Posts Tagged ‘Val Lewton’

It’s just possible that you may vaguely recall I started the year by looking at some of the productions from RKO’s horror unit in the early 1940s, specifically Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie. For a while I did entertain the notion of watching them all, but it proved hard to track down copies of some of the films – not being able to find a free copy of The Seventh Victim anywhere was a bit irksome, as I recall – and, well, it does seem hard to believe now, but five months ago the world was a very different place: things kept happening unexpectedly, the days were all very different from each other, and in these circumstances it was easy for a project to get forgotten about.

But anyway. One RKO horror movie which it is currently quite easy to track down is The Curse of the Cat People, released in 1944 and directed by Gunter von Fritsch and Robert Wise: Wise, as you may be aware, would go on to direct such outstanding movies as the original The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story (he also ended up having a fairly gruelling experience trying to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which only goes to show that nobody has a perfect career), so this is a significant movie for this reason if no other. It is, as the title suggests, a sequel to 1942’s Cat People.

Having said all that, I can quite easily imagine people taking exception to several of the assertions I’ve just made: namely, that this is a horror movie, and also that it is a genuine sequel to Jacques Tourneur’s original movie. Well, it’s a follow-up, certainly, for it features four of the cast of the 1942 film, three of whom are definitely meant to be playing the same characters.

Seven or eight years have gone by since the events of Cat People (or so we are invited to assume), and ship designer Oliver Reed (yes, yes, we went through all that back in January) – played once more by Kent Smith – is married to former co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph). The two of them are living in wholesome suburban bliss with their young daughter Amy (Ann Carter) and their butler, Edward (Lancelot Pinard, who is billed – last, despite having a significant role in the movie – under his stage name of Sir Lancelot). I would say not to let the fact that this fairly ordinary family have a live-in Afro-American servant alienate you too much, but I’m not sure that’s possible.

Well, anyway, all is well for the Reeds, except for the fact that Amy is a bit ‘dreamy’ – she makes friends with butterflies, rather than other children, and seems to find it difficult to distinguish between reality and her imagination. Oliver reveals himself to be far from the most sensitive of parents by decrying this sort of behaviour as ‘lying’ and getting quite cross with his daughter about it, without fully hearing her out or considering her situation. Alice isn’t exactly off the hook, as the pair of them have rows about their child-raising technique in Amy’s presence, which I doubt Dr Spock would approve of.

Amy’s neighbourhood wanderings lead her to make the acquaintance of a lonely old woman (Julia Dean) and her hostile daughter (Elizabeth Russell, who played a cat person in the 1942 film but seems to be a different character here). The old woman gives her a ring which Amy comes to believe can grant wishes, and in her loneliness wishes that she had a friend. And a friend comes to her, called out of ‘silence and darkness’: a friend named Irena (Simone Simon), who very much appears to be Oliver’s first wife, who died in rather mysterious circumstances at the end of the first film…

Spooky stuff, huh? Especially when you consider that Irena’s main issue was that she was a cat person, descended from Serbian witches and given to turning into a panther and tearing things and people apart when powerful emotions like jealousy were roused in her. How do you imagine she reacts when she discovers her man has married her rival and had a child with her?

Well, you may continue wondering, for the film makes only the vaguest allusions to Irena’s problem – beyond the title, the cat people are barely mentioned at all, and the ‘curse’ referred to is the shadow that Irena’s death continues to cast over Oliver and Alice’s marriage. In this film, Irena appears to be an entirely benign presence in Amy’s life, almost like her imaginary friend – but for the fact Amy recognises her from some old family photos which Oliver has rather thoughtlessly left lying around the house.

