Author Topic: Val Lewton Horror Marathon  (Read 10435 times)

Najemikon

  • Guest
Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« on: October 04, 2008, 10:52:35 PM »


Val Lewton produced nine b-movie horror films all included in this extraordinary set. The titles are wonderfully evocative, though maybe misleading! Ghost Ship, for instance, features no actual ghosts! Not that you should be discouraged as they certainly don't skimp on atmosphere and there's probably some of the creepiest, scariest filmmaking you'll ever see amongst these gems. Although several do have a supernatural element, the real pull is in the emotions and morals of the characters. Maybe I make them sound too dry? Again don't be put off! They are first and foremost b-movie fun that obey all the conventions of the horror genre. If you enjoy the Universal releases and later, Hammer, you should love these just as much. It's just he paid attention to character, detail and viewer manipulation in levels I can only compare with Hitchcock. I think he was far ahead of his time and it's very sad his career was so short. Still, he's left us with more than a fair share of classics.

At the time of writing, I hadn't finished the set, but it's already an invaluable part of my collection and I can't recommend it enough.
« Last Edit: October 05, 2008, 02:23:56 AM by Jon »

Najemikon

  • Guest
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #1 on: October 04, 2008, 11:12:18 PM »
CAT PEOPLE
5 out of 5

Simon Simone is brilliant as Irena, a woman afraid to love in case it awakens a curse. Her fiance thinks this is rubbish and tries to help her so they can be married. But he's taken on more than he bargained for.

Horror classic that uses shadow and suggestion rather than effects, backed up by strong themes of real horror that most people can identify with; jealousy, self-doubt, loneliness. Is she a cat woman? Doesn't really matter when those themes are already causing enough trouble. This I've come to learn is typical Lewton. Add in a fiance that might not actually have the will power to stay the course and help his bonkers girlfriend and you have a complex hero unusual for the time this film was released.

The photography is incredible, using shadows to shred your nerves. I particularly enjoyed the swimming pool sequence which is just superb. It's all backed up by the cat people myth, which may be without foundation, but Irena believes it fully so it adds to the intrigue. As does the strange woman who may also be a feline herself.


CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE
5 out of 5

A wonderful story that like its predecessor uses suggestion and backs it up with childhood fears as a daydreaming girl loses her real friends and seeks refuge with an imaginary one... who turns out to be Irena. Or does it? Is she a ghost, or just a construct? Whichever, the film is visually very striking, creating a fairytale world by indulging in all sorts of tricks with light. Whereas the first film played with shadows, this plays with sunbeams. Some of it is genuinely scary because after all, the best fairytales have darkness.

This film caught me out though. It is not Cat People Part 2. It's very different and really it bears no relation to the first film. I think I will appreciate it much more the next time I see it. No mention of cat people and Irena is truly a guardian angel with no sign of the neuroses that haunted her. No mention of cats even! Confusingly, a character who it was suggested might be a cat person in the last film, is here too, playing the nearest thing to a villain, perhaps a witch in relation to the fairy tale setting, but only late in the story did I realise there was never going to be any sort of reference to her earlier appearance. Which is fine! But I wish I knew. I kept expecting her to claw up! Instead her story is only implied and beautifully subtle. Nevertheless, the memories of Cat People are important as they cause the parents (from the first film) to react badly to their daughters perfectly normal wish for an imaginary friend.

Quite brilliant and a move that would never work these days. Imagine if the next Batman film didn't feature Batman? Just a story about how the idea of Batman affects peoples lives without ever mentioning him. Nolan could pull it off and I bet it would be brilliant, but no way would anyone forgive him!

It's title is both brave and perfectly descriptive. The result, probably more feasible than the first. Even then the shift in style is huge and it truly feels like a new chapter in these characters lives without repeating anything. Eli Roth produces Hostel III... a musical comedy.

Nah, they couldn't get away with that either!

