It was the early 40s, and RKO had a problem. Two actually. The first that was that the studio had lost significant amounts of money on Orson Welles’s prestige projects. Specifically, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. The second was that Universal had been making money hand over fist with horror films since the 20s. RKO wanted a slice of that pie.
The Cost of Art
The first problem actually came with a lot of drama an no small amount of acrimony. Citizen Kane had seen only middling box office returns and a mixed reception from critics, not true failure. The same could not be said for Welles’s second film. The Magnificent Ambersons, adapted from Indianapolis writer Booth Tarkington’s novel, suffered from a troubled production cycle. One that could fill entire books, and has.
Highlights included the studio editing the film behind Welles’s back and destroying an hour of footage. All aggravated by Welles’s extravagant production soaring over budget. When the studio finally dumped the resultant mess in theaters, it bombed. While some members of the audience felt the film was still brilliant, the majority reaction was nowhere near as favorable. RKO bled money, and Welles would only make one more film for them before leaving the studio. Welles spent the rest of his career bouncing between studios, raising his own funds for his projects as an actor.
Making the Money Back
The second problem was much more straightforward. While only a higher mid-tier studio in those days, Universal had struck gold with its series of horror films. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera, the Wolfman had all raked in the cash at the box office. How could RKO tap that vein?
RKO decided to kill two birds with one stone. They would make some inexpensive horror films and get a share of Universal’s market. All while making back the money they lost on Welles. To that end, they turned to producer and writer Val Lewton. Born Vladimir Leventon in Russia, he had some success as a novelist before working for MGM. RKO made him head of their horror department in 1942.
The studio heads gave Lewton three conditions. first, each film would have only a budget of 100,000 dollars. Second, each film could run no more than 75 minutes. And third, the studio would pick the titles. Other than that, Lewton was free to do what he wanted.
And he did. Working with promising young directors, Lewton helped craft a unique brand of horror that emphasized atmosphere over men in masks. The first of these films, 1942’s Cat People, was one of RKO’s top performers for that year. Directed by a newcomer in Hollywood named Jacques Tournier, Cat People combined psychological drama with gothic horror motifs. Just in modern day New York City instead of Transylvania.
At its core, the film was about a young woman wresting with sexual guilt and general neurosis. Not to mention, the strain both conditions put on her and her marriage. What makes this horror is that both problems originate with the folk tales she heard as a girl in Serbia. Namely, that if she every became sexually aroused, or just jealous, that she would transform into a vicious panther. After which she would rip her lover to pieces. Purportedly, this was because of a hereditary curse from witchcraft that the villagers partook in during the Middle Ages.
While similar in principle to The Wolfman, Cat People was a very different beast. For one thing, it played the supernatural aspect of the story ambiguously until the very end. It also featured stunning, shadowy cinematography that emphasized the terror of the uncertain, leaving the monster for the final moments. It also functioned as a dark character study and an examination of the ways unresolved issues can damage romantic relationships.
Tournier would make two more films for Lewton, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. Lewton was far from finished, however. Working with director Mark Robson, Lewton produced as well as wrote, numerous films. Robson had previously worked as an editor on The Magnificent Ambersons. Along the way, he also gave Robert Wise, who had also worked on The Magnificent Ambersons, his first directorial credits. Wise would on to direct such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music, and Run Silent, Run Deep. Robson, on the other hand, would become known for films like Von Ryan’s Express and Peyton Place.
While using untried directors allowed Lewton to keep costs down, as per RKO’s orders, it also allowed for fresh ideas. Something essential for when you’re making horror films on a budget. Assuming, of course, you don’t want the audience to laugh you out of the theater.
Among these new ideas was using horror as a vehicle to explore philosophical themes. Or asking questions about the human condition. The Ghost Ship dealt with authority and how it could go wrong. Even to the point of creating madness and paranoia. The Leopard Man asked just how thin the line between sanity and its opposite really is. As well as discussing just how little we understand either. Finally, The 7th Victim mused about the inevitability of death and the need to live one’s life regardless.
The films could be bleak, at least as bleak as the Hays Code would allow. However, they were never hopeless. One, The Curse of the Cat People, was even magical. In fact, it is probably the most intelligent film about childhood from the 1940s. It is also worth mentioning that after Cat People, the supernatural elements in the Lewton films tended to remain ambiguous, if they were present at all.
Getting some Star Power
Many of the actors appearing in Lewton’s films where either unknows or long-serving character actors. However, Lewton and his directors still got to work with stars on occasion. For example, Boris Karloff appeared in major roles in three films. However, instead of misunderstood monsters, here he played villains. This included what Karloff considered his best performance, that of the cabman and grave-robber John Gray in The Body-Snatcher. Bela Lugosi also appeared in that film in a more minor role, where he winds up as one of John Gray’s victims. Gray was also Karloff’s vilest role by far. Generally, the roles played by Karloff in these films showed more of his dramatic range.
Also appearing in three of Lewton’s films was Calypso star Sir Lancelot. While he played bit or supporting characters in all his appearances, he sang in almost every appearance. Lewton was also respectful in casting him, not having him play any stereotypical black or Caribbean characters. A rarity for the 1940s.
Leading the Way to Elevated Horror
These films, which could have easily been as cheesy as their studio-picked titles would suggest, played well with audiences and contributed to getting RKO back on its feet. As well as still seeing love from critics, the films remain popular in horror fandom. In fact, Cat People got the remake treatment on the 40th anniversary of its release courtesy of Paul Schrader.
These films were also, in all probability, the beginning of what critics now call elevated horror.
Somewhat difficult to define, elevated horror is essentially horror that wants to do more than scare. It also generally has features typically associated with “prestige” genres, such high production values, and sophisticated writing. Modern examples include the films of Robert Eggers and Ari Aster. Older examples, meanwhile, include films made by directors like Guillermo del Toro and David Cronenberg. These films considered things like historical drama, generational strife, the rise of Fascism in Spain, and the philosophy of Marshall McLuhan. The only difference between these and “higher” films, was that they used these ideas as core components of their horror.
Going back even further, Rosemary’s Baby provides yet another example of elevated horror. However, even Rosemary’s Baby owes a great debt to Val Lewton’s films. Polanski’s tense relationship drama is certainly something from his own mind. However, it only fit into a horror context thanks to Lewton’s work.
The films left and enduring legacy. Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake of Cat People was not the only homage. Lewton alum Robert Wise made a film called The Haunting in 1963. With its focus on atmosphere, eerily beautiful black and white cinematography, and never-seen but very present horrors, The Haunting was a love letter to Wise’s work with Lewton at RKO. The Shining, knowingly or not, also borrows a great deal from Lewton’s work. Using the eerie modern architecture of the Overlook Hotel to explore Jack Torrance’s decaying mind is exactly what Lewton would have done.
More than that, however, Lewton’s films changed the way that audiences and filmmakers alike think about horror. No longer was horror just an arcade thrill, with Universal’s very well-done but thematically simple films leading the way. Instead, it could now ask complex questions about life. Now, filmmakers could use horror, like any other genre, to make pointed artistic statements. Not bad for a quick and dirty scheme to make back lost money.