The Seventh Victim

The Seventh Victim (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Mark Robson
viewed: 06/10/10

Rounding out my final film of my Val Lewton RKO horror series, I have to say that The Seventh Victimis probably the best and most interesting of the films directed by Mark Robson for Lewton.  It’s definitely the weirdest when it comes right down to it, and for the films of Val Lewton, that is saying something.

Personally, I think that Lewton achieved his greatest successes with Jacques Tourneur (Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943)), the first two of which are among the best horror films of any era and any level of production values.  But with Robson, who wasn’t lacking in talent having begun as a film editor at RKO on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) with Orson Welles, the works don’t seem to jell in quite the same ultimate fashion.  But The Seventh Victim comes as close as he gets, with a great deal of fascinating content, subtexts, great scenes, and even devil worship!

While there are elements of film noirin all of these Lewton films, The Seventh Victim, which features no real supernatural element, in many ways plays more film noirthan horror.  Many afficianados note that Lewton’s horror films were all more psychological than pure traditionalist horror, but really in each of them, the element or “question” of the supernatural infuses itself within the narratives.  Is something magical happening?  Or is it all explainable?

The Seventh Victimhas a highly convoluted plot, about a girl who has lived her life at a private school, coming of age and having to go to New York to find her older sister and benefactor when she suddenly falls off the face of the Earth.  But her sister, who had run a cosmetics company, didn’t simply disappear in any simple way.  And everyone that she meets, from her sister’s husband, to her sister’s doctor, to her sister’s best friends, all are hiding elements of the story.  Everyone seems to have something to hide, something sinister in their nature or being.  And oddly enough, for many of them, that is a form of benign-ish devil worship.

The devil worshipers are oddly pacifists, who are only forced into murder when one of their own seems to be ratting them out.  They are certainly predecessors of the devilish folk of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), though much more banal and less clear.

The film also has another prescient moment, a shower scene, undoubtably influential on the classic shower scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s notorious Psycho (1960), and in some ways, even all the more shocking because of it.  The scene is nowhere as violent or analyzed, but is extremely effective, filled with fears of vulnerability, mystery, and threat.  And it carries with it the film’s themes of lesbianism (though not a very enlightened theme of lesbianism, rather one tied to domination and otherness.)

However, the film’s most shocking and striking characteristic is its end.  The film ends on an incredibly pessimistic note, with a great sensibility of doom, the inevitability of death, and is notable in that Lewton apparently, when told that his film was not supposed to have “a message”, said that the film did indeed have a message and that it was that “death is good”.   I don’t know that death is necessarily good in this film, but rather that it is something inescapable and perhaps better than living in certain circumstances.

I felt that the film had a little too much happening, really, to make it as poetic or ideal as Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie, but it has a number of extremely striking scenes (on the subway where a body is being dumped, or the classic Lewton “walk” scenes, in which a character walks through a darkened alley-like space, hunted by unseen forces, but tied very much to the real, urban world).  And it has that pervasive power of weirdness, of gloom, and of ultimate pessimism and death that is just so damn striking.

Lewton’s reputation is well-earned.  His films are all worth seeing, and really they are worth seeing together, to sense the themes and continuity, contrasts and ideas.  I already feel like revisiting the ones that I’d seen a couple of years back before this recent dive into his oeuvre.  And I do still have the Martin Scorsese-directed documentary to watch.  And who knows, maybe a couple of his other films will become available too.

Bedlam

Bedlam (1946) movie poster

(1946) dir. Mark Robson
viewed: 06/07/10

Closing out my Val Lewton series (actually one more to go of currently available titles on Netflix), my latest venture into the great RKO B-picture horror film was Bedlam, another of Lewton’s films to star legend Boris Karloff.  Actually, these are all good Karloff films, including Isle of the Dead (1945) and The Body Snatcher (1945), not just the campy, occasionally dialed-in performances by a man who the studio system of Hollywood like to typecast beyond typecast, not merely as a villain but as the Frankenstein (1931) monster or other.

In all three films, Lewton gave Karloff a lot more with which to work.  In Isle of the Dead, he’s a tough, potentially cruel Greek general given to superstition but motivated to save lives of his soldiers.  In The Body Snatcher, he’s a ghoul of sorts but also feeding knowledge and science.  And in Bedlam, well, though they try to redeem him to an extent at the end, he’s a cruel supervisor of a “mental hospital” more along the lines of a prison or freakshow, whose social-climbing and attempts to make good with a wealthy aristocrat lead him to further crimes of imprisoning a “sane” woman who he has reason to dislike.