It helps that I've always been a sucker for Christmas stories and this has some really nice scenes. It centres on a child (wonderful performance) who's imagination is in overdrive anyway at such a magical time. All in all, this could be the most rewarding film in the set. I tell you, it's bloody hard to remember these are "just" b-movies!
« Last Edit: October 05, 2008, 02:34:51 AM by Jon »

Najemikon

  • Guest
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #2 on: October 04, 2008, 11:26:42 PM »
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE
4 out of 5


A young Canadian nurse (Betsy) comes to the West Indies to care for Jessica, the wife of a plantation manager (Paul Holland). Jessica seems to be suffering from a kind of mental paralysis as a result of fever. When she falls in love with Paul, Betsy determines to cure Jessica even if she needs to use a voodoo ceremony, to give Paul what she thinks he wants. (from IMDB because I couldn't bothered to type one, alright? So sue me.) :tease:

Another example of Val Lewton being far ahead of his time. This certainly fits the horror bill in atmosphere, set in a far off land with strange customs. The story is again, much more subtle and is especially noteworthy for its depiction of Voodoo, normally such a big obvious target for villains to employ. Even modern representations clumsily try to show "good" voodoo and "bad" (Bones for instance). Here it is shown to be far from that simple and it works beautifully as a plot device.

It's less about there being a good/evil split, and more about having the courage to make decisions that are for the greater good. In simple terms, very cruel to be kind. It's a moral and challenging film dressed up in b-movie fun. The atmosphere is again superb and you get a tangible sense of this girl being so far from home, dealing with strange customs. The "zombies" obviously aren't gory corpses wandering around groaning, but the blank hypnotised characters (the wife and a strange, imposing figure under voodoo control) are just as creepily effective.


« Last Edit: October 05, 2008, 02:31:17 AM by Jon »

Najemikon

  • Guest
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #3 on: October 04, 2008, 11:39:59 PM »
THE BODYSNATCHER
5 out of 5

The first of Lewton's films I've seen that could be described as a full on proper horror. Still has the atmosphere, but now with a story that Hammer could have made, wearing it's bloody evil heart on its sleeve! Edinburgh 1831 (though you wouldn't know from the accents) and a doctor employs a grave robber. They have a long history and the robber is using it as a hold over the doctor and his wife (he's over familiar, calling her "crony"). It is perfect horror, but still has the subtleties Lewton has brought to his others to produce another challenging story. Boris Karloff gives a fantastic performance as the grinning graverobber, a part not unlike the Joker in that he teases and manipulates the characters into place.

Boris Karloff is an absolute legend. You should see this film if only for his wonderful performance. He is superb. Film education is sorely lacking that this particular bastard never has a rightful place in classic villains (or even Lewton and his films in general). He even has a creepy laugh! What else do you need to make this a true horror classic? How about Bela Lugosi scrapping with Karloff. That's right, Dracula and Frankenstein slugging it out. Great stuff!

The story cleverly weaves into Scottish tradition with strong links to classic Resurrection Men Burke and Hare (the Dr was supposedly an assistant of Dr Knox), and more shockingly, a cheeky swipe at poor old Greyfriars Bobby. This is the equivalent of kicking Santa in the nuts! It's sacred. You just don't. Bloody great though.

By the way, if you don't know Burke and Hare, or Greyfriars, it's worth Googling. Both are fascinating stories and really adds to this story. It is rare that someone creates fiction to follow on from fact and it should be done more.
« Last Edit: March 28, 2010, 02:23:03 PM by Jon »

Najemikon

  • Guest
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #4 on: October 04, 2008, 11:40:47 PM »
LEOPARD MAN
4 out of 5

I've seen some reviewers dismiss this as another take on Cat People, but I think that is unfair. Ok, there are some base similarities, but Leopard Man abandons some of the complex morals in favour of a more regular random attack story. Not that it skimps on the emotional side I've come to respect from a Val Lewton production.

Also Cat People was supernatural and the story was mainly concerned with characters trying to find a more tangible explanation. Here, a tame leopard escapes and kills a girl. It is then blamed for more deaths, but some insist it is a human murderer. We the audience are perhaps the only ones considering a cross between the two, maybe because we just watched Cat People(!), but it is definitely inferred anyway.