So what, then, is this film about? Well, that’s a very good question; I wish I had a good answer for you. It may seem to have a ghost in it, but I wouldn’t honestly describe it as a horror movie at all: it’s actually very family-friendly, as you might expect of a film where one of the main characters is a six or seven year old girl. I think the film is largely about being a child, and not yet fully appreciating the difference between fantasy and reality – the implication, of course, is that ghosts and other objects of fantasy do exist in some form, and people should be more open to such possibilities: it does seem that Irena has some form of objective reality (though she seems to have become much more French in the afterlife), and plays a part in saving Amy’s life before the end of the film.

But even so, this is a strange, oblique film, very dream-like itself in many ways. Even at only about 70 minutes long it doesn’t really seem packed with incident, and it almost feels like some of the different elements of the story don’t quite connect together in the conventional way: it’s not immediately clear how the subplot about the Farren family actually adds to the story – the casting of Elizabeth Russell is certainly suggestive, but is this a red herring? It’s hard to be sure. Certainly the ending of the film smacks a little of a manufactured climax, which is perhaps a shame.

‘Sequel’ really isn’t the right word for The Curse of the Cat People, though I’m struggling to think of a better one. How do you describe a film which takes a group of characters and uses them to tell a new story, almost entirely unconnected from the one in which they first appeared, with no commonalities of plot, tone, or theme? ‘Follow-up’ is the best I can think of, but even this suggests a commonality which simply isn’t there. This is a well-made and memorable film, if only for the strange oneiric atmosphere that pervades it, but it neither functions as a sequel nor could it really work as a standalone movie. A real oddity, but a classy one.


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I expect there is not much of a family resemblance between myself and any of my great-grandparents, none of whom I could honestly tell you very much about. So it probably shouldn’t be very surprising that the archetypal modern zombie film, exponents of which have been lurching all over the pop-cultural landscape on a regular basis for nearly two decades now, should have very little in common with the first films to cover this same kind of material. The watershed moment in the history of zombie cinema came when George Romero saw Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies in 1966 or 1967 and pondered what would happen if the undead workforce in that film got out of control. (The result was, of course, Night of the Living Dead.) Prior to this point, zombie films were mostly steeped in the lore of the culture that created the legend – namely, that of the Caribbean and the voodoo religion practised by the plantation workers there.

The award for first ever zombie film is usually given to White Zombie, from 1932, which seems to have a mixed critical reputation, and was followed by a sequel, Revolt of the Zombies, which seems to be unanimously agreed to be awful. Still in the same milieu, but enjoying rather more acclaim, is Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, made in 1943 and another product of RKO’s horror film unit under the leadership of Val Lewton.

It almost goes without saying that this American movie, made in 1943, seems completely oblivious of the war gripping most of the world at the time it was made. Frances Dee plays Betsy Connell,  a nurse who as the film opens is resident in a chilly-looking Canada. However, a change is on the cards as she is hired to go and live on the remote Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. One of the plantation owners there, Paul Holland (Tom Conway), needs a nurse to care for his wife, who has been struck down by a strange affliction that has left her unable to speak and with no will of her own. Betsy is initially quite impressed by the beauty of her surroundings, but Paul is quick to disabuse her of any romantic thoughts she may be having – ‘There’s no beauty here, only death and decay… everything good dies here!’ he declares, which hardly constitutes making the new hire feel comfortable.

Betsy rapidly realises that there are tensions between Holland and his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), and possibly even between the men and their mother (Edith Barrett): Rand has a drink problem, for one thing, which Holland seems disinclined to do anything about. Clues to the reasons for this come when Frances overhears a local calypso singer (credited as ‘Sir Lancelot’) singing a scurrilous ditty about Holland’s wife having an affair with Rand. You would not have thought the calypso to be a musical style which particularly leant itself to the delivery of ominous exposition, but the effect here is striking, particularly when Lancelot bears gravely down on Dee, strumming and calypsoing all the while.