Bedlam, interestingly, is “inspired” by a series of popular engravings by William Hogarth, a series titled The Rake’s Progress, which in many ways was a sort of pulp fiction of its time, depicting the notorious St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum, which came to be known as “Bedlam” and is at the core of the term’s definition, that of pure insane chaos.  And this Bedlam is the setting for the story, an early version of the “insane asylum” or mental institution movie that I noted in recently watching The Snake Pit (1948), which in an interesting aside was a moniker given to writer/producer Val Lewton’s writing team at RKO.

So far, I have to say, which I still stick to, that Robson’s work, while probably stronger here than in his other pictures for Lewton, still pales in comparison to Jacques Tourneur, Lewton’s other director of note in his days at RKO.  Perhaps such an opinion as that is simply that, an opinion, but I raise it because many historians and critics note that Robson was most-attuned to Lewton’s vision and Lewton’s favorite collaborator.  While I have one movie left in my Lewton/RKO DVD catalog, and with a couple of notable other Lewton films unavailable on DVD through Netflix, I also have a couple of documentaries on Lewton to round out my long-delayed investigation into his canon.  More to come…

Isle of the Dead

Isle of the Dead (1945) movie poster

(1945) dir. Mark Robson
viewed: 06/03/10

Another of producer Val Lewton’s RKO horror/thrillers, directed by Mark Robson (The Ghost Ship 1943)) and starring the inimitable Boris Karloff (The Body Snatcher (1945))as a Greek general during the First Balkan War 1912-1913.  I’d seen images from this film for years, but had never seen it, and Martin Scorsese considers it one of his top 11 most frightening films.

With a running time of only 72 minutes, this low-budget thriller really doesn’t have any fat on it, though it also doesn’t quite ascend to the scariness of Night of the Demon (1957), Cat People (1942), or I Walked with a Zombie (1943), all of which were directed by the great Jaques Tourneur for Lewton (Night of the Demon also makes Scorsese’s list).

After the end of a battle, an American journalist accomapnies a tough Greek general to an “isle of the dead”, a cemetary isle where the general’s wife is buried.  The general is dismayed to see that his wife’s body has been dug up by thieves searching for antiquities and seeks out a resident on the island, a retired Swiss collector, for information.  The bad news befalls them and the small group of visitors at the house, all of them potential plague victims, requiring them to stay quarrantined to protect the army from infection.

As they start dying one by one, a superstitious housekeeper speaks of the evil doings of a vorvolakas, a Greek evil spirit not unlike a vampire.  One of the visitors, a young assistant to an ill older woman, is suspected of being the evil being, feeding on the ill woman.  And the ill woman has a knack for falling into a death-like state, with heartbeat and breathing lowered beyond recognition, so she has a real phobia of being buried alive.  Well, you can probably imagine where this is going to lead to.  Karloff’s Greek general, a tough but practical man, eventually starts to believe in the superstitions himself, trying to keep order, trying to keep them all alive.

The film’s best sequence is toward the end, where the strangest and most spectral moments occur, with zombie-like trances, a potential spectre, and a few rather dramatic deaths make for solid B-movie entertainment.  It’s good stuff.

The Ghost Ship

The Ghost Ship (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Mark Robson
viewed: 05/12/10

The b-side of the Val Lewton double feature disc The Leopard Man (1943), The Ghost Ship is the first of several films directed by Mark Robson for Val Lewton, the first, in fact, of Robson’s films credited as director.  According to some, Robson was more aligned with Lewton’s vision than other directors with whom he worked, but The Ghost Ship is the first of his films that I have seen.  You can see that Lewton’s hand is clear across the various films that he produced, a consistent style and thematic bent, with various directors at the helm.

The Ghost Ship is an effective and strange sea-faring tale, a sort of poor man’s version of something like Melville’s Billy Budd or Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, the story of a young man gone to sea with a intellectual, maniacal father-figure of a captain.  While the film decidedly fails to achieve the heights of power of those books, it does an impressively effective job of cribbing together the drama, trapped at sea with a paranoid, angered crew and a captain who has murder in his heart, all in less than 70 minutes.

In pressing through with the backlog of Val Lewton’s RKO films, this, as I mentioned, is the first of several that Robson wound up directing for him, though not one of the ones that particularly called out to me.  I guess that’s kind of the benefit of the double-feature packaging.  It might take me even longer to reach out for each film individually, but even late as it was in the night, after having so quickly zipped through the effective and effecting The Leopard Man, I found myself just pushing forward and watching the next one.

Gotta love it.

