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Complicated Shadows: The Films of Val Lewton

January 22, 2010 - February 13, 2010

I Walked with a Zombie, January 30

“If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want! We’re great ones for dark patches.”—Val Lewton

Rarely do we praise the producer. But in Val Lewton’s case the praise should be profuse for a cluster of creepy cheapies he produced in the early forties, notable for heavily shadowed psychic landscapes, arousing unease through an excess of archaic suggestion. Originally a scriptwriter, Lewton went from anonymous labors at MGM to the head of the horror unit at RKO in 1942. Once the esteemed studio that had produced classics like King Kong and Citizen Kane, by the time of Lewton’s involvement RKO had opted for “entertainment not genius.” Little did they know that their enfant terror would transform formulaic ideas and impoverished means into a well-crafted surplus of psychological enthrallment. Beginning with Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton overwhelmed a poverty-stricken mandate—to make seventy-five-minute features for $150,000, using titles supplied by the studio—by assembling a remarkable coven of collaborators who could conjure his eerie vision: directors Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise; writers Ardel Wray and DeWitt Bodeen; and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Where most low-budget Bs felt obliged to actually illustrate the lurking horror, RKO K.O.s such as The Leopard Man, Isle of the Dead, and The Body Snatcher left instead inky insinuations that beckoned primeval folklore, reptilian instinct, and emotional monstrosities. This series sheds some much-deserved light on producer Val Lewton—he’s been in the shadows too long.

Steve Seid
Video Curator

Friday, January 22, 2010
7:00 p.m. Cat People
Jacques Tourneur (U.S., 1942). Simone Simon fears that a lover’s kiss will unleash an ancient curse in the first and still the definitive Lewton/Tourneur chiller, a masterwork of shadowy suggestion. (73 mins)

Friday, January 22, 2010
8:40 p.m. The Seventh Victim
Mark Robson (U.S., 1943). Kim Hunter crosses paths with a cult of ever-so-civilized Satanists in boho Greenwich Village. Lewton’s vision of New York “exudes a distilled poetry of doom.”—Chicago Reader. (71 mins)

Saturday, January 30, 2010
7:40 p.m. I Walked with a Zombie
Jacques Tourneur (U.S., 1943). Voodoo and family-centered psychodrama combine with surreal ease in a mesmerizing, atmospheric film that transposes elements of the Jane Eyre plot to Haiti. (69 mins)

Saturday, January 30, 2010
9:10 p.m. Youth Runs Wild
Mark Robson (U.S., 1944). When kids turn bad, who’s to blame? This rare Lewton venture into social realism offers an intriguing view of the WWII home front along with the melodramatic thrills of a J.D. exploitation flick. (67 mins)

Friday, February 5, 2010
7:00 p.m. The Curse of the Cat People
Gunther V. Fritsch, Robert Wise (U.S., 1944). Not a horror movie, unless you count the horrors of loneliness and misunderstanding, this “sequel” to Cat People is a beautiful and sensitive portrait of childhood fantasy. (70 mins)

Friday, February 5, 2010
8:30 p.m. The Leopard Man
Jacques Tourneur (U.S., 1943). Something deadly prowls the desert arroyos and shadowed sidewalks of a New Mexico town in “one of the most remarkable B films ever to have come out of Hollywood.”—Chicago Reader. (66 mins)

Thursday, February 11, 2010
7:00 p.m. The Body Snatcher
Robert Wise (U.S., 1945). Boris Karloff brings lugubrious wit to the role of a corpsemonger in this tale of murder and medical ethics in nineteenth-century Edinburgh. (78 mins)

Thursday, February 11, 2010
8:40 p.m. Isle of the Dead
Mark Robson (U.S., 1945). A Greek cemetery island is struck by a plague—or is it the Vorvalakas, ancient spirits that drain humans of life? Karloff stars in a tale of reason, superstition, and what lies between. (71 mins)

Saturday, February 13, 2010
7:00 p.m. The Ghost Ship
Mark Robson (U.S., 1943). Mysterious deaths aboard ship cause a young officer to reassess the motives of captain Richard Dix in this haunting, beautifully crafted thriller. (69 mins)

Saturday, February 13, 2010
8:30 p.m. Bedlam
Mark Robson (U.S., 1946). Inspired by a Hogarth painting, this almost absurdly literate film set in eighteenth-century London sends witty, worldly Anna Lee to hell—a.k.a. the Bedlam lunatic asylum, presided over by Boris Karloff. (79 mins)

PFA is grateful to the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film and Television Archive for the loan of archival prints.