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Death Meets Me Fast: Val Lewton’s Early Horror Films

I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feebled flesh doth waste”
—John Donne

Few film producers are branded with the “auteur” label awarded to some directors, but Val Lewton’s series of horror films for RKO Pictures in the ’40s has certainly granted him that honor. A novelist, screenwriter, and producer who emigrated from Imperialist Russia to New York City as a child, Lewton made some of the finest—and certainly the bleakest—WWII-era American horror films, somber works of subtlety and isolation. After a stint writing film novelizations for MGM and a successful run as legendary producer David O. Selznick’s assistant, Lewton was promoted to run RKO’s horror film section. After a series of financially exhausting Orson Welles pictures, RKO was nearly bankrupt and desperate for a few hits. The formula was the same with many of these films: Lewton was given a limited budget, a 75-minute time limit for the films, and a campy title he was forced to stick with, but otherwise he had the ability to select his own production team and much creative control. Though not as well known as titles like Dracula (1931) or Frankenstein (1931), Lewton produced a handful of horror films that rivalled Universal’s success in the ‘30s.

Lewton’s early films like Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), and The Seventh Victim (1943), often had scripts written or influenced by Lewton and concern similar themes: female protagonists tormented and pursued by both psychological and occult forces. Set adrift in a lonely world, these isolated women are not damsels in distress to be rescued by the confident male heroes of earlier (and later) horror films. Lewton’s films are ominous, subtle, and gloomily psychological, with characters in an existential crisis that I can’t help but feel was informed by the horror of war.

Cat People (1942), in particular, pits a foreign woman, an expatriate in New York, against characters who embrace thoroughly “American” values. Irena (Simone Simon), a young artist and fashion designer who has emigrated from Serbia, meets Oliver (Kent Smith), an American marine engineer, at the Central Park Zoo in New York. She is there sketching a black leopard, but allows Oliver to walk her home and invites him in for tea. They strike up a relationship and Oliver soon proposes marriage, though Irena expresses her concerns. She never intended to be in a relationship and is afraid to consummate their marriage due to some superstitious beliefs from her homeland. Allegedly her village was home to a number of devil worshipping female witches who would transform into giant, murderous cats when they were aroused or enraged. Irena believes that if she has sex with Oliver—or even kisses him—that this will be her fate too.

Irena’s paranoias are complicated by a series of events. Oliver buys her a kitten that is terrified of her and they exchange it for a canary who dies of fright when she tries to play with it. At their wedding, a strange, cat-like woman (Elizabeth Russell) greets her as “my sister” in Serbian. Her anxieties result in marital problems and Oliver convinces her to go see a psychiatrist (Tom Conway), who shrugs off her beliefs as silly childhood traumas and makes sexual advances towards her. The only thing that makes her feel better is visiting the leopard at the zoo. Meanwhile Oliver is beginning to fall for his assistant Alice (Jane Randolph), which arouses murderous feelings in Irena. Alice is followed home from work one night by something unseen and is later stalked in a swimming pool. Oliver finally asks for a divorce and Irena spirals out of control.

Though Cat People received mixed reviews upon its release, it was a financial success and ensured that Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur would go on making films together for RKO. Tourneur’s talented direction and noirish style is used here in abundance and his work with Lewton is among his finest—thanks in part to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who would go on to work with Tourneur on Out of the Past (1947). The nighttime scenes, shadowy visuals with focused uses of light, and suggested, rather than literal horrors helped broaden what could be accomplished with horror cinema, particularly in terms of how monsters, villains, and protagonists could be made to overlap; Irena is sexually repressed, but also something of a femme fatale. She is equally sinister and sympathetic.

Irena is never rescued from her plight; she is abandoned by her husband, by her psychiatrist, resulting in a somewhat ambiguous but inevitable conclusion. Perhaps surprisingly, Cat People is a grim meditation on the difficulties of romantic relationships. It is one of the few works in the early ‘40s to openly discuss divorce and infidelity—as well as the dangers of sexual repression. The real beast in this film is not a were-panther (though it remains unclear whether or not the creature exists), but Irena’s unbridled sexuality, which she fears will consume and destroy her and the man she loves.

Lewton introduced a number of influential techniques with Cat People, including the “Lewton Bus,” where a genuine scare is misdirected with a benign surprise. In the scene where Alice is being chased home from Central Park by some unseen creature, which we believe to be Irena in panther form, instead of the attack we know is coming is replaced by the sudden arrival of a city bus that takes Alice to safety. Lewton and Tourneur also used shadow and suggestion in this film in lieu of showing the alleged leopard woman. This is supported by some carefully used, symbolic dialogue and knowing set pieces. Written by DeWitt Bodeen, who would work with Lewton on a few other films, Cat People was based on Lewton’s own short story, “The Bagheeta,” which brought a new sense of nihilistic horror to American cinema—at a time when studios were encouraged to produce cheerful escapism and war propaganda.

Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur’s second collaboration together is one of their most haunting films, a meditation on guilt, despair, unattainable love, sexual longing, and death: I Walked with a Zombie. Betsy (Frances Dee), a young Canadian nurse, is hired to care for the wife of Caribbean plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway returning from Cat People). Jessica (Christine Gordon), Holland’s lovely wife, is in a zombie-like, catatonic state where she is able to open her eyes, walk, eat, and follow basic orders, but is otherwise devoid of life. Paul and his half-brother Wesley (James Ellison) explain that this is the result of an island fever, but Betsy comes to learn that there is more to the story and that the Hollands have a complicated family history. Betsy falls in love with Paul, despite his depressive nature, and recognizes a damaged person in need of help. Because she cannot act on her love, she is determined to cure Jessica. When medicine fails her, she turns to the local voodoo practices, but when she takes Jessica to a voodoo ceremony in the middle of the night, a number of disturbing secrets come to light.

I Walked with a Zombie is not a traditional horror film in the sense that none of the characters are really in any physical danger throughout the course of the film, yet there is a constant sense of dread, unease, and foreboding from the moment Betsy journeys to the island. She is told, “Everything good dies here, even the stars.” Like Cat People, it doesn’t matter whether the cause of Jessica’s zombie-like state is rational or supernatural; both are equally plausible in this hopeless universe. Lewton’s powerful ability to explore contradictory worlds is at the heart of this film: the irrational and the rational, European Christian beliefs and African voodoo, science and superstition, freedom and bondage. In a continuation of Cat People’s themes, I Walk with a Zombie is ultimately about a man being unable to control his wife’s sexuality; infidelity is explored from a different angle than in Cat People. There is the implication that Jessica is easier to deal with in her comatose state and that, in some way, she deserves what happened to her.

Betsy becomes convinced that the beautiful island paradise is really a nightmare in disguise. The island is a place seeped in the miasma of death where former slaves weep at the birth of a child and celebrate funerals. Their patron saint (and the island’s namesake) is St. Sebastian, who is typically depicted as a beautiful, nearly naked young man tied to a tree and pierced with arrows. Jessica’s flesh is pierced several times throughout the film, with needles, a knife, an arrow and she is essentially sacrificed to appease the other characters’ feelings of guilt and sexual repression. Death, as with many of Lewton’s other films, is the great escape, the only device able to liberate characters from the excruciating pain of living. The ambiguous, yet devastating ending culminates in a murder-suicide that leaves the family free of secrets, but permanently unable to resolve their complicated feelings.

As with much film noir, all the characters operate within a certain moral gray area. Though Betsy appears to be the film’s moral center—and for the most part is a good person—she falls in love with her married employer. Her desperate need to cure Jessica can be read as an attempts to purge the guilt she feels at having illicit romantic (and sexual) feelings. The thoroughly unromantic Paul is bitter and misanthropic; he is content to keep Jessica trapped in her comatose state of living death. His mother (Edith Barrett) has a double life and functions as the head of a local clinic and secretly, by night, as a voodoo priestess. Paul’s brother is one of the true victims of the film, though he self-destructively embraces alcoholism.

Lewton was apparently forced by RKO to use the I Walked with a Zombie title, and though the story is allegedly based on Inez Wallace’s article on voodoo for American Weekly Magazine, it is really a re-telling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre with a generous helping of White Zombie (1932). While the Bela Lugosi vehicle also deals with island voodoo and a man turning a woman into a zombie because of his sexual desire for her, I Walked with a Zombie takes a much more subtle, haunting approach—thanks partly to a script from Curt Siodmak, responsible for a number of horror films from the period, including the almost equally melancholic The Wolf Man (1941). Where Cat People used its female protagonist to challenge the notion of European expatriates adjusting to life in America, I Walked with a Zombie quite explicitly examines race relations in America and is one of the few horror films to prominently display black actors.

Lewton abandoned the idea of the supernatural all together in his final film with director Tourneur, 1943’s The Leopard Man. Based on noir author Cornell Woolrich’s novel Black Alibi, the film is a disturbing meditation on death and is one of the earliest American films to portray a serial killer (coming the same year as Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt). In a club at a small town in New Mexico, a performer named Kiki (Jean Brooks) is given a leopard by her manager Jerry (Dennis O’Keefe) as part of a publicity stunt. Wanting to keep all the attention for herself, a rival performer Clo-Clo (Margo) frightens the animal and it runs off into the night. A young girl is soon mauled to death when her mother sends her out at night for groceries and Jerry and Kiki feel guilty about the cat. But another young woman is killed while secretly meeting her boyfriend at a cemetery, and they begin to realize that a human murderer is only imitating the leopard.

One of Lewton and Tourneur’s most difficult and interesting films, this maintains some of the themes of their best work. Sexual repression, the devastating effect of isolation, and, most of all, death, represented in the three episodic killings of local Hispanic women. Unlike later serial killer films (but similar to Hitchcock’s The Lodger), the murders are not about the madness of an individual, they are about the psychosis of an entire community. While Cat People began with a couple and I Walk with a Zombie moved to a family unit, The Leopard Man extends outward to a community. Guilt and responsibility do not really lie with the killer, but with everyone. Many of the deaths occur because characters simply made the wrong decisions, decisions lacking in compassion or love: for example, in a chilling early set piece, a mother is responsible for her own daughter’s death when she mocks her fear of the dark and refuses to open the front door.

