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He Walked with a Zombie

The Val Lewton Horror Collection

9 films by Val Lewton
DVD box set, $59.98

The creative career of Val Lewton—the part with a continuing afterlife—lasted just four years, from the spring of 1942, when pre-production work began on his film Cat People, until April 1946, when Bedlam, the last of the eleven films he produced for RKO, was released. Nine of those films—all but the studio-mangled melodrama Youth Runs Wild and the underrated Maupassant adaptation Mademoiselle Fifi—have now been released on DVD as “The Val Lewton Horror Collection,” providing a welcome opportunity for reimmersion in a body of work whose power to fascinate seems to have grown over time.

Probably unavoidably, the films are being marketed with the same misleading poster art and the promises of “chillers,” “shockers,” and “tales of terror” that inveigled their original audiences into anticipating something quite different from what they got. What they actually did get remains mysterious enough to keep these movies from becoming comfortably campy artifacts of another era. Like flowers preternaturally slow to unfold, they seem to be still in the process of revealing their final form: odd as it may be that such miraculous freshness should be suggested by movies whose themes are inescapably decay, morbid regret, the temptation to welcome death.

Even when we know them well they continue to instill, as in John Ashbery’s description of The Seventh Victim, “the feeling that the ground under our feet is unstable.” What Lewton’s movies are actually about, in the most literal sense, is always open to question; one can watch I Walked with a Zombie or The Seventh Victim or Isle of the Dead many times without being able to give a coherent summary of their plots. On its release, Bosley Crowther in The New York Times thought that The Seventh Victim “might make more sense if it was run backward.” (Lewton’s most narratively coherent picture, The Body Snatcher, adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, though admirable in many ways, has less of his distinctive poetry than the others.) In American film, the only predecessors that come to mind for such destabilizing effects are Edgar Ulmer’s formally rigorous Gothic delirium The Black Cat (1934) and Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936), in which Cornell took the seventy-six-minute jungle picture East of Borneo (1932) and condensed and recombined its sequences into nineteen minutes of mesmeric suggestiveness, a dream vision of what remains of movies after their stories have gone.

Alexander Nemerov’s recent critical study of Lewton—Icons of Grief: Val Lewton’s Home Front Pictures—demonstrates, with its lyrical, nearly trancelike dedication to defining the elusive essence of these films, the capacity of Lewton’s work to draw its commentators ever deeper into the mood of dreamy morbidity that infuses Cat People and The Leopard Man and Isle of the Dead. Lewton is the Ancient Mariner of filmmakers: like the old sailor at the beginning of The Ghost Ship or the ominous calypso singer in I Walked with a Zombie, he hooks you with the beginning of a tale and leads you on through the bewildering paces of a journey whose significance (could it ever be determined) might hinge on fleeting, apparently random encounters with minor characters or with abrupt and inexplicable deviations from the main trail. His films might be described as mood pieces interrupted by discordant apparitions, but that would make them sound flimsier and vaguer than the vigorously graphic compositions that they are: not dreamy but, rather, truly dreamlike, which is to say hauntingly specific, brutally elliptical, wily in their resistance to easy explanation.

Prior to his brief flowering, Lewton had been a dabbler in journalism, poetry, and pornography, a writer of pulp novels with titles like Where the Cobra Sings and The Cossack Sword, a publicist at MGM, and for eight doubtless grueling years a writer, story editor, and factotum for David Selznick; afterward, poor health and professional misfortune pretty much sidelined him before he died at forty-six in 1951. From what came before, it would have been impossible to predict the nature and the durability of the work he did at RKO, but the very disparateness of his early career offers some clues to the peculiar qualities of that work. Born as Vladimir Leventon in Yalta in 1904, he and his family had come to America five years later to rejoin his mother’s younger sister, who as Alla Nazimova had become a Broadway star—the great exponent of Ibsen—and whose subsequent filmmaking career would clear a way for Lewton in the film business.

Lewton’s early literary productions veered from the aspirations of Old-World high culture to the imperatives of hard-boiled American brashness, from poems written under the pseudonym Toison d’Or to novels exploring tabloid crime cases (The Fateful Star Murder) and the misadventures of hard-luck girls drifting into prostitution (No Bed of Her Own). A certain neurotic flamboyance seems to have impressed people early on—“Two particular phobias of Lewton’s youth,” his biographer Edmund G. Bansak notes, “were his fear of cats and his extreme aversion to being touched”—but any artistic ambitions were rapidly subsumed by the demands of commercial work: he was, in his son’s words,

a kind of hack, but he enjoyed the challenge that came with turning hack work into something special…. There is a sort of pride in being a whore. He saw a certain honesty in being able to make a living.*

