The Val Lewton Collection

The Val Lewton Collection
Few American oeuvres are as singular as that of B producer Val Lewton. Given shoestring budgets and lurid titles by RKO, he gave the world a series of nine horror and suspense films that go against the grain of the genre, the period and the commercial imperatives of Hollywood filmmaking. Disc one features the two films that are the cornerstone of his reputation. Cat People is the story of a woman (Simone Simon) who’s cursed to turn into a panther when she feels physical love; she kills but not by choice. It’s the Edward Scissorhands of its day, except it’s far more elegant, sensuous and credibly melancholy. Its huge success paved the way for The Curse of the Cat People, a sequel in name only that features Simon as the fantasy projection (or is she?) of an outcast little girl. The exploration of a "different” childhood recycles characters from the first film but in its brilliant, discomfiting lingering on embarrassment and incomprehension the sequel is sui generis. Disc two features more literary titles: I Walked with a Zombie is the Jane Eyre-ish tale of a nurse who comes to an island and encounters voodoo and regret. From the same director as Cat People, it features a familiar sense of touch and a gently regretful tone that makes it unlike any jump-scare horror film you can name. The Body Snatcher is Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of a scientist who hires Boris Karloff as a grave robber, then turns a blind eye when his employee starts killing people "fresh.” The theme of power out of control is made forcefully and would haunt the other films as well. Disc three features more Karloff and more megalomania. Bedlam has the actor presiding over a 19th century mental hospital; he makes the mistake of first abusing the inmates and then incarcerating a woman who challenges his cruelty. The film is extremely persuasive in its compassion and way ahead of its time in depicting the persecution of the mentally ill. Isle of the Dead is the only marginally less startling tale of a group of people quarantined in a war zone, ruled of course by Karloff and his superstitious prejudices. It’s one of the less distinguished films in the collection but is still absorbing and disturbing. Disc four lumps two films together by dint of being "horror.” The Leopard Man features a New Mexico community terrorised by a panther let loose accidentally, and possibly a killer using it as a cover. Famous for an attack scene experienced on the other side of a door, it’s a brilliant piece of atmospheric dread spiked with a potent dose of guilt and remorse. The Ghost Ship features yet another crazed leader, this time the captain of a ship who offs recalcitrant crew members. Still, the operative emotion is sadness rather than fear that a man could lose his humanity so completely. The final disc has what may be the most bizarre film in the catalogue: The Seventh Victim. This has a bewildered teenager searching for her missing sister amidst a goth-noir underworld of murder and intrigue. The explanation is more unpleasant than the mystery itself and opens us up to a secret society of sad sack outcasts. This is paired with an okay but not great featurette on Lewton that’s immediately shown up by the outstanding final disc, a better documentary by Kent Jones narrated by Martin Scorsese. The first one is a happy, dippy breeze through salient points and personal history. The second is a traumatic, deeply personal exploration of the haunted man who made these movies. Plus: commentaries on all films except Isle of the Dead and The Ghost Ship. (Warner)