“The Lewton Legacy”
“He was a real artist. The stuff in his movies holds on to you for days after you’ve seen it. Weeks.”
So says a character in my story “His Queen of Darkness,” speaking about a character based on Val Lewton.
Lewton is one of the few Hollywood producers of the studio era to be seen as an artist. I can think of at least four books based on Lewton’s career as a producer of low budget horror movies between 1942 and 1946. The movies had lurid, studio-mandated titles such as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim, but Lewton tackled these projects with intelligence and style, always striving to make the best movie he could.
Wartime audiences responded to Lewton’s films, which are credited with saving the studio (RKO) from the financial pit created by the box-office failure of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. However, Lewton’s movies have proved compelling viewing to someone like me, born in 1961.
Why is that?
Cat People (1942) provides a clue. If you read a one-sentence synopsis of its plot in TV Guide, Cat People sounds like a typical piece of conformist, classic Hollywood product. A Serbian woman marries an American man and realizes she suffers from an ancestral curse that turns her into a panther.
If you read a detailed plot synopsis of Cat People, you could see that the problems in this movie are caused by the foreign woman and a devious intellectual, a psychiatrist with kinky impulses. You could even be glad at the end of the movie when the woman and the intellectual have died, freeing the American man to marry an American woman. It is a good patriotic message for a wartime audience.
Yet when you see the movie, you realize that the synopsis has it totally backward. The American man is somewhat clueless, oblivious to his wife’s feelings, while the American woman is kind of a schemer, doing things that exacerbate differences in the marriage. The psychiatrist is somewhat of a cad, but he at least knows something unusual is going on.
The real heart of the film is Irena, the doomed Serbian woman.
Alone and vulnerable in a new country, oppressed by a burden of legend as well as something in her blood, married to a man who won’t take her seriously, and beset by “friends” who want her marriage to fail, Irena is simultaneously a monster, who does turn into a panther and kill someone, and the most sympathetic character in Cat People.
In a way, Cat People is two movies in the same film. There is the superficial story of the evil foreign woman who brings a curse to America and must be destroyed, and there is the tragedy of an outsider who finds no one who can appreciate her ordeal and so perishes. Depending on where the viewer is in his life, he can enjoy one version of the story or the other.
It takes artistry to make a movie as multifaceted as Cat People in conditions that are usually called the “Dream Factory.”
Again and again, Lewton would make films in which the “heroic” people would act selfishly or recklessly, and give his “monsters” a chance to express their rage at the conditions that cut them off from others to force them into deeds other characters (and the audience) viewed as beyond the pale. As Cabman Gray in The Body Snatcher, Boris Karloff voiced his resentment at the doctor who lived respectably, while Gray had to provide him with cadavers for anatomy lectures. The film makes the point it is Gray’s crimes that enable a surgery to take place that lets a crippled little girl have a chance at a normal life. Good outcomes and evil deeds are tightly entwined.
At times in my life, I have felt as much an outsider as Irena, although I lacked the ability to transform into a deadly beast of prey. When I write, my work tends to veer into the macabre. Consequently, the example set by Val Lewton in his films is frequently on my mind.
When I write about a monster, a vampire or a werewolf, I give them a voice to express their regret and anger over what they have become, as well as their anguish at what drove them away from their fellow man to the point where they became creatures of the night and the enemy of mankind.
I realized that I had written several stories that owe various debts to the films of Val Lewton. I ended up gathering twelve of them into His Queen of Darkness. “A Ticket to the Night Zoo,” “Lady of the Beasts,” “Night Falls on the Marloveks,” “The Man Who Knew Karloff,” and “Tears of Midnight” are some titles that give a flavor of what to expect within the covers of my book.
These stories may chill you. They will entertain the dark regions of your imagination, but I also hope they will inspire you to seek out and watch the films of Val Lewton, one of the best talents to work in the horror genre.
Michael Samerdyke grew up in Cleveland, Ohio but has lived in southwest Virginia for several decades. He holds a Master’s in History from Ohio University and has done research in Berlin and Moscow. He writes horror fiction such as The Kino Trilogy and the Tales of Kurgania trilogy, as well as non-fiction about pop culture, such as “Wascally Wabbit: The History of Bugs Bunny” and “The Horrible Possible and the Horrible Impossible: Thoughts on the Horror Film.”
Val Lewton image (courtesy of Columbia University), first Cat People Image, first Body Snatcher Image from Fearing the Dark (Edmund G. Bansak)