Whatever mixture of whorish pride, dandyish rebellion, barely suppressed phobia, aesthetic yearning, and nostalgia for the lost world of his birthplace might swirl in Lewton’s consciousness (his son described him as “a strange combination of gentleness and authoritarianism”), he had acquired through those eight years with Selznick as thorough a command of the practicalities of grand-scale filmmaking as anyone in Hollywood. He had been responsible, with the director Jacques Tourneur, for the memorable revolutionary scenes in the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities, and took credit for some of the most vivid details—“the harp, the parrot, and the ancestral portraits being taken out of town”—in the evacuation of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. He had also apparently been pushed to his limits by that most obsessive of moguls: “You can’t talk reason,” he wrote of Selznick, “to a man who believes that he has made the greatest motion picture of all time, past, present, and future.”

There is a quality of happy accident to the inception of his career at RKO. Had it not been for the failure of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons—a debacle that led to executive upheaval at the studio—there might have been no occasion to celebrate Lewton. As it was, the timing was perfect; Lewton wanted to leave Selznick, and RKO’s new chief, Charles Koerner, was looking for someone who could help move the studio in a more frankly commercial direction. Universal had just made a huge profit on The Wolf Man, and so Koerner invited Lewton to head up a unit dedicated to turning out short, low-budget horror films. Lewton liked to joke that somebody had said he wrote “horrible novels” and the studio had misconstrued it as “horror novels.”

An instinctive anti-authoritarian who had learned to play the game had now been entrusted with a good deal of authority, however tightly defined the limits within which it could be exercised. Lewton was still answerable to the studio executives he despised. His budgets were stringent, and the films had to be marketed to an audience assumed by RKO to crave only the most lurid stimulation, in an era whose horror movies were dominated by werewolves, apemen, brain transplants, and old dark houses of the creakiest kind. Even the titles were often imposed: Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, the first two productions, began in fact as nothing but titles, with Lewton obliged to concoct stories to match.

With Cat People Lewton demonstrated that he could give his bosses what they wanted—a movie brought in for under $135,000 which grossed some $4 million worldwide—while altogether subverting their notions of what a horror movie should be. Lewton’s most obvious breakthrough was to avoid showing what the audience is supposed to be afraid of, on the grounds that what we don’t see is more frightening than what we see—and also cheaper to depict in a movie. This approach has largely defined his popular reputation, as evidenced in the titles of Bansak’s biography (Fearing the Dark) and the documentary that accompanies the DVD set (Shadows in the Dark), not to mention the episode of Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) where producer Kirk Douglas applies the same method to the production of Doom of the Cat Men. Jane Randolph’s long walk through Central Park, stalked by an unseen panther, in which the only scary thing that happens in the end is a bus whooshing harmlessly to an abrupt halt, is the classic instance, the blueprint for what became an unavoidable cliché of horror films.

In fact, whatever effect it may have had on audiences in 1942, Cat People now seems one of the least frightening of horror films. What it has instead is a sinuously strung out mood of barely suppressed eroticism and gnawing discontent that develops from the opening instants, when Kent Smith as Oliver Reed—the straightest of straight men, “a good plain Americano” in his own words—meets, at the Central Park zoo, the exotic Simone Simon, as the Serbian émigré artist Irena Dubrovna, who fears she may be one of the diabolical “cat people” driven underground in medieval times. They fall in love and get married, but the marriage cannot be consummated because of her fear that sex will unleash her destructive cat-nature; he sends her to a psychiatrist, and then finds consolation with a less troubled girlfriend. The mood created is not of horror so much as the disorientations of exile and the lingering sadness of sexual dissatisfaction.

Everything is in the details: Irena turning on a light in a darkened room as she murmurs, “I like the dark, it’s friendly”; her encounter with the unknown catlike woman who stares at her and greets her as a sister (an exchange of glances that lasts only a second but flavors the whole film); the beads of water clinging to Irena’s naked back as she crouches forward in a tub with clawlike feet (an image of startling erotic potency for 1942 Hollywood); the giant black statue of the Egyptian god Anubis by which she stands on a museum stairway. Even the most genuinely frightening scene—in which Irena, in (unseen) panther form, stalks her rival, Kent Smith’s girlfriend, in a deserted swimming pool—lingers in the mind more for the exhilarating patterns of the lights in the water, an explosion of pure abstraction brilliantly realized by the director, Jacques Tourneur, and cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca.