It's possibly the most genuinely scary film of the set so far, because it shares Cat People's use of shadow and suggestion, but also adds a huge amount of build-up for the victims. Despite the short running time it shares with the other films (just over an hour!), much effort is made to draw you into their lives so it's all the more nerve-shredding when they finally face the terror. The blood running under a locked door as a family desperately try to get it open is very memorable (that it was locked in a petty squabble just adds to the moral tension that Lewton does so well). These are Hitchcockian levels of detail and audience manipulation, working with the barest of tools. If only Val and Al could have met! Actually, no, they'd have probably worn each other out. I should wish instead that filmmakers of today would watch films like theirs and actually understand how to construct a proper, scary, character driven slasher instead of trotting out another cheerleader or three.

Not that I have the slightest thing against cheerleaders, trotting or otherwise.
« Last Edit: October 05, 2008, 02:31:54 AM by Jon »

Najemikon

  • Guest
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #5 on: October 05, 2008, 02:29:43 AM »
GHOST SHIP
3 out of 5


This is the closest so far a Val Lewton production could be described as rubbish. Yet it's still watchable and still gets under the skin. Full marks for atmosphere too. You can't go wrong with a ship; there's nowhere to run for starters, then add the darkness and the fog, plus a couple of dodgy characters. And when one of them is the captain, you're really stuffed!

I'd have been more disappointed if I'd watched this first, but by now I've learned that just because it's called "Ghost Ship" doesn't mean I'm necessarily going to see ghosts! No, these are Lewton ghosts. Emotional demons preying on sanity. A new third officer believes his captain's demons have driven him to murder. But he's such a nice chap no-one believes he could have. Undaunted, after a bit of Crimson Tide style tension, they dock and the officer reports the charges officially. Of course they fail to stick and he loses his job. He's off the boat.

And this, despite being in overall the weakest entry so far, is one of the most brilliant plot points. They build up all the tension on the lonely ship, with
danger and suspicion around every corner and then let the viewer off by getting to dock safely. But then though a misunderstanding, he gets trapped back on the boat! He's now a civilian, with a crew that openly hates him and a captain trying to kill him! Bloody genius.

Sadly, this doesn't extend to the rather stilted production overall. Everything just seems more obvious and lazy than before, which is a shame. The very last shot is a case in point: two characters meet and have a conversation, but we only see it via there shadows. Maybe I'm thick and I've missed something brilliantly insightful. I hope so, but quite frankly, it just looked a bit shit to me. Overall it does work though and there are some great moments, like a knife fight and a death by chain. Plus Sir Lancelot is in it again! I haven't mentioned him before. He's a West Indies actor who played a Calypso Singer in I Walked With a Zombie and ended up singing in both this and Curse of the Cat People as well.

Najemikon

  • Guest
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #6 on: October 05, 2008, 02:36:53 AM »
THE SEVENTH VICTIM
4 out of 5


A woman is looking for her sister who disappeared some time before. As she traces her sisters movements, she becomes aware of a Satanic cult.

This one is possibly Lewton's most enigmatic film, Curse of the Cat People included. It is of the highest quality, especially in cast and photography, but the story is especially intriguing. Most of his plots so far have been relatively straightforward. Plenty to think about, but the core stories are typical horror staples.

Here it is less conventional. If not for the presence of the Satanic cult, it wouldn't even be horror, but actually Film Noir, complete with the suitably bleak ending and characters as shadowy as the streets they hide in.

But it is a horror in the best Lewton tradition (the "dark mirror" as Guillermo del Toro said in an interview) and several scenes stand out. A murder in a dark hallway, a shower scene that will remind you of Psycho (although no-one dies, the scary shadow on the curtain could easily have been an inspiration to Hitch) and a nerve-jangling ten minute walk home for one character at the end. I think it was about 10 minutes. Bear in mind like many of these films, The Seventh Victim is just 75 minutes long, so a fair portion of the screentime is rightly dedicated to this scene alone.

