Val Lewton's new horror ''Collection'' -- We grade the director's '40s-era fright flicks

By Chris Willman
Updated September 30, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Val Lewton’s new horror ”Collection”

She tawt she taw a puddytat! That’s paranoid Jane Randolph, the good girl of Cat People, stalked by a panther, or rival Simon, or both. Sensing a pursuer in Central Park, she’s jolted by a feline roar, which turns out to be a bus’ brakes. Treading water in a hotel pool, she becomes hysterical at the suggestion of a growl, though nothing is seen but eerie reflections and some bottomless shadows. Val Lewton knows what scares you…and damn if he’s going to actually show it.

Fifty-four years after his death, Lewton’s name and the phrase atmospheric horror are still conjoined, making him the rare producer enjoying the auteurist status usually afforded great directors. The stuff of which Halloween marathons are made, The Val Lewton Horror Collection boxes up nine thrillers he produced as head of RKO’s 1940s ”horror unit,” most of them subtle, shadowy, and fatalistic enough to be considered film noir as much as frightfest. A new documentary details Lewton’s obsessions and battles, as do audio commentaries for seven films — several by historians, a couple by the recently deceased Robert Wise (whose first two directing gigs are included here), and one by fan William Friedkin. Seems the Exorcist helmer had his head turned around as a child by the Jacques Tourneur-directed Leopard Man, specifically a scene in which a girl’s death is indicated only by the cessation of banging and a trickle of blood under the door.

Some of the films are less scary than they sound — a testament to Lewton’s ability to transcend the lurid titles RKO thrust upon him. Take the unhorrific Curse of the Cat People, which bears less resemblance to the original than perhaps any sequel in history. Lewton created a poetic meditation on the fantasy life of children that just happened to reprise Cat People‘s main characters — including Simon, now no man-eater but a beatific, tot-friendly ghost! ”We showed it for child psychologists…and they loved the film,” Wise recalls. ”But they said, ‘What’s it doing with that awful title?’ Of course, the title is what started it.”

If Curse is Lewton’s gentlest film, his bleakest is The Seventh Victim, about a depressive who can outrun an uptown satanic cult (yes, it’s a noir proto — Rosemary’s Baby) but not her own suicidal tendencies. ”There is a real sense,” remarks film historian Kim Newman, ”that the only happy ending is death. Which must have been a real downer in 1943.” Death is a done deal — or a Donne deal, given Lewton’s fondness for death-embracing John Donne epigrams. But non-Goths can find joy too in how a maverick turned titles like I Walked With a Zombie into enduring existential gems.

Cat People: A Leopard, Curse, Bedlam, Body Snatcher, Ghost Ship; B+ Victim, Zombie: A- Isle of the Dead: B

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