The huge success of Cat People enabled Lewton to keep making, under the guise of B-movie thrillers, movies that are often more like symbolist poems or obscure fetishistic rituals. They are not so much frightening as unnervingly strange and shot through with a palpable melancholy. They are almost too beautiful to be scary, except that the beauty that soothes is finally what most unsettles. As Tom Conway, playing a world-weary plantation owner in I Walked with a Zombie, remarks to the young nurse who is accompanying him to his island home, across a glistening sea evoked with gorgeously blatant cinematographic fakery: “That luminous water—it takes its gleam from millions of dead bodies, the glitter of putrescence. There’s no beauty here, only death and decay.”

The intensely personal quality of these films is not belied by their being thoroughly collective enterprises. If in Hollywood tradition the producer is usually characterized as someone who interferes with other people’s work, Lewton was the rare instance of a producer directing the best energies of his collaborators—among them the writers Donald Henderson Clarke and DeWitt Bodeen (abetted by Lewton himself, sometimes under the pseudonym Carlos Keith), the cinematographers Nicholas Musuraca and Robert De Grasse, the omnipresent composer Roy Webb—toward a seamlessly unified effect. Obsessive and controlling he could certainly be, but there is little suggestion that he curtailed or distorted the intentions of those he worked with. In Jacques Tourneur, who directed Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man, he found the perfect partner, a film poet who imparted luminous intensity to every moment of those films; but in the other films, directed by Robert Wise and Mark Robson, both originally editors who had worked with Orson Welles, Lewton achieved results as expressive, if less unfailingly inspired.

Quite aside from any question of expressive beauty, one could look at these films purely as instances of extraordinary skill marshaled under the most restrictive circumstances. Their brevity (they range in length from sixty-six to seventy-nine minutes), their slender budgets, their reliance on preexisting production materials (costumes and sets from Gone with the Wind, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Bells of St. Mary’s are worked in as needed), above all the requirement that the end product be acceptable in a precisely defined commercial niche (however puzzled horror audiences may have been to find that Curse of the Cat People was in fact a delicate fantasy of childhood loneliness): to have satisfied all those conditions and still produced work of such careful detail and defiant individuality was a rare feat. It is not hard to understand the impact produced on contemporary critics like Manny Farber (“They are about the only Hollywood movies in which the writing and direction try to keep in front of rather than behind the audience’s intelligence”) and James Agee (“I esteem them so highly because for all their unevenness their achievements are so consistently alive, limber, poetic, humane, so eager toward the possibilities of the screen, and so resolutely against the grain of all we have learned to expect from the big studios”).

Part of what made Lewton’s films stand out was their flaunting of cultural sophistication. The Seventh Victim opens with a quote from John Donne (“I run to Death, and Death meets me as fast,/And all my Pleasures are like Yesterday”); Isle of the Dead takes its title and its central image from Arnold Böcklin’s painting; The Body Snatcher weaves in a traditional British ballad of the sort that might have been found on a Folkways release; Bedlam, set in eighteenth-century London, reenacts Hogarth’s print of Bedlam in the “Rake’s Progress” series; I Walked with a Zombie is serious in its effort to incorporate calypso music and Haitian ritual, not to mention the way it makes the legacy of slavery a central theme through the recurring visual motif of “Ti Misery,” a slave-ship figurehead of Saint Sebastian. Fashion illustrators, psychoanalysts, and Greenwich Village poets are characteristic denizens of Lewton’s world, while hints of homosexual interest (the cat woman who accosts Irena, the intellectual radio officer who flirts openly with the hero of The Ghost Ship) play around its edges.

A world is acknowledged in which the exotic—rhumba music, ethnic restaurants, Elizabethan poetry, books on psychology—is normal, while the all-American straightness of the office workers in Cat People or the Christmas carolers in Curse of the Cat People has begun to seem strange. (The backlot New York of Cat People and The Seventh Victim carries a powerful charge of displaced ordinariness which became diffused when Lewton switched to costume pictures like The Body Snatcher and Bedlam.)

Finally there is the dialogue, in its day often characterized as surprisingly literate, if not as ponderously literary, but just as important as the images in Lewton’s cinematic scheme. Words are important here, and the self-conscious verbal flourishes are there to make sure their importance is not missed. In his essay on The Seventh Victim John Ashbery describes “our sense throughout the film that people are saying anything that comes into their heads,” but the sort of thing that comes into their heads often seems a message from beyond the confines of the narrative, a prophetic tip that however solemn or obvious produces a jarring effect by the unexpectedness with which it is dropped in. “The poor don’t cheat one another. We’re all poor together.” “Caged animals are unpredictable—they’re like frustrated human beings.” “Authority cannot be questioned.” “The people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel.” “The horseman on the pale horse is pestilence; it follows the wars.” “Amy, listen to me. Death isn’t such a terrible thing.” “—What was the matter with him?—I don’t know, sir. He didn’t want to die.”

Yet after we have remarked on their influence on subsequent filmmakers, their technical inventiveness, and the heterogeneity of an allusive range that gives them a collage-like quality, there remains the heart of Lewton’s films to be accounted for: the emotional force that makes them a great deal more than the sum of their very diverting parts. In Icons of Grief, Alexander Nemerov links that force directly to the war which was raging at a distance when the films were made; the persistent sadness, the inescapable presence of death are an acknowledgment of a grief that the American public would rather avoid facing but to which Lewton, more Russian than American at heart, responds with imagery that reflects the religious icons of his cultural past, imagery that he smuggles into films which are marketed as quickie thrillers.

Nemerov develops his thesis forcefully and with a rich complement of period detail ranging from Norman Rockwell magazine covers to photographs of dead soldiers in Life; he discerns historical necessity in every detail of the way things happen to fall out, so that, for example, the mad boy in Bedlam, painted gold for the amusement of courtiers and who dies of asphyxia in consequence, becomes an emblem of the bomb that had fallen on Hiroshima five days before the scene was shot:

The close-up of the boy’s face…is a post-Hiroshima editing choice that seems, all unknowing, to give some imaginative expression to radiation sickness, flash burns, and the bomb’s other terrible effects.

Whatever one makes of the farther reaches of this associative logic, Icons of Grief is a superbly original (and intricately researched) attempt to define the singularity of this work. Nemerov identifies two crucial and related aspects of Lewton’s aesthetic: the unusual importance he allows minor characters and his penchant for figures of iconic immobility “standing statuesque and alone….” “This figure,” he writes,

would…arrest the flow of the film, suspend the plot, and for just those moments produce the melancholy and all-but-sculptural frozenness of a world that has stopped.

To linger on the icons Nemerov singles out—Simone Simon as the ghostly Irena standing in the snow in Curse of the Cat People and singing an old French song to a troubled child; Skelton Knaggs as the mute Finnish sailor in The Ghost Ship, sharpening his knife aboard the ill-omened Altair as we hear his thoughts in voice-over (“I am cut off from other men, but in my own silence I can hear things they cannot hear”); Darby Jones as the catatonic zombie Carre-Four who guards with staring eyes the path to the houmfort in I Walked with a Zombie; and Glenn Vernon as Bedlam‘s Gilded Boy—is to confirm how elegantly he has moved into the core of Lewton’s parallel cinematic world, finding out the privileged sacred recesses and translating the oracular pronouncements. He makes overt what one might have sensed all along, that Lewton’s stories are contrived so as to provide a way out of the story, to be liberated beyond plot into a commemorative domain of stillness and silence, grounded in “a prerational, magical conception of the image.” Writing of the somnambulistic gait of two key figures in I Walked with a Zombie, he describes how Lewton “tried to slow movement down enough so that, almost impossibly, it too might take on the quality of stillness.” Throughout Nemerov captures with exactness the qualities of cadence and composition that draw one back to these movies, and underscores how deliberately those effects evade the spectator’s expectations.

He emphasizes finally the “minor mode” of Lewton’s films, their deliberate offhandedness and underplaying of what might otherwise be grandiloquent moments. The penitential procession at the end of The Leopard Man—a march across the desert to commemorate a massacre of Indians by conquistadors—is powerful precisely because of the extreme concision of the images that record it, so far from big-scale Hollywood bombast. In Lewton’s films the unexpected erupts, then vanishes as rapidly—vanishes from sight but not from memory. Here digressions are central, fleeting characters are dominant, and moments of stasis and silence are the heart of the action.

Prolonged contemplation of this toy theater, with its artificial sets and lighting, its densely furnished frames in which small figures are crowded together in artful tableaux, its bric-a-brac of songs, statues, poetic mottoes, and obscure rituals, prompts questions about what audience this performance is really intended for. The odd blankness of many of the principal players, offset by the vividness and grotesquerie of characters who may emerge only for a moment, might be standing in for the spectator: it’s as if the leading characters, those naive intruders, were themselves watching a film, and found themselves constantly bewildered by the narrative’s gaps and rapid changes of focus. In this world you never know where to look or whom to trust. The cleaning woman on her hands and knees in the lobby of the office building in Cat People is somehow as important—the image’s composition tells us so—as the panther-threatened leads, and when the police chief in The Leopard Man describes an otherwise insignificant shoeshine man as “a genius in his own line,” the piece of dialogue dangles like an Ariadnean thread to lead out of the labyrinth, as if the whole world were hanging on a shoestring.

  1. *

    Edmund G. Bansak, Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career (McFarland, 1995), p. 24.

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