Friday, January 26, 2007

THE VAL LEWTON COLLECTION (RKO 1942-1946) Warner Home Video

Funny thing about the world of Val Lewton; it’s an interesting place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. The Val Lewton Collection brings together all of the eerie masterpieces from this master producer. Lewton’s name is synonymous with oblique diabolical wickedness and spine chilling horror – most of it kept tempered behind locked doors, heavy fog banks or mysterious dark corridors. There’s a reason for all this spooky nonsense, but it has more to do with budgetary restraints than technical proficiency or ‘mood.’

Lewton’s tenure at RKO (1942-1946) yielded a remarkable set of ‘horror’ classics and two undistinguished non-horror flicks. B-movies in every way, economy seems to have worked well for the Russian born Lewton where other directors more attuned to the expectation of unlimited resources might have failed. There really isn’t a lot in the way of plot to a Val Lewton horror flick and not much time to tell the tale either – usually 90 minutes or so. But oh, how far that moody atmospheric touch goes.

With a grossly modest budget of only $200,000 per film, Lewton relied heavily on Van Nest Polglase and Albert S. D’Agostino’s wizardry in the art department and a simplistic mastery of low key lighting to generate his evocative and unsettling world of dark looming shadows and disquieting secret corridors.

Under the directorial aegis of Jacques Tourneur (probably better known as the director of the noir classic, ‘Out of the Past’) Lewton transformed a seeming bit of hokum about a town overrun by alien felines into the exotic masterpiece; Cat People (1942). Simone Simon is Irena Dubrovna - a Serbian babe in Manhattan who morphs into a panther when she is sexually aroused. Irene meets and marries the congenial Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) but their union is not a happy one as Irena soon becomes jealous of Ollie’s coworker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). Anywhere else, and this psychoanalytic bit of regression therapy nonsense would be laughed off the screen. But under Lewton’s masterful hand, it translates into a genuinely morbid, disturbing and frightening feast for the eyes and pounding heart.

Lewton’s next exploitive effort is ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ (1943) a masterwork with arguably the worst title ever given a film. The story is actually Bronte’s Jane Eyre transplanted and updated to a voodoo cult on a tropical island. Okay, that sounds tacky. But when a nurse, Betsy (Frances Dee) journeys to the Caribbean with her charge, the very-ill (arguably possessed) Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) the two discovers a cult of seemingly paralyzed un-dead natives who compel Jessica to her doom.

Based on a novel by Robert Lewis Stevenson, The Body Snatcher (1943) involves Boris Karloff as Cabman John Gray, a spurious provider of medical cadavers. The bodies he provides are stolen. That doesn’t seem to bother ruthless scientist, Dr. Wolfe (Henry Daniel), but before long it begins to dwell on the conscience of his assistant, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade). Gloomy, atmospheric sets and a looming sense of foreboding draw these three men into a dangerous web of murder and intrigue. How long will it be before one of them becomes the next medical experiment? Director Robert Wise employs a savvy sense of screen economy, getting the most out of the least amount of props and sets.

Did I say Lewton was a master of economy? That’s an understatement. The Leopard Man (1943) is his fourth venture in two years; a brilliant adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s classic tale about occultism and religious fervor, peppered in the sort of dark ambiguity that made Lewton the envy of rival, Universal Studios.

When nightclub performer, Kiki Walker’s (Jean Brooks) leashed leopard escapes, people in the tiny Mexican hamlet of her employ begin turning up mauled. But as an all out hunt for the exotic animal ensues Kiki becomes convinced that her cat might not be the killer everyone is looking for.

The pair of filmic efforts that followed; The Seventh Victim and Ghost Ship (both shot and released in 1943) are perhaps the most grotesquely amusing offerings in Lewton’s canon. In the first, Satanic worship leads to a string of brutal homicides and human sacrifices, each leading up to ‘the seventh victim’ whose death will unlock the gates of hell. The unsettling spiral is set into motion with the disappearance of Jacqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks). Her naïve sister, Mary (Kim Hunter) is determined to find her in Greenwich Village. What she discovers instead is evil incarnate.

