Film Noir ♥ Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
Sigmund Freud

“Ladies and gentlemen- welcome to violence; the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains sex.” — Narrator from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Faster Pussycat
Tura Satana, Haji, and Lori Williams in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 1965
Cul-de-Sac
Françoise Dorléac and Donald Pleasence in Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac 1966
the Naked kiss
Constance Towers kicks the crap out of her pimp for shaving off her hair in Sam Fuller’s provocative The Naked Kiss 1964
Shock Corridor
Peter Breck plays a journalist hungry for a story and gets more than a jolt of reality when he goes undercover in a Mental Institution in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor 1963
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Bobby Darin is a psychotic racist in Hubert Cornfield and Stanley Kramer’s explosive Pressure Point 1962 starring Sidney Poitier and Peter Falk.

THE DARK PAGES NEWSLETTER  a condensed article was featured in The Dark Pages: You can click on the link for all back issues or to sign up for upcoming issues to this wonderful newsletter for all your noir needs!

Constance Towers as Kelly from The Naked Kiss (1964): “I saw a broken down piece of machinery. Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life. That’s what I saw.”

Griff (Anthony Eisley) The Naked Kiss (1964): “Your body is your only passport!”

Catherine Deneuve as Carole Ledoux in Repulsion (1965): “I must get this crack mended.”

Monty Clift Dr. Cukrowicz Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) : “Nature is not made in the image of man’s compassion.”

Patricia Morán as Rita Ugalde: The Exterminating Angel 1962:“I believe the common people, the lower class people, are less sensitive to pain. Haven’t you ever seen a wounded bull? Not a trace of pain.”

Ann Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri Walk on the Wild Side 1962“When People are Kind to each other why do they have to find a dirty word for it.”

The Naked Venus 1959“I repeat she is a gold digger! Europe’s full of them, they’re tramps… they’ll do anything to get a man. They even pose in the NUDE!!!!”

Darren McGavin as Louie–The Man With the Golden Arm (1955): “The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn.”

Baby Boy Franky Buono-Blast of Silence (1961) “The targets names is Troiano, you know the type, second string syndicate boss with too much ambition and a mustache to hide the facts he’s got lips like a woman… the kind of face you hate!”

Lorna (1964)- “Thy form is fair to look upon, but thy heart is filled with carcasses and dead man’s bones”

Peter Fonda as Stephen Evshevsky in Lilith (1964): “How wonderful I feel when I’m happy. Do you think that insanity could be so simple a thing as unhappiness?”

Glen or Glenda (1953)“Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even a lounging outfit and he’s the happiest individual in the world.”

Glen or Glenda
Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda 1953

Johnny Cash as Johnny Cabot in Five Minutes to Live (1961):“I like a messy bed.”

Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) Island of Lost Souls: “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”

The Curious Dr. Humpp (1969): “Sex dominates the world! And now, I dominate sex!”

The Snake Pit (1948): Jacqueline deWit as Celia Sommerville “And we’re so crowded already. I just don’t know where it’s all gonna end!” Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Stuart Cunningham “I’ll tell you where it’s gonna end, Miss Somerville… When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up.”

Delphine Seyrig as Countess Bathory in Daughters of Darkness (1971)“Aren’t those crimes horrifying. And yet -so fascinating!”

Julien Gulomar as Bishop Daisy to the Barber (Michel Serrault) King of Hearts (1966)“I was so young. I already knew that to love the world you have to get away from it.”

The Killing of Sister George (1968) -Suzanna York as Alice ‘CHILDIE’: “Not all women are raving bloody lesbians, you know” Beryl Reid as George: “That is a misfortune I am perfectly well aware of!”

The Killing of Sister George
Susannah York (right) with Beryl Reid in The Killing of Sister George Susannah York and Beryl Reid in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George 1960

The Lickerish Quartet (1970)“You can’t get blood out of an illusion.”

THE SWEET SOUND OF DEATH (1965)Dominique-“I’m attracted” Pablo-” To Bullfights?” Dominique-” No, I meant to death. I’ve always thought it… The state of perfection for all men.”

Peter O’Toole as Sir Charles Ferguson Brotherly Love (1970): “Remember the nice things. Reared in exile by a card-cheating, scandal ruined daddy. A mummy who gave us gin for milk. Ours was such a beautifully disgusting childhood.”

Maximillian Schell as Stanislaus Pilgrin in Return From The Ashes 1965: “If there is no God, no devil, no heaven, no hell, and no immortality, then anything is permissible.”

Euripides 425 B.C.“Whom God wishes to destroy… he first makes mad.”

Davis & Crawford What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford bring to life two of the most outrageously memorable characters in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962

WHAT DOES PSYCHOTRONIC MEAN?

psychotronic |ˌsīkəˈtränik| adjective denoting or relating to a genre of movies, typically with a science fiction, horror, or fantasy theme, that were made on a low budget or poorly received by critics. [1980s: coined in this sense by Michael Weldon, who edited a weekly New York guide to the best and worst films on local television.] Source: Wikipedia

In the scope of these transitioning often radical films, where once, men and women aspired for the moon and the stars and the whole ball of wax. in the newer scheme of things they aspired for you know… “kicks” yes that word comes up in every film from the 50s and 60s… I’d like to have a buck for every time a character opines that collective craving… from juvenile delinquent to smarmy jet setter!

FILM NOIR HAD AN INEVITABLE TRAJECTORY…

THE ECCENTRIC & OFTEN GUTSY STYLE OF FILM NOIR HAD NO WHERE ELSE TO GO… BUT TO REACH FOR EVEN MORE OFF-BEAT, DEVIANT– ENDLESSLY RISKY & TABOO ORIENTED SET OF NARRATIVES FOUND IN THE SUBVERSIVE AND EXPLOITATIVE CULT FILMS OF THE MID TO LATE 50s through the 60s and into the early 70s!

