"A kiss changed her from a lovely woman to a killer leopard!"
--Cat People poster
With a tagline like that, you'd expect some Universal monster vehicle, most likely starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers. And filmed on standing sets you saw in the last Frankenstein movie.
That's exactly what RKO Pictures - the studio that released Cat People (1942) and the eight other horror classics churned out by iconic producer Val Lewton between 1942 and 1946 - wanted you to think.
Hollywood, 1942. After a brief stint working for MGM's David O. Selznick, the 36 year-old Ukrainian-born Lewton found himself in charge of RKO's new horror division. The novelist turned screenwriter turned horror producer must have asked himself a few central questions: should I imitate the monster movies being released by Universal, piggyback on those tried and true stories of stitched-together boogeymen, Egyptian mummies, blood-sucking vampires, and hirsute wolfmen?
Or should I create a series of entirely different horror films, ones where the monster lurks primarily only in the viewer's mind? Where ambiguity reigns, where a subtle symbolism is always at play, and where mood and suspense seem to become part of the very action itself?
Lewton chose the latter.
RKO simply didn't know what to do with him. They weren't sure about how to market the literate, subtle, character-driven films their new producer and his directors and screenwriters had created. So they did their best to sell them as kiddie-friendly monsterfests, the kind of movie Universal had made a mint on.
But that type of picture was the farthest thing from Lewton's mind. With the front office primarily concerned with the films having lurid, sure-to-put-asses-in-the-seats titles, Lewton was for the most part left alone to make his modest little "B" programmers. And what he delivered surprised everyone.
Lewton's first film for RKO as producer was Cat People (1942), directed by Jacques Tourneur and written by DeWitt Bodeen (featuring an uncredited assist by Lewton himself, something he would do on all of his films).
Right from the first frame, Lewton is having one over on the audience. Cat People opens up with a passage from a book called The Anatomy of Atavism by a Dr. Lewis Judd. The problem is, the book and author don't exist - Judd is a character in Cat People, as we'd soon see. Like the Coen Bros. decades later, Lewton had no problem giving his audience information that was nothing but a cinematic sleight of hand.
The two main characters, Irena (Simone Simon) and Oliver (Kent Smith), have a Meet Cute at the zoo. Right off the bat, Oliver seems to be a nice enough guy - if a bit of a dullard, oblivious to the signs that this woman is deeply troubled. Her apartment is filled with grim cat imagery, and she hints at dark thoughts and a dark past. Oliver doesn't let this stop him from romancing Irena.
A good portion of Cat People is devoted to Irena's sexual frustration. Even on their wedding night, she can't quite bring herself to consummate the marriage, spending her first evening as Oliver's wife on the other side of a bathroom door, sobbing. In addition, she can't help but return to the panther cage at the zoo, only to be frightened at what she sees.
But the zoo is not the only place she feels threatened. At a restaurant for their wedding reception, the good times are interrupted by a mysterious unnamed woman (Elizabeth Russell, making her first appearance in what would be several Lewton films), who glares into Irena's eyes and says something to her in their native Serbian tongue, which in English means "sister." Quickly departing, she casts a pall over the proceedings.
Irena's problems lead to her seeing a psychiatrist, the aforementioned Dr. Judd (Tom Conway). Normally, a doctor or psychiatrist would be an avuncular, trusted character. But here Judd is oily and lecherous, and his advice seems ever-so-slightly angled toward wooing Irena romantically.
Meanwhile, Oliver's co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), seems to be much too chummy with him. Oliver tells Alice that Irena is going to a shrink for her sexual hang-ups, and can't grasp why his fragile wife might be a little upset with his behavior.
Halfway through the story comes the first real scare set-piece, what became known to film aficionados as "The Lewton Walk." Alice, on her way home, walks down a dark, quiet street. The only sound we hear is the click-clacking of her heels. Then she and the audience hear another pair of footsteps somewhere behind her.
Getting a trifle unnerved, Alice increases her pace, which seems to inspire the other person to do the same. The scene increases in tension until we hear what sounds like the hiss of a cat - and we see it is only the air brakes of a bus, stopping to pick up passengers. This jump scare became so iconic that when it was used again in other Lewton films, it was always called "The Bus."