The Leopard Man

The Leopard Man (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 05/21/10

So many movies, so little time.  Of the many tropes and avenues of film-viewing that I follow, the entire catalog of films by director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton are actually high on my list of things to see before I die.  Problem is that my list is long, the breadth of topics/directors/genres/producers/stars/everything is tremendous, and while perhaps not infinite, the numbers of specific films that I want to see is longer than my poor little Netflix queue will allow me to hold (limit 500).

For producer Lewton and director Tourneur, the B-movies of the 1940’s are legendary and quite short, packaged happily often two films to a disc.  And in the horror/thriller genres, this is the kind of stuff that I could watch just about any day.  With such masterpieces as Cat People (1942),I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Night of the Demon to their credit as a team, they still have a lot of others left that I haven’t seen. And Lewton, as a producer, worked with other directors as well (and he is often given much of the credit for the consistency and quality of the films he produced on such low budgets.

But Tourneur has long been a favorite of mine, and as far as I can tell, he actually directed the best of the films produced under Lewton’s production staff (which included many other talented filmmakers such as Robert Wise (The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945)).  Among his Lewton horror films, Tourneur also directed one of the best films noir, Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer (that’s a movie I need to see again!)

The Leopard Man, while receiving high praise on the film’s commentary by director William Friedkin, and certainly demonstrating flair of genius and quality filmmaking throughout, really isn’t as masterful as the others I’ve mentioned before, but is still a very quality flick.

Set in a small New Mexico town, the story follows a couple of competing dancer/performers in a local restaurant/club, who flare in their competition when the boyfriend/PR man for one of them brings a live “leopard” (the same black cat from Cat People) as a striking attention-getter.  But when this cat is frightened by the noise of castanets and patrons, it escapes into the darkness of the night, eventually mauling a young Mexican girl to death as she goes for a late night grocery run.

The PR man is beside himself with guilt over the death of this innocent, but is further perplexed when the hunt for the animal remains unsolved, and the killings keep coming.  Is it truly this black panther who is slaughtering the women of this village, or is it perhaps a man, a serial murderer who is imitating the panther’s mauling style to hide behind a veil for the brutal killings?

There are many nice sequences, visually, using the RKO filming lot effectively, developing atmosphere and creepiness far outstanding of the budgets with which they were working.  As well, the setting, this small New Mexican village, tints the narrative significantly, from the many Latina women in the story, songs sung, to even the strange, spooky religious precession that happens late in the film, commemorating the slaughter of the native people by conquistadors (but which looks like something of devil worship, perhaps, with black-hooded, candle holding men).  Again, it’s not germane exactly to the story, but it’s part of the mise-en-scene, the atmosphere of strange darkness.

Lewton and Tournuer, always interesting.

The Curse of the Cat People

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) movie poster

(1944) dir. Gunther von Fritsch, Robert Wise
viewed: 05/05/07 at the Stanford Theater, Palo Alto, CA

The second part of the double feature that started with director Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), The Curse of the Cat People is an unusual sequel, also producer by the amazing Val Lewton, but this time co-directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise.  Though I know nothing about it, Wise is probably more notable for the film, having also worked with Lewton on The Body Snatcher (1945), another classic.  What’s so unusual is that the film brings back the primary characters and stars, Simone Simon, Kent Smith, and Jane Randolph to reprise their roles as the love triangle’s primary figures.

But the story picks up several years later, with the couple out of the noirish city and into the more bucolic suburbs, with a daughter, played with great efficacy by the Ann Carter, who was only 7 at the time.  The family is the exemplary American family, with their beautiful home, and their idyllic family life, except that daughter Amy is a daydreamer, a loner, and completely in a fantasy world a lot of the time, which ultimately ostracizes her from her peers.  Her father takes a pretty harsh tone to her for her fantasies, essentially pushing her to accept “normality”, yelling and ultimately resorting to corporal punishment to “straighten her out”.

The thing is that his first wife, Simon, has returned as a ghost to befriend her.  And her fantasies are actually evolving into a reality.  That, and her strange friendship with an old woman who was once an actress but is now a crazy kook who has weird issues with her live-in daughter (who she calls a “liar and a fraud” and does not accept as her daughter, claiming that her daughter died at age 6 — actually, this is quite strange and isn’t fully explained, much to the film’s credibility, if you ask me).

The whole thing has a charm and a surreality that is beautiful in its simplicity, yet complex in its emotional appreciation for the world of children and the curse of American conformist culture against the magically bizarre world of fantasy and creativity.  It’s got nothing to do with “cat people” other than the characters were all in Cat People and carry forward from that story into something completely different.  Yet still, quite amazing in its own way.