I just got myself this collection of goodies from Something Weird!

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There’s even this dvd that points to the connection between the two genres – Here it’s labeled WEIRD. I like transgressive… They all sort of have a whiff of noir.
Grayson Hall Satan in High Heels
Grayson Hall -Satan in High Heels 1962
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Gerd Oswald adapts Fredrick Brown’s titillating novel — bringing to the screen the gorgeous Anita Ekberg, Phillip Carey and Gypsy Rose Lee and Harry Townes in the sensational, obscure and psycho-sexual thriller Screaming Mimi 1958
The Strangler 1964 Victor Buono
Victor Buono is a deranged mama’s boy in Burt Topper’s fabulous The Strangler 1964
Repulsion
Catherine Deneuve is extraordinary as the unhinged nymph in Roman Polanski’s psycho-sexual tale of growing madness in Repulsion 1965

Just like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Noir took a journey through an even darker lens… Out of the shadows of 40s Noir cinema, European New Wave, fringe directors, and Hollywood auteurs, brought more violent, sexual, transgressive, and socially transformative narratives into the cold light of day with a creeping sense of verité. While Film Noir pushed the boundaries of taboo subject matter and familiar Hollywood archetypes it wasn’t until later that we are able to visualize the advancement of transgressive topics.

Continue reading “Film Noir ♥ Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground”

Postcards From Shadowland No. 14

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12 Angry Men (1957) Directed by Sidney Lumet Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec… also stars John Fiedler, Martin Balsam and Robert Webber
Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms (1919) Starring Lillian Gish as Lucy the girl.
C cigarettegirl
The Cigarette Girl from Mosselprom (Moscow) 1924 Directed by Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky -starring Yuliya Solntseva as Zina Vesenina- the cigarette girl
Christmas Holiday
Christmas Holiday (1944) Directed by Robert Siodmak-starring Deanna Durbin & Gene Kelly
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Curse of the Demon (1957) Directed by Jacques Tourneur-Starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins and Niall MacGinnis
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Diana Dors as Eunice Higginbotham in My Wife’s Lodger (1952)
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Directed by Lew Landers Harry Woods is Borno in- Call of the Savage (1935)
Hi Dante's Inferno devil
L’Inferno 1911, Dante Alighieri “A Divina Comédia”, Directed by Giuseppe de Liguoro.
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The Sea Hawk 1924 Directed by Frank Lloyd
Hodiak and Bankhead in Lifeboat
Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) cinematic stage play with the vast scope of the Ocean and the claustrophobic air of desperation. Brilliant performances by Tallulah Bankhead and John Hodiak looking his hunkiest best…
Ingmar Bergman's Virgin Spring
The Virgin Spring (1960) directed by Ingmar Bergman-disturbing journey of revenge
J Gilda
Gilda (1946) directed by Charles VIdor and stars the magnificent Rita Hayworth in the title role Gilda Mundson Farrell, here dancing with Glenn Ford. A film noir classic
Last Tango in Paris
Last Tango in Paris 1972 directed by Bernardo Bertolucci-stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as a pair of angst filled lovers whose relationship is based on sex & death
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Man Made Monster 1941 starring Lionel Atwill as the deranged Dr Rigas
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Monsieur Verdoux 1947 directed by and starring Charles Chaplin-brilliant dark comedy of murder and anti-conformity.
Night of the Hunter Gish & Co.
Charles Laughton’s oneric fable of childhood terrors, the bonds of friendship and the plight of Love vs Hate… Beautifully filmed- starring Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper and Robert Mitchum as the diabolical Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter (1955)
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Jane Eyre 1943 directed by Robert Stevenson starring Peggy Ann Garner is young Jane.
Plunder Road
Plunder Road (1957) directed by Hubert Cornfeld, perhaps one of the most edgy crime story film noirs headed up Gene Raymond and Elisha Cook Jr.
Robert Ryan in The Set Up
The Set-Up (1949) Robert Ryan stars as boxer Stoker in Robert Wise’s extraordinary noir film centered around the boxing ring and a down on his luck fighter that still has a lot of fight left in him. One of my favorite film noir classics, much to do with Ryan’s performance and Milton R. Krasner’s cinematography…
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the Wonderful Norman Lloyd in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur 1942
Seconds
Rock Hudson is psychologically and physically spun around on his head in Seconds 1966 by John Frankenheimer- A story about that precious commodity… one’s identity
Seeds of Sin 1968 Andy Milligan
SEEDS (1968) Directed by Andy Milligan- it’s seedy and low budget and the perfect exploitative indulgence…
Shack Out on I0I
Shack Out on 101 (1955) different styled film noir starring Lee Marvin as Slob.. directed by Edward Dein and co-stars Terry Moore and Frank Lovejoy
ship of fools
Stanley Kramer directs this incredible ensemble of actors in Ship of Fools (1965) Here showing George Segal, Michael Dunn and Lee Marvin
somwhere in the night john hodiak
John Hodiak tries to remember in Somewhere in the Night (1946) -a taut amnesia themed noir with great characters. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Here with Fritz Kortner as Anzelmo or Dr Oracle.
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Street With No Name (1948) starring Mark Stevens and directed by William Keighly -This film noir also stars Richard Widmark and Lloyd Nolan…
sunrise
Sunrise (1927) directed by F.W. Murnau starring Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien-Beautifully filmed silent masterpiece
t-nightbirds
Nightbirds 1970 Andy Milligan’s gritty cult journey about two miscreants in London.
Terror From the Crypt
Terror in the Crypt aka Crypt of the Vampire 1964 directed by Camillo Mastrocinque based on the Karnstein saga with Adriana Ambesi and Ursula Davis and the immortal Christopher Lee
The Fiend Who Walked the West
The Fiend Who Walked the West (1958) directed by Gordon Douglas and starring Hugh O’Brian and a really psychotic Robert Evans.
The Scavengers 1959
The Scavengers 1959 starring Carol Ohmart directed by John Cromwell -an obscure film noir also starring Vince Edwards
The Secret Garden Margaret O'Brien
The Secret Garden 1949 starring Margaret O’Brien and a wonderful cast Herbert Marshall, Dean Stockwell, Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester, Reginald Owen, Brian Roper, Aubrey Mather isobel Elsom and George Zucco fill out this fantasy drama directed by Fred M. Wilcox
the seventh sin
The Seventh Sin (1957) directed by Ronald Neame and Vincente Minnelli starring Eleanor Parker and Françoise Rosay Françoise Rosay as Mother Superior
The Soft Skin 1964 Francoise Dorleac
The Soft Skin 1964 Françoise Dorléac directed by François Truffaut
The Stranger 1946
The Stranger 1946 directed by Orson Welles
the terrible_people_1
The Terrible People (1960) directed by Harald Reinl adapted from the story by Edgar Wallace stars Joachim Fuchsberger
The Wild Boys of the Road thirty three
The Wild Boys of the Road 1933 directed by William Wellman
The Young One 1960
The Young One 1960 directed by Luis Buñuel starring Key Meersman as Evalyn. Also stars Zachary Scott and Bernie Hamilton
The-Exterminating-Angel
The Exterminating Angel (1962) directed by Luis Buñuel
The-Twilight-Girls
The Twilight Girls (1957) by André Hunebelle
To Kill a Mockingbird Jim and Dill
To Kill a Mockingbird 1962 directed by Robert Mulligan -John Megna as Dill and Phillip Alford as Jem. adapted from Harper Lee’s masterpiece

