Tag Archives: Val Lewton

A Month of Horror

I’ve never been a big fan of horror films and usually try to avoid them, but the horror genre has become such a significant gap in my cinematic experience (“you’ve never seen Night of the Living Dead?! OMGWTFBBQ!”) that I decided to make a concerted effort during the month of October to catch up on some horror classics and expand my horror repertoire. I didn’t get through nearly all of the recommendations I got for the project, but hey! I’m all set for next year. :) Anyway, October’s long gone, but here’s a brief rundown of the Horror Experiment, which I actually enjoyed quite a lot.

Val Lewton series

The Silent Movie Theatre devoted October to horror, as well, including a double-feature series of Val Lewton-produced films, which are among the best classic horror films ever made (along with the Universal monster series). I wrote a bit about most of Lewton’s films in this Film on TV post, when TCM played a Lewton festival. I won’t repeat myself on Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie or Isle of the Dead, or The Body Snatcher, except to say that I saw all of them for the second (or third, or fourth) time in October, and they get better each time. The only film in the Silent Movie Theatre’s series I hadn’t seen was The Ghost Ship (not to be confused with the 2002 film Ghost Ship), which isn’t particularly a horror film. It was a well-done psychological drama, exploring (as all of Lewton’s films do) the potential horror that anyone may carry within themselves – in this case, a ship’s second in command becoming paranoid that the captain may want him dead. It reminded me of The Caine Mutiny more than anything else.
Cat People – USA 1942; directed by Jacques Tourneur; starring Simone Simon, Kent SmithIMDb
I Walked With a Zombie – USA 1943; directed by Jacques Tourneur; starring Frances Dee, James EllisonIMDb
The Ghost Ship – USA 1943; directed by Mark Robson; starring Richard Dix, Russell WadeIMDb
The Body Snatcher – USA 1945; directed by Robert Wise; starring Boris Karloff, Henry DaniellIMDb
Isle of the Dead – USA 1945; directed by Mark Robson; starring Boris Karloff, Ellen DrewIMDb
Amazon (box set of these all these Lewton films, plus a couple of others)

Night of the Living Dead

Zombies have always been a particular dislike of mine, keeping me away from pretty much all of George Romero’s films. But I bit the bullet and crossed the best-known zombie movie of all time off my list. And you know what? It’s good. And I think my blind hatred of zombies is fading (more on that in a bit). I found it especially interesting that the hero character is black – in 1968, Romero reversed racial stereotypes that still plague horror films today. I can’t decide whether I liked that the zombies were caused by radioactivity. It’s very classic sci-fi nuclear paranoia, but I sort of like horror to be more unexplained.
USA 1968; directed by George A. Romero; starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea
IMDb | Amazon (note: there are at least eight editions of Night of the Living Dead on DVD; from a bit of quick research, the Millennium Edition I’ve linked here seems to be unanimously the best print)

Rosemary’s Baby

I put this one off for a long time because I was afraid that a Roman Polanski-directed film about the birth of the anti-Christ would be too freaky. It isn’t. Most of it was actually a little boring. Lots of Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer being subtly odd and Mia Farrow being subtly creeped out. The part where she was impregnated by the devil was definitely freaky, but in a very over-the-top way that made it not quite work for me. I did, however, learn that if you do happen to be impregnated by the devil, be prepared for an extremely uncomfortable pregnancy.
USA 1968; directed by Roman Polanski; starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon
IMDb | Amazon

Tales from the Crypt

This got recommended me after I mentioned that 1945’s anthology film Dead of Night was one of my favorite horror movies. In this anthology horror film, five people get lost while exploring a crypt and the crypt-keeper tells them grisly stories that may be in the future – or in their past. The five stories are all interesting and macabre, almost like Twilight Zone episodes. I really like the anthology format; most horror films seem to have about a half-hour or hour long story stretched into two hours anyway.
USA 1972; directed by Freddie Francis; starring Ralph Richardson, Joan Collins, Peter Cushing
IMDb | Amazon


