The Horror Films of Val Lewton

Lobby Card for Val Lewton’s The Cat People

The following is a repost from October 31, 2015. I had just saw The Leopard Man on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and started thinking (for the nth time) how great Val Lewton was as a producer—probably the only great film producer.

There are horror films, and there are horror films. They can scare you out of your wits, like Curse of the Demon (1957) and Poltergeist (1982), or they can make you understand that the world is both light and dark in equal measure, like Val Lewton’s great films of the 1940s, such as The Cat People (1942).

Val Lewton, born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Yalta, Russia, was interested in making low budget films to compete with Universal Pictures’ highly successful Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, and Wolf Man franchises. The title for The Cat People was assigned to Lewton by RKO, and Lewton went to work on a psychological thriller in which there is no overt violence. Perhaps the greatest scene takes place in a swimming pool in which a young woman is swimming all by herself at night. In the shadows, we imagine there is a black panther, but neither the swimmer nor we the viewers are absolutely sure.

Even though Halloween is just about over, I highly recommend all the following Lewton films:

  • The Cat People (1942)
  • I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
  • The Leopard Man (1943)
  • The Seventh Victim (1943)
  • The Ghost Ship (1943)
  • The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
  • The Body Snatcher (1945)
  • Isle of the Dead (1945)
  • Bedlam (1946)

All are great films worthy of being seen multiple times. They are short, thoughtful, extremely moody, and highly successful. Also available is a Turner Classics biopic about Lewton’s career called Shadows in the Dark narrated by Martin Scorsese. Martine and I watched it last night and recommend you see it.

In all of Hollywood’s history, Lewton was probably the only film producer who controlled his products as if he were the director. Even though Lewton directorial protegés Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson went on to have brilliant careers, when one is watching a Lewton film, one recognizes it as a Lewton film.

In Praise of Minor Talents

The Good Doctor Ruffled a Few Feathers, Including Mine

As part of my annual Halloween reading, I just finished the Oxford World’s Classics Tales of Terror from Blackwood’s Magazine. In the early decades of the 19th century, that’s where budding writing talents turned for examples of tales of horror. Among the most devoted readers were Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Browning, and—most particularly—Edgar Allan Poe.

Of the seventeen stories in the collection, I had only heard of two of them before: Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg, a.k.a. the Ettrick Shepherd. The other writers (who were all new to me) were Patrick Fraser-Tytler, John Wilson,Daniel Keyte Sandford, John Galt, John Howison, William Maginn, Henry Thomson, Catherine Sinclair, Michael Scott, William Mudford, William Godwin the Younger, and Samuel Warren. All of their stories were first class.

Now I understand why Poe wrote him famous essay “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” And why Leigh Hunt wrote in 1819:

A man who does not contribute his quota of grim stories now-a-days seems hardly to be free of the republic of letters. He is bound to wear a death’s head, as part of his insignia. If he does not frighten every body, he is nobody.

Well, I could testify that I was frightened by this collection—by a bunch of “minor” writers who knew what they were doing. The credit for this collection goes to the two co-editors, Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick.

I was particularly entranced by the three selections from a long-running serial in Blackwood’s entitled Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician (appearing from 832-1837) by Samuel Warren (1807-1877).

The Scariest Film Ever Made?

The Eponymous Villain of Curse of the Demon

As of today, I have seen Jacques Tourneur’s excellent The Curse of the Demon at least half a dozen times. (The film, released by Columbia in 1957, is also known as Night of the Demon.)

I regard films involving demonology as potentially the scariest of horror films. After all, there are ways to overcome vampires, Frankenstein monsters, mummies, werewolves, and zombies; but no one can overcome Satan himself. The script is based on a famous short story by M. R. James entitled “Casting the Runes.” You can find a copy of the story by clicking here.

Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) is a skeptical investigator sent from the U.S. to England to speak at an international conference on the paranormal, shortly after one of the other speakers dies gruesomely outside his home. It is suspected that Dr. Julian Karswell, a British Satanist, was involved.

Karswell meets Holden in the British Library Reading Room, where he chivalrously reaches down and hands Holden a file he has dropped. Inside that file is a strip of paper with an ancient runish curse that Holden will die at 10 pm several days hence.

As the time approaches, Holden and the niece of the dead investigator try to understand what is happening and to cleverly circumvent it.

Along the way, there are weird sequences when Karswell summons the powers of darkness to scare Holden and convince him that he is a goner.

