Most readers of Bloody Disgusting already know about Val Lewton, the producer whose low-budget films for RKO practically invented the cinematic language of atmospheric horror. Working with directors Jacques Tournier, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise, Lewton created movies that used shadows and suggestions to tell tense stories of psychological despair and sexual repression.
An earlier article by Meagan Navarro beautifully explains Lewton’s contributions to horror cinema, along with four films that best represent his style. But now that Shudder has added to their collection seven of the nine horror movies that Lewton produced for RKO Pictures, now is the perfect time to look at his full oeuvre.
Although all nine films are worth seeking out (the two not on Shudder are in the public domain and can be easily found with a bit of internet sleuthing), I’ve ranked them here according to their overall effect. These films set the standard for psychological and atmospheric horror today, using budgetary and content limitations to create some of cinema’s most memorable images.
9) The Ghost Ship (1943)
Where the 2002 movie Ghost Ship has a killer opening scene and a nifty tagline, it has little else to offer. Conversely, 1943’s The Ghost Ship lacks ghosts, but it does have a menacing Captain (Richard Dix), whose approach to ship authority puts him at odds with his new young officer (Russell Wade).
Directed by Mark Robson, The Ghost Ship sets up a structure found in many of Lewton’s films, in which a younger person finds themselves at odds with an unhinged older mentor.
But despite some uncharacteristically explicit (but no less effective) death scenes, as well as welcome appearances by character actors Sir Lancelot and Lawrence Tierney, The Ghost Ship struggles to overcome its bland white male protagonist (a problem common to movies in the 1940s; also, today) and wraps up too easily to satisfy its complex premise.
8) The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
By and large, I take a big tent approach to horror. As long as a movie is about monsters and/or someone finds them scary, I’m happy to call it horror (even if it’s set in space!). But while I include the noir-tinged The Seventh Victim or the social melodrama Bedlam on a list of horror films, The Curse of the Cat People is a bit more of a stretch.
Both protagonists from the original Cat People return for this sequel, but the film focuses on their young daughter Amy (Ann Carter). After the death of her mother (Simone Simon), the shy Amy finds herself entangled with a pair of sisters who may or may not be witches (Julia Dean and Elizabeth Russell).
While that premise does give original director Gunther von Fritsch and completing director Robert Wise (in his debut behind the camera!) reason to stage some horror scenes, the film operates as a children’s fantasy. Fritsch and Wise certainly give us some good fantasy scenes, especially those involving Amy’s visions of her mother, but they never capture the tension or depth of Lewton’s best films.
7) The Leopard Man (1943)
I know I said this up top, but I need to reiterate it here: these are all good movies. So while The Leopard Man falls toward the bottom of my list, I definitely recommend it. This tense murder mystery stars Dennis O’Keefe as Jerry Manning, a New Mexico nightclub owner who investigates a series of killings after the leopard he hired for an act gets loose.
Despite its occasionally white-centric gaze, The Leopard Man shows a great deal of empathy toward downtrodden characters, a theme throughout Lewton’s films. Director Jacques Tournier takes time to focus on the leopard’s owner Charlie (Abner Biberman), an Indigenous man facing financial ruin thanks to Manning’s carelessness. Likewise, as the dancer Gabriella, Mexican-American performer Margo steals every scene that she’s in, even when she’s sharing them with a live leopard.
The Leopard Man doesn’t quite reach the heights of Lewton’s best films. But its early use of the serial-killer motif and its fantastic scare scenes make it a must-watch.
6) The Body Snatcher (1945)
Despite the low budgets he was saddled with, Lewton managed to get the legendary Boris Karloff to star in three of his films. Karloff delivers wonderfully sinister performances in each of the films, but none as striking as this Robert Wise-directed adaptation of a Robert Lewis Stevenson short story.
Karloff gives his greatest performance for Lewton as the titular body snatcher Gray, who provides corpses for his respected client Dr. Macfarlane (Henry Danielle). Russell Wade fairs much better here than he did in The Ghost Ship as Macfarlane’s protégé Fettes. But the movie wastes Bela Lugosi as a minor character, Macfarlane’s Igor-like assistant Joseph.
But what makes The Body Snatcher great is its take-down of “polite” society. In every scene they share, Grey reminds Macfarlane that only public perception separates the two. The respected doctor has no moral advantage over the slithering grave robber. With rich performances from Karloff and Macfarlane, The Body Snatcher is one of the finest examples of horror as a morality tale.
5) Bedlam (1945)
As the last film he produced for RKO, and the last he made with Karloff, Bedlam encapsulates many of Lewton’s core concerns. Adapted from a series of William Hogarth paintings, Bedlam gives Lewton a platform in which to criticize the powerful, elevate unlikely heroes, and show empathy for the dejected.
Set in 18th century London, Bedlam stars Karloff as Master George Sims, the cruel head physician of the titular mental institution. In addition to psychologically torturing or neglecting his patients, Sims forces them to perform for the powerful Lord Mortimer (Billy House). These performances draw the attention of Mortimer’s protégé Nell Bowen, played with vulnerability and strength by Anna Lee, who advocates for Sims’ removal. Although she earns the title “angel” for her work in Bedlam, Lee and director Robson never let Lee be anything other than a human who has to learn how to do the right thing.