I’ve delved a very little bit into the world of Japanese horror (with Kwaidan, which still deserves a rewatch from me, and Ringu, which I honestly didn’t like as much as its American remake), and though I’m still struggling with my understanding of Japanese cinema, Retribution is definitely my favorite Jhorror so far, and I’m looking foward to seeing some of director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s other films. A detective is haunted by a woman in a red dress and has to delve deep in his memories to figure out why. It’s thoughtful, creepy, has lovely cinematography, and somehow the jump scenes didn’t bother me as much as usual. The end was a little disappointing, though – like Kurosawa didn’t quite know how to finish and just threw something on that doesn’t really make sense.
Japan 2006; directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa; starring Kôji Yakusho, Riona Hazuki
IMDb | Amazon

Planet Terror

Here’s how I know my zombie-hatred is on the way out. I LOVED Planet Terror. I avoided even the idea of seeing Grindhouse in theatres, because it sounded so totally not my thing, and I never thought that I would remotely enjoy Robert Rodriguez’s part of the double-feature more than Tarantino’s. (I never did make it through Death Proof, out of sheer boredom.) But Planet Terror takes Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil, Kill Bill, and I don’t know what all else and turns up the gleeful schlock meter to eleven. You’ve got zombies, gratuitous blood, sharpshooters, explosions, girls with machine gun legs, and dialogue like “Looks like a no-brainer!” (from an ER doctor regarding a patient – in the next shot, we see she literally has no brains, presumably because the zombies have eaten them). My liking Planet Terror as much as I did is basically a giant flashing neon sign that I have been avoiding horror movies for far too long, at least the schlocky b-movie kind.
USA 2007; directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez
IMDb | Amazon

Let the Right One In

At the other side of the spectrum from Planet Terror is this unusual Swedish vampire flick, which may still be playing in limited release. Catch it if you can. A young boy, ridiculed and bullied at school, befriends his new neighbor, a mysterious girl who seems much sadder and wiser than her apparent age. Then there are some murders and it starts getting harder for her to keep her true nature hidden, and the boy has to choose how to react to her after he finds out what she is. The pacing is leisurely, the photography moody – wait, it’s a Swedish film, these things are taken for granted. There are a couple of incongruously comic scenes that I didn’t care for too much, and I think the film has been overhyped by critics, but in general, it is a welcome and refreshing change from the average horror film.
Sweden 2008; directed by Tomas Alfredson ; starring Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson
IMDb | Amazon (coming to DVD March 9, 2009)

Film on TV (22-26 Oct)

The Screengrab has started doing a feature highlighting films on TV worth setting your DVR for, and I figured, hey. Good idea. They generally pick a few off TCM, some of AMC, and fill it out with IFC and Sundance. I’ll probably lean heavily on TCM; I just went through next week’s listings on my DVR, and there were a LOT of good ones. Watching TCM is like a film education in and of itself. And I don’t get IFC and Sundance, so looking through those listings just depresses me.

Ideally I will do this on, like, Sunday. In the future.

Wednesday, 22 Oct

(And early Thursday morning; you’d have to set your DVR by Wednesday anyway, so it makes more sense to group them this way.)

10pm EST / 9pm CST – TCM – Citizen Kane
Widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. Here’s your chance to see it, see it again, or pride yourself on not having to see it because you already own the DVD.

1:45am / 12:45am (23 Oct) – TCM – Val Lewton festival
All of these four Val Lewton-produced films are worth it. Classic 1940s B-movie horror. People ask me sometimes why these are considered B-movies; they have fairly high production values, but they don’t have top-tier casts. That’s usually the reason. Also, almost ALL horror films during the studio era were B-level productions, because they weren’t considered prestigious. Anyway, Lewton took a more high-minded approach, taking the titles he was given by the studio and creating highly atmospheric, often literary psychological dramas rather than the schlock the titles seem to indicate.
Cat People (1:45am) – An Eastern European woman arrives in the United States and gets married, but fears an ancient curse on her people that would cause her to turn on her husband. Oh, yeah, by turning her into a cat. Sounds silly, and sometimes it is, but the moody photography keeps it haunting.
I Walked With a Zombie (3:00am) – Or, Jane Eyre in the West Indies. Really. This is the cream of the Lewton crop. I’ve seen it probably five times, and I still enjoy it every time.
Isle of the Dead (4:15am) – A lesser Lewton, perhaps, but has a fantastic climax. Several people are quarantined on an island due to a plague outbreak; one of them may be a vorvolaka, a vampire-like creature in Greek legend.
The Body Snatcher (5:30am) – Boris Karloff turns in arguably his best performance as a 19th-century grave robber. More drama than horror, though the last sequence is a little terrifying.

