Roy Frumkes returns with his Little Blog of Horror. Today he talks about legendary horror producer, Val Lewton.
Val Lewton is a prime example of ‘never saying no’ in the film industry… or at least not saying it too quickly.
A highly literate man who wrote novels and poetry, he was, according to Cat People star Simone Simon, practically the only truly well-informed person in Hollywood. “Another producer I knew, when I told him that I would like to act in a version of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, said, ‘Oh, we’ll telegraph her.’ He didn’t even know she was dead a hundred years. And also when I said I would like to sing the Bolero from Ravel, he said ‘Oh, we’ll call him.’ He didn’t know he was dead also. Val Lewton would have known that.”
Lewton should have been producing projects like Wuthering Heights or Madame Bovary. Instead RKO offered him the job as head of production on their ‘B’ horror unit. And to make matters worse, they foisted lurid titles on him like I Walked With a Zombie and The Body Snatcher. Lewton, rising to the occasion, pow-wow-ed with his small, hand-chosen group of talented filmmakers – Jacques Tourneur (director), Robert Wise (editor), Nick Musuraca (cinematographer), and DeWitt Bodeen (screenwriter) – and cobbled together several lyrical, intelligent films bearing these exploitative monikers. (In fact, I Walked With a Zombie was actually Jane Eyre in disguise)
Lewton’s nine horror films were the yang to Universal’s ying. There were no monsters on screen – no vampires, no werewolves or mummies, no invisible men or gorilla-women. Everything was implied by shadows, sound design, editing, and thoughtful art direction. It was up to the viewer to decide if the horrors were real or imagined. Boris Karloff, acting in three of Lewton’s productions, said that the producer had rescued his soul from the dungeons of Universal.
I recently showed clips from Cat People in my Summer History of Horror class and then, following the class break, I screened the entire I Walked With a Zombie. In the face of today’s brew of gore and sexual liberties, the students were moved by Lewton’s poetic approach. A moonlight walk through the reeds, with a creepy appearance by Darby Jones as a bug-eyed sentinel, was a highlight of the experience.
I noticed that Martin Scorsese has chosen three of Val Lewton’s films to be screened among his Summer picks at The Museum of Modern Art. You might want to catch them there (use your SVA IDs to get in free), hopefully on 35mm prints, hence in all their horror/noir glory.