Irena and Oliver's situation only get worse, while Alice grows ever more bold expressing her feelings for Oliver. In response, Irena tries hard to spend time with Oliver, but he keeps bringing Alice along on their outings, completely oblivious to his wife's feelings.
The night after a particularly insensitive moment, Alice is stalked again at the YWCA, as she is taking a swim. In this scene, Lewton and his editor (Mark Robson, who created The Bus moment in the editing room) use just sound and shadowplay to create a truly chilling scene...in a very unusual place. How many horror films take place at a public pool?
Later, Dr. Judd talks to Irena, trying to dispel her of the silly notion that if she is kissed by her husband she will turn into some sort of cat woman. He's dismissive and condescending, threatening to drop her as a patient - but not before offering to kiss Irena himself to see if that sparks the change. Does the AMA not exist in this world?
The final betrayal occurs when Oliver tells Irena he's in love with Alice, and will grant Irena a divorce, something...despite all this...she doesn't want. Afraid of what she might do, Irena tearfully tells Oliver to go.
After a failed attempt at a pseudo-intervention by Oliver, Alice, and Judd, we follow Oliver and Alice back to their office, where they are working late. They are confronted by a large cat - albeit one we never really see.
Again, Lewton, Tourneur and Robson were relying on shadows and sound to carry the scene, and it is only when Oliver picks up a T-square - which, when draped in shadow, looks like a crucifix - does the film trade in on the more traditional horror iconography of the Universal films.
After scaring the cat off, we find Dr. Judd still at Oliver and Irena's apartment. Irena arrives, and Judd does the full court press, professing his feelings for Irena by kissing her. A shadow falls over Irena's face, which goes from sweet to menacing. Judd then realizes he's really screwed the pooch (or the cat) on this one, and in a mercifully brief scene with Judd wrestling with what's clearly a stuffed cat, he is killed.
Oliver and Alice arrive, and find Judd's body. Irena wanders back to the zoo, which is now covered in fog. Seemingly mindlessly, she opens the lock to the panther cage (!) and lets the animal lunge free, directly at her. Moments later, Oliver and Alice find her body. Oliver says "She never lied to us" (whatever the hell that's supposed to mean) and Alice walks away in tears. The end.
Apparently, when the RKO front office saw the initial rushes of Cat People, they were unnerved...to say the least. Where were the monsters...the scares? But Lewton had an ally in the RKO high command. Charles Koerner liked what he saw and allowed the film to go out mostly as Lewton envisioned it.
Koerner and Lewton were rewarded when Cat People became a huge hit, one of RKO's biggest moneymakers of the year, and a movie that played for months - so long that some film reviewers who at first panned it went back and saw it again, giving it rave reviews.
They now recognized its subtler elements and how carefully Lewton, Tourneur, and the rest worked to create realistic, believable characters and put them in truly frightening situations, frequently letting the audience use its imagination to conjure up the biggest scares.
Lewton, a generally tortured soul, took every affront personally and must have been relieved to see his unconventional cinematic instincts pay off. By the time Cat People began racking up huge box office numbers, Lewton had almost entirely completed his second film, I Walked With A Zombie.
I Walked With A Zombie
Many people consider I Walked With A Zombie (1943) Lewton's masterpiece (director Jacques Tourneur called it "The best film I've ever done in my life") and in many ways its easy to see why.
Right from the beginning, when the narrator (the main character, Betsy, played by Frances Dee) makes light of the very title of the film by admitting how absurd it is, the film casts a spell that is utterly unlike any horror movie, before or since. It's a moment that has to be Lewton's, who loved little digs at his studio bosses.
Betsy, a nurse, is hired to travel to the tropical island of San Sebastian to help care for the invalid wife of a rich sugar plantation owner, a man named Paul Holland (Tom Conway again). As snow falls outside her window, she jumps at the chance to work in such a warm, relaxed location.
On the trip to the island by boat, she meets Holland, who reinforces the idea of the story...which is that nothing is what it seems. Betsy marvels at the beautiful flying fish seen in the moonlight, but Holland feels compelled to tell her the fish are not jumping for joy - they're in abject terror trying to flee bigger fish. As you might guess, Holland is not a fun guy.
