Thursday, September 16, 2021

Five Favorite Films: Val Lewton

I wouldn't normally think about making a five favorite films list for a producer, but Val Lewton is special. Born Vladimir Leventon in what is now Ukraine, Lewton headed the horror unit for RKO in the 1940s and made brilliant, moody horror pictures on shoestring budgets. He eschewed gimmicks and gore in favor of subtext and atmosphere, even when the titles assigned to him to make films out of suggested conventional B horror fare. Lewton worked with his writers and directors throughout the making of his horror films, giving his productions a distinct character that can be seen in all five of the films listed below. Don't be afraid to give Lewton a try if you're not into blood and guts; these are smart, delightfully creepy pictures that let your imagination do most of the work.

Cat People (1942)

The most famous of Lewton's pictures and arguably the best, Cat People features direction by Jacques Tourneur and a terrific performance from Simone Simon, who stars as the Serbian bride of a bland American engineer (Kent Smith). The couple can't consummate the marriage because Irena fears that doing so will transform her into a murderous cat, but the strain on the relationship also threatens to drive her to extremes. Female monsters are rare in classic horror, which makes Irena even more important, as she struggles with many of the same fears and doubts that plague Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) in The Wolf Man (1941).

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Tourneur also directs this dreamy post-colonial revision of Jane Eyre, which stars Frances Dee as a Canadian nurse who travels to the West Indies to care for the comatose wife of a plantation manager (Paul Holland). Local rumors say that the wife has been turned into a zombie, which sets Nurse Betsy on a quest to find out the truth about her patient and cure her if possible. Important supporting performers include the calypso musician Sir Lancelot and Edith Barrett as the manager's mother. This one is a must for fans of the many Jane Eyre inspired movies that followed the success of Rebecca in 1940.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Tasked with crafting a sequel to the successful original, Lewton instead produced this completely different story about a lonely little girl (Ann Carter) and her "imaginary" friend, using the love triangle from the original as the setup for the adult characters. Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) is still a bland stick but has replaced the dead Irena with more conventional wife Alice (Jane Randolph), and they don't know what to make of their sad, misfit daughter, Amy. Only the ghostly Irena (Simone Simon) brings the child company and comfort, but Irena might not be able to help Amy against the paranoid threat posed by a kindly neighbor's mentally unstable daughter. Robert Wise, who was brought in to finish the picture, earned his first directing credit for this film.

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Wise is also the director for this adaptation of a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, which features horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as well as Henry Daniell as a doctor who benefits from the infamous corpse stealing trade of 19th-century Edinburgh. The story capitalizes on the notoriety of the Burke and Hare crimes of the period and provides a truly menacing role for Karloff as Cabman John Gray, the body snatcher of the title. Karloff would end up getting some of his best roles in Lewton pictures and was perfectly suited for the more intellectual, artistic brand of horror that the producer specialized in making.

Bedlam (1946) 

This original story about the infamous 18th-century London madhouse is a personal favorite; Lewton got the idea from William Hogarth's Bedlam scene in The Rake's Progress and even stages a shot to recreate the image. Anna Lee stars as feisty comic actress Nell Bowen, who makes enemies of the wrong people and is thus falsely identified as a madwoman and locked up in Bedlam, where the villainous keeper (Boris Karloff) grossly abuses his authority. Mark Robson directs this unabashedly artsy period piece, which might not appeal to everyone but hits all the right buttons for those familiar with Hogarth's prints and the history of the notorious asylum.   

For even more films from Val Lewton, check out The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), and Isle of the Dead (1945). Lewton might have made more great films but died tragically young of a heart attack in 1951, at the age of 46.

See also: "Hogarthian Gothic: Imagining the Madhouse in Val Lewton's Bedlam"


  1. The Leopard and The 7th Victim top my list of Val Lewton favorites. But all his movies are worth watching and I second your endorsements of Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and the unique childhood fantasy Curse of the Cat People.

    1. It was difficult to pick just five, and I agree that all of his movies are worth watching. Thanks for reading and commenting!