See you soon… Your EverLovin’ MonsterGirl!

A Symphony of Dark Patches- The Val Lewton Legacy 1943

This post is a feature…As part of the CLASSIC MOVIE HISTORY PROJECT BLOGATHON hosted by the fantastic gang over at- Movies Silently, Silver Screenings & Once Upon a Screen– Visit these wonderful blogs during this historic event and fill your head with a collection of fascinating movie memories.

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From Dreams of Darkness-Fantasy and the films of Val Lewton by J.P. Telotte:
“{The audience} will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of… if you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want. We’re great ones for dark patches.” – Val Lewton

Swimming pool scene Cat People '42
Jane Randolph as Alice Moore in Val Lewton’s Cat People 1942 directed by Jacques Tourneur
Bedlam
A scene from Bedlam (1946) directed by Mark Robson 

During the 1940s Val Lewton and his ‘Lewton Unit’ used the essential vision of fantastic darkness to recreate a very unique style of horror/fantasy genre, one which challenged Hollywood’s notion of the tangible monsters Universal studios had been manufacturing. Lewton, while working at RKO Studios, produced an exquisite, remarkable and limited collection of films that came face to face with a ‘nightworld.’ Lewton used our most deepest darkest psychological and innate fears that dwell within the lattice of shadows of our dreams and secret wish-fulfillment.

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“Our formula is simple. A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fade out” -Val Lewton

Lewton worked at MGM between 1926 and 1932 and then served eight years under David Selznick. He had published nine novels and a number of short stories. In addition he produced regular radio show versions of MGM films. He also had ties in the industry as his aunt was the the very influential silent actress Alla Nazimova.

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the great stage and silent screen actress Alla Nazimova-Val Lewton’s very influential aunt…

But Lewton had left his mark with Selznick and in 1940 rival company RKO was interested in hiring him..It was actually Selznick who negotiated Lewton’s contract.

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“My task is to initiate a programme of horror pictures to be made at the comparatively low cost of 125,000 each. Which should compete successfully with Universal horror films. Which cost anywhere from 300,000 to a million dollars. I feel I can do this quite easily and the Universal people spend a lot of money on their horror product. But not much on brains or imagination.”-Val Lewton

Frankenstein-Meets-The-Wolf-Man-1943

Lewton put together a team of collaborators with whom he would work closely. He chose Mark Robson to edit. Robert Wise and Lewton worked together on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. DeWitt Bodeen had worked him during his time with David O’ Selznick was to write the first screenplay for Cat People.. His old friend Jacques Tourneur whom he became friends with while working on A Tale of Two Cities. was brought on board to direct. He chose Nicholas Musuraca as his director of photography and Roy Webb to compose the musical scores.They all worked on countless RKO films. It was Lewton’s intention to create quality pictures though he was constrained with a low budget. Jacques Tourneur had said that Lewton was an idealist who had his head up in the clouds who would come up with impossible ideas. However for Tourneur his feet were planted firmly on the ground, yet somehow they complemented each other perfectly, Tourneur claims it was a very happy time in his life, and that Lewton’s gift to him was the filmic poetry that he was able to carry with him forever.

Jacques Tourneur is perhaps one of my favorite directors, with his use of shadow and and all together dreamy lens of the world, he’s responsible for one of THE best classic horror films Curse of the Demon & film noir tour de force Out of the Past. 

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Jacques Tourneur directs Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past 1947
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Jacques Tourneur’s moody horror with Niall MacGinnis and cat Curse of the Demon 1957
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Part of the Lewton Unit- image from the documentary The Man in the Shadows from top left Roy Webb composer, Val Lewton, Nicholas Musuraca Cinematographer, Mark Robson editing/directing, DeWitt Bodeen writing and Robert Wise-director.