Cat People

Cat People (1942) movie poster

(1942) dir. Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 05/05/07 at the Stanford Theater, Palo Alto, CA

This is the kind of thing that I do not do enough of: take advantage of some cool repertory house showings of double features of films.  And to go to the beautiful Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, CA.  It’s a beautiful and well-kept theater.  I’d only been there once before for a Hitchcock double feature.  It was a similar experience, hopping CalTrain and journeying down the peninsula for a lark.  That was only 10 years or so ago, so it’s not like I do this all the time.  But when I read in the paper that a double feature of Val Lewton produced Cat People films was on, I recognized that it was time to do it again.  And I will re-emphasize how nice the theater is, and it’s totally worth the trip to add on lunch at the Peninsula Creamery, which is just about as awesome as it comes for burgers and milkshakes.

I’ve been a Jacques Tourneur fan since I saw I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Out of the Past (1947) when I was living in England.  Cat People is one of his most famous works, and as several of his films, are noted for the helming of the production by the legendary Val Lewton.  It’s all great stuff, perhaps the best of the B-movies ever produced in Hollywood.  Dark and unusual, full of high Expressionism and amazing shadowplay and cinematography, often pulling its best moments in purely visual sequences.

Based on a “myth” of some Serbian legend of women who turn into panthers when aroused by their lovers (who are then killed) or through jealousy, which also leads to death, the sweet, yet strange Simone Simon plays the foreign gal with the dark secret.  There is much here of repressed sexuality and sexualized danger, both towards her lover/husband and toward her “nemesis”, the ultimate lover that her husband takes and also becomes the stalking victim of the film’s two most notable scenes.

The best of the two is the stalking scene Jane Randolph walks along the isolated street, in and out of light, against a large concrete wall.  Staccato footsteps echo off the cement and the pacing turns on the sound of footsteps as she moves through the lamplight and the darkness.  Though the scene in the swimming pool, where she is stalked against the flickering light of the water reflecting on the ceiling as her screams echo against the low growls of the panther.  It’s dark and creepy but aesthetically beautiful, low art and high art perfectly merged.

That’s the stuff of this film, it’s a low-budget horror film that bears much of that fact, but is ultimately an amazingly executed and clever film that stands much above many of its contemporaries and its followers and imitators.

The Body Snatcher

The Body Snatcher (1945) movie poster

(1945) dir. Robert Wise
viewed: 05/24/06

This film appears as a companion on the DVD for I Walked with a Zombie (1943), part of the Val Lewton collection. Directed by Robert Wise, director of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Sound of Music (1965) among many others, it is like other Lewton films, a cut above the period’s genre films while remaining pretty low budget.

Based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, it is a mostly “realistic” horror film about grave-robbing and the cultivation of the science of anatomy but ultimately murder as well. It features a prime performance by Boris Karloff and a sad and diminished role for Bela Lugosi.

Again, I was struck with how this film and I Walked with a Zombie both prefigure some of the better work of Roger Corman in the 1960’s with Vincent Price, who also goes back to 19th Century Gothic horror to cull for subject matter for their films. It’s a tight film, dark and creepy, but also interesting historically regarding the development of science. It’s good stuff. I mean it.

I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 05/21/06

I had seen I Walked with a Zombie when I was living in England 11 years ago and the film had made a great impression on me. I have long been a fan of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur’s collaborations and really think that this film is pretty darn amazing.

These zombies are not the blood-thirsty killing machines of the 1960’s and beyond, but the more Voodoo-inspired walking dead that embody the term “zombie” (meaning catatonic more or less) more than the ones that want to eat people’s flesh.

It’s a Gothic tale in a true sense of the genre. I’ve read that it is a loose adaptation of Jane Eyre which is further insistence that that novel hits my summer reading list. Atmospherically shot, with shadows of Venetian blinds and jungle leaves, it’s a dark nightmare of a dream, with visions of fear and death.

The most striking images are those of Darby Jones, the dead-eyed African zombie, who lurches around like a specter. The shot by the tree with the hanging goat is iconic, often cited in texts. It’s really of something from a lost time. The attitude towards racism is mixed, somewhat well-intentioned, but using fear of the unknown of Voodoo as outre, there is a malignity in this, probably not entirely out of step with the Hollywood, even the B-movie Hollywood, of its era. Still, there are more African-Americans in this film than in many. But I must say, after reading a few short stories that focused on African or Caribbean Voodoo and religion as a site of horror and titillation, I would say that this comes from a small sub-genre of horror that makes it interesting, too.

The film is beautiful, particularly in its poetic ending. One other thing that struck me about it is that Val Lewton and Co. were true pre-cursors of Roger Corman in creating low-budget horror films that transcend genre and elevate into great art.