The Ghost Ship (1943) is the most rarified film in this box set. The subject of a heated rights issue for many years, and therefore unseen in as many, it stars Russell Wade again, this time as Tom Merriam a third mate working under Captain Stone (Richard Dix). At first there is a mutual bond of respect between these two.

But then there’s the mysterious body count on board that gets Tom’s dander up. Is Stone merely uncaring or is he a maniacal psychopath? Once again, Lewton charms us into a nightmare, making the improbable seem dangerously close to the truth, while creating a level of audience discomfort that is hard to shake afterward.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) is considered by many as something of a Lewton slip up – perhaps because audience expectations were for another ominous journey. But on this occasion we are introduced to precocious, and slightly off balanced Amy (Ann Carter), the child of Alice Reed (Jane Randolph).

Amy sees dead people – one in particular; her father’s first wife, Irena (Simone Simon). But that’s about as scary as things get. The story moves away from fright to parallel the lives of Julia Farren (Julia Dean), an aged recluse who is estranged from her daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell). What happens next is sort of feel-good melodrama grafted onto a disturbing portrait of a little girl plagued by memories from some forgotten past. It’s uneven entertainment at best but well worth a look.

It took Lewton nearly a year to come up with his next endeavor: Isle of the Dead (1945); all about a plague that breaks out on a secluded island in Greece. Superstitious peasant, Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig) suspects a young woman, Thea (Ellen Drew) of being a ‘vorvolaka’; a suedo-vampire/demon out to suck the last remnants of life from the town folk. Boris Karloff’s in this one again, but this time he’s not the baddie – a miscalculation from which the film never recovers. Lewton tries to mask the absence of a good strong narrative (something his previous films had) with much more atmosphere than is actually necessary. The result is a film that undeniably looks like a Lewton classic, but rarely attains the sinister heights of other Lewton films.

And finally, there’s Bedlam (1946), the movie that effectively ended Lewton’s all too brief and shining career at RKO. It stars Anna Lee as Nell Bowen, the head strong, yet oddly angelic protégé of wealthy patron, Lord Mortimer (Billy House). Crusading for improvement to the conditions of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, Nell is placed in direct confrontation with Master George Sims (Boris Karloff). He locks Nell up and throws away the key. But she escapes and the asylum patients extract their revenge on Sims instead. Upon its release, Bedlam tanked at the box office, and RKO, already on the verge of receivership and unable to take the chance for any more sustained losses – effectively gave Lewton the old heave-ho.

Today, Val Lewton is considered a formidable genius. His films have arguably withstood changing tastes and the oft’ bastardization of attempted remakes. Even at his worst, Lewton achieves a level of ghostly greatness that few purveyors of horror today – with all their slick polish and chop-chop special effects can effectively muster on budgets several hundred million times greater.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfers are a mixed bag. The nine films are double packed on five single sided discs; Cat People and Curse of the Cat People seem to have been benefactors of some digital restoration. The B&W image is overall smooth, sharp and finely detailed with a minimal amount of age or digital artifacts. The worst transfer is undeniably The Leopard Man with an overly contrasted element that is riddled with age and digital artifacts. The Ghost Ship fares slightly better but is still not a great looking transfer.
The biggest disappointment is I Walked With A Zombie - a transfer marred by an excessive shimmering of fine details and some bizarre digital artifacting that breaks apart fine details (not pixelization - something larger and more disturbing).

The 7th Victim suffers from a highly unstable print that wobbles uncontrollably for a considerable part of the film’s running time. The audio on all films is mono but adequately represented. There are expert audio commentaries included on most of these films, as well as an in-depth documentary contained on the same disc as The 7th Victim. While this reviewer cannot in good conscience give a thumbs up for these discs in terms of quality – as entertainment of the highest order and a good scare, all come highly recommended.
FILM RATINGS (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Cat People 5
I Walked With A Zombie 5
The Body Snatcher 4
The Ghost Ship 4
Isle of the Dead 3
The Leopard Man 3
The Curse of the Cat People 3.5
The 7th Victim 5
Bedlam 3
Cat People 4
I Walked With A Zombie 2.5
The Body Snatcher 3
The Ghost Ship 3
Isle of the Dead 3
The Leopard Man 2
The Curse of the Cat People 4
The 7th Victim 3.5
Bedlam 3.5

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