“Horror is created in the mind of the spectator. It’s necessary to suggest things. In all my films you never saw what caused the horror. I saw people screaming in the theater when there was a young girl in a swimming pool, but you never saw the black leopard. The lights blaze up at the end. And there’s Simone Simon. Something has definitely happened. -Jacques Tourneur

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Jacques Tourneur looking over the film sketches
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Jacques Tourneur on location for Berlin Express 1948

“Lewton gave us something quite different than what’s known as Hollywood craftsmanship you can say that he presented us with a parallel world in which everything feels both real and a little unreal-familiar but strange. The characters and the viewer slip into a mysterious, troubling gray zone. Where real life and dream life come face to face. And where beauty and destruction merge. Lewton and Tourneur really created a new kind of cinematic beauty”-from The Man in the Shadows Val Lewton documentary

The Golden Boy in Bedlam
the golden boy from Bedlam

Learning from his last employer Selznick he made sure to supervise absolutely every aspect of the film’s production, from casting, set design, costumes, the direction, and editing. He even rewrote every script himself without taking credit or under a pseudonym. In this way he developed his own visual style of storytelling, having prepared each detail before shooting.

“My feelings are generated, however by more than my gratitude for that first opportunity. They come from the warm and highly stimulating creative experience I had working with Val. He taught me so much about directing and filmmaking in general…Val Lewton was one of that fairly rare species, a truly creative producer. As such, he was able to achieve an outstanding reputation for the high quality, unusual and interesting “B” pictures he produced at RKO Studios starting in the early 1940s” – Robert Wise, March 1994

Robert Wise behind the camera
Robert Wise behind the camera
Wise, Robson & Lewton
Robert Wise, Mark Robson & Val Lewton

“I remember him staying up until all hours of the night working on screenplays. He enjoyed having his hand in the writing. I used to that that he went out of his way to pick inept writers so that he’d have to redo their work. He used to write on a Royal typewriter;he used only two fingers but he was very fast. He’d talk out the different parts as he wrote them and, since my bed was just on the other side of the wall, I’d fall asleep listening.”Nina Lewton Druckman from the Reality of Terror by Joel Siegel

Robert Wise was part of the Lewton Unit, one of my favorite directors who would go onto direct some of the most outstanding films in a variety of genres, from musicals like West Side Story 1961, Sound of Music 1965, to Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People 1944 and The Body Snatcher 1945, noir masterpieces, Born To Kill 1947, The Set Up 1949 and The House of Telegraph Hill 1950, I Want to Live! 1958, Odds Against Tomorrow 1959,to sci fi and Gothic ghost story masterpieces Day the Earth Stood Still 1951, The Haunting 1963 and The Andromeda Strain 1971.

Day The Earth Stood Still
Michael Rennie and Gort in Robert Wise’s Sci-Fi masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The Set Up
Robert Wise’s boxing noir The Set-Up 1949

Lewton drove himself very hard trying to achieve something beautiful of quality. He and his team were given a very small budget, a cast of veritable unknowns, and evocative titles that were sensationalist and lurid in nature and did not truly represent an accurate account of the narrative. There were no gruesome fiends nor even evidence of malevolent forces at work in his ordinary everyday environments. Yet RKO’s studio head Charles Koerner  dictated such titles as Cat People 1942, Curse of the Cat People 1944, Bedlam 1946, Isle of the Dead 1946, The Body Snatcher 1945, I Walked With A Zombie, The Ghost Ship and The Leopard Man in 1943 and The Seventh Victim.

“If you want to get out now, Lewton told Bodeen, I won’t hold it against you”

The sensationalistic titles lead viewers to expect corporeal horrors, grotesquery and accustomed chills. As critic Manny Farber points out that while Lewton got nicknamed the “sultan of shudders” or the “Chillmaster” they were missing the point entirely. Lewton’s films were purposefully inhabited by the average, the bland, the pedestrian all, so as to populate his world with normal characters. People you’d see on the streets, or doing menial jobs. And amidst this population of ‘normal’ stirred interesting pulp stories that were unorthodox, otherworldly and often grim. Themes like zoanthropy. a derangement in which someone believes they are an animal as in Cat People or the pervasive fear of the Vorvolakas, an undead creature in Greek folklore that drinks it’s victim’s blood in Isle of the Dead. Even when dealing with dreadful English asylums and the sacrilege of body snatching.

Val Lewton with Boris Karloff set of Bedlam
Boris Karloff and Val Lewton on the set of Bedlam

By the way… Bedlam 1946 is perhaps my favorite of the Lewton series. I’ll be doing a follow up to this piece and with an aim at covering the magnificent piece of filmic art that is Bedlam. I’ll also include the remaining films I love, Isle of the DeadThe Body Snatcher and his first Cat People.

Films with subversive themes like zoanthropy. a derangement in which a person believes himself to be an animal as in Cat People or the pervasive fear of the Vorvolakas is an undead creature in Greek folklore that drinks it’s victim’s blood in Isle of the Dead.

Karloff and Thimig in Isle of the Dead Lewton
Karloff and Thimig in Isle of the Dead 1946

One of the things I love about Lewton’s films is that he used many either lesser known actors or those who never quite attained stardom yet lived on the fringe. Wonderful character actors such as Ian Wolfe & Edith Barrett (whom I both adore) actor/director Abner Biberman, Theresa Harris, Edith Atwater Sir Lancelot former calypso singer from Trinidad, the unusual beauty of Elizabeth Russell who was a former fashion model. The portly Billy House who played Lord Mortimer in Bedlam had been a star of vaudeville or Skelton Knaggs (Terror By Night, House of Dracula) British actor worked on the stage. The handsome Richard Dix ,Tom Conway, James Bell, Anna Lee, Evelyn Brent, Helene Thimig, Dewey Robinson and Ben Bard.