Every character or situation that Betsy encounters in the film is not at all what it first seems to be. Holland's wife isn't just an invalid, she's almost a zombie (a-ha!) and stays in a creepy room, kept almost completely dark. Upon meeting Betsy the first time, she wordlessly stalks her like the Frankenstein Monster until Holland steps in. Holland claims to love his wife, but seems romantically interested in Betsy.
Betsy ends up developing mutual feelings for Holland, who is a total cold fish (and married besides!), and not for the more traditional leading male character, Holland's half-brother Wesley Rand (played by James Ellison). Despite her feelings, Betsy decides to try and help "cure" Mrs. Holland, by turning to voodoo...which is practiced nearly out in the open on the island.
Another thing out in the open is the personal drama in the Holland family. During a scene in a restaurant in the center of town, a local (portrayed by the improbably named Sir Lancelot) plays a song to everyone in earshot relaying the sordid details of the Holland clan, only to meekly apologize when confronted by Wesley.
After Wesley gets hammered, leaving Betsy essentially alone as night falls, the singer returns and plays the song again. This time, he is seeming much more menacing and looks Betsy directly in the eye as he sings. Its an odd, unsettling scene - in a way you can't quite put your finger on.
Even the titular sequence - when Betsy walks with Mrs. Holland through a creepy, quiet field as the wind howls - is full of misdirection. Betsy is given a small piece of paper (a "voodoo patch") to help ward off danger during her trip, but in the process it is snagged off by a tree branch, with seemingly no consequences.
Eventually, Betsy runs into a more traditional zombie, the bug-eyed Carrefour (Darby Jones), and you might think this is going to be a classic movie monster...something that's going to attack or otherwise harm Betsy. But that doesn't happen either.
There are other spots where the picture just kind of doesn't make sense. It opens with Betsy narrating but halfway through, the narration stops and the film is no longer from her point of view. Also, the extra-marital goings-on of the Holland family is a big scandal on an island where zombies walk around freely and people practice voodoo?
In lesser hands, these flaws could have been fatal, but Tourneur and Lewton (and their screenwriters, Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, the former ironically being one of Universal's go-to writers for their "monster rally" films) weave such a spell of uncertainty and doom that I Walked With A Zombie grows in estimation the more you watch it. Certain sequences are so beautiful to look at that you forget the machinations of the plot and just get caught up in the sense of foreboding.
Despite these unusual (some would say frustrating) touches, I Walked With A Zombie was a hit at the box office. It didn't match the success of Cat People, but considering its meager budget and favorable critical reviews, it was seen as another winner for Lewton and further proof that he was on to something with his style of adult-oriented, character-driven horror.
The Leopard Man
Lewton's third film, and his last with director Jacques Tourneur, was The Leopard Man (1943). Never one to settle on a formula, The Leopard Man is set in New Mexico, about as far away from San Sebastian as San Sebastian was from the New York of Cat People
Based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich, The Leopard Man seems to be about, more than anything else, the random hand of Fate and how it affects people - whether they be innocent or guilty. One of the recurring motifs in the movie is a shot of a water fountain, and the ball the fountain's jets of water keeps bouncing in the air.
The Leopard Man is ostensibly about a serial killer (long before that term had been coined) who murders people dressed as some sort of leopard. But we're never quite sure because we never see the perpetrator directly. It’s even possible the murderer is really a leopard, seen at the beginning of the film getting loose from its owner.
By far, the film's most famous sequence is The Walk, where a young girl is sent out into the scary night by her mother to buy some corn meal.
On the way home, the girl is stalked by...something. Even though she ends up pounding on the front door of her house to be let inside, her mother (assuming the girl is just fooling around) does not let her in. It’s only until the daughter emits a blood-curdling scream...and a pool of blood oozes its way under the door...that the mother reacts. But then of course it is too late.
The Leopard Man seems to flit from character to character - the movie follows each one until the next new character is introduced, and then it follows that person.
Partly because of this unusual structure, the film doesn't quite hang together the way Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie do. Nevertheless, the movie contains many scenes as good as anything in the Lewton canon and no less an authority than William Friedkin says it's one of his favorite horror films of all time.
RKO was so pleased with Tourneur and Lewton's efforts that they split the team up and gave Tourneur other films to direct. Tourneur would later come to regret that decision (despite making some excellent films post-Lewton, like Out of the Past and Night of the Demon) but at the time it seemed like a promotion for both men.
