Curt is a fan of history, including 20th-century America, presidents of the United States, and classic cinema.
"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 aftermarket 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 costumes 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
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
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 a 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.
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.
© 2014 Curt Sembello
William Thomas from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things! on June 03, 2016:
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.