Thursday, March 27, 2008

dvd review: the val lewton collection

Not too long ago we were fortunate enough to be able to preview Martin Scorsese's new documentary about film maker Val Lewton, The Man in the Shadows. We were also lucky to be able to interview Lewton's son, Val E. Lewton, about his father's life and career. On both occasions I got a glimpse into a very private person who brought a special touch to films, and elevated what began has a plan for cheesy horror films, and turned them into cult classics. This year, Warner Brothers has reissued The Val Lewton Collection Box set and included a copy of the new documentary as well. If you have these films in your collection, then you are familiar with them. If you haven't, now is an excellent opportunity to get the set with the new doc. But is it really worth your hard earned ducats? How well do the films hold up? Is the set worth the valuable space on your DVD shelf? How are you going to answer these nagging questions? By checking out our review of course! So sit back, relax and read our review of The Val Lewton Collection.

The Hard Facts:
The Val Lewton Collection
6 Discs in keepcases
Studio: Warner Brothers
Black and White/ Color (documentaries)
Full Screen/Wide Screen
Original Studio: RKO
Release Date: 1/29/2008
Rated: NR
Stars: Various
Director: Various

We discussed Lewton's career and background in our review of The Man in the Shadows, which you can read at this link. However he is a section from that article, regarding Lewton's tenure at RKO:
" RKO gave Lewton’s unit (which became known as “The Snake Pit”) two things to work with: a pre-ordained title and a small budget. Although a producer, Lewton’s touch on his films is apparent; it is why he is often talked about in the sense a director would be discussed. He worked on the stories, often devising plots and themes which were at once literary and immediate; belying the cheesy titles given to him by the studio. During his stay at RKO, Lewton produced 11 films, nine of which were considered “horror” films. He worked with several directors who would find even further success and impact on the industry later, including Jacques Tourner (Out of the Past), Mark Robson (The Bridges at Toko-Ri and Peyton Place) and Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music and a host of others). Lewton elevated Wise from editor to director on Curse of the Cat People when the previous director was over schedule and over budget....

...Perhaps what is most unique about Lewton’s films is the style in which he told his stories. Hampered by a small budget, he relied on creative lighting ( and shadows) and sound and a company of wonderful stock players and character actors to convey the story. His techniques have inspired other film makers (including Scorsese, Hitchcock, M. Night Shyamalan to name a few). The basic philosophy was to trust the intellect of the audience- that the unseen could be just as chilling as the seen. In many ways, Lewton’s films are almost like a radio suspense show on screen. The ambient sounds, the selective use of music and the shadows all combine to create an effect that allows the audience to feel the tension and fill in the blanks, without having everything splashed across the screen. His son Val E. Lewton agreed with that observation (a fan of radio shows himself) and further noted that his father considered “the imagination a function of the audience. It [his technique] may have had a lot to do with the budget, but it also was his instinct in knowing the audience.”

RKO executives eyed Universal's profits from the Monster pictures with envy. It's somewhat understandable because Orson Wells obsessions had cost them dearly. Although eventually, Citizen Kane would be recognized as one of the greatest pictures of all time, at the time the box office returns were dismal. Bringing on Lewton to head their new horror unit was designed from the outset to be a "B" unit; making films quickly and cheaply that would turn an even quicker profit. To RKO that meant very little time for tinkering, reshoots, story process, etc. Get a story and budget, a cast and shoot it was what they were after.

The Films:
For the review of Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, which is included in the set on a separate disc, please read our previous in-depth review here. You can also read many great articles about the man and his films from the recent Val Lewton blogathon at The Evening Class.

Cat People / Curse of the Cat People
For Lewton's first film with RKO, the studio heads handed him a title- Cat People- and a budget and told him to get it in on time. The title would've insulted another director. Lewton saw it as a challenge. He filmed a story of relationships, superstition, psychological fear and sexual desire. Cat People tells the tale of a young Serbian transplant to New York, Irena, who retains the fears and superstitions of her ancestors. The thing she fears the most is that on some night, when aroused by a man, that she will turn into a panther and wreak violent havoc upon her beloved. Despite this she falls in love and marries a architect named Oliver. She eventually betrays her fears to her husband and he recommends she a therapist, Dr. Judd. However, when Irena begins to suspect that her husband's friendship with a co-worker is more than just business, she begins to follow the other woman.
Audiences are never explicitly told or shown that Irena really transforms into the panther, although we do see shadows of a large cat. By the same token, it's not necessary, because Lewton and director Jacuques Tourner create an atmosphere in which you are drawn in and the slightest, smallest noise reverberates in the audience's mind- creating fear and emotion and the notion that maybe, just maybe, you really did see something.

