Saturday, 19 January 2008

Val Lewton Blog-a-thon - Rambling Thoughts




This is a rambling random set of thoughts caused by working my way through Val Lewton's 9 horror films from the 1940's. All blame can be assigned to Michael at The Evening Class for his Val Lewton Blog-a-thon.


I was a newcomer to Val Lewton when the box set of nine of his productions was released a few years ago. "Cat People" grabbed me immediately (what a beautiful looking film that is), but the others registered less so...Upon revisiting them all for this blog-a-thon, something clicked though - the 'horror' of each film made itself more evident both via story and atmosphere. Lewton wasn't out to scare you immediately for the most part - he wanted to leave lingering impressions on you and have you remain frightened of the situations his characters were in long after the film ran out.

Consider some of the storylines and situations in which his characters find themselves:

  • Stuck on an at sea ship with an insane murderous captain - and you know you're next on his list ("Ghost Ship").
  • You're own actions are used against you to unfairly send you away to the insane asylum - a dark poorly run asylum ("Bedlam").
  • A plague like disease is slowly killing off the people on a quarantined island ("Isle Of The Dead").
  • Your life's work and your belief in the greater good it is serving costs others their lives ("The Body Snatcher").
  • Creepy zombies! ("I Walked With A Zombie").

And there are plenty of other moments. Smaller moments within the films that add to the unease of the viewer:

  • At the beginning of "I Walked With A Zombie" during her first boat ride to the island, caregiver Betsy meets Paul Holland as she marvels at the beautiful surroundings. In what can only be described as a pretty damn pessimistic view of things, Holland says:
    "Those flying fish, they're not leaping for joy, they're jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay."
    While watching that I couldn't help thinking of Werner Herzog's view of nature as he expresses it in this clip from the great documentary "Burden Of Dreams" ("the birds...they just screech in pain"):






  • The change of perspective for Nell Bowen in "Bedlam" happens during a performance she has set up - the mental patients of Bedlam are brought in to entertain her guests, but also as a away to prove to her new Quaker acquaintance that she is as heartless as she says she is. But when the show starts, she joins the viewer in being horrified at the concept of rich people sitting back and laughing at asylum patients trying to recite prose and act and sing. Especially when one of the patients falls dead on stage and there is barely a pause or concern about it.
  • If we haven't already been convinced of how evil John Gray is in "The Body Snatcher", he confirms it when he - without much thought - kills the cute little dog in the graveyard. If there's anything we've learned from Hollywood movies, it's that the worst thing you can do is harm a dog...

Lewton's films (his horror films anyway - I've not seen anything else he produced) typically have dramatic use of lighting and shadows to further reinforce moments of unease or just an overall general sense of dread. Being a fan of the more atmospheric modern horror films, I have to imagine that a great many of these owe a debt to Lewton. If not as straight line inspiration, then via others who took notice of how shadows, angles, stark contrasts and subtle sound effects can all be very useful in setting a mood.

I can't help myself from throwing a few screenshot examples in here:

  • "I Walked With A Zombie" has plenty. The venetian blinds casting shadows across rooms...


the zombified wife...


this guy...


Those scenes in the fields (as Betsy leads zombie woman through them) reminded me a great deal of the classic 50s Japanese horror film "Onibaba", though I have no idea if there was any direct influence there.

  • "Isle Of The Dead" contains one of my favourite sequences in all of Lewton's films. Thea is wandering about the island and suddenly there is little to no sound - just the moaning of the wind and some birds. As she walks out of one part of the woods we suddenly see the waving dress of the Vorvolaka...




and then Thea find her way here...


and we see her point of view...


and she comes in closer as she thinks she sees something...


and though the screencap barely registers it, in the film we see a brief subtle ghostly appearance...


which Thea obviously sees too...


It's a terrific buildup heightened by its paucity of sound (once the dress shows up, the birds are replaced by strange female moaning sounds).

  • "Bedlam" depicts the "loonie bin" to be a dark and pretty terrifying place:




  • And of course, the pool scene from "Cat People"...





And now the rambling portion of the post...Here just a few random thoughts that occurred to me:

  • Arnold Bocklin's painting "Island Of The Dead" shows up not only in the opening credits of "Isle Of The Dead" (the first screencap of this post), but also in "I Walked With A Zombie" which was made a few years earlier:



  • Boris Karloff's hairstyle in "Isle Of The Dead" is almost as frightening as anything else in the film...


  • Was that Lawrence Tierney in "Ghost Ship"? Hey, it was!
  • "The Seventh Victim" had a shower scene that preceded "Psycho" by 17 years.
  • Lewton's films still managed a couple of jump scares:

1) There was that damn horse showing up and whineying in "The Body Snatcher" just a blip before I expected something.

2) During that outdoor sequence in Isle Of The Dead, there's a sudden loud caw from a bird. It's kinda cheap, but it worked given the hushed atmosphere that led to it.

3) In "Bedlam" while the Quaker is walking down the darkened hallway, an arm flies out to grab him.



Thanks for making me revisit these Michael! It was like a day at the beach...


4 comments:

Maya said...

Is that you walking with a zombie, Bob? Heh. Great post, good catches, and Werner--as ever--is funny for being so bleak. Thanks for contributing to the Val Lewton blogathon!

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks for squeezing me in Michael! That was fun and it helped give me a better appreciation of Lewton's films - so much that I want to track down his non-horror films as well.

Anonymous said...

I just recently discovered the Lewton box set at my local library; so much fun! So atmospheric! Horro from my own imagination is far scarier then graphic blood and guts!

Anonymous said...

I am am the art director of Brown Medicine magazine. It's the publication that comes out of Brown University. I am looking to reproduce the image of Bedlam 1 in our next issue for a story on the actual place. I need permission, rights and the hi resolution image. Do you know where to go? (Of course I am on a tight deadline)
Please email me at moswald1@cox.net. Thank you!!!!