Thursday, 23 Oct

11:30am / 10:30 am – TCM – The Big Sleep
Only one of the greatest detective/mysteries/films noir ever made. Humphrey Bogart is the definite hard-boiled detective, Lauren Bacall is the potential love interest/femme fatale. Don’t try to follow the story; whodunit is far less important than crackling dialogue and dry humor. Watch out for future Oscar-winner Dorothy Malone (Written on the Wind) in the small but extremely memorable part of the bookshop girl.

8:00pm / 7:00 pm – TCM – 2001: A Space Odyssey
I’ve recorded and watched this the last couple of times it was on TCM. I need to just buy the DVD already. Stanley Kubrick’s visually stunning journey through thousands of years of technological evolution and man-vs-machine conflict is still one of the ultimate science fiction films.

10:45pm / 9:45pm – TCM – Touch of Evil
Well, I wrote last week about the controversy over the new Touch of Evil DVD’s aspect ratio, and here’s the chance to see the film. I’m assuming TCM is showing the widescreen version. In any case, where else are you going to get to see Charlton Heston playing a Mexican policeman? Seriously, though, this is the last of the great films noir, more so for Orson Welles’ direction and performance as a corrupt cop than for Heston’s questionable ethnicity.

12:45am / 11:45pm – TCM – The Red Shoes
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger put out a string of fantastic films in the 1940s, and The Red Shoes is one of the best. Real ballerina Moira Shearer plays a wanna-be ballerina who finds her Svengali and rises to the heights of the art in a ballet based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the ballerina who could never stop dancing once she put on the red shoes. The love triangle that develops between Shearer, her Svengali manager, and her composer is second fiddle to the ballet itself – one of the greatest instances of dance ever put on film.

Saturday, 25 Oct

8:00pm / 7:00pm – TCM – Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock built the foundation for all future psycho-killer movies with his classic. It’s not as terrifying as it once was, but that doesn’t at all diminish its greatness.

10:00pm / 9:00pm – TCM – Peeping Tom
One of Michael Powell’s few films where he didn’t work with Emeric Pressburger is this disturbing psychotic thriller about a man who kills women while taking pictures of their terror. Makes you wonder how much Pressburger was reining him in on their collaborations… I tend to get this confused in my head with Hitchcock’s Frenzy, so I’ll see if a rewatch helps differentiate them a bit.

Sunday, 26 Oct

6:00am / 5:00am – TCM – The Gay Divorcee
Most film buffs will put Top Hat and/or Swing Time at the top of the list of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, but I somehow have a huge love for The Gay Divorcee. Ginger hires a gigolo to try to force her husband to divorce her, but then thinks Fred (who wants to court her) is the gigolo. Mistaken identities for the win, and the stellar supporting cast doesn’t hurt at all, either. Plus, a young Betty Grable in a musical number with Edward Everett Horton. How can you go wrong?

2:00pm / 1:00pm – TCM – The Birds
Say whatever you want, The Birds scares the crap out of me. In a good way. Honestly, I cannot breathe for like the last ten minutes of the film. In a good way. Every time I want to point out perfect pacing and timing in film, I always point to The Birds (and sometimes Jaws). Hitchcock (and Spielberg) knows just how long he can wait before springing the gotcha shot on you. The birds-on-the-jungle-gym scene? That’s what I’m talking about.

3:30pm / 2:30pm – AMC – An American Werewolf in London
This is one of the better werewolf movies out there. It’s sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris? Less so.

2:30am / 1:30am (27th) TCM – Vampyr
I haven’t actually seen this Carl Theodor Dreyer version of Dracula myself yet, but I’m looking forward to it. Especially since Netflix just told me that they don’t have it available anymore. So this may be the only easy way to see it for a while, just a heads up.

Okay, that gets us through Sunday, when I’ll hopefully get one for the next week ready. I’m sure you all know how well I stick to schedules. *eyeroll*