While The Curse of the Cat People includes some of the same characters, the story is very different. This time the film centers on a young girl, Amy, whose imagination and daydreaming not only gets her in trouble at school, but has made it difficult for her to fit in and make friends. This worries her father, Oliver, who has now remarried and moved from New York City to small and quiet Tarrytown, NY. He tries to help her, but has a hard time understanding how to do so. When Amy runs across a hidden picture of Oliver’s first wife, Irena, the apparition of Irena begins to appear to Amy and comfort and befriend her, but warns Amy not to tell anyone of their friendship. Does Amy really see Irena or is it her imagination? While the set up sounds like a standard ghost story, Lewton and Director Robert Wise turn it into a look into the loneliness of childhood and the way fantasy can weave its way into the life of a child to compensate for a lack of companionship and real affection. This film is so much more than its title and premise. It is one of Lewton’s best.

The Seventh Victim
The Seventh Victim is a very dark tale about a young woman, Mary searching for her missing sister, Jacqueline, the owner of popular line of women's products. Her search soon leads her to the discovery of a secret husband, Gregory, and the mysterious involvement of a satanic cult. Gregory knows that Jacqueline is alive and he and poet that Mary befriends named Jason, agree to help find Jacqueline. They discover that she is alive and being hidden by Dr. Judd (yes, that's the doctor from Cat People). Jacqueline was involved with the Satanic Cult, but left upon discovering their true nature. The Cult demands that anyone who speaks of the cult must die, and yet they are sworn to non-violence. They demand that Jacqueline kill herself or die by some other means.
The studio head explicitly told Lewton repeatedly that they did not want "message pictures." After reviewing The Seventh Victim, they approached Lewton about the film, not really understanding it. When asked if there was a message in the film, Lewton replied, "Yes. Death is good." Reflecting, not a sadistic nature (Lewton was the opposite), but yet a mind that thought about life and death and the suffering and unhappiness that sometimes we all endure.

I Walked with a Zombie/ The Body Snatcher:
Although studio heads at RKO were not initially impressed with Cat People, they became impressed with its profits. They quickly gave Lewton another title and another budget, this time one sillier than the first: I Walked with a Zombie. Again, rather than complain loudly, Lewton took on the challenge to take the title and make the film rise above it. He even takes the title head-on by making it the first line of the film, but from that point on it becomes so much more. A nurse, Betty Connell is given a job to care for a mysteriously ill and semi-comatose woman on an island in the Caribbean. Connell soon finds herself at the estate of the wealthy Holland family, who runs the sugar production on the island. Jessica Holland, wife of Tom Holland, is her patient, and it soon becomes clear that Jessica’s condition is much more than what it appears. When the voodoo drums beat through the night, Jessica rises and is called into the sugar cane. Connell is intrigued and frightened, and is determined to get to the bottom of Jessica’s problem. Meanwhile she finds herself torn between her duty and her feelings for Tom. Things become even more complicated when she discovers Tom’s wife was in love with his brother. Again, Lewton takes a potentially ridiculous title, and turns the film into something literary. This time Zombie is based on Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

The Body Snatcher is a film from later in Lewton’s turn at RKO, and it also is based on a book. This time it’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher. It stars the great Boris Karloff as a 19th century grave digger who plunders and eventually hunts down corpses for a medical school’s supply of cadavers. Karloff is brilliant in this film; menacing and dark. The film also features a small role for Bela Lugosi and is the last time the two icons of horror appeared on-screen together.

The Ghost Ship/The Leopord Man
Here again, Lewton takes a seemingly dull request from RKO and turns it into something much better. RKO had a ship built for a previous film, and wanting to get more of it, tasked Lewton with making a sea-going film. The result is the suspenseful The Ghost Ship starring Richard Dix. Dix is Will Stone, the captain of the ship, The Altair, and has just taken on a new crewman, Tom Merriam. At first, things seem to be going well. Merriam is getting on well, and the voyage is going fairly well. And then several members of the crew die under mysterious circumstances. Merriam eventually suspects Stone, and the ship takes on eerie, dark atmosphere- almost choking the air out of the sea. He attempts to prove that Captain Stone is mad and responsible for the murders, but Merriam is discredited and fired. When they dock, Merriam leaves, but is involved in a fight and is knocked unconscious. When he awakes he finds that he has been brought back to The Altair by mistake and is out to sea. Merriam fears his fate.

