Death is Good: The Horror Films of Val Lewton | Features – Roger Ebert

The next time I can remember encountering Lewtons name was in Danny Pearys book Alternate Oscars, in which the critic writes that he believes Boris Karloff should have won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1945 for The Body Snatcher. Learning about Lewton was getting frustrating, because at that time Lewtons films were difficult to come by, unless they turned up on cable. Fortunately now, they often do (TCM will be airing The Leopard Man and Cat People [1942] on Halloween); they can easily be rented online for a couple of bucks. So, if you havent already, you can now experience these truly sui generis works of dark horror.

Making horror films was not Lewtons ambition, it was simply the assignment given to him by RKO Pictures. (He would parlay his success with the job into producing movies closer to his heart, like Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi). In fact, this bit of his career was loosely dramatized in Vincente Minellis The Bad and the Beautiful, when we see Kirk Douglas producer character Jonathan Shields struggling to make a quality picture out of the pulp horror title, Doom of the Cat Men, given to him by the studio. This also happened to Lewton, who was given titlesnot actual scripts, mind youlike Cat People and told to make those titles into feature films. In The Bad and the Beautiful we see Shields and his director (Barry Sullivan) finding art in this cheap job theyd previously not cared about (its worth noting that, at least in my opinion, Doom of the Cat Men sounds like a much better film than any of the ones Shields is actually passionate about). But this is what Lewton, a Russian-Jewish migr who began his career as a writer of relatively realistic novels, did constantlyin the case of I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Lewton, director Tourneur, and screenwriters Wray and Curt Siodmak chose to use that title to create a kind of Voodoo riff on Jane Eyre.

So, by necessity, and because he wanted to good work, Lewton and his directors innovated. In Cat People there's a jump scare so groundbreaking that it moved a young Richard Matheson to write to Lewton, care of RKO, and tell him that he, Matheson, had understood, and loved, the trick the Lewton and Tourneur pulled. In that same film, the decision was madebased in part on budget restrictions and on the psychological manipulation of the audienceto hint at the transformation implied by the title rather than show it outright (in one memorable scene using, among other things, the reflection of light off water in a swimming pool to set the mood, and mirror the shadowy special effects). This choicehelped turn the film from a fun, scary movie for kids, which the studio would have no doubt been fine with, into something ambiguous, and almost tragic.

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Death is Good: The Horror Films of Val Lewton | Features - Roger Ebert

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