Lord Mortimer's new pet with Skelton Knaggs
Billy House as Lord Mortimer in Bedlam
Ian Wolfe in Bedlam
The marvelous Ian Wolfe in Bedlam
Knaggs as Finn in The Ghost Ship
Skelton Knaggs as the mute Finn in The Ghost Ship
Leopard Man angry mother
Kate Drain Lawson as Señora Delgado in The Leopard Man
Edith Barret the ghost ship
Edith Barrett and Richard Dix in The Ghost Ship
Anna Lee in Bedlam
Anna Lee in Bedlam
Helene Thimig in Isle of the dead
Helene Thimig in Isle of the Dead
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Julia Dean and old Mrs Farren in The Curse of the Cat People

These characters seems to transcend their positions in the background and add layers of depth and a quiet simplicity or realism that made the storytelling more rich. They possessed a certain unique expressiveness that at times eclipsed the lead actors.

RKO known for their capacity to release films that were of the fantastic and original, initially who hired Lewton to organize and run their ‘B’-Film unit. RKO had a reputation for ingenuity and artistic innovation, paying careful attention to the shaping of the narratives. What he endowed them with was his deep understanding of the subtle patterns and symbols that lie within our dreams, psyche and fantasy world. Lewton satisfied the audience’s desire for horror yet what he delivered was swathed in a strange and poetically beautiful style.

At his disposal he had some of the best writers who knew how to tap into this process. Writers like DeWitt Bodeen, Donald Henderson Clarke, Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray art director Albert D’Agostino (Notorious 1946, Out of the Past 1947, The Thing from Another World 1951) cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca & J. Roy Hunt (Crossfire 1947, Might Joe Young 1949) and directors Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past 1947,Curse of the Demon 1957), Mark Robson and Robert Wise all contributed and helped shape the vision that became the Lewton film.

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Nicholas Musuraca and Jacques Tourneur

And while Val Lewton didn’t direct any of the eleven films he produced for RKO, (in two cases only taking screen credit for his contributions as writer), it’s rather irrelevant in terms of authorship -as collaboratively infused with talent of vision these films possess a distinct frame of reference that lead you into the fantasy realm or genre with an artistic unorthodoxy like no other. Director Jacques Tourneur directed the first three Lewton films produced by the Lewton Unit. He gave Lewton the soubriquet “The Dreamer.”

Joel Siegel from his 1973 book Val Lewton tells us, “His production unit would make only horror movies with budgets limited to $150,000 per picture. The films were to be ‘programmers’ slated for placement on double features in less than key theaters, with a running time not to exceed 75 minutes. {Production Chief Charles Koerner’s office was to dictate the titles of these films, based upon a system of market pre-testing.”

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Mark Robson and Val Lewton

Lewton hid much of the story in his shadow-plays and this allowed his crew to work the landscape by creating symbolism, key sounds (natural ordinary sounds become ominous premonitions and are fatalistic in tone), haunting textures, abstract shadow and a sense of dark absences. Within the more focused frames of the films are incidental point of view shots that fill in the spaces with a rich texture of realism within the fable-like quality, relying on shadow and suggestion to deliver the desired effect.

Lewton himself would usually write a rough draft, an idea adapted from a property to be filmed. Then using his grand ability to visualize a formula, manipulate the structures of conventionality so that he could compose a landscape and narrative that would best articulate his observations. Tourneur emphasized Lewton’s “structure, construction, progression of high points, low points” in the narrative. Director Mark Robson suggested that Lewton had already ‘thought everything out’ in such detail so as not to miss a thing. Jessie Ponitz, Lewton’s secretary relates, “the last draft was always his.”

Lewton and typewriter
Lewton at his typewriter

Lewton’s brilliance and vision are partly due to his understanding of how psychoanalytic symbolism, myth, dreams and archetypes influence our intimate fear of what lies invisible to the eye. The Lewton Unit embraced the collective nightmares of the human experience, bringing our dream-work into the cold light of daily life bounded to the material world. He presents us with irrational unseen forces, in particular those that lurk in our subconsciousness or dream world. His films transport his protagonists by contrasting them from the open, sense of security from daylight- immersing them into the dark regions of shadows, and the black patches of uncertainty. They do not confront conventional monsters, vampires, ghouls and malevolent spirits of the classic Universal plots- but actually come face to face with their own internal nightmares. A mechanism that emerges from the shadows of the mind. We see these images of fantasy and it triggers our most basic and personal need to belong to that which is created, however disturbing those visions are, these fantasy/horror films possess an enigmatic kind of darkness. His characters never ran away from the darkness and dread that was so pervasive they actually ran head on into it, in order to demystify it and lead themselves & us to understand it a little better.

PSYCHE OR SOUL- THE LEGACY OF THE FANTASTICAL

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Jean Brooks as the mysterious Jacqueline in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim

Lewton and his associates understood the principles of fantasy, and utilized them in the complex visual structures they created in their series of films. In writing about Lewton’s use of fantasy, J.P. Telotte informs us that these films “are not mere horror stories or exercises in terror, yet ‘redeem’ or reunite us with a repressed side of the human experience.” And this is what makes Lewton’s fantastical work so unique.

As in his book America in the Dark, Thomson implies that unlike the films that consist of vampires, werewolves, and other alien presences “The Fantasy genre {…} draw fundamentally on a realm of darkness and psychic imagery for it’s existence. Such films typically evoke a dreamlike environment or nightworld in which, as if it were our own sleep, we can pleasurably and profitably immerse ourselves. {…} I wish to call attention to their ability to reveal how we also might come ‘to life with the dark’ finding an important, even life enhancing meaning in the fantastic’s dream realm. {…}”

The Body Snatcher
The Body Snatcher 1945
A Palladist The 7th Victim
a Palladist from The Seventh Victim

Lewton’s fantasy reworks our perspective to let us ‘see’ the dark spaces even within the light. As Todorov writes in The Fantastic 1975, fantasy evokes an ‘indirect vision’ that allows us to see what is usually not visible in the ordinary world. Lewton uses this ‘indirect vision’ to transgress and transcend normal perception. Lewton’s works suggest a disparity between the expected and reality. From this disparity, the greatest threats come from the most ordinary occurrences, objects, and the commonplace.  He populates his films with figures of authority who interpret their world incorrectly, harshly or inharmonious. The sudden revelation of the ordinary frightens and disorients the viewer in unexpected ways, forcing them to be more reflexive, to show the menace in the every day. As Carl Jung believed, fantasy precedes our normal sense of reality- “The psyche creates reality everyday. The only expression I can use for this activity is fantasy.”