It sags in the middle, but I found the subtle religious tone compelling and this film will keep coming back to me over the coming days, more so than the others in this set I think. Ultimately it was a story about faith and will certainly reward repeat viewings. I'm not a religious person, yet I still found a sequence that quotes a line from The Lord's Prayer strangely moving. The whole final section is powerful and I hope some of you watch this film as I'd love to hear others thoughts on what you think it was trying to say.

Even though it was a downbeat end, I did like what seems to be a sick joke at the expense of Film Noir conventions! It's part of a naive romance sub-plot I'd otherwise found annoying, but typical of 40s Noir. Now I wonder if it was there just to set up a sly stab at what must have been a cliche even in 1943. Maybe I'm being too cynical, but after how Greyfriars Bobby was treated in The Body Snatcher, anything is possible!

As always with these films, I may have made this sound a bit weighty, but in fact, it's still a deceptively simple and powerful thriller that might have you treating the shadows in your bedroom with suspicion! And that's all we should ask of the best horrors.
« Last Edit: October 06, 2008, 01:29:15 AM by Jon »

Offline Achim

  • Mega Heavy Poster
  • *******
  • Posts: 7170
    • View Profile
    • ya_shin's site
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #7 on: October 06, 2008, 06:07:52 AM »
[edit] :bag:
You can delete (or rather Remove) your own posts in this forum ;)

Najemikon

  • Guest
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #8 on: October 06, 2008, 10:52:38 AM »
[edit] :bag:
You can delete (or rather Remove) your own posts in this forum ;)

I don't know what you're talking about. :tease: :devil:

Thanks for the tip! ;)

Najemikon

  • Guest
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #9 on: October 07, 2008, 10:48:51 AM »
Isle of the Dead
3 out of 5

Greece, 1912. A general (Boris Karloff) and a war correspondent (Marc Cramer) are on an island primarily used as a cemetery. They are trapped with a typically mixed group of people by a plague. Worse, an old woman is convinced a girl in their party is a vorvolaka, a type of vampire.

Isle of the Dead? Vampires? I thought I'd be in for a treat with this one. Sadly it's quite pedestrian, directed by Mark Robson, who seems responsible for all the weaker entries. Even then, like Seventh Victim and Ghost Ship, it does have it's good points and they are very good indeed. For the most part it's rather bogged down in a predictable group of characters trapped in quarantine. The old lady who owns the house is convinced one of them, a girl, is a vampiric creature, feeding on her sickly mistress. Most of the others think she is just superstitious, especially Karloff's no nonsense general. He's a great character, appearing cruel, nostalgic or sensibly efficient at any given moment.

The point of the story is watching the general cave in to madness and plague, leading him to believe the old woman. Therefore he becomes the danger, yet still the faithful "Watchdog", being cruel to the few to protect the many. It's very clever, but because we can see he's being misled, there is little for us to be scared of really. That is until the last act when one of the number is buried alive! The lead up to this is wonderful and worthy of a Hitchcock twist. Then there is tense scene in a crypt which ends with a cracking shot that sends a shiver down your spine. 1945! Who needs cgi? Just very clever photography.

Overall it's about faith versus science and how both can blind or enlighten, given the right situation. It's just a shame there wasn't more tension for the first 40 minutes or so.

Najemikon

  • Guest
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #10 on: October 14, 2008, 01:21:58 AM »
Bedlam
4 out of 5


Boris Karloff is Sims, in charge of an asylum in 18th century London, whose wretched inmates provide amusements for the high class. Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is a woman who despite herself comes to pity the inmates and tries to help them with support from a Quaker and John "The Devil" Wilkes, both reformers.

Mark Robson is directing again and sadly, like the last few entries in this wonderful series, he delivers another badly paced, predictable and heavy handed story, for the first half at least. I still rate it highly though because it is a good story that should be commended for its ambition, and the last act is superb.

It is very like The Bodysnatcher in that it is a period piece based on truth. Bedlam was a terrible and unjust place, and Wilkes was real, nicknamed "The Devil" for the trouble he caused in politics. In a good way though.

