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TCM Greatest Classic Legends - Val Lewton

by Ed Tapper
Contributor
Monday Nov 4, 2013
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Nephew of silent screen vamp Nazimova, Val Lewton himself came to Hollywood in the early 1930’s, working as a writer and publicist. In 1942, he was appointed head of the RKO Horror Department, and for a period of four years, produced a series of successful, low-budget / high-atmosphere chillers that went on to become cult classics. Among its new batch of Greatest Classic Legends DVD collections, TCM salutes Val Lewton with the reissue of four of his signature horror titles.

Lewton’s first and most renowned film is "The Cat People," directed by Jacques Tourneur, who, along with the