Drawing on the psychologist James Hillman who specialized in archetypes, Lewton’s films evoke a dream-like nightmarish world in contrast to the realm of truth. The style of these films are often lensed as seductive and mysterious journeys, where the audience can escape the ordinary for a while. They seduce us by taking a path which follows our hidden desires within the psyche.

This is the proper aim at fantasy, as James Hillman explains; it should challenge our normal “literal perspective, its identity with material life,” since that perspective is usually “stuck in coagulations of physical realities. This perspective of reality needs to break down and fall apart, to be skinned live and sensitized, or blackened by melancholic frustration.”

Isle of the Dead-Karloff
Isle of the Dead 1946

This fantasy forces us to look at our own limitations of vision, and how difficult it is to describe the structure of something that has no’ structure’ It’s easy for the grey areas of fantasy to ‘lapse’ into absence and dissolve from a narrative field of a nightworld/dreamscape using the device of voice-over narrative or subjective camera. Lewton’s images make us ask are we seeing what’s really there, or are we merely informed by the dark spaces both inside the film and tapping into our individual and collective psyches. As Telotte cites Rosemary Jackson– 

“Objects are not readily appropriated through the look; things slide away from the powerful eye/I which seeks to possess them, thus becoming distorted, disintegrated, partial and lapsing into invisibility.”

Val Lewton had a special insight and grasp of formulas and mythic structures so that he could envision within the complex narratives, the presence of the most significant archetypal patterns. Lewton said “If you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it you want! We’re great ones for dark patches.” What those ‘dark patches’ suggest is something innate in all of us, a dark region within the ‘self’ that gets lost, or hidden away, or even denied as we go about our daily lives doing ordinary things in the guise of normalcy.

DARK PATCHES AND THE ABSENCE OF KNOWING

The Seventh Victim

In a Lewton film there is a sense of ‘Lack’ as an absence in the lives and environments seems to be at the core substance of these films. This play of absence and presence operates as a structural principle in Lewton’s films. For the benefit of this post I will point particularly to I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man  and The Seventh Victim, the prior both directed by the great Jacques Tourneur. In his two films that ‘lack’ translates into a disturbing landscape of openness in the narrative style.

The everyday, whether it be modern urban city streets, islands in the Caribbean or the nineteenth century, there is an attentive eye for detail that weaves a texture of daily life that the Lewton unit worked so hard to achieve. Be it the costumes, the architecture and the general look of the place during it’s particular time period. So much research went into developing the landscape of reality with a distinct verisimilitude. By looking at books, paintings and photographs they would try to capture the perfect light and shadow of the piece.

Although I won’t be covering Bedlam in this piece, the film is a perfect example of how The ‘Lewton Unit’ employed this research approach prior to filming. Several shot compositions were based on William Hogarth’s illustrations. Much emphasis was placed on ‘context’ as Lewton characters can so evidently be characterized by their station in life or occupations living in the seemingly natural world that is commonplace. Writer DeWitt Bodeen notes that Lewton “always insisted that all his characters have special occupations or professions and be shown working their jobs.”

Lewton’s films are populated with a texture of normalcy, people living in a visibly conspicuous and commonplace field of reality so that when the presence of the mysterious, and irrationality poke through it shatters the veil of normalcy and settles down to become abnormal and disturbing for the protagonist and us the viewer. These characters must journey through a field that is rife with coded messages, where they are not believed by the people around them.

Telotte explains, “What results is a subtle dialectic between ‘substance and lack’, presence and absence, replacing that of the more traditional horror films, where in the ‘self’ as the audience’s surrogate, is opposed by a threatening otherness in the shape of a monster or murderous apparition. The tension is no less. Though it’s source is different it is more disturbingly lodged in the individual  and the way in which he perceives and conceives of his world.”

The Body Snatcher Karloff

Like the protagonists, we are laid bare with our vulnerability to the abnormal. The threat comes as an external challenge to our lives, exposing our human weakness and fears and forces us to see life in an unsettling way. Everything falls out of harmony that which is usually so ordinary. And the sense of ‘otherness’ fills the screen and taps into our own psyche as the formidable shadows move about with an anima. The dark patches set themselves outward as props, while strange sounds and eerie low key lighting color the screen’s canvas as dark and mysterious.

Psychoanalyst Hillman refers to a ‘vesperal’ motion that leads us into the darker regions of the self and the human psyche with it’s ‘fantasizing impulse.’ Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (you can read an earlier feature I did on this film-click on the link) is a more conventional initiation story focusing on the nature of innocence and ‘otherness’ and how it often challenges our rational perspectives of the world because it evokes the ‘unknowing.’

All of Lewton’s films are structured with a careful eye on the sequential narrative. Val Letwon referred to scenes heightened by shadows as signifier of something foreboding he called them “horror spots.” These “horror spots’ were carefully spaced through out his films in sequential scenes, as if each frame were its own visual narrative. Many potent moments though brief partly due to the limited time constraints yet remain with you forever.

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE

These scenes were preceded by scenes of an alternating tone designated to bring relief to the audience, utilizing some form of imagery that could be very beautiful or lyrical. Joel Siegel talks about this approach as “fragmented, mosaic-like structure” of the films, with their dependence on a “series of tiny, precise vignettes which do not so much tell the story as sketch in its borders and possibilities. For film historian Robin Wood in his “Return to the Repressed,” Lewton’s series of films is distinct for their “often illogical poetic structure.” 