After a great opening sequence that reminded me a little of Vertigo, it takes a ponderous half-hour or so to get into Bedlam proper. Until then it's all over-blown flowery theatrical language that really begins to grate. The cast, including a few regulars, work well with Karloff to bring some much needed humour (love the servant whispering to a parrot!), but you may still find your attention wavering. Repeat viewings may reveal the real intent though because the contrast with the mad inmates of the shadowy cruel hospital is incredible. The foreboding set full of various looneys is a truly unsettling scene.

It's very much a political film. That might have surprised me before knowing Val Lewton's work. He would never just produce a mere genre piece! It's a dry, but anyone interested in the history of politics might find a lot of layers to dig into here. But this is a horror film! Where's the peril? Luckily, it starts properly once Sims conspires to have the meddling Nell committed. That scene is scary enough because they rule she volunteers for her own safety while doing no such thing! By the way, there's no spoiler required here. She's so annoying you want her locked up by this point!

Again that's kind of the point. Once she's in, her first reaction is of repulsion and all thoughts of caring are abandoned. But then her Quaker friend breaks in (sort of) and helps her make the best of it without resorting to violence while he see Wilkes for help. See the metaphors for political reform?

Here I think we also have the story of Florence Nightingale and if it is, Lewton is again far ahead of his time in presenting the real story. Maybe it's coincidence here, but contrary to popular opinion, Nightingale was frankly a bit of a cow. All talk, no action, until she saw the results of war and then she campaigned tirelessly. Here, in the creepiest scene, we see her walk through the dark asylum with a candle, tending to the sick, who a moment earlier were scaring the shit out of her. And us.

The efforts of Wilkes cause a new trial to be scheduled and with his asylum tamed, Sims is desperate to silence Nell. And so the stage is set for the most delicious, nasty end I could have hoped for. A proper and surreal horror ending that Hammer would later make their trade!




Najemikon

  • Guest
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #11 on: October 14, 2008, 01:27:07 AM »
And so that's the end of the movies. I hope you've enjoyed reading so far and seriously consider getting some of these films, if not the boxset which is excellent value for money. I'd love to hear your comments.

I'll update this thread later with the included documentaries, but for now, I'll just say how pleased I am to have discovered this set. The short career of Val Lewton doesn't seem to get spoken of very much, yet he must have been one of the most influential filmmakers. His stories are unmistakeably horror and wonderfully dark, but aspire to be much more and reward analysis.

And they were b-movies??!! 
« Last Edit: October 14, 2008, 01:28:38 AM by Jon »

Offline Antares

  • Super Heavy Poster
  • ******
  • Posts: 4096
    • View Profile
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #12 on: January 16, 2010, 01:44:17 AM »
Seeing as how this is a thread is over a year old and is about Val Lewton, you can call me the The Thread Necromancer;)


I'm embarrassed Jon, to say that I bought this boxset back in December 2007, and I've only watched Cat People so far.

Now it's not because I didn't like it, and it soured me on any future viewings, but because it was purchased during a six month spell in which I purchased over 150 DVD's. A lot of which were boxsets like this one. :whistle:

But after reading your reviews, I'm going to dust off the set and plow through it.  :thumbup:

Offline addicted2dvd

  • Forum Inventory
  • ********
  • Posts: 17517
  • Country: us
    • View Profile
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #13 on: January 16, 2010, 01:44:37 PM »
Definitely worth it! He recommended this set to me when I was making my order for my October horror marathon. I watched every movie in the set already (didn't watch either documentary yet) And I must say I enjoyed this set a lot! Sure there was some better then others... but the set is well worth it!  :thumbup:
Pete

Najemikon

  • Guest
Re: Val Lewton Horror Marathon
« Reply #14 on: January 16, 2010, 03:36:42 PM »
Thanks for digging the thread up, Antares! Look forward to hearing what you think. I was really pleased when Pete gave them a go and I still hope others do too. Especially as Scorcese's next, Shutter Island, is apparently inspired by Lewton's style.