Thursday, October 25, 2012
Val Lewton: A Horror Original and Modern Influencer
When I discovered there was to be a Val Lewton blogathon hosted by twitter film pals Stephen aka @sreggie and Kristina aka @HQofK , I just had to to get in on the action. This post is part of the Val Lewton blogathon hosted by Stephen aka Classic Movie Man and Kristina of the Speakeasy blog.
I'm a fan of the horror genre. Not the typical youthful fan that enjoys 'the more blood splatter, the better' school of thought though. Most of the horror genre I love generally falls into 'classic horror' camp. I want to be scared in a slowly building process. I want the fear to hit me at the core only after it's gotten inside my head, in that more subtle way. When I think of a filmmaker who was masterful at doing this in a most beautiful way, I think of Val Lewton.
But in 1942, Lewton was offered a lucrative deal as head of the Horror Dept. for RKO. He was paid handsomely but his burden was to crank out horror flicks fast and furious on a low budget with catchy titles. RKO wanted to capture the same magic Universal experienced with it's line-up of horror genre films that headlined Karloff and Lugosi. Val Lewton had an uncanny ability to remain true to his responsibilities to please RKO, yet still managed to turn out his own magic within these low budget films. One of his most well-known of these RKO horror flicks was his very first production, Jacques Tourneur's CAT PEOPLE (1942).
What's key about these scenes and reflective of the Val Lewton style, is that they exhibit a building tension that is truly more terrifying that any typical blood fest film. With little dialogue and no tricks nor props, Lewton creates horror by getting inside our heads and arousing our senses slowly. Everything about Irena's character is sexual and primal in nature, just like a black sleek panther. The symbolism is haunting and erotic.
I've always been drawn to Lewton's style and any films that exhibit such similar style. I think Lewton's approach was unique and he was an original in horror genre and film-making. Impressive considering his low budget restraints. He influenced countless others but he was an original in creating this magnetic quality. It's said that he's influenced Alfred Hitchcock (whom he was instrumental in bringing to the U.S.), Martin Scorsese, George Romero and Robert Wise to name a few. Personally, when I think of the horror genre films that followed his productions, there are many who clearly took cue from the Lewton style book. One such example of an attempt at a Lewton style for me, is the popular TV show, F/X's "American Horror Story." Although it clearly infuses the modern elements of horror, it also blends in the Lewton influence. Now in it's 2nd season, this show takes moments to create a sexy, often primal tone. From it's characters to plot points, there is a decidedly sexual tension as the show moves through fascinating story lines.
I encourage you to test my theory. Please watch CAT PEOPLE (1942) and all of Val Lewton's productions, then watch horror films, especially films that followed by the aforementioned filmmakers and even "American Horror Story" and "American Horror Story:Asylum" (2nd season). Then, watch for potential connections of style and tone. Be sure to let me know if Lewton affects you in the same way and whether you see his ongoing influence today.