Early Lewton films display a narrative style which recalls Jean-Paul Sartre’s prescription for fantasy storytelling: “In order to achieve the fantastic, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to portray extraordinary things. The strangest event will enter into the order of the universe if it is alone in a world governed by laws.”

Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett in I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Lewton films do not simply strip the world of the laws which Sartre describes, as many horror films do, rather they manipulate the context within which even the most commonplace actions are perceived. In I Walked With a Zombie, the players are often viewed through a veil of elaborate shadows cast by wooden lattice, brush and thicket, Very sensual images and very flowing. The eye for detail… every frame is so well thought out. And while we as spectators have truly seen nothing tangible, there is that ‘lack’ reinforced by structural repetition. Drawing us in depends on our ability to fantasize and tap into the deep-rooted fears that we unconsciously embrace. This portrayal of Lewton’s mysterious yet mundane environment becomes utterly frightening. Lewton explained how this process reveals the viewer’s participation in that which he sees, establishing that given these kinds of visual narratives man himself “will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of.”

Robin Wood’s The American Nightmare chapter of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.–
It is built on elaborate set of apparently clear cut structural oppositions : Canada-West Indies, white-black, light–darkness, life-death, science-black magic, Christianity -Voodoo, conscious -unconscious, , etc–and it proceeds  systematically to blur all of them. JEssica is both living and dead.; Mrs. Rand mixes medicine, Christianity and voodoo, the figurehead is both St. Sebastian and a black slave, the black-white opposition is poetically undercut in a complex patterning of dresses and voodoo patches; the motivation of all the characters is called into question; the messenger-zombie Carrefour can’t be kept out of the white domain.”

Lewton’s work absolutely inspired and trained Robert Wise to scare the hell out us with his adaption of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting in 1963, when in reality we never see a malevolent presence. Wise’s use of absence and presence, sequential stages of darkness and shadow, odd angles, and the process of what we ‘don’t see’ became one of the greatest ghost stories on film and I would dare to say one of the best films ever made. Wise learned this film philosophy from his time working as part of the Lewton Unit, whose contribution to film rippled outward for decades.

Robert Wise The Haunting Julie Harris
Julie Harris climbs the menacing spiral staircase in Robert Wise’s masterpiece of Gothic ghost storytelling The Haunting 1963

Lewton’s most accomplished manoeuvre was making the audience think much more about his material than it warranted. Some of his devices were the usual ones of hiding information… he hid much more of his story than any other filmmaker and forced his crew to create drama almost abstractly with symbolic sounds, textures and the like which made the audience hyper-conscious of sensitive craftsmanship… He imperiled his characters in situations that didn’t call for outsized melodrama and permitted the use of  journalistic camera. {…}Je would use a spray-shot technique that usually consisted of oozing suggestive shadows across a wall, or watching the heroines’ terror on a lonely walk {…} The shorthand allowed Lewton to ditch the laughable aspect of improbable events and give the remaining bits of material the strange authenticity of a daguerreotype.” Manny Farber criticquoted from 1951 in Jeremy Dyson’s book Bright Darkness

There is an overall unsettling revelatory pattern to each of the Lewton narratives. While I’m only covering the 4 contributions Lewton made during the year 1943, all of his 9 fantasy/horror films isolate the commonplace through the story, the patterns, the symbolism of innocence, and the rigidity of authority. In his films our roots in proven reason and sanity are given a different value. This contrasting shadowplay create the ultimate texture and environment of fantasy/horror.

A SYMPHONY OF DARK PATCHES :

Continue reading “A Symphony of Dark Patches- The Val Lewton Legacy 1943”

Postcards From Shadowland no. 9

1933 das testament der dr. mabuse
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse 1933 Fritz Lang
Ace In The Hole
Ace in The Hole – Billy Wilder
Aroused 1966
Aroused 1966 Anton Holden
Bayou 1957
Poor White Trash aka Bayou 1957-Harold Daniels
Blues in the night
Blues in the Night 1941-Anatole Litvak
Edward G Robinson-Little-Caesar with Douglas Fairbanks jr. and Glenda Farrell
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy-Edward G Robinson is Little-Caesar (1931) with Douglas Fairbanks jr. and Glenda Farrell
Experiment in Terror Ross Martin as Red Lynch
Experiment in Terror – Blake Edwards directs -Ross Martin as Red Lynch
Gene Tierney Tobacco Road 1941
Gene Tierney Tobacco Road 1941 directed by John Ford
George Pujouly  Brigitte Fossey Forbidden Games Jeux interdits 1952 René Clément
George Pujouly Brigitte Fossey Forbidden Games (Jeux interdits) 1952 directed by René Clément
Granny-The Southerner
Granny-The Southerner-Jean Renoir
Jeux Interdits
Jeux Interdits
knock on any door
Knock On Any Door 1949 Nicholas Ray
Lena Cabin in The Sky
Lena Horne-Cabin in The Sky 1943- Vincente Minnelli
Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped
Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped 1924 Victor Sjöström
Modern Times Charlie Chaplin
Modern Times Charlie Chaplin 1936
Never Take Sweets From A Stranger
Never Take Sweets From A Stranger 1960 Cyril Frankel
Night of The Demon-Tourneur
Curse of The Demon- 1957 Jacques Tourneur
Peter Lorre in The Man Who Knew Too Much1956
Peter Lorre in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956
Rashomon
Rashomon 1950 -Akira Kurosawa
Repulsion
Roman Polanski’s Repulsion 1965 Catherine Deneuve
The Cobweb
The Cobweb-1955- Vincente Minnelli
The Last Laugh-letzte mann and emil-jannings in
The Last Laugh 1924-with emil-jannings directed by F.W Murnau
the sweet smell of success
The Sweet Smell of Success 1957-directed by Alexander Mackendrick written by Clifford Odets
Viva Zapata with Marlon-Brando and Jean Peters-
Viva Zapata 1952 with Marlon-Brando and Jean Peters-Elia Kazan directs

Val Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People (1944) “God should use a Rose Amber Spot!” Seeing the darkness thru the ‘Fearing Child’ and ‘The Monstrous Feminine’ Part II

https://monstergirl.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/begin-the-bagheeta-val-lewtons-fantasy-reality-world-of-curse-of-the-cat-people-fearing-the-femalefeline-monster-and-the-engendering-child-part-i/ 

This post is continued from Part 1: at the link above!

