It is perhaps characteristic of Lewton's career that this film
[I Walked with a Zombie], one of the rare pieces of pure visual poetry ever to come out of Hollywood, was seen by hardly anybody but ... bloodthirsty chiller fans.
Joel E. Siegel, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terrornote
Val Lewton (1904 - 1951) was a Hollywood producer and screenwriter for MGM and RKO. At MGM, he worked with David O. Selznick on A Tale of Two Cities
and Gone with the Wind
In 1942, Charles Koerner placed him in charge of the "B"-picture unit at RKO. Lewton had to follow three rules for each film:
- it would cost less than $150,000;
- it would run less than 75 minutes;
- and Koerner would supply the title for each project.
As long as he followed these three rules, Lewton had complete creative freedom.
What followed was a series of clever subversions: Koerner gave him a lurid horror title, and Lewton turned it into something subtle and meditative, while still making it appropriate enough to the title that his superiors wouldn't get annoyed. He made ten films under this system:
- Cat People (1942) — A Serbian woman refuses to kiss her husband, believing it will turn her into a deadly panther.
- I Walked with a Zombie (1943) — Jane Eyre in the West Indies, with the mad wife affected by a voodoo curse.
- The Leopard Man (1943) — A leopard hired for a nightclub performance escapes and terrorises a town.
- The Seventh Victim (1943) — A woman searching for her sister discovers a Satanist cult.
- The Ghost Ship (1943) — New crewmember suspects his captain is crazy; the rest of the crew believe the ship is haunted.
- The Curse of the Cat People (1944) — Following the daughter of two characters from Cat People.
- Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) — A Prussian Lieutenant holds up a stagecoach, demanding that a beautiful young passenger "dines" with him.
- The Body Snatcher (1945) — An early Nineteenth Century doctor is blackmailed by the very cabman (Boris Karloff) he gets his dead bodies from. Also features Bela Lugosi in his final film with Karloff. Based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, which was in turn based on the real-life story of Dr. Robert Knox and the Burke and Hare murders.
- Isle of the Dead (1945) — Visitors to a Greek island are quarantined because of a plague.
- Bedlam (1946) — The sinister apothecary-general of a madhouse (played by Boris Karloff) has his "loonies" put on a show for a visiting aristocrat.
Val Lewton's work contains examples of:
- Actually Not a Vampire: Isle of the Dead.
- Adaptation Expansion: Isle of the Dead and Bedlam are adaptations of paintings.
- Buried Alive: In Isle of the Dead, Mary St. Aubyn mentions that she has a particular fear of being buried alive. Later on, when the sickness (or vorvolakas, maybe) takes her, she is presumed dead and sealed in a coffin (but not buried). When she breaks out she goes on a killing spree.
- Cat Scare: Since the source of terror in Cat People actually is a cat of sorts, the Cat Scare in this film is a bus with an airbrake that sounds like a cat's hiss.
- Continuity Snarl: It has been argued that The Seventh Victim takes place in the same continuity as Cat People and Curse of the Cat People. Tom Conway plays a psychiatrist named Louis Judd in Cat People and The Seventh Victim, and this is possibly the same character. (He seems to have a generally similar personality.) Some say Seventh is a prequel to Cat People, since Judd apparently dies at the end of Cat People, and this is confirmed by another character in Curse. Others say Seventh might be a sequel and that Judd's mention of a beautiful woman who went mad is probably a reference to Irena from Cat People (although he says this woman is now in an asylum, but Irena also dies at the end of Cat People, and this is also confirmed in Curse). Actress Elizabeth Russell appears in all three movies, but her presence each time is rather strange and mysterious, so it is possible she was playing the same character, or someone completely different, each time.
- Executive Meddling: In a sense this is what drove Lewton's production unit. He wasn't credited as writer or director on any of the movies, but he had the last word on everything that happened. He would tweak the final draft of scripts, often providing copious notes on how scenes were to be set up, lighted, etc. In effect he was "pre-directing" the movies and the directors were just there to bring his vision to the screen. Fortunately he was able to choose personnel who were able to work under these conditions.
- Great Offscreen War: Isle of the Dead is set during the First Balkan War in 1912. We only see the aftermath of a battle very briefly at the start of the film, but the war itself casts a shadow over the events on the island (the main reason General Pherides and Doctor Drossos decide to enforce a quarantine is to protect their army on the mainland from the plague).
- Historical-Domain Character: The 18th century radical politician John Wilkes appears as a supporting character in Bedlam.
- Hollywood Voodoo: I Walked with a Zombie has zombies and dolls. It also has a religious ceremony, however, which our unnerved heroine must brave in order to meet with the houngan.
- Idle Rich: A couple of characters come close but Lewton generally averted this; he preferred his characters to be gainfully employed.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Lewton was a big fan of keeping the explanation for things ambiguous.
- Nothing Is Scarier: A major pioneer, and possibly even the Trope Maker. Lewton didn't have the budget for special effects, so he found creative ways to suggest things without actually showing them.
- Subversion: Koerner supplied the titles, Lewton subverted them.
- Suspiciously Apropos Music: "Ah woe, ah me" in I Walked with a Zombie.
- This Bear Was Framed: The Leopard Man features a serial killer who disguises his crimes as attacks from an escaped leopard. He's aided by the fact that the escaped leopard really did kill someone.