Horror movies still haven’t learned the lessons Val Lewton taught so well back in the 1940s. In the endless tug-of-war between sensationalism and sensibility — between in-your-face gore and under-your-skin creeps — the former camp seems to have won the pop culture field. The “Paranormal Activities” series aside, few new films in the genre strive to do more with less, whether for financial or aesthetic reasons. For every “The Conjuring,” there’s a “Hatchet III.”
It may well be that Lewton did what he did simply because of what he couldn’t afford to do. But it’s doubtful. When the Russian-born, US-raised producer (originally named Vladimir Leventon) was hired by the new regime at RKO studios in 1941, he was handed as his first assignment a title that had tested well and a budget of $142,000. “Cat People” went on to earn $4 million and save RKO from insolvency; the silk’s purse Lewton fashioned from that sow’s ear and the 10 films that followed remain, for the most part, startlingly suggestive miniature masterworks — dark poetry made on the cheap.