Combustible Celluloid
Search for Posters
Own it:
Search for streaming:
Netflix Hulu Google Play GooglePlay Can I
With: Boris Karloff, Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Frances Dee, Theresa Harris, Sir Lancelot, Dennis O'Keefe, Kim Hunter, Hugh Beaumont, Richard Dix, Bela Lugosi, etc.
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen, Curt Siodmak, Carlos Keith (a.k.a. Val Lewton), etc.
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, Mark Robson
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: -99
Date: 18/03/2013

The Val Lewton Horror Collection (2005)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Afraid of the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1942, RKO Pictures needed some way to recoup the box office lost byOrson Welles' two masterworks Citizen Kane and The MagnificentAmbersons as well as a way to compete with Universal's box officebonanza The Wolf Man.

And so they hired Val Lewton, who had been a story editor under David O. Selznick, and gave him his assignment: we'll give you the titles, the money and the resources, and you make us a string of cheap horror films. Lewton delivered, making nine films between 1942 and 1946, each a classic in its own right and at least half of them full-fledged masterpieces.

Warner Home Video has recently released a long-awaited box set, with nine films on five double-feature DVDs, plus a new 53-minute documentary taking up the tenth slot. Various film historians and film buffs provide commentary tracks, notably Oscar-winner William Friedkin on The Leopard Man.

Cat People (1942) launched the cycle, and it's still the most beloved of the set. Lewton understood that true terror came from the unknown, and so he sought to keep his terrors off-screen as often as possible. He hired director Jacques Tourneur (son of silent pioneer Maurice Tourneur) to direct with a heavy emphasis on off-screen sounds and shadows.

Beautiful Simone Simon stars as Irena, a mysterious Persian woman who catches the eye of architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). But what Oliver doesn't know is that if Irena consummates their love she may (or may not) turn into a murderous cat.

Tourneur returned to direct twice more for Lewton, and his three films are arguably the best of the set. I Walked with a Zombie (1943) one-ups Cat People with its stylish visual scheme and West Indies voodoo rhythms.

Based on Cornell Woolrich's novel Black Alibi, The Leopard Man comes with one of the cinema's most shocking murder scenes, with barely anything actually shown.

When Tourneur moved on, Lewton promoted his two editors, Robert Wise and Mark Robson -- both RKO staffers who had worked with Orson Welles -- to director status. Wise completed The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945).

The former film was meant to be a lurid sequel, but Lewton instead turned it into an achingly honest story of a lonely girl and her imaginary friend. The latter brought Boris Karloff into the Lewton stable, giving perhaps the greatest performance of his career in an adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson short story. (For good box office measure, Bela Lugosi co-starred in a smaller role.)

Robson made the last four films in the Lewton library. The Seventh Victim (1943) is by far the best, an extremely subtle and intellectual thriller about a young girl (future Oscar winner Kim Hunter) searching for her older sister. Tom Conway, a wry, British RKO contract player who made his mark on the Lewton films, plays a helpful doctor. Robson followed up with The Ghost Ship (1943) and the final two Karloff films, Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946).

Though these films are among the finest horror films ever made, it's important to remember that they are also some of the greatest films ever made, regardless of genre. It's too bad that Warner couldn't have gone one further and included Lewton's two other, non-horror films, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) and Youth Runs Wild (1944), just to prove it.

Movies Unlimtied