Friday, October 12, 2012

Bringing Lewton Into the Light: "Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy" (2005)

Horror film fans can rattle off many names: favorite actors and actresses, stylish directors, writers who dish out nightmares, and even special effects supervisors who make those nightmares real. This documentary covers Val Lewton, a film producer who did less than a dozen films in the 1940's, but influenced every actor, director, and writer working in horror today.

Lewton was born in 1904 in Russia, coming to the United States when his parents' marriage ended. He and his mother moved in with his aunt, famed Broadway actress Alla Nazimova. Lewton was well read and imaginative, writing in every medium. He wrote radio scripts, nonfiction articles, short stories, and published his first novel when he was 22. He was fired from a newspaper for fabricating a story about dying chickens.

He began work as a story editor for the difficult film producer David O. Selznick, and was involved with many high profile productions including "Gone With the Wind." Lewton wrote the famous scene where Scarlett O'Hara walks among the hundreds of wounded soldiers at the train station simply because he did not think it would be shot. He also expected the film to bomb, and was obviously wrong.

RKO Pictures, tired of losing money on Orson Welles' films, decided to produce horror films and profit like Universal was doing then. RKO hired Lewton, handed him a bunch of terrible titles and no money, and Lewton, who never produced a film before, got to work. The titles of these films are now classics of the horror genre: "Cat People," "Curse of the Cat People," "I Walked with a Zombie," "The Body Snatcher," "Isle of the Dead," "Bedlam," "The Leopard Man," "The Ghost Ship," and "The Seventh Victim." Lewton died too early, in 1951 at age 46.

Narrated by James Cromwell, the documentary's producers pull out some big guns to talk about Lewton. Directors and writers like Joe Dante, William Friedkin, Guillermo del Toro, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, Mick Garris, John Landis, George A. Romero, and Richard Matheson all point out Lewton's brilliance at internalizing horror instead of dragging out yet another monster. Lewton's son and Boris Karloff's daughter speak of their fathers' wonderful working relationship in three films.

While Lewton may not be a household name today, horror fans would be rewarded with a viewing of his films. You may have seen the "jump" cut a million times before, now see where they were invented. (* * * *) out of five stars.