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.
They’re all currently unspooling at the Harvard Film Archive, under the apt title “The Glitter of Putrescence — Val Lewton at RKO.” The opening salvo of “Cat People” (1942) and its 1944 sequel, “The Curse of the Cat People,” played last Friday but are easily available through Netflix and other sources. They come with the highest recommendation. With the first film, Lewton and his director Jacques Tourneur pioneered horror noir, envisioning an inky, moody America where a lovely Slavic girl (Simone Simon) may — just possibly — turn into a raging beast when sexually provoked. The nighttime swimming pool scene remains legendary, as does the movie’s refusal to resolve the issue. Is Irina a cat person or is it all in her head? Or is it all in your head?
“The Curse of the Cat People” was even more of a change-up: What sounds like a horror sequel is in fact a delicate drama about a little girl (Ann Carter) and her imaginary friend (Simon). It’s one of the more suggestive films about a child’s inner life to come out of Hollywood.
The Lewton series really gets kicking with a Sunday night screening of 1943’s “I Walked With a Zombie,” a movie as eerie and withholding as its title is crass. Directed by Tourneur, it’s a Caribbean revamp of “Jane Eyre,” with the underrated Frances Dee cast as a nurse to a plantation family with a sleepwalking wife (Christine Gordon) upstairs. For a mid-century Hollywood film, “Zombie” is remarkably respectful to its black native characters and their vodun practices, and the night sequence in the cane fields, the spectral Darby Jones looming up at the crossroads, remains unforgettable.
“Zombie” and 1943’s “The Seventh Victim” (screening at the HFA on Saturday, March 29) are possibly the Lewton team’s high-water marks and the clearest indications of the producer’s fascination with darkness and death. “Victim” concerns a young girl (Kim Hunter in her first film role) attempting to rescue her sister from a Manhattan devil cult, but the film’s more interested in the interplay between the occultists and the vast existential weariness of the sister, played by Jean Brooks in a striking proto-Bettie Page hairdo. The ending is shockingly bleak and must have seemed doubly so in 1943. Ignored by the mainstream, Lewton’s films flew under the cultural radar and looked deep into the shadows.
“The Glitter of Putrescence” series — the title comes from a line tossed off by a jaded character in “I Walked With a Zombie” — is perhaps most valuable for gathering up the three movies Lewton made with actor and horror star Boris Karloff. Still typecast at the time (and forever after) as the Frankenstein Monster -- he had played the role as recently as 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein” — Karloff was a British actor of broader and more mercurial talents, and Lewton tapped into them. In 1945’s “The Body Snatcher” (screening Monday, March 24), directed by a young Robert Wise, Karloff is the film’s smiling evil conscience as John Grey, cabman by day and freelance grave-robber/murderer by night. Henry Daniell (as a pompous 18th-century surgeon) and Russell Wade (as an idealistic student) are the nominal leads, but every time Karloff slinks into view, he owns the movie and its chortling accommodation with depravity.
The same year’s “Isle of the Dead” (Friday, March 28), directed by Robson, gives Karloff even more latitude as General Nikolas Pherides, a Greek warlord quarantined on a plague-stricken island with an assorted group of travelers (including Hollywood starlet Ellen Drew as the least likely Greek peasant you’ll ever see). “Dead” isn’t a horror film but a study of human character under pressure, with Karloff’s flawed, imperious General Pherides torn between rationalism and a homicidal belief in elder gods. Throw in a premature burial and you have one of the weirdest yet eeriest Lewtons of all.
“Bedlam” (March 30), from 1946, gives Karloff another period role as the sadistic nobleman in charge of the infamous London madhouse of the title. As a whole, the three Karloff-Lewton films allowed the man we remember as monwster to explore the damage in “normal” people, and you can sense the actor’s joy at stretching his muscles.
There are rarities and lesser works in the HFA’s series, too. 1943’s “The Leopard Man” (March 30) promises a return to “Cat People” territory, but after a creeptacular early scene in which a young girl is killed by an escaped leopard — all we see is a pool of blood spreading from under a closed door — it comes interestingly undone: the Lewton formula in pieces.
The real finds for completists are the producer’s two non-suspense films, “Mademoiselle Fifi” (Sunday, March 23) and “Youth Runs Wild” (Saturday, March 29), both from 1944 and neither commercially available. They’re the two films that address the world war then raging most directly: “Fifi” is a fusion of two Guy de Maupassant stories intended to be a 19th-century allegory for French resistance to Nazi occupation. For once with Lewton, the censors seemed to be paying attention, and the story line is bowdlerized beyond repair, with the heroic prostitute of Maupassant transformed into a patriotic laundress played by Simon.
Similarly, “Youth Runs Wild” was intended to be a hard-hitting expose of teens erupting into delinquency and patricide after being neglected by stressed-out factory-worker parents, but the Office of War Information demanded so many changes that Lewton disowned the project. Re-edited by RKO and released as “The Dangerous Age,” it’s a maimed film with trace elements of what might have been.
“The Ghost Ship” (Friday, March 28), from 1943, isn’t a lost Lewton but it is one of the more unjustly neglected items in the filmography: a taut tale of shipboard paranoia, with Richard Dix alarming as the ship captain who starts out with genial lectures on the need for authority and ends by breaking out the knives. Claustrophobic, effective, made for what looks like $4.50, it’s an encapsulation of Lewton’s gifts. Luckily for RKO, he was never interested in the monsters we can see. He understood it’s the ones we can’t see -- the ones you can capture on film only indirectly -- that keep us awake at night.
For more information on the series, go to http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.