Producer Val Lewton: Five Classic Horror Films You Should Not Miss

Updated on August 13, 2018
CSembello profile image

Curt is a fan of history including 20th-Century America, presidents of the United States, and classic cinema.

Val Lewton
Val Lewton

"He was given assignments which most contract producers would have filmed on the back lot and shrugged off as evil necessities, but he approached each assignment as a challenge. Forced to submit to exploitation titles, he was determined that the pictures hiding behind the horror titles should be films of good taste and high production quality."

-DeWitt Bodeen, More from Hollywood, 1977

Entertainment, Not Genius

In 1942, struggling, indebted RKO Pictures was amidst a shakeup to return to profitability. Orsen Welles, with high-budget bombs like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, had nearly sunk the studio.

With the realization that Universal Studios was making a mint on monster films, and with a renewed focus on "entertainment, not genius," RKO hired a young assistant producer away from David O. Selznick to head up the B-Unit Horror division at RKO. His name was Val Lewton.

RKO gave Lewton a set of rules: he would be paid $250 a week. His movies would cost less than $150,000. They would each be less than 75 minutes long, and play at the bottom half of a double feature. Finally, RKO would give him the titles of the films after market testing. Then, it was up to him to make a film out of the title.

He would collaborate with writer Dewitt Bodeen and director Jacques Tourneur, shooting entire films in 18 days. He used sets, props and consumes from other movies to keep costs low.

Most importantly, he focused on quality stories and clever interpretations of the titles he was given. Seldom was the title what the picture was about.

Below are five of the producer's works worth watching, from worst to best.

5. I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked with a Zombie is a low-budget art film with incredible cinematography.

Frances Dee is Betsy Connell, a Canadian nurse hired to care for patient Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) on a Caribbean sugar plantation. Jessica's affliction is a mystery. Betsy falls for Jessica's husband, Paul (Tom Conway), and expresses her love by working to cure his wife. Her task is not easy. The Holland family has dark secrets, and Betsy finds herself immersed in the island's voodoo culture.

Lewton did research and hired consultants from the Caribbean to make sure that his details about voodoo were accurate. Clever tricks of the camera make the production appear high-budget. The sets seem to change place, disorienting the audience. Long, ominous shadows fill walls.

There is no beauty here, only death and decay.

4. Cat People

Roger Ebert once said, Cat People is constructed almost entirely out of fear. There wasn't a budget for much of anything else.” What was a B-movie that garnered mixed reviews in 1942 is today hailed as a landmark of the horror genre.

Irena (Simone Simon) suffers from a curse: whenever sexual passion nears, she turns into a lethal panther. She spends the movie in fear of herself, avoiding physical intimacy. A movie based on a title handed to Val Lewton thus became a metaphor for sexual repression.

Scenes of suspense, both during a long walk at night and later in an indoor swimming pool, are classic Lewton. Five years after its release, director Jacques Tourneur again teamed with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca to make the film noir classic Out of the Past.

Cat People: The Swimming Pool

3. Curse of the Cat People

RKO wanted to capitalize on the success of Cat People with a sequel. Lewton wanted to make a picture about childhood fears and imaginary friends. The result of the push-and-pull between studio and director is a beautiful film with an unfortunate title that has little to do with the movie.

The cast of the original Cat People returns, ostensibly in the same roles as before. Their universe is different. In fact, there are no visible cat people in the movie at all. The protagonist is an 8-year-old girl whose daydreams cause great trouble. The audience in 1944 did not like it. The studio promised them a horror movie, and they got a film about child psychology. Critics praise it today for the same reasons.

Curse of the Cat People: Trailer

Simone Simon in "The Curse of the Cat People"
Simone Simon in "The Curse of the Cat People" | Source

2. The Body Snatcher

The great, velvety-voiced Boris Karloff procures cadavers for a medical school by stealing bodies from graves. When the graves aren't enough, he is not above murder.

In The Body Snatcher, the psychological back and forth between working-class Karloff and Henry Daniell, who plays the educated head of the medical school, makes a strong metaphor for class and educational difference and inequalities of justice. Bela Lugosi appears with Karloff for his last time in this movie - both "snatched" from the monster lot at Universal Pictures.

The Body Snatcher is directed by Robert Wise, who later went on to direct West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Trailer: The Body Snatcher

Richard Dix and Ben Bard in "The Ghost Ship."
Richard Dix and Ben Bard in "The Ghost Ship." | Source

1. Ghost Ship

Who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock. No, it's not about a haunted ship. It's about a captain haunted by growing older, who begins to confuse his duty to protect his crew with playing God and deciding their fates.

Claustrophobic sets, long-shadow lighting, and carefully-planned production design kept Ghost Ship looking great while staying under budget.

Never has an swinging hook been so terrifying - nor has the idea of having an appendectomy at sea. Look for calypso singer Sir Lancelot among the cast - he influenced a young Harry Belafonte.

Final Notes

All of the above films are available for rent or purchase through streaming providers. DVDs are in and out of print, in sets or as individual films. Fans of black-and-white horror - and especially fans of Universal horror movies - will find Val Lewton and his time at RKO of interest. Lewton died at age 46 of multiple heart attacks.

Special thanks to CT Liotta for contributions to this article.

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Curt Sembello

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • wingedcentaur profile image

        William Thomas 

        2 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

        Hi Curt Sembello! How's it going?

        Thank you for this piece. Its a great bit of cinema history. I love the genre black and white films myself.

        W.T.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, reelrundown.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://reelrundown.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)