October 29, 2005

Lewton Family Val-ues part 1

In honor of some anniversary or another (or maybe just in honor of the release of the box set), TCM last week did a Val Lewton retrospective that covered all the titles in the must-have, five-disc collection for one, affordable, basic cable price. Not to say that this won’t be the first thing I splurge on when I can find a fence for my food stamps, but for the time being – just having my own dubbed-off-the-tube copies of The Leopard Man, Bedlam (one of my favorite films of all time), and the almost never-seen The Ghost Ship and The Seventh Victim is good enough to spackle a few psychic gaps. It at least soothes the disappointment from most of the mainstream prestige pics that I’ve seen so far (including Mendes’ center-less Jarhead). The prints varying according to the shape, obviously, of available negatives – this marks the first time that I’ve ever had the chance to look at some of this stuff that I’ve been reading about for years. DVDs, boy, bless their pressed little hearts – and Simone Simon, naturally, has never been more adorably feral.

Start with Cat People (1942), a film that owes its atmosphere to Lewton, sure, but at least as much I like to think to the great Jacques Tourneur* who’s responsible for other Lewton masterpieces (The Leopard Man, I Walked with a Zombie), the great Mitchum noir, Out of the Past, and also one of the greatest single episodes of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone”: a little gem called “Night Call” wherein an old lady gets a series of whispery crank calls before discovering that her phone line has actually been severed and that the end of the wire lies across the grave of her dead husband. Yep. It’s awesome. The way that Tourneur shoots virginal (and exotic) Simon as Irena, a woman haunted by bad genes and a certain fairy-tale malady of tending to turn into a monster when she’s sexually aroused (something sort of hilariously fumbled by Paul Schrader’s remake if explored with verve in Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves), started a revolution in monster cinema: ironically relegating it (along with Tod Browning’s big-budget boondoggle Freaks) for all time into the realm of low-budget production I think, but also introducing the idea of “less is more” when the Universal Monster cycle was threatening to make it’s own Van Helsing sixty-some years before it actually did. Simon is wonderful, of course, but it’s Tourneur’s direction that makes every shadow from Central Park to a bus stop haven a menace, and its references to Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” pop and crackle. No mean feat.

Shot on the set of The Magnificent Ambersons for a pittance (less than 150 grand), it grossed over four million dollars – demonstrating something that still seems like a surprise to people (see Blair Witch Project): that if you tap into the zeitgeist – and genre pics are particularly able to do just that – you can make not only a mint, but a piece with lasting cultural significance. From there, go to The Leopard Man (1943) – actually the third Lewton/Tourneur, but one, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, that finds itself most closely allayed to the themes of sexual repression introduced in Cat People. Its centerpiece a brutal attack of a young woman on her doorstep as her mother, from the inside, tries desperately to undo the bolt to let her in – the picture misses the wide-eyed foil of Simon’s forbidden fruit and the tragedy of unrequited love and the sins of the fathers. It’s good, in other words, with its serial killer one of the earliest iterations of the species in the mainstream “Code” flick (of course M was much earlier) – it might even be a classic – but it’s no Cat People. But I Walked with a Zombie (1943) might be. The second of the three Lewton/Tourneur collaborations, it reminds me an awful lot of Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea in its suffocating atmosphere and feeling of encroaching, inexorable dread. A zombie film that is, like the best of ‘em, about something else. It’s empirically obvious that zombies – especially just one zombie – don’t really pose any kind of threat to us (something that the end of Shaun of the Dead lampoons hysterically), that they can’t catch us – the traditional kind anyway – and once catching us, they seem to be able to be shaken off fairly easily.

And yet they do catch us – and they do injure us and, worse, they convert us when they do. I’ve spilled a lot of ink on what I think are the similarities between zombies and the Christian myth – but without getting gory again, best to say that there’s something at work here in I Walked with a Zombie (the title a play on the Christian walk, perhaps?) that’s thorny and elegant. It’s scary, too.

Next up, the two flicks that Robert Wise did with Lewton (Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher) – as well as Bedlam which, in its double and triple dissolves, sets a new precedent in the language of horror. Will do a little dance about The Seventh Victim and The Ghost Ship - hopefully just in time for Halloween.

Sunday Feature
Ira Sachs


Dr. Strangelove said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dr. Strangelove said...

Hi Walter,
A typo in your otherwise on-the-nose Val Newton piece finally gave me occasion to post a reaction to express my appreciation for your tireless efforts in reporting on the mostly unpleasant truth about American cinema. A career as a movie reviewer was my childhood dream, but when put into practce, I found it far too depressing myself, and am therefore highly appreciative of rare writers like yourself who write reviews that are both passionate and literate. In any case, I recommend your reviews to all my students (I teach Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam) as an example of what kind of writing they might aspire to.
And oh yes, my excuse for commenting in the first place: it's Tourneur, not Tournier. ;)
Best wishes,
Dan Hassler-Forest

Walter_Chaw said...

You're kind to call it a typo - I do it four times. Closer to the truth that I just didn't know how to spell his name! Thanks for the correction.

tim r said...

I know it's not a Lewton production, but have you seen Tourneur's Night of the Demon? It's fantastic, for me his second best after Out of the Past.

Alex Jackson said...

Dude, the screenshot in Walter's next post is from Night of the Demon.

tim r said...


Paul Clarke said...

Splurged for the box set after I found it for under 50 bucks (Canadian). Saw Cat People last night, and reminisced about my first viewing of it on BBC 2's Horror Double Bill, black and white portable TV resting on a chair at the foot of my bed, no lights in the bedroom, cool summer night in Wales. Anyway, this time I was struck by how sympathetic I found Irena. I mean, she's at a museum with Oliver and Alice, and they head off together to look at the boat models, leaving Irena by herself. She's his wife for crying out loud, and he sloughs her off for another woman. Her sense of isolation and loneliness was palpable for me.

Great flick, and I still was startled at the bus scene.

Walter_Chaw said...

Simon is remarkable in it, isn't she? Agreed that the sense of melancholy and loneliness is palpable. The bus stop scene is an all-timer.

Tell me more about these BBC 2 double bills.

Paul Clarke said...

The BBC 2 Horror Double Bills were my crash course in classic horror as a youth. They ran from about July to September, in the mid-70s to early 80s. The first half of the double bill was often an older, black and white, classic horror, while the second was more recent, in colour and gorier. My parents usually only approved me staying up to see the first one. As a result, I became exposed to the Universal horror cycle, the Val Lewton films, the occasional Hammer flick ("Curse of the Werewolf" being an honourable exception to the b&w only rule for the first feature), and a smorgasbord of stuff like Lugosi in "White Zombie", the satanist carchase fest "Race with the Devil", and of course "Night of the Demon", Tourneur's classic that remains a favourite of mine to this day. There was the occasional clunker, such as Karloff in the dreary lid-leadener "Voodoo Island", but overall the quality of films was high. Already a horror film freak at this point (Ed Naha's "Horrors from Screen to Scream" was my Bible), the Horror Double Bills were a much-anticipated Summer highlight for me.

I've found a meticulous reconstruction of the various Horror Double Bill seasons here: http://www.britishhorrorfilms.co.uk/board/index.php?act=ST&f=5&t=777&hl=