This is a film worth seeing multiple times. Watch out that you don’t bite your tongue while munching on popcorn during the scarier scenes.

The Halloween 2020 Book List

A Canadian Adaptation of LeFanu’s Carmilla (2017)

Every October, I usually read several novels and short stories in the horror genre. I do not care that much for the current stuff, like Stephen King or Dean Koontz. My preference is for the classics, and those tend to be concentrated in the late 19th century.

The books I read this month were:

  • Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales
  • Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s In a Glass Darkly, which included the short novels Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant
  • Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, a new collection edited by Aaron Worthy

Shirley Jackson is most famous for her short story “The Lottery,” but she also wrote such novels as We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House.

Sheridan LeFanu (1814-1873) was an Irish author who wrote some classic tales of horror, especially Carmilla, a tale of a lesbian vampire who predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by some twenty years. In 1960, it was made into a film by Roger Vadim entitled Blood and Roses (in France: Et mourir de plaisir). At the time I attended college, it was the most popular film showed by the Dartmouth Film Society.

Welsh Horror Tale Author Arthur Machen

Finally, there was a delightful collection of novellas and tales by Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Most of Machen’s best work was composed up to the late 1920s and included the classic The Great God Pan (1894), which tells of what happened when a young woman who, upon being exposed to the Greek god Pan, created a trail of destruction that spanned several continents.

Plague Diary 17: A Film About the Plague

There Is Only One Film I Know About Quarantining from the Plague

In the early 1940s, a Hollywood movie producer named Val Lewton (his real name was Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon) was responsible for a handful of great horror films in which the effects were more psychological than crude, which placed him pretty much in a one-man category.

Today, I saw (for the nth time) his film Isle of the Dead (1945), set on a strange Greek island during the First Balkan War (1912-13). Boris Karloff plays the Greek General Nikolas Pherides who, together with an American journalist, rows to an offshore island to visit the grave of his wife. He finds that her grave had been broken into and her body stolen. Worse yet, he lands on the island only to find that one of the guests in the house where he is staying has died of the plague.

Karloff and the other people on the island must quarantine until the wind changes. Once the hot, dry sirocco wind begins to blow, that particular strain of the plague dies off.

Boris Karloff as General Pherides, “The Watchdog”

The psychological element introduced by Lewton is a superstition of a vampire-like creature called a vorvolaka which is promulgated by a Greek peasant woman named Kyra serving in the house. Karloff, who prides himself by his nickname of “The Watchdog,” buys into the possibility of the truth of this superstition, blaming a young serving woman who is enjoying rubicund good health for being a vorvolaka.

The film is a scant 72 minutes long and would be an excellent choice for a Quarantining-at-Home Film Festival, even if it is one lone title. There is also an Elia Kazan film called Panic in the Streets (1950) which involves the plague but has no claustrophobic quarantining.



Ten Short Horrors

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Think of this as my Halloween contribution. For the last several years, I have celebrated Halloween not by Trick-or-Treating, not by gorging myself with candy, but by reading collections of horror stories, mostly those published by Dover Publications. I find that the best works of horror fiction are usually not the longest (sorry, Stephen King), but either short stories or novellas.

Here is a list of ten of my favorites, in order of publication:

  • Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the red Death” (1842)
  • J S Le Fanu, “Carmilla” (1871)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Body Snatcher” (1884)
  • Henry James, “The Turn of the Screw” (1898)
  • Bernard Capes, “An Eddy on the Floor” (1899)
  • W W Jacobs, “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902)
  • Arthur Machen, “The White People” (1904)
  • Algernon Blackwood, “The Willows” (1907)
  • M R James, “Casting the Runes” (1911)
  • H P Lovecraft, “The Colour Out of Space” (1927)

Happy Halloween, and Boo!


Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

Paying Tribute to “The Prince of Darkness”

Paying Tribute to “The Prince of Darkness”

The 6’4” Englishman was one of the greatest villains in all of the cinema. He reached his apogee in the Hammer horror films made from the late 1950s into the 1970s, with my favorite of his productions being the title character in Dracula Prince of Darkness, released in 1966. More recently, he has played Saruman in the Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus (?!) in the later Star Wars films. I also remember him fondly as Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973). If you scan his filmography, you will be surprised how many great roles he played over some six decades plus.