For Lewton's part, RKO promised him bigger budgets, more time, and "A" level films. His first project under these new conditions was what I consider his true masterpiece and still one of the creepiest movies of all time, The Seventh Victim. It was yet another title handed to him by the RKO marketing department, though this one much less lurid than the previous three. Things were looking up!
The Seventh Victim
The Seventh Victim (1943) is about a young girl named Mary (Kim Hunter in her film debut) whose sister has gone missing while living in Manhattan. It turns out the sibling has gotten involved in a satanic cult - and Mary heads to New York to find her.
Lewton tapped his editor, Mark Robson, to direct, making it Robson's first time behind the camera. RKO was aghast--a novice director helming an "A" picture? They told Lewton he had to pick someone else, and Lewton refused.
RKO finally gave the producer a choice - dump Robson or keep him, but go back to making "B" movies on the same meager resources as before. Lewton chose the latter...and off they went to make The Seventh Victim.
Unfortunately, it was this tumult before the film was shot that is the only thing that mars The Seventh Victim. When the script was written, it was done so with the idea that it would be a longer "A" picture. But by the time the movie was put together, it only ran 71 minutes - with scenes removed that leave some plot holes behind.
Even so, I still find The Seventh Victim to be an absolutely amazingly unsettling film. Mary heads to New York and tries to find her sister, first enlisting the help of a somewhat two-bit detective named Irving August (Lou Lubin). They follow a few clues to an office her sister worked at. August is scared, but Mary prompts him to head into another room to look for more leads...only to have August emerge from it with a pair of scissors in his stomach. Mary, terrified, runs out of the building and into the subway to get away as fast as possible.
While on the subway, three men...all seemingly drunk...get on the car Mary is on. The man in the middle is so intoxicated, his two friends have to keep him upright. They sit across from Mary, saying nothing. The middle man's hat falls off, revealing it to be...Irving August. The other two men, now completely sober, stare at Mary and say nothing. Mary, now even more terrified, moves onto another car to retrieve a police officer. When they return, the men are gone.
Adding to the terror of this scene are details such as how brightly lit the subway car is, and the fact that there are numerous other passengers. And yet you feel Mary is in grave danger. This sense of fear and peril in the middle of a major metropolitan city - The City That Never Sleeps - is one of the major themes of The Seventh Victim. It turns out that, yes, Mary's sister has turned to a satanic cult, which is operating right under the noses of all the other citizens of New York.
Jacqueline (a striking Jean Brooks) is a deeply depressed, hopeless person, and craves the release of death. Even when she walks the streets of the city, teeming with people, she is utterly alone.
One of the other odd elements to The Seventh Victim is the appearance of Tom Conway as Dr. Judd, the same character he played in Cat People! Since Judd died in that film, that makes The Seventh Victim some sort of unofficial prequel to Cat People. If true, that would make it the first prequel in movie history, an honor generally bestowed upon the 1948 film Another Part of the Forest.
The Seventh Victim ends very unhappily, with two characters embracing death. It really could end no other way, and it is that trueness of purpose that helps make the film so memorable. How Lewton ever got it past RKO is lost to the ages.
Unfortunately for Lewton and RKO, The Seventh Victim was not received well critically or financially. Critics were baffled, and audiences (wanting more upbeat entertainment during World War II) didn't exactly thrill to a movie about people wanting to kill themselves - and succeeding. The Seventh Victim was Lewton's first commercial failure.
They Creep by Night
The disappointment of The Seventh Victim must have put the fear into RKO rather severely, because they announced that one of Lewton's next films would be a "monster rally" - just like the ones made across the street by Universal and aimed at the kiddie market. It was to be called They Creep By Night. In many subsequent books and articles about Lewton, the mere idea of this movie was dismissed as just a rumor because it was so preposterous.
But, lo and behold, in Edmund Bansak's essential book on Lewton, Fearing The Dark: The Val Lewton Career, he found a pre-production poster for it, essentially promising all the "monsters" from Lewton's previous films in one big project. Obviously, this was as far as They Creep By Night got, which part of me is sorry about. I would have loved to see what Lewton would have done with such an obviously crass commercial ploy.
Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi
Just as RKO was working on making Lewton's films a little more traditional with one hand, on the other they were allowing him to branch out from the horror genre and make other types of films. Two were produced: a teenage delinquency message film called Youth Runs Wild, and a costume drama called Mademoiselle Fifi (starring Simon Simone and directed by film legend Robert Wise, making his directing debut).
Both pictures were considered disappointments, with Youth Runs Wild undergoing last minute tinkering so much that Lewton asked (but failed) to have his name taken off it. Both films are still, some sixty-plus years later, pretty much unavailable in any format. All other plans Lewton had to make non-horror films were essentially dropped.
In any case, with the accelerated pace of production, Lewton's recent commercial failures had no effect on his next horror film, The Ghost Ship (1943), also directed by Mark Robson.
The Ghost Ship
The Ghost Ship is unusual for a Lewton film in that it features all male characters. To this point, all of Lewton's main protagonists had been women: Irena in Cat People, Betsy in I Walked With A Zombie, Clo-Clo in Leopard Man, and Mary in The Seventh Victim. It would also strike a different, more positive tone than his previous works.
Set aboard a merchant marine ship, The Ghost Ship stars Russell Wade as Tom Merriam, who is quickly unnerved by the strange occurances on the vessel. Some of the other crew members say the ship is haunted. But Merriam believes it is the ship's captain, Will Stone (Richard Dix), who is responsible when several crew members turn up dead.
Captain Stone, obsessed with authority and seemingly deranged, accuses Merriam of mutiny. During a port of call (at San Sebastian, the setting of I Walked With A Zombie!) he kicks Merriam off the ship, only to find him aboard again when several crew members (unaware of his dismissal) bring him back.
A fight for the ship ensues, and eventually the ship's crew learns that Captain Stone is indeed mad. A member of the crew, the scary-looking but ultimately good-hearted Finn the Mute (Skelton Knaggs) gets in a knife fight with Stone and kills him. Merriam completes his tour on the vessel in a rare upbeat ending for a Lewton film.
Ironic, then, that the first Lewton film with some sort of "happy ending" would suffer a cruel fate in real life: two would-be playwrights accused Lewton of stealing their idea for The Ghost Ship from an unsolicited script they sent him. Lewton, knowing he did no such thing and always on the defensive, refused to settle the lawsuit for the $700 the two men were willing to take, insisting instead that the matter be taken to court.
Unfortunately for Lewton, the court sided with the playwrights, awarding them $25,000 and barring the film from being reissued in theaters or sold to television.
For decades, The Ghost Ship was unavailable. And it remained so all the way up into the mid-1990s. Luckily, all of that legal mishegoss must have been settled in time for the Val Lewton DVD boxed set that came out in 2005, and The Ghost Ship resumed its rightful place in the canon.
While They Creep By Night might have folded, obviously RKO wanted to rein Lewton in a little, at least commercially: his next film was a sequel to Cat People, called Curse of the Cat People (1944).
Curse of the Cat People
Yet the film, again starring Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, and Simone Simon, represents probably Lewton's greatest bait-and-switch as a film producer: RKO wanted a straight-ahead, no-nonsense sequel to Lewton's (and their) biggest hit. And while Lewton did indeed produce a film called Curse of the Cat People, it was one of the most unusual sequels ever made.
Taking place approximately a decade after Cat People, we now see Oliver and Alice happily married in upstate New York with their young daughter Amy. But right from the get-go, we see Amy is an unusual, troubled child: gentle and sensitive, she has a hard time making friends so she spends more and more time in the world of her own imagination, which includes the ghost (?) of her father's former wife Irena.
Throughout the film, we are never sure whether this is "really" happening, or just a figment of Amy's troubled psyche. Amy makes friends with an old shut-in next door, who is also lost in her own world. The neighbor is so far gone, she doesn't even acknowledge her live-in daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell) is there, still believing she was killed in a car accident years ago.
Amy's parents are more than unnerved by their young daughter saying her new friend is Irena, and we see that Oliver is still pretty much a clueless twit. He can't (or won't) figure out why Alice is upset when he says things like how Amy...because of her strange behavior...is almost more like Irena's daughter than Alice's. It's a nice flip from Cat People, where he was insensitive about Alice to Irena.