Unlike the majority of later slasher movies and serial killer films, The Leopard Man focuses on the victims, providing intimate, but brief snapshots of the three women and their lives. This tendency to jump back and forth between characters throughout the film somewhat confuses the plot, but is a unique and interesting examination of small town murder. Like Lewton’s earlier films, there is a clear focus on foreignness and with independent female characters. Like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, this is essentially a film about women trying to find their way in the world, even though it is a place of violence and horror.

This theme culminated in Lewton’s next and greatest film, The Seventh Victim (1943), directed by Mark Robson. The young Mary (Kim Hunter) leaves boarding school to travel to New York and find her missing sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). Her only surviving family member, Jacqueline is also the only parent Mary has ever known. She learns that Jacqueline has sold—actually given away—her cosmetics business, and the only residence associated with her is an empty apartment, number 7, which contains just a chair and a noose. Mary meets Jacqueline’s friend Gregory (Hugh Beaumont), and later learns that the two were secretly married. Jacqueline’s oddly controlling psychiatrist (Tom Conway) obstructs their search, but it is ultimately revealed that Jacqueline was involved with a Satanic cult known as the Palladists and she is now hiding from them. It seems that no one can leave the cult and survive.

Obsessed with loneliness, isolation, alienation, and a longing for death, The Seventh Victim is Lewton’s most inspired and chilling film. Falling somewhere between expressionistic horror and film noir, the dizzying narrative structure includes an array of characters, many vignette-like sequences that seem to stand on their own, and a twisting and turning plot led by an almost dream logic that prevents a clear narrative with one focused protagonist. This is one of the film’s chief strengths, but also something that will frustrate viewers expecting a straightforward mystery or noir tale. Make no mistake, this is a horror film with noir stylings, but the horror emerges not from the physical or supernatural threat of death, but from the longing for death and the fear and hatred of life. Jacqueline somberly declares, “I’ve always wanted to die – always.”

This is not really a film about a Satanic cult, despite the marketing efforts to the contrary, and anyone expect something along the lines of the earlier, fantastic Karloff-Lugosi vehicle The Black Cat (1934) will likely be disappointed. The Satanists themselves are physically non-threatening; they are essentially a rather milquetoast group of of middle-aged, middle-class people interested in the occult. But there is a miasma that runs through the film and Lewton makes us wonder how they all came to be there. Though the majority of these characters are not fully developed, Lewton hints at a complex, unhappy backstory for all of them. One woman without an arm has a breakdown and sobs when they try to convince Jacqueline to drink poison. In a later scene, they send an assassin after her, unable to murder her themselves.

The film is actually set up like a murder mystery, as if Mary is looking for the corpse of her sister rather than a living being. In fact, her search begins at the morgue, and Jacqueline’s absence for much of the film implies that they are looking for a body. Jacqueline, in many ways, is already a corpse. Though she almost dies several times throughout the film, she is simply waiting for death to be on her terms; despite this, Jacqueline is the pinnacle of Lewton’s strong, independent, lonely, and damaged female leads. Jean Brooks, who worked with Lewton on other films, is transformed into a sepulchral vixen, a literal femme fatale. The characters all speak of her beauty and sex appeal, but none are able to really know her, to penetrate her mystery. Her severe Cleopatra wig and heavy, black fur coat is visually striking and is not a style echoed in the other characters. Despite this apparent boldness, she barely acts, barely speaks, and yet is the dominating presence of the entire film.

Character, as in many of Lewton’s films, is subjective and changeable. Though at first ostensibly the film’s protagonist, Mary pales beside her sister, though her sometimes selfish, almost immoral actions provide a nice twist on the typical “good girl” detective character and romantic interest in many film noir or mystery efforts. As with many of Lewton’s other films, the male characters are weak next to their female counterparts, and often suffer from unrequited love or unsatisfied sexual desire. Seduction, however, is replaced with the longing for death and the most tense relationship is the flirtation, if it could be called that, between Jacqueline and her neighbor. Played by the haunting Elizabeth Russell, who appeared as disturbing side characters in many of Lewton’s films, is terminally ill and on the brink of death.

She and Jacqueline discuss their conflicting urges to die and to live, and the inevitability of death for both. Fond of quoting bleak poetry in many of his films, Lewton’s use of John Donne’s “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?” is unusual in an early horror film, but is evidence of the philosophical deliberation behind the dread in this film and his earlier efforts. Though there are many excellent horror set pieces throughout The Seventh Victim—including a menacing shower sequence that foreshadows Psycho and a hellish subway ride—the film’s overall sense of dread, despair, and morbidity is visceral, disturbing, and often outright shocking. This is a film that could not have been made in a major studio or enjoyed by a somewhat baffled public without the horrors of WWII as its subtext. Though he would go on to produce other films before dying of heart failure in 1951, mere months before his 47th birthday, there is a strange finality about The Seventh Victim with its preoccupation with suicide that has a power to haunt viewers long after the credits have faded.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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