Things get a bit melodramatic as Betsy decides that, for no comprehensible reason whatsoever, she has fallen in love with Holland, and selflessly resolves to see if his wife can be cured (the wife is played by Christine Gordon, by the way, who gets no dialogue and just has to waft eerily about the place in a white dress). When modern medical science fails, Betsy looks further afield, having become somewhat fascinated by the local tales of voodoo and the ceaseless drumming that drifts through the island night…

As mentioned, this is about as unlike a modern zombie movie as you can get, stylistically at least: the film was apparently inspired by a factual magazine article written by one Inez Wallace (the mind does boggle somewhat). However, the initial script was heavily rewritten, not least by Val Lewton himself, and one of the changes was to base the story on (of all things) the plot of Jane Eyre. There you go: the role of the Bronte sisters in the evolution of modern horror laid bare (to say nothing of the fact that this film is a great deal better than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so eat your heart out, Jane Austen).

To be honest, the similarities between I Walked with a Zombie and Jane Eyre don’t extend much beyond the basic premise of the story – Betsy is obviously Jane, Holland is Rochester, and the mad woman in the attic is replaced by one of the living dead – but this remains a classy, thoughtful movie. The real strength is in the atmosphere of the piece, which is powerful and well-maintained throughout. There are many effective sequences, not the least of them the one in which Betsy leads Holland’s wife through the night to a voodoo gathering, encountering the disquieting figure of a man who may be an actual zombie along the way.

This is only the second product of Lewton’s tenure at the RKO horror unit (after Cat People) but already you can make out some themes developing: both films are essentially melodramas, built around an interesting female protagonist, and both couple rich atmospheres to a finely-judged sense of ambiguity. There is little in the way of explicit horror, no cack-handed make-up, and it always feels as if the possibility that there is no supernatural element to the events of the film remains on the table, so much is implied or left suggestive.

Is Mrs Holland indeed a genuine zombie, or simply the victim of an infection which has affected her nervous system? If she is one of the walking dead, how did she get that way? The questions slowly accumulate and while the film certainly seems to have its own ideas about what is happening, it doesn’t attempt to impose them on the viewer, except perhaps at the very end. The defining characteristic of the horror genre is surely nothing to do with setting, style or subject matter, but the effect the film has on the viewer, and the success of I Walked with a Zombie comes not from its characterisation or plotting, but the disquieting atmosphere the film generates and sustains. This probably counts as a very atypical zombie film by any modern standard, but it is still an impressive movie.

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It strikes me that there are very many worse job titles to have than ‘head of horror unit’. Holding this post was the fortunate position that the writer and producer Val Lewton found himself in in the early 1940s, when he was working for the American film studio RKO. The job only came with three provisos: all the films Lewton oversaw had to be no longer than 75 minutes, they had to cost less than $150,000, and they had to use titles provided to Lewton by his bosses. Call those strictures? That just sounds like fun to me.

The films Lewton ended up producing may not have packed quite the same cultural wallop as the horror cycle which Universal was midway through at the same time, but they do have a certain style and class which most of the later Universal movies are really lacking in. They are, in general, artier and more subtle, with less reliance on special effects and make-up to do their thing. In some ways, though, Lewton’s work has been just as influential as those other movies, name recognition or not.

The first fruit of the horror unit under Lewton was the 1942 movie Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur. Cats are, not surprisingly, something of a motif in this film, which opens at the zoo. (This is one of those odd American films from the early 1940s which stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the fact it was made in the middle of a global war.) Just outside the panther cage, we are witness to a meet-cute between well-to-do marine designer Oliver Reed (a name which is a little more snigger-worthy now than it was at the time), who is played by Kent Smith, and illustrator Irena Dubrovna, played by Simone Simon. Irena is supposedly Serbian, which the French Simon opts to indicate by doing a sort of generic European accent.