Amy's life is in danger when the old woman takes to her, which drives Barbara into an almost murderous, jealous rage. The ghost of Irena steps in, saving Amy's life...a happy ending of a sort, but we're left with a lot of unanswered questions.
Near the very end of the movie, Irena says she is leaving Amy, never to come back. Oliver says he sees Irena too, which seems to mollify Amy. But we can't be sure whether Oliver is telling the truth or just humoring his daughter. He seems interested in his child's well-being - but only up to a point.
Curse of the Cat People was hailed almost immediately as one of the most sensitive films about child psychology ever made. It was an amazing feat in itself, but especially so when you realize the film is the product of two directors: Gunther von Fritsch, who was fired halfway through production, and Robert Wise, who finished it. It was even used as a teaching tool for educators and psychologists, who loved the film but kept wondering why such a genteel fantasy movie had that ridiculous title.
It was at this point there was a change of hands at RKO, and Lewton's new immediate boss was the portentously-titled Jack Gross. Gross was not impressed with Lewton's artistic airs and wanted more straightforward, formula-tested horror movies. To that end, he teamed Lewton with an actor new to the studio under contract: Boris Karloff.
At first, Lewton was despondent about this news. After all...who else better represented the Universal monster style than the Frankenstein Monster himself? But he quickly changed his tune after having a meeting with the star, and he learned what an articulate, gentle, sophisticated man Karloff was, and someone who was itching to appear in better movies than the ones Universal kept offering him. It was a surprising match made in heaven.
Isle of the Dead
The first film Karloff did for Lewton was Isle of the Dead (1945), directed by Mark Robson.
Titled Camilla during production - and inspired by an 1880 painting by Arnold Boeklin showing a ferryman escorting a hooded figure to the afterworld - RKO's Isle would prove to be a curious mix for the genre fan.
Set on a Greek island during the 1912 Balkan War, Karloff plays General Nikolas Pherides, a man trapped with ten other people, quarantined there because of a plague. As the people die one by one, a local legend about a sort of vampire (a vorvolakas) takes hold and people begin suspecting one another of being bloodsuckers.
Many Lewton fans consider Isle to be Lewton's weakest film. That probably has to do with its bumpy production: in the middle of shooting, Karloff's old back problems (partly caused by his time on the Frankenstein movies) flared up so badly he had to undergo surgery. As Karloff healed, many in the cast moved on to other projects and the filming was halted.
The shoot was delayed for so long that Lewton plunged ahead into his next picture with Karloff, The Body Snatcher (1945), which many of those same fans consider to be Lewton's best film.
In the end, Lewton and Robson never really did tidy up Isle of the Dead and of all Lewton's films, it feels like the only one that isn't really sure of what it's trying to say.
It's not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but Isle just doesn't have a clarity of purpose, nor does it have a series of gripping individual scenes like The Leopard Man had.
Isle does, however, have one standout scene. A classic sequence, to be sure. One of the central characters, Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery), is troubled by cataleptic trances. After she experiences a particularly severe episode, the rest of the group presumes she has died and so they bury her. Alive. Her muffled cries for help go unheard in the dank mausoleum she'll now call home for all eternity...
Released on the heels of the hugely popular Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead was a disappointment, critically and financially.
The Body Snatcher
Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson true short story, The Body Snatcher is about a cabman named Gray (Karloff) who provides corpses for a local doctor named McFarland (Henry Daniell) so he can learn about the human body. (It is also the subject of the upcoming film Burke and Hare starring Simon Pegg.)
Gray, with McFarland's assent, eventually goes from procuring bodies legally - to grave robbing - to murder.
With its European, old-timey setting, of all of Lewton's work The Body Snatcher feels the most like a Universal horror film. This is even more pronounced since the film features a small role for Bela Lugosi, in his final appearance with Karloff.
While there are patches in the film that are a little dull, the ending - with McFarland driven insane and to his death by Cabman Gray - is one of the greatest final horror movie scenes put on celluloid. Robert Wise and his editor build to a fever pitch and achieve something as pulse-pounding as anything you've ever seen, before or since.
The Body Snatcher proved to be a huge hit, as big as Cat People had been. Lewton had showed he could work with more traditional horror film elements and still make a picture that reflected his vision and artistic aesthetic.
