals, it’s still pretty easy to follow.
Many scenes are accompanied by a lone shakuhachi, which adds to the horror and tension of the quieter moments. The resulting mood contrasts hugely with the piano or orchestral music you’d normally expect from a silent film. The music is a particular highlight in the remastered version. Especially a certain scene that is accompanied by a 10-minute drum solo to match the chaos on screen.
Begotten is an avant-garde masterpiece directed by E. Elias Merhige. This film uses violent, sometimes sexual imagery, to metaphorically reimagine the story of Genesis and the creation of our world. There is no dialogue. The soundtrack mostly consists of cricket sounds, and one haunting musical motif that is rarely heard.
The story is largely symbolic, and many blanks are left to be filled by the viewer’s own mind. God disembowels himself. Mother Earth rises pregnant from his remains, and gives birth to the Son of Earth. They wander through an apocalyptic landscape, lost and pursued by hooded figures. The “polytheistic” view of creation is somewhat reminiscent of Gnosticism.
According to the director himself, the primary inspiration was a near-death experience he had at 19 after a car crash. The film succeeds in capturing his vision of an afterlife realm, which seems to exist in a world all its own. This could be attributed to the painstaking work E. Elias Merhige put into editing each frame in post-production, which gives it a very unique visual style.
It is definitely the most difficult film to swallow in this list, but it is also the most evokative and visionary.
Also worth mentioning is the six-minute short horror film Vincent – directed by Tim Burton while at Disney, and narrated by Vincent Price himself. Tim Burton calls its creation one of his formative experiences, while Vincent Price later said it was “the most gratifying thing that ever happened. It was immortality – better than a star on Hollywood Boulevard.”