What with the film industry being what it is today, there are not a lot of great villains. Now they’re selected more on the basis of having a villainous face rather than any acting talent. One of the reasons for his success is the variety he brought to his parts. As he once said, “One thing to me is very important, if you’re playing somebody that the audience regards as, let’s say evil, try to do something they don’t expect, something that surprises the audience.”

Well, he surprised and delighted me for many years. I will miss him grievously.


Happy Halloween!

It’s the Most Boo-tiful Time of the Year!

It’s the Most Boo-tiful Time of the Year!

I know that all of you are either getting ready for some serious cosplay or stockpiling candy for the ravenous hordes preparing to descend onto your doorstep. Be sure to read some scary books (see my post entitled Thirteen More Horrors for a reading list) and see some scary movies (see my post entitled Thirteen Horrors for a list of my faves from last year).

It’s Good To Be King

An Ode to the Carnie Lifestyle

An Ode to the Carny Lifestyle

After a lifetime of hating Stephen King—not that I ever gave him much of a chance—I picked up Joyland chiefly because I thought the cover illustration by Glenn Orbik (above) was hot. It showed a scene that was not even in the book: a red-headed Erin Cook (a co-worker of the book’s hero) screaming in fear while casually wielding a Speed Graphic camera which, if she had ever made a regular practice of doing so, would have left her with a forearm like Popeye’s.

So, what did I think? Actually, I liked the book. Partly because I am drawn to the whole carny world after reading William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, and partly because I thought King exercised admirable restraint in crafting the novel. I wasn’t quite sure about the action scenes at the end, and there were a couple of connections I never quite understood, but I liked the tone of the whole thing.

Devin Jones is a twenty-one-year-old college student who spends a summer working for a North Carolina amusement park called Joyland. He is a man who has been discarded by his apathetic girlfriend Wendy, who, once she parts from him, consigns him to oblivion posthaste. He likes the carny lifestyle, makes friends easily, discovers he has a talent for entertaining “zamps” (small children), and doesn’t object to some of the less desirable tasks around the midway.

He is drawn by the mystery of a young woman named Linda Gray who had been killed by an unknown assailant in the scary funhouse. In fact, he drops out of college and hangs on into the fall, when the only work is preparing the park for the next summer. During that time, he makes the acquaintance of a young mother with a severely disabled son—one who can foretell the future. You can bet this figures in the plot. Devin finally loses his virginity—to Annie Ross, the mother—and becomes a favorite of her son.

Stephen King

Stephen King

Finally, it all comes together for Devin. The killer is … someone Devin knows who calls him at home minutes after his discovery and lures him to the park, where King suddenly goes into overt mode. Perhaps one of the reasons I haven’t liked King all these years is that I thought he was too overt and not sufficiently psychological. But Joyland strikes a nice balance.

Also, I loved all the carny slang, which King took from this website. Maybe, I’ll read some more King: I always liked Kubrick’s film version of The Shining. Perhaps I’ll read that, or Dolores Claiborne, as suggested by my friend Lynette.

Strange Joy

Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid!

Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid!

Every October, in honor of Halloween, I love to read classic horror stories. This last week, I read Hugh Lamb’s Dover collection of rare finds entitled A Bottomless Grave and Other Victorian Tales of Terror. Last year at this time, I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but this year I ventured on Shirley Jackson’s other famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which is equally spellbinding. (What I do not bother to read are the Stephen King and Dean Koontz type of novels that go in strictly for crude shocks.)

Usually, haunted house novels like to go in for crude effects. In contrast Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is delicately nuanced. Does this haunted house really do any damage with all its noise and strange writing on the walls and apparent destruction of one lady’s wardrobe? Actually, it does only one thing: It recognizes in Eleanor Vance, a spinster who is one of the party investigating the house, a kindred spirit. And it wants her. Badly.

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

The real terror is not external, it resides within the human breast. Eleanor had spent her adult life as a nursemaid to her mother, who has died before the action of the story begins. She has, as the saying goes, no life of her own. The one line that keeps running through her mind during the course of the book is, “Journeys end in lovers meeting.”

For Shirley Jackson to see into the tortured heart of Eleanor Vance—and through all the flummery of haunted houses and planchettes—makes her one of the great writers of horror fiction. And this after Eleanor’s initial response to the house, which is one of horror and loathing. At the risk of giving the whole shooting match away, I will continue the quote that ends the last paragraph:

Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.

This book deserves on the same shelf with that other great psychological story of haunting, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.