Unfortunately, this good turn of luck didn't last long. Lewton had to go right back into Isle of the Dead and finish it up...which by this point had become something of a mess. And he only had a few weeks to straighten it all out.
Lewton's final film with Karloff and for RKO, was Bedlam (1946). Based on a painting by William Hogarth (who was given a writing credit!) - the film is set in 18th century London, inside an asylum run by the cruel Master Sims (guess who).
When Sims uses some of his patients to put on a show to entertain the heartless aristocratic royalty, it horrifies a young, kind-hearted woman named Nell Bowen (Anna Lee).
With the help of a like-minded politician, Nell tries to reform Bedlam, which Sims does not take too kindly to. He tries to have Nell committed, hoping his inmates will do her in. However, Nell manages to befriend the various troubled (if not dangerous) souls and escape.
Sims is confronted by his victims, who put him "on trial" - only to find him innocent! When they think they've accidentally killed him, the inmates conspire to bury Sims' body behind an unfinished wall.
This is Bedlam's scariest scene, as we watch the inmates pile up the bricks, covering up Sims bit by bit. Just before the last brick is put in place, we see Sims is not dead...the very thing the inmates felt they had to cover up. Sims starts to scream as the final brick silences him forever.
That final sequence proved sadly prophetic. Lewton was given extra post-production time on Bedlam but the by the time it was released, horror movies were essentially out of vogue, and audiences didn't show up - despite critical raves.
The final brick had been put in to suit the public's taste for horror, but it was too late to save Bedlam.
At this point, Lewton moved on to other non-horror films, but for one reason or another he couldn't get one put together. It didn't help that RKO didn't really show him much respect as a filmmaker, and by 1947 Lewton had left the studio and moved to Paramount.
Lewton, big-hearted to his people as always, tried to have his entire RKO office staff moved with him, an idea Paramount rejected. The only person he managed to bring along was his loyal secretary, the wonderfully-named Verna De Mots.
Unfortunately, Lewton had an even tougher time at Paramount, getting only one film produced, a soap opera called My Own True Love, which bombed. By the time that film opened, he had moved onto MGM, where he had worked years before.
Things were no better at Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Apparently at one point, no one spoke to him for three weeks. One time, film critic James Agee - doing a piece about John Huston for Life magazine - was visiting the offices of MGM exec Dore Schary.
Knowing Lewton was now on the lot, Agee mentioned to Schary that he had "one of the three greatest moviemakers this country ever produced under contract." Schary had no idea to whom Agee was referring until Agee fed Schary Lewton's name.
Lewton left MGM with nothing to show for his time, becoming an independent producer. He put together a western, Apache Drums, for his old nemesis Universal (now Universal-International).
While not considered on par with his horror films, Apache Drums featured many of the unusual, moody touches seen in Lewton's previous works. It seems that after years of creative restlessness, Lewton was as happy as he had been at RKO.
Sadly, this new phase of Lewton's career was not to last. He suffered a heart attack shortly after the Apache Drums preview, followed by a second one. Val Lewton died on March 14, 1951.
He remains the shining exception to the rule that directors are the true auteurs of their movies.
Over twelve films, produced by two different studios, directed by four different directors, and written by at least a dozen different screenwriters, Lewton retained a consistent vision and point of view (even if it was, often as not, a pessimistic, gloomy one) to the point that each of them have moments that directly reflect the feelings and thoughts of the man who produced them.
No one at RKO, and probably not even Lewton, would have ever guessed that a series of horror films, generated in tail-wagging-the-dog style (title first, then movie) made for peanuts on breakneck schedules…would have had any lasting value, let alone still being watched and discussed decades later, after literally thousands of other horror films have come and gone.
Val Lewton's films still have the capacity to frighten us because they deal with real emotions and universal uncertainties: over things unseen, things that lay in the darkest corners of our imagination, just waiting to jump out and scare us.
Robert J. Kelly is a professional graphic designer and illustrator by day, comic book historian by night. His illustrative work is showcased at namtab.com. Kelly also has several comics and pop culture blogs, including The Aquaman Shrine, TreasuryComics.com, and Hey Kids, Comics! He is currently hard at work on a Hey Kids, Comics! book.