Previously a story editor for David O. Selznick and an author of pulp novels, Val Lewton found his greatest talent by playing a high-stakes game of fill-in-the-blank. Sensing an upswing for horror movies following the 1941 success of Universal's The Wolf Man, RKO decided to launch a horror line of its own. They put Lewton in the producer's chair, gave him a few bucks and a sensational title—Cat People—and let him figure out the rest. Still reeling from the twin financial disasters of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, the studio adopted a policy of "showmanship, not genius." Lewton proved they could have both.
Lewton's reputation rests squarely on the run of nine low-budget horror films he produced for RKO in the '40s, now collected in the extras-loaded five-disc set The Val Lewton Horror Collection. (Some titles are available individually.) Directed by Jacques Tourneur and released in 1942, Cat People remains the best-known of the bunch, and it immediately establishes Lewton's signature touches. As square-jawed hero Kent Smith meets, woos, and marries the exotic Simone Simon, there's much talk of a curse on her old Serbian village that Simon believes afflicts her, one that transforms ordinary people into fearsome cats when they become, ahem, passionate. The film suggests much but shows little, leaving its monster in the shadows, and letting the question of whether there's even a monster at all hang in the air. The horror is fueled by sexual frustration, repressed passion, and the everyday anxieties of marriage and urban life, and it plays out in a noir-lit New York filled with everyday people. No fan of gothic castles, Lewton brought horror home with Cat People.
The collaboration with Tourneur continued with I Walked With A Zombie, a film that takes its title from a tabloid story, its plot from Jane Eyre, and its sensual visuals from the imaginations of the producer and his director. Tourneur also helmed The Leopard Man, a film that's as much a mystery as a horror film, and which has become justly famous for a tense chase scene, before moving on to big-budget pictures and passing the directorial reins to editor Mark Robson. Robson delivered immediately with The Seventh Victim, in which a young woman (a debuting Kim Hunter) travels to the big city in search of her sister and finds a decadent underbelly populated by Satan-worshippers. In typical Lewton fashion, however, the occult proves a less potent threat than a citywide undercurrent of morbid ennui.
Robson was also on board for The Ghost Ship, an intense ocean-bound fascism allegory (with no ghosts) that went little-seen for years because of a lawsuit. Lewton brought in another editor, Robert Wise, to co-direct the dream-like The Curse Of The Cat People, which reprises characters from the original in the service of a suburban story about childhood alienation. From there, Lewton teamed with Boris Karloff for three movies: the fever-gripped, Robson-helmed Isle Of The Dead, the lurid, tense Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation The Body Snatcher (directed by Wise and featuring Bela Lugosi), and Bedlam (directed by Robson again), a bigger-budget look inside a Karloff-led insane asylum. Bedlam failed at the box office in 1946, but now, it looks like it could have been an inspired starting point for larger productions.
It wasn't meant to be. Lewton produced a few more films, then died before reaching his 50th birthday. But he left an indelible mark on the modern film, and a considerable legacy in the stylish, thematically complex films he directed, all summed up in a scene that recurs in each: A lone figure wandering alone and afraid of someone, or something, lurking in the shadows. It's what's unseen that's most fearsome, and what's hidden that destroys.