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Val Lewton (1904 - 1951)
‘Beginning with Cat People and concluding with Bedlam, these films, by Lewton's own definition were films of “psychological horror”' (G. Wood 1988: 214; cf Farber 1972)
Related: American cinema - horror cinema - psychological horror
Vladimir Ivan Leventon was born on May 7, 1904 in Yalta, Russia, nephew of the actress Alla Nazimova. In 1909, he immigrated to the U.S.A. with his mother and sister (where his name was changed to "Val Lewton"). He was then raised in Port Chester, New York.
Prior to beginning his film career in the early 1930s (as an MGM publicist and assistant to David O. Selznick), he studied journalism at Columbia University and authored eighteen works of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Lewton once lost his job as a reporter for the Darien-Stamford Review after it was discovered that a story he wrote about a truckload of kosher chickens dying in a New York heat wave was a total fabrication.
In 1932 he wrote a best-selling pulp novel No Bed of Her Own. The book was later made into the film No Man of Her Own, with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. His first screen credit was "revolutionary sequences arranged by" in David O. Selznick’s 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities. Lewton also worked as an uncredited writer for Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, including writing the scene where the camera pulls back to reveal hundreds of wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
In 1942, Lewton was named head of the horror unit at RKO studios. He was paid $250 a week. And as head of the B-horror unit he would have to follow three rules: Each film had to come in under a $150,000 budget; Each film was to run under 75 minutes; and Lewton's supervisors would supply the title for each film. Lewton's first production was Cat People. Made for $134,000, the film went on to earn nearly $4 million, and was the top moneymaker for RKO that year. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Val_Lewton [Dec 2005]
Cat People (1942) - Jacques TourneurIrena Dubrovna, a beautiful and mysterious Serbian-born fashion artist living in New York City, falls in love with and marries average-Joe American Oliver Reed. Their marriage suffers though, as Irena believes that she suffers from an ancient curse- whenever emotionally aroused, she will turn into a panther and kill. Oliver thinks that is absurd and childish, so he sends her to psychiatrist Dr. Judd to cure her. Easier said than done... --Summary written by Ken Yousten via http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034587 [Oct 2004]
Cat People is a 1942 horror film which tells the story of an Eastern European woman who fears that the family curse (which causes her to turn into a killer panther whenever she feels strong emotions) will destroy her chances for happiness with her new husband. It stars Simone Simon, Kent Smith, and Tom Conway.
The film is notable for gaining its most frightening effects through unseen horrors that the audience was forced to imagine for themselves. The panther is not seen until the final scenes, but in the meantime Simone Simon displays increasingly catlike behavior and the viewer is bombarded by images of cats in paintings and statues.
The movie was produced by Val Lewton, written by DeWitt Bodeen and directed by Jacques Tourneur.
It was followed by a sequel, The Curse of the Cat People, in 1944.
The film has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_People_%281942_movie%29 [Mar 2005]
The Curse of the Cat People (1944) - Robert Wise, Gunther von Fritsch
The Curse of the Cat People (1944) - Robert Wise, Gunther von Fritsch [Amazon US]
Jacques Tourneur's, classic noir, The Curse of The Cat People (1944) might seem more of a fantasy than a horror film, but when one views it as a sequel to Cat People (1942) and considers the meaning of the "curse" of the title, it takes on an altogether sinister tone. Curse of the Cat People tells the story of Amy, a six-year old girl, who leads a solitary existence. She lives with Oliver, her father, and her mother, in a small town next to Sleepy Hollow, the legendary forest which was the setting for the horrifying story of The Headless Horseman. The forest, with its dark secret places, is represented throughout as an extended metaphor for the unconscious. Amy lives in a fantasy world where she conjures up an imaginary playmate who assumes the identity of her father's dead first wife, Irena. --Barbara Creed
Karen Hollinger, 'The Monster as Woman: Two Generations of Cat People', Film Criticism vol. 13 no. 2, Winter 1989, pp. 36-46.
Cat People (1942)
Producer Val Lewton masterminded some very effective horror films for RKO during the Forties; working closely with talented directors like Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise, Lewton made a string of low-budget atmospheric gems that have become horror classics. "Cat People" was the first of these and is generally regarded as the best of the lot: it remains a masterpiece of suggestive horror, a wonderfully atmospheric chiller where terror is wisely left unseen to ferment in the mind of the viewer (Paul Schrader's 1982 remake can - and has - been judged a failure because of its gleeful, almost schoolboyish, depiction of visceral violence).
Simone Simon is the Serbian girl who is too frightened to have sex with her new husband (Kent Smith) because she fears that by doing so she will transform into something hideous (she claims that this is exactly what happened to her ancestors in more primitive times - they became giant cats because of their sexual proclivities). Naturally her husband reckons that she needs pyschiatric help and packs her off to see Dr Lewis Judd (Tom Conway), who has a crack at convincing Simon that she is a victim of her own paranoia. But the imagery conjured up by director Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca tells a different story, and Simon does have a touch of the feline about her eyes...
The horror created by "Cat People" is of the evocative, almost ethereal, kind. The knowing glance of a cat-like woman in a restaurant unnerves Simon and sets her on the path of terror (Elizabeth Russell makes a deep impression, even if she is on screen for only a few moments). There are many other sequences played out in this low-key vein. Simon scares the life out of a caged bird in one sequence, by playfully pawing at the cage the way a cat might do it (earlier we had seen her crouched at the bottom of a bedroom door, which conjures up more cat-like imagery). One of the best is the atmospheric night-time walk through Central Park by actress Jane Randolph (she works with Smith, and Simon is insanely jealous of her): someone, or something, is following her along the path, and we jump when Randolph jumps as a bus stops up beside her and its doors open with a feline hiss. The famous swimming pool scene is a horror staple: Randolph, alone, swims around in an indoor pool, when the lights go out; cat shadows appear on the wall and low growling echoes around the terrified woman. Suggestive horror was never realised so superbly as in this classic scene.
The idiots at RKO insisted that producer Lewton include a scene showing a black panther, which nearly - but not quite - destroys the careful mood established by the film's low-key tone, and this is yet another example of deplorable studio interference (just ask Orson Welles!); they struck again while Lewton was making one of his best pictures, "Night of the Demon" (1957), and the result was the inclusion of one brief perfunctory shot of a monstrous demon (we had created an even more terrifying beast in our imagination anyway). Despite the meddlings of these Philistines, however, Lewton's group of horror films from the Forties - and especially "Cat People" - remain true originals and are among the finest 'mood pieces' the cinema has to offer. (Incidentally, "Curse of the Cat People", directed by Robert Wise in 1944, is not really a sequel to this film at all, at least not in the strictest sense, but another psychological horror fantasy - this time showing the surreal events through the eyes of a child.) --Noel O'Shea
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