And now Part II

From page 112 Chapter 7 J.P Telotte Dreams of Darkness

FANTASY as REALITY, REALTY as FANTASY

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

-The child per se makes us uneasy, ambivalent ; we are anxious about the human propensities concentrated by the child symbol. It evokes too much of what has been left out or is unknown, becoming easily associated with the primitive, mad and mystical. – James Hillman ” Abandoning the Child” in Loose Ends

The evil little girl in Master of the Macabre Mario Bava’s Kill Baby Kill (1966)
The embodiment of evil in a little blonde girl from Federico Fellini’s segment Toby Dammit of 1968’s Spirits of The Dead
In stark contrast to those 2 iconic evil imps of horror (above), Amy Reed is not supposed evil incarnate, but she does threaten the equilibrium of the ‘normal’ world her father inhabits.

To continue with this blog post about one of Lewton’s very precious stories, less darker than his others, and dealing with childhood, the fears of and by children.

All of Lewton’s works dealt with subject matters that forced us to push the boundaries of ‘the familiar’ and challenged us to face a darker more mysterious reality of the natural world, and the incomprehensible landscape of the human psyche.

Curse of the Cat People (1944) acts as a cinematic continuum to Lewton’s Cat People 1942, featuring Simone Simon once again as the alluring, and sensual Irena Dubrovna Reed, who may or may not have belonged to a race of beings that could shape shift into the physical form of a large cat or black panther, when sexually aroused.

The symbol of Irena synthesized the fear of women’s sexuality, sexual freedom, the women’s body, and often the correlation that is made with women’s emotional existence and madness. What is engendered in Cat People (1942) is far less about a woman who can morph into a predatory feline, and more about the collective fear of ‘The Monstrous Feminine.’

Amy lashes out at the little boy who has crushed her beautiful friend, the butterfly. Fear the woman/child.

While Amy is not Irena’s biological daughter. Amy is truly more of a progeny to Irena and the mystique she embodies, because they are both alienated figures who are frustrated and misunderstood. Who stand outside the social community which is pumped from the veins of ‘rational’, normative thoughts and behaviors. Amy is the figure of ‘The Fearing Child’, an innocent who not only has ‘power’ she can wreak havoc in our ‘normal’ world.

Both characters are imaginative, and rely on their senses. They are more connected to the natural world, to the darkness which is associated with the feminine energy and less intellectual which is considered a masculine marker. They are considered emotional, irrational and dangerously unpredictable. Oliver Reed is just as frightened and moreover threatened by his six year old little girl as he was of his beautiful and tragic wife Irena, who was more a victim than ever the ‘monster’ she was perceived to be.

In Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, The Leopard Man, The 7th Victim and Isle of The Dead there aren’t concrete Monsters as in Universal films as in Frankenstein’s creation, Dracula or The Wolf Man.

Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein 1935 Literal monsters in a corporeal world.

RKO studio heads had a mistrust of Lewton’s creative vision, his unconventional approach to some esoteric subject matter or volatile subjects such as a woman’s sexual desires. Lewton, rather than using literal lumbering, fanged or hairy monsters, used the powers of suggestion and shadow to tell the story.

Irena emerging from Lewton’s shadow world in Cat People 1942
Little Amy lost within the emerging shadows of the old dark house in Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People 1944
Barbara Ferran always placed by a door like a bystander, she is bombarded by Lewton’s shadows.

Lewton disliked mask like faces, that were hardly human, the kinds of images that were expected from the horror genre he was infiltrating. Lewton liked to reveal the monsters that were lurking in the subconscious primitive recesses of our own imaginations. Shadows become the monster in these films, they are the mysterious layer that surfaces in world that only makes sense in the light of day. And Amy draws the shadows to her…

They do not have scary faces, they are quite human and in fact ordinary. He takes the ‘familiar’ and inverts it, subverts it, rattles the soundness of an accepted experience, and turns it into either an illusion, a nightmare, or a fit of paranoia. He taps into our childhood fears, and sets those fears on the frightened characters in his shadow plays. Usually because the thing they fear, is uprooting of their own personal desires and the fear of coming face to face with them.

The tragic and tormented Irena in Cat People 1942

Oliver couldn’t handle Irena’s sexual desires, nor her desirability, it triggered too much of his own primal urges, and so he demonized her, a fragile girl in a foreign country who believed in folklore from her very ancient set of beliefs handed down for centuries.

Oliver Reed has a fear of foreign Objects!-Cat People 1942

A story which quite often itself was ambiguous as to whether the threat was real or imagined. RKO wanted to be in competition with Universal, so they added footage of a menacing Panther which was inserted into several scenes of Cat People.

Continue reading “Val Lewton’s Curse of The Cat People (1944) “God should use a Rose Amber Spot!” Seeing the darkness thru the ‘Fearing Child’ and ‘The Monstrous Feminine’ Part II”

Val Lewton’s “I Walked With A Zombie” (1943) Elements of Jane Eyre, Colonialism and The Synergy of Sound

Val Lewton’s Masterpiece on a low budget for RKO. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and story by Curt Siodmak

Jo Gabriel’s “Sway” appears on my album The Amber Sessions

I will be doing a major feature on the work of Val Lewton in the coming months, his masterworks in shadow are some of the most evocative films ever screened.

MonsterGirl (JoGabriel)