The Val Lewton Horror Collection
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 …