Well, Reed and Irena hit it off, and sure enough she is soon telling him stories of her charming homeland, much of which seems to have been inhabited by devil-worshipping witches with the power to turn into savage big cats when they got riled (perfectly ordinary first date conversation fodder, if you ask me). The romance proceeds swimmingly, possibly because Oliver seems permanently distracted and doesn’t notice things like the entire population of a pet shop going into a terrified frenzy the moment Irena walks through the door. Soon enough (because, after all, the whole movie has to be finished in under 75 minutes) they are engaged, which is a heavy blow for Oliver’s assistant Alice (Jane Randolph), who bears a not-especially-secret torch for him.

The only problem is that Irena is convinced that the blood of the ancient cat-women flows through her own veins, and if her darker side is roused – by, say, her new husband kissing her or doing something even more intimate – she will turn into a cat and rip his head off. I think it is fair to say that few marriages would prosper under such conditions. At Alice’s suggestion, Irena is sent to frankly dubious psychiatrist Dr Judd (Tom Conway) – but can this really do any good? And how will Irena’s growing jealousy of Oliver and Alice’s obvious closeness manifest itself?

Cat People did well enough to earn a sequel (1945’s Curse of the Cat People) and a remake (made by Paul Schrader in 1982, with Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell), and it is usually assured of at least a mention in any serious discussion of the development of the craft of the horror movie. (This is due to the fact it introduced a couple of tropes to the genre – ‘The Walk’, represented by the scene in which Randolph is stalked through a park by something unseen but malevolent, and ‘The Bus’, in which tension is suddenly defused by a ‘false alarm’ moment (the air brakes of said vehicle sound momentarily like the hiss of a cat).) So you would expect this to be a superior and classy horror film.

Superior and classy it certainly is, but I’m just not sure if it really works as a horror movie for a modern audience. Parts of Cat People have not aged well, if we’re honest, and it is if anything too refined and ambiguous to really meet the standards of the genre. The briefness of the movie results in it only having four significant characters. Irena is an interesting attempt at creating a genuinely ambiguous character – she is initially quite sympathetic, an impression which is gradually dispelled as the story progresses. However, Judd turns out to be an arrogant tool, and unprofessional to the point of complete sleaziness as well. I’m still not sure if he’s less sympathetic than Oliver himself, who comes across as bland and self-satisfied. He obviously has a good job, women are falling all over him, and at one point Kent Smith is required to bewail the fact that never in his life has he ever really felt unhappy before. This sort of thing is not guaranteed to get the audience on-side with a character. Only Alice comes across as someone you’d generally want to spend time with – she’s the kind of plucky character who’d get called a brick in a British film – and you do wonder what she’s doing falling uselessly in love with someone like Oliver.

Still, coming across dodgy handling of female characters is par for the course with this kind of old movie, and it does not take a psychology graduate to recognise that this is a film with a somewhat dubious subtext. Lurking within some women, it seems to be suggesting, is a savage, out of control beast, prone to vicious fits of jealousy. Irena isn’t afflicted with her curse in the course of the story in the way that Lon Chaney Jr is in The Wolf Man; she was born with it, intrinsically compromised. You could argue it is about the male fear of female desire, a very characteristic psycho-sexual undertone for this kind of film, and one which is handled reasonably subtly.

All this has to build up to something, though, and it’s here that the film may fall down for modern audiences. Jane Randolph’s initial encounters with something unseen but hostile are well-mounted, but – with some justification – you are expectating some kind of money shot before the end of the film. Imagine a werewolf movie where you not only never got to see the transformation, you barely got to see the beastie – many viewers would be crying foul, I think. And that is essentially what happens here.

You can certainly understand Lewton and Tourneur’s preference for subtlety and implication over hiring one of the Westmore family to glue cat ears onto Simone Simon, but the end of the film still slightly feels like it isn’t delivering in terms of solid scares and dramatic resolution. There are clearly significant and symbolically important things going on, but it still feels like it is being just a bit too subtle and understated for its own good. Nevertheless, Cat People is a very competently-made movie with an unusual degree of psychological depth for the early forties; it may not much look like the modern definition of a horror movie, but you can see why it is still remembered today.

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