Like Tod Browning’s Freaks before it, Bedlam does sometimes ask viewers to fear its marginalized subjects. But also like Freaks, Bedlam ultimately reveals the heartless and powerful as the real monsters among us, a point both films make with chilling climactic scenes.
4) The Seventh Victim (1943)
At first glance, The Seventh Victim sounds like the movie least suited to this list. A noir film about young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) investigating the disappearance of her older sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), The Seventh Victim seems like it belongs with Mademoiselle Fifi and Youth Run Wilds, the non-horror films Lewton made for RKO.
But what if I told you that Jacqueline’s disappearance involved a cult of Satan-worshipers called The Palladists?
Even before the cult shows up, The Seventh Victim is vintage Lewton, complete with its unassuming heroine and its explicit mix of psychological distress and horror. Driven by depression, possibly due to a strongly-implied closeted romance with her employee Frances (Isabell Jewell), Jacqueline finds temporary stability with the Palladists, only to be threatened with death after she leaves to seek help from therapist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway).
While Lewton does once again put overlooked women into hero roles, The Seventh Victim ends on a far less triumphant note than his other films. Instead, its deep nihilism intensifies both elements of noir and horror in the movie.
3) Isle of the Dead (1945)
Even before you hit this point in the list, you probably knew what I’d pick as the top two Lewton films. They are his best-known movies for good reasons. But I think Isle of the Dead belongs right up there with them, especially in these (hopefully) last days of the COVID pandemic.
Set during the Balkan Wars of 1912, Isle of the Dead takes place on a Greek island, where the merciless General Pherides (Karloff) arrives with an American reporter (Marc Cramer) to visit his wife’s grave, only to discover it looted. Pherides stays on the island to investigate, falling in with several others, including the Swiss archeologist Dr. Aubrecht (Jason Robards Sr.) and Thea (Ellen Drew), the Greek companion to a visiting British couple. As a septicemic plague begins to kill the party, Pherides locks down the island in quarantine and vainly searches for a way to protect the people. But Aubrecht’s housekeeper Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig) blames the vorvolaka, an avenging spirit in Greek folklore.
The perfect melding of psychological distress and supernatural horror, Isle of the Dead could be read as a treatise on life’s inherent meaninglessness. Despite their differing powers and honors, the inhabitants on the island die the same death. However, the movie can also be read as a call to recognize the dignity of every person, a message that grows more resonant for those of us living in a pandemic.
2) I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
In addition to casting a Black actor in the lead heroic role, George A. Romero also advanced cinema by freeing the zombie genre from its racist roots. Before the term became synonymous with Romero’s ghouls, zombies referred to mindless people entranced by voodoo magic. Unsurprisingly, portrayals in movies such as White Zombie and Voodoo Man drew much more from white fears of Haitian liberation than they did actual religious practices.
So it’s to Lewton’s credit that he did not indulge in the genre’s racist norms when RKO charged him to make a movie titled I Walked With a Zombie. Instead, Lewton borrowed the “madwoman in the attic” plot of Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre and made explicit the novel’s colonist themes.
The story of a nurse (Frances Dee) brought to the Caribbean island Saint Sebastian to care for the catatonic wife (Christine Gordon) of a white plantation owner (Tom Conway), I Walked with a Zombie critiques heartless colonialism. The plantation owner and his half-brother (James Ellison) may see themselves as powerful leaders, but they’re constantly undermined by the Black people surrounding them (including calypso singer and frequent Lewton collaborator Sir Lancelot). Although the story certainly centers on the white characters and treats Darby Jones’s character as a mindless monster, it ultimately reveals them to be reckless fools, tearing apart the lives of others in their petty pursuits.
1) Cat People (1942)
Of course, the best movie that Val Lewton produced is Cat People. His first production, Cat People features many of the elements that we find in the rest of his films. It involves a square white guy (Kent Smith as protagonist Oliver Reed), an exotic woman (Simone Simon as Serbian fashion illustrator Irena Dubrovna), and psychological repression escaping as a monster. In this case, the repression is sexual, as Irene believes that her people turn into leopards when they become aroused. Even after the two become married, Irene refuses to consummate their relationship, for fear that she will kill Oliver.
While that plot seems to position Oliver as the voice of reason against Irene, the movie gives reason to believe that she possesses powers that he does not understand. Given the film’s backstory about Christian missionaries who demonized Irene’s people, it becomes clear that the film sees repression as the source of danger, not as the only thing saving good Americans from sensuous foreign women.
By ranking his first movie at the top, it might seem like I’m saying that he peaked early. But Cat People sets out the themes that Lewton will develop throughout his horror career. All of his movies are worth watching for anyone who values not only his ability to make effective scary movies from a tiny budget, but also for those who appreciate contemplative horror that tackles some of the most complex issues of our time.