The Leopard Man is an attempt to build upon the success of Cat People, but the film bears no connection to the first film. The film takes place in New Mexico. Jerry Manning has purchased a Leopard (the same one Lewton used in Cat People) to help promote his girlfriend, Kiki, a nightclub singer. When her competition sees how successful it is, she startles the cat, hoping to ruin the act. However, the Leopard escapes from the club and soon people are found clawed to death. Jerry and Kiki try to hunt the big cat down, but begin to think something more sinister is at work. This film has a famous and haunting scene- a young girl, late on her way home from market, sees the Leopard and runs home for safety but is locked out by her mother. Her mother and brother hear her knocking and scratching at the door, but she refuses to open the door to teach her a lesson. Then the girl screams and the mother realizes something is really wrong. The audiences sees the mother staring in horror at the door, as the girl screams and the door is clawed and then there is silence. The camera pans down to the floor and we see blood oozing under the doorway. You never see the Leopard or the girl in that moment- just the door. It is one of the most chilling sequences in all of his films and you don't really see anything. Again- it demonstrates Lewton's philosophy and method of using shadows and light and sound, and letting the imagination and mind of the audience to do the rest.

Isle of the Dead/Bedlam
One of the more creative and happy combinations in Lewton's films is his work with Boris Karloff. Intially reluctant to work together, the men eventually discovered much to admire in each other, and worked very well together. Isle of the Dead is a departure for Karloff. He plays a Greek general during the First Balkan War in 1912–1913. On a small island, he and the population are quarantined, due to fears of the plague. As you may surmise, bodies begin to turn up, and the populace is convinced that is the work of a woman they believe to be a vorvolaka- a sort of vampire devil.

Bedlam is also different, and Karloff always referred to it as a "historical picture." Set in 1700s London, Karloff plays Master Sims, the head of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum. He is constantly seeking power and place - something only the nobility have. He sees his position, and his benefactor and superior, Lord Mortimer as a means to position and wealth. However, Sims is a sadistic villan who delights in abusing the so-called "loonies": the inmates. When one of Lord Mortimer's proteges, Nell Bowen, begins to suspect Sims true nature, he manipulates her commitment to the asylum and places her in constant peril- trying to drive her mad. Both claustrophobic and atmospheric, Bedlam is a psychological period thriller. It was Karloff's last film with Lewton.

Bonus Features:
Special features include: Audio commentary: Greg Mank with Simone Simon on Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, Kim Newman and Steve Jones on I Walked With a Zombie, Steve Haberman with Robert Wise on The Body Snatcher, Tom Weaver on Bedlam, and Steve Haberman on The Seventh Victim. Also included on the Seventh Victim disc is a full length documentary, Shadows In The Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. The commentaries are interesting, especially the input of Simone Simon who played Irena and director Robert Wise. Shadows in the Dark is a well done documentary, with some great interviews with past collaborators and family members. Martin Scorsese's documentary goes deeper into Lewton's work and the films themselves- so having both is a welcome thing. In fact, if you already own this collection, the Scorsese film is also available separately. It is worth adding to the set.

The audio and video are nothing short of great. While a few of the prints bear some brief instances of scratching, it is nothing substantial. Great care was taken to restore the sound, an important element of the films.

The Bottom Line:
The Val Lewton Collection
is a wonderful set of films that anyone should add to their DVD library. Not only are the films great classic horror films, it should be evident how influencial they were on the work of others and how much they added to the history of film. In many ways, Lewton preceded the increasing film noir genre, adding many elements that would be more consistantly in that genre of film making. The films aren't typical horror films, in the way we think of them today. Think of them more like Hitchcock films that provide a bridge between the german expressionists and noir films of the late 1940s and 1950s. (Hitch and Lewton were contemporaries and had a mutual respect for each other). The documentaries also demonstrate how Lewton tapped into the fear and tension that the American public was feeling during World War II, and how he used his films to somewhat demonstrate that fear: the fear of the unknown and of what man can do to his fellow man.

Review Rating:
Individually grading the films and bonus features, the sets would earn the following:
Cat People / Curse of the Cat People: A+/A+
The Seventh Victim: B+
I Walked with a Zombie/ The Body Snatcher: A+/A
The Ghost Ship/The Leopord Man: B/B
Isle of the Dead/Bedlam: B/B
Shadows In The Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy: B
Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows: A
Remaing Bonus Features: C

Overall Rating:

The Shelf rates The Val Lewton Collection:
4 and 1/2 stars (Groucho Glasses)

Stay tuned for a review of The Warner Brothers Gangster Collection Vol. 3- and of The Season 4 set of Walker: Texas Ranger in our new TV on DVD review series- all coming up soon!

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

Everything good dies here. Even the stars.

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