Friday, December 9, 2011

The Val Lewton Horror Collection (1942-1945)

Synopses
I Walked with a Zombie/The Body Snatcher (1945)
Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were given top billing in the Val Lewton-produced The Body Snatcher, but the film's protagonist is played by Henry Daniell. A brilliant 18th century London surgeon, Daniell can only make his humanitarian medical advances by experimenting on cadavers, which is strictly illegal. Karloff plays a Uriah Heep-type cabman who is secretly a grave robber, providing corpses for Daniell's research. The low-born Karloff enjoys blackmailing the aristocratic Daniell into silence; the two actors' cat-and-mouse scenes are among the film's highlights. Eventually, Karloff turns to murder to supply fresh bodies to Daniell. The doctor can stand no more of this, and kills Karloff. But though Daniell may be able to escape the law, he cannot escape his conscience, which manifests itself in the voice of the dead Karloff, whose repeated mantra "NEVER get rid of me! NEVER get rid of me!" drives Daniell to his death. Though billed second, Lugosi has an embarrassingly small part, though the scene he shares with Karloff is one of his best-ever screen moments. The Body Snatcher was based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, which in turn was inspired by the homicidal career of notorious grave-robbers Burke and Hare. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

Cat People/The Curse of the Cat People (1942)
Handed the exploitive title Cat People, RKO producer Val Lewton opted for a thinking man's thriller--a psychological mood piece, more reliant on suspense and suggestion than overt "scare stuff". Simone Simon plays an enigmatic young fashion artist who is curiously affected by the panther cage at the central park zoo. She falls in love with handsome Kent Smith, but loses him to Jane Randolph. After a chance confrontation with a bizarre stranger at a restaurant, Simon becomes obsessed with the notion that she's a Cat Woman--a member of an ancient Serbian tribe that metamorphoses into panthers whenever aroused by jealousy. She begins stalking her rival Randolph, terrifying the latter in the film's most memorable scene, set in an indoor swimming pool at midnight. Psychiatrist Tom Conway scoffs at the Cat Woman legend--until he recoils in horror after kissing Simon. If the film's main set looks familiar, it is because it was built for Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (Lewton later used the same set for his The Seventh Victim). Cat People was remade by director Paul Schrader in 1982. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

Isle of the Dead/Bedlam (1945)
Bedlam is one of the costlier psychological-horror efforts from RKO producer Val (Curse of the Cat People) Lewton. Boris Karloff stars as the supervisor of the notorious 18th century British insane asylum St. Mary's of Bethlehem, better known as "Bedlam." Anna Lee, who co-stars as the feisty mistress of a fatuous government official, is appalled by the miserable treatment afforded the Bedlam inmates and insists that reforms be initiated. The crafty, politically connected Karloff responds by having Lee herself incarcerated in the institution: she is a "willful woman", and therefore must be insane. With the help of a few of the more rational patients, Lee stages a mutiny, capturing Karloff and giving him a mock trial. Though they don't truly intend to harm Karloff, he is seriously injured by one of his tormented patients. Assuming that Karloff is dead, the other inmates wall up his body in the cellar--and as the last brick is put in place, we see Karloff's eyes suddenly open! Though it has it moments of genuine terror, Bedlam is as historically accurate as possible, right down to the archaic dialogue passages. For the most part, the film is an indictment against political corruption, with Karloff (in a terrific, multi-faceted performance) alternately bullying and wheedling to save his own behind. Val Lewton (writing under the pseudonym Carlos Keith) based his film on one of the illustrations in Hogarth's "The Rake's Progress," glimpses of which are seen throughout the film as transitional devices. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

The Leopard Man/The Ghost Ship (1943)
RKO producer Val Lewton seemed to thrive upon taking the most lurid film titles and coming up with pocket-edition works of art. Saddled with the studio-dictated title I Walked With a Zombie, Lewton, together with scripters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, concocted a West Indies variation on Jane Eyre. Trained nurse (Frances Dee) travels to the tropics to care for Christine Gordon, the wife of seemingly abusive Tom Conway. At first, Dee merely believes her patient to be comatose. But as the drums throb and the natives behave restlessly, Dee tries to bring her patient back to life by jungle magic. Conway is racked with guilt, believing himself responsible for his wife's condition; his guilt is stoked by Conway's drunken brother James Ellison, who has always loved Gordon. Utilizing very limited sets and only a handful of extras, director Jacques Tourneur manages to evoke an impression of an expansive tropical island populated at every turn by voodoo worshippers. Many of the sequences, notably Frances Dee's first languid stroll into the midst of the native ceremonies, have an eerie dream-like quality that pervades even the most worn-out, badly processed TV prints of I Walked With Zombie. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

The Seventh Victim/Shadows in the Dark (1943)
Adapted from the Cornell Woolrich novel Black Alibi, The Leopard Man is a lesser but still fascinating psychological-horror effort from producer Val Lewton. Someone has been killing off the citizens of a small New Mexico town, and the most likely suspect is a huge leopard, purchased for a local nightclub act by press agent Jerry Manning (Dennis O'Keefe), which has escaped from its cage. Neither Manning nor his star Clo-Clo (Margo) are totally convinced that the big cat is responsible.The haunting finale takes place during the annual "Day of the Dead" festivities. The opening sequence of Leopard Man, atmospherically detailing the last few moments of murder victim Teresa Delgado (Margaret Landry), is so powerful that the rest of the film seems anticlimactic. Long available only in its 59-minute reissue form, the film was restored to its original 65-minute running time in the mid-1980s. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

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