In a brief, four-year association with RKO Pictures, Val Lewton produced eleven films, nine of which were Horror Films, eight of which were successful to some degree. Those nine movies were films that took Horror fans in directions that had not been explored previously in American genre cinema. These were not the Monster-laden Classics of Universal, or their cheaper-than-dirt clones from the half-dozen or so “Poverty Row” studios. Though the titles were as lurid and enticing as anything from Monogram or PRC, these were Horror Films for the thinker. These were serious in a way that Universal had never tried to be.
Born Vladimir Leventon in Yalta, Crimea in 1904, Lewton’s mother and aunt moved the family to Berlin in 1906, then to the United States in 1909. Lewton, a born storyteller, began writing as a teen, selling his stories to anyone who would purchase them. Mainstream magazines, pulps, even pornographic publishers—if they would pay him for it, he would write it. Several of the less savory tales were published under the pen name of Carlos Keith, a name he would use again in Hollywood.
Lewton worked under David O. Selznick at M-G-M as a story editor, contributing ideas and scenes to many films, though usually without credit. One scene he is responsible for came about due to one of the few wrong decisions he made about a movie. He was reportedly opposed to the filming of GONE WITH THE WIND, feeling it would be a Box-Office flop. The legend has it that Selznick made him contribute one scene to the film. Not wanting to be associated with the movie, he set out to write a scene that would never get shot, a scene that would be cut before production. However, Selznick loved the scene, it was filmed, and it became one of the signature images of the movie—the scene in the Atlanta railroad depot, as the camera pulls back from Scarlett to reveal the hundreds of dying and wounded men.
In 1942, RKO Pictures was on the verge of bankruptcy. Orson Welles’ twin epics CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, though well received critically, were financial failures of the first order. Charles Koerner, head of the studio, canned Welles and ordered that no more “Artistic” movies be made. The success enjoyed by rival Universal Studios inspired him to launch a Horror unit at RKO, and Lewton, remembered as a writer of genre fiction, was hired to run it. Koerner may have expected typical, “Universal-style” monster movies from his new producer. What he got was anything but.
For the next four years, Lewton and his handpicked group of writers, directors, and actors produced nine of the most intelligent, serious, adult Horror Films ever made, certainly for those times. Gone were the popcorn plots and made-up monsters that defined 1940’s Horror. The fiends that haunted Lewton’s nightmares were all the more monstrous because they were so very normal; outwardly looking like the rest of us, yet inwardly evil and terrifying. These films are: THE CAT PEOPLE; I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE; THE LEOPARD MAN; THE SEVENTH VICTIM; THE GHOST SHIP; CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE; THE BODY SNATCHER; ISLE OF THE DEAD; and BEDLAM. All have been released within the past few years, in a pricey, though tremendously well-done, five-disc collector’s set from Turner Home Entertainment.
The things that critics so rightly hail Hitchcock for doing in the ‘60’s, Lewton and directors Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson were perfecting in the ‘40’s, such as the famous “Bus” shot from THE CAT PEOPLE and the dark, atmospheric lighting that blankets all the Lewton Horror Films. Most importantly, Lewton’s films let the audience fill-in the ‘dark corners’ with their imaginations, painting details far more frightening than any studio, then or now, could produce. And while most producers have little effect on the style of a film, Lewton was hands-on with every aspect of production, and all nine of these movies unmistakably bear his imprint.
Working with titles mandated by RKO executives for their sheer luridness, he nonetheless crafted intelligent, effective tales of terror to fit those pulp titles. Where most producers would’ve been content simply to give the studio what they thought they wanted, Lewton fought to keep his people together, and to make the movies he wanted to make. RKO’s Production Supervisor Lou Ostrow wanted Jacques Tourneur fired four days into the production of CAT PEOPLE; Lewton went straight to Koerner in order to keep him on the film. Following the success of the first few of his Horror Films, Lewton was offered to chance to move up to an A-grade production; he turned the offer down when told he couldn’t use Mark Robson to direct it.
In a business where some people would throw their own mothers to the sharks for fifteen minutes to pitch a script, Lewton displayed a unique level of loyalty to his creative people.
As the Horror cycle wound down following the end of World War II, Lewton finished his run at RKO with three Period horrors, all starring the Master of terror, Boris Karloff. The first of these, THE BODY-SNATCHER, was the also the best, featuring Bela Lugosi in the final pairing of the two horror icons.
Lewton left RKO in 1946 to form an independent production company, though the mainstream success he sought would elude him. He would make only three more pictures, all somewhat lackluster, prior to his premature death from a heart attack in 1951. He was less than two months shy of his 47th birthday.
The legacy Val Lewton left behind far outweighs the number of his contributions to, or the brevity of his work in, the horror genre. Without Lewton, there might not been a Hitchcock; at least, not as we know him. Without the shower scene in THE SEVENTH VICTIM, would there had been a much more famous shower scene 16 years later? I don’t know, but I doubt it. No director, not even the great Alfred Hitchcock, works in a vacuum. He was at the least familiar with the Lewton film, if not directly inspired by it.
While nothing can supplant my love and respect for the great Universal horrors, that love is not blind. I see them for what they are, at least what the 1940’s vintage Uni-Horrors are: mindless, popcorn-selling, seat-filling ways to kill an hour or so. And while Lewton’s films did the same, they also did something else: They showed us that Horror could be smart, and that the scariest place in the world is in our own imaginations.