SECRETS OF THE DARK
Resurrecting Val Lewton Horror
by Nick Zegarac
In the spring of 1937, the story editor at Selznick International marched into David O. Selznick’s office with a copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind tucked firmly under his arm. Selznick, a literary purist – but more than a little wary that civil war pictures had recently been judged ‘box office poison’ by Variety - awaited his editor’s critique. “Mr. Selznick,” the editor declared, “This is nothing but a piece of ponderous trash and you’ll be making the biggest mistake of your life if you try to film it!”
That man was Val Lewton, and although time has proven his snap assessment to be something of a gross oversight, no one could deny that in the pending decade following GWTW’s triumphant premiere, Lewton made few such errors in judgment away from Selznick.
BEGINNINGS & SELZNICK
Born Vladimir Leventon on May 7, 1904 in Yalta Crimea, Val Lewton derived his innate ability as a story teller from an upbringing fostered in the arts. His mother had been an accomplished piano player and writer. His Aunt Adelaide, with a name change to the more exotic Alla Nazimova, was the toast of Berlin, then Broadway – and finally, silent films in America. But the young Lewton’s formative years were mired in familial upheaval. Val’s mother divorced his father when he was only two and, following her sister’s lead, moved Val to America to seek her fame and fortune. Mother and son eventually settled in Port Chester New York to be near Adelaide.
Influenced by the strong women in his life, Lewton’s education was dedicated to studying the classics in literature. These books imbued Lewton with an appreciation for great writing that he eventually parlayed into a not so successful career as a journalist. In his spare time, Lewton also dabbled in poetry, but his real love was weaving lurid tales of the macabre. To pay the bills he worked for several newspapers and was promptly fired from Connecticut’s Darien-Stamford Review when it was discovered by his editor that a story he had written about a truckload of prostrated kosher chickens during a heat wave had been a complete fabrication.
By all accounts, the young Lewton was not terribly prepossessing about the direction of his future. Nor did he particularly care about his early writing in any capacity beyond a pay check. However, at the age of 21 Lewton published his first novel, No Bed of Her Own which Paramount Studios eventually bought as a film vehicle for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in 1932. Nine years later, with a new job in MGM’s New York publicity Department, Lewton could lay claim to being the author of a dozen such pulp fiction books – lurid tales, written with great imagination. One, The Bagheeta (first published in the anthology ‘Weird Tales’ and the story of a woman capable of transforming herself into a cat), in retrospect, seems to foreshadow Lewton’s first film hit at RKO: Cat People (1942).
In 1934, David O. Selznick was preparing an adaptation of Taras Bulba. Lewton’s mother, Nina – a Selznick employee in the story department was advised to assemble a writing team of Russian talent to aid in the research and development of this property. Unbeknownst to Selznick, Nina slipped in the name of her own son. Lewton was promptly hired. Though Selznick’s plans for Taras Bulba eventually fell by the waste side, Lewton quickly acquired a toe hold in the writer’s department, eventually rising through the ranks to become Selznick’s story editor. During his tenure with Selznick, Lewton was responsible for putting into development Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Gone With The Wind and Rebecca. Yet Lewton’s mind was generally not on his work during this tenure. His own contemporary slant and affinity for racy fiction clashed with Selznick’s verve for the established literary classics, and Lewton was quite open to friends and family about his ‘misery’ while working for Selznick. As fate would have it, Lewton’s luck and fortunes were about to change with a chance meeting that would ultimately transform his career.
MAKING THE MOVE TO RKO and
In 1941, struggling studio RKO had courted the most popular young talent of the radio airwaves, Orson Welles to a studio contract with unprecedented power and prestige. Welles had been given unlimited resources and virtual autonomy to produce whatever projects he desired. Although his first film, Citizen Kane (1941) had been judged a critical masterpiece – its controversial subject, unorthodox cinematography and a very public clash with newspaper magnet, William Randolph Hearst (on whom the character of Kane shared more than a passing resemblance) had resulted in a limited theatrical engagement and overwhelming loss of profits for the studio. The sordid subject matter of Welles’ follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) so disturbed the executives at RKO that Welles was publicly dismissed from the project after a rough cut had been assembled. Instead, the film was recut with a tacked on happy ending and, predictably, failed to find its audience at the box office.
In the meantime, Val Lewton arrived at a Hollywood house party in which RKO studio mogul, Charles Koerner was also in attendance. Koerner had been directly responsible for Welles’ dismissal. He also harbored an affinity for Universal Studios lucrative exploitation horror films; Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, et al.
So the lore of Hollywood goes: under the new studio edict of ‘showmanship – not genius’, Koerner asked a friend about Lewton. Reportedly, the friend told Koerner that Lewton was the author of ‘horrible stories’ – a comment that Koerner misinterpreted as ‘horror stories.’ Koerner promptly approached Lewton with the prospect of leaving Selznick to work for him. Though Lewton had his misgivings about quitting a lucrative and secure position with the most successful independent producer in films, he left Selznick with the promise to produce his own movies at RKO in March 1942.
To say that Lewton was embraced by Koerner as the valiant successor to Welles upon his arrival at RKO is an overstatement. Where Welles had been given every opportunity and any budget to realize his vision, Lewton had instead been assigned pre-tested titles and curtailed in his spending and duration of shooting schedules. The pressure imposed on Lewton’s creativity must have seemed stifling to many on the outside. But Lewton reasoned that he had only two choices to consider: either succumb to these limitations or rise above the B-material and transform it into A-list thrillers.
To direct his first feature at RKO, Lewton turned to gifted artist, Jacques Tourneur whom he had worked with as second unit on Selznick’s A Tale of Two Cities (1936) at MGM. Tourneur’s handling of the storming of the Bastille had developed into the signature sequence for that film and Lewton knew that he could rely on Tourneur (a man whose taste and affinity for dark stories was akin to his own) to see his vision through.
Given the title ‘Cat People’ and the premise that the film be based on Algernon Blackwood’s Ancient Sorceries, Lewton instead favored a contemporary story about fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) – a woman who marries architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), but is unable to consummate their relationship for fear that it will unleash a disturbing animalistic urge that transforms her into a murderous panther. Cat People (1942) was the first in a new breed of horror films; a psychological melodrama in which fate – not monsters or masks – tap into the audiences’ fear of the unknown. The film is also quite sophisticated in its sexual undertones, most notably and perversely played out through the relationship between Irena and her randy psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway).
A runaway sleeper hit, Cat People is justly famous for two key sequences. In the first, Oliver’s work partner (and soon to be sympathetic love interest) Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) is seen walking home alone at night through Central Park. The mood is somber, foreboding and almost entirely void of sound as Alice becomes more and more suspicious that she is not alone. At the moment when the audiences’ paranoia is on par with the heroine’s, director Tourneur draws attention to the left of the frame, seconds before a bus suddenly enters with a powerful hiss and screech from the right side. The shock value of this sequence proved so effective at frightening its audience that even today all such copycat sequences in horror films are referred to as ‘the bus’ – a subtle homage to Lewton and Tourneur’s (right) debut.
In the second sequence, Alice is seen taking a swim in an underground pool when the overhead lights are suddenly turned off – leaving Alice isolated with only the underwater reflectors to guide her way. A few ominous cat growls and violent screams from Alice echoing through the darkened area are all that the film provides to hint at Irena’s transformation and stalking of Alice – yet the mood of that moment is pervasively diabolical and spine chilling.
RKO had expected something quite different from Lewton – a conventional horror film with slinking cat creatures devouring their unsuspecting prey. But no one could deny that what Lewton had created instead was a powerful piece of cinema on a grossly modest budget of only $200,000, and an 18 day shoot. He had relied heavily on Van Nest Polglase and Albert S. D’Agostino’s wizardry in the art department to generate evocative and disquieting secret corridors of sublime chills. The results rang true at box office registers around the country and Lewton was branded by RKO’s marketing department as “the sultan of shudders.”
If audiences were convinced that they had seen a woman morph into a blood-thirsty panther in Cat People, Lewton was determined to make them believe in the occult of the undead with his next – and arguably, best filmic masterwork; I Walked With A Zombie (1943). The story is actually Bronte’s Jane Eyre updated and teleported to a voodoo cult in the West Indies. The film begins with the arrival of amiable nurse, Betsy (Frances Dee) to take medical charge of the very ill Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) – a woman trapped in a state of hypnotic trance. Holland’s fiancée, Wesley Rand (James Ellison) is convinced that his lover has succumbed to the occult – something neither Betsy nor Holland’s brother, Paul (Tom Conway) believe in.
Once again, mood became paramount to telling the story; the manufactured cane fields and village locales – all standing sets on the RKO backlot - introducing audiences to a stylized visual poem of imagined frights. Lewton’s son recalls that during preproduction on the film, his father could be heard ambitiously typing away on his Royal typewriter in the family’s living room, working tirelessly into the wee hours of the morning on revising the script by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray.
In the film, Gray’s failure to produce affidavits to go with the bodies he provides ruthless scientist, Dr. Wolfe (Henry Daniels) eventually result in the discovery of a series of murders by his assistant, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) and by Joseph (Bela Lugosi) the Cabman’s naïve and greedy butler. The film also marked the first association between Lewton and director Robert Wise.
Wise had served as editor on Citizen Kane and had also been forced by the studio to truncate, recut and reshoot the ending of The Magnificent Ambersons. After paying his penitence for the failure of the latter, Wise was promoted by Lewton in the director’s chair on The Body Snatcher.
Once again, Tourneur’s direction brought an unparalleled stark vision of terror. In the film’s most celebrated sequence (a direct rip off of Alice’s walk alone in Cat People) a Mexican girl returning home late at night under a train trestle is chased by the escaped leopard. She pounds on the door of her mother’s home, begging to be let in.
Lewton’s next endeavor, The Ghost Ship (1943) was cause for even more consternation. The film stars Russell Wade (left) as Tom Merriam a third mate working under Captain Stone (Richard Dix). At first there is a mutual bond of respect between these two men. But then the body count on board begins to rise, causing Tom to ponder: is Stone merely uncaring or is he a maniacal psychopath? The Ghost Ship became the subject of litigation after a charge was levied against Lewton; that he had plagiarized whole portions from an already published work. Rather than pay the nominal sum requested – and thereby admit that he had pilfered the work in totem – Lewton chose to withdraw the film from circulation. For decades, The Ghost Ship remained a lost Lewton classic until Warner Home Video wrangled the legalities and reissued it on DVD in 1998.
By 1944, Lewton and RKO were ready for another super hit. The studio believed that revisiting Lewton’s past success would be the answer. Hence, The Curse of the Cat People (1944) was slated as a continuation of the chills Lewton and Tourneur had evoked in Cat People. Initially, Gunter von Fritsch had been assigned to direct the film. But his meticulous pacing and slow output forced Lewton to replace him with Robert Wise midway through production.
However, those expecting another fright fest were instead shocked to find a rather morbid – but light – fairytale in its place; one concerning the daughter of Alice (Jane Randolph) and Oliver (Kent Smith). Amy (Ann Carter) is a sad and friendless child. But her prayers for a playmate are answered by the reappearance of Oliver’s first wife, Irena (Simone Simon); this time as a ghostly, but benevolent spirit from the great beyond.
This narrative however was inexplicably interrupted to provide a rather feeble parallel between the lives of aged dowager Julia Farren (Julia Dean), a recluse who lives with but is estranged from her own daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell). Simone Simon did not want to do this sequel. She acquiesced as a favor to Lewton, then quickly became displeased when wardrobe provided her with a rather revealing – if ethereal – gown. Today, the film has acquired a patina of respectability from the psychiatric community who view it as a text book example of behavioral science. But at the time of its release, The Curse of the Cat People was a disappointment to both audiences and studio expectations.
Fearing that their hottest producer was nearing burn out, RKO granted Lewton the opportunity to depart the horror genre for two lighthearted films: Youth Runs Wild, and, Mademoiselle Fifi (both made in 1944) – neither was a critical or box office success.
It took Lewton nearly a year to come back with his next horror project: Isle of the Dead (1945) – a film so bleak and unrelenting that when Lewton was asked by executives “what is this movie saying?” Lewton bluntly replied, “It’s saying that death is good.” The story is one of a deadly plague that breaks out on a secluded island in Greece. The people are trapped under quarantine at the behest of world weary general, Nicholas Pherides (Boris Karloff) who begins to suspect that Thea (Ellen Drew), the charge of a superstitious peasant, Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig) is a ‘vorvolaka’; a suedo-vampire/demon, sucking the last remnants of life from the town’s folk.
By this point in his career, Lewton had suffered a minor heart attack and his health – never what one might have considered good – was failing him. Though his greatest fear following the debacle on The Ghost Ship had been getting fired from RKO, by the time Isle of the Dead wrapped up production, Lewton had succumbed to an inner darkness in which he confided only to those who knew him best that his greatest fear was that his own death was near. It was a prolific prediction.
Bedlam (1946) marked the end of Lewton’s cycle of horror at RKO. The film stars Anna Lee as Nell Bowen, the head strong, yet oddly angelic protégé of wealthy patron, Lord Mortimer (Billy House). Crusading for improvements to the conditions of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, Nell is placed in direct confrontation with Master George Sims (Boris Karloff). Sims has Nell wrongfully committed to his institution in order to silence her. At first terrified by her surroundings, Nell soon discovers a crew of wrongfully imprisoned inmates – and a few truly nutty ones – waiting to rebel against Sims. Eventually, the inmates rise against Sims – entombing him alive in the walls of his asylum.
For all intensive purposes, Bedlam also marks the end to Lewton’s contribution to film making. Though he began an association with former RKO alumni Mark Robson and Robert Wise toward forging an independent production company, Robson and Wise eventually excised Lewton from the equation – a move that personally and professionally hurt Lewton’s chances for securing work elsewhere in Hollywood. Lewton’s final years in the business were unsuccessfully spent trying to eschew his reputation as “the sultan of shudders.” He died on March 14, 1951 of a heart attack – a broken genius at the age of 46.
While horror before Lewton had been a genre removed from the everyday, a place dedicated to the supernatural and quite separate from the real world at large, Lewton’s vision of the apocalyptic brought horror into what scares us most about real life. It changed the way we perceive the ‘scary movie’ and arguably matured the genre well beyond what anyone might have expected before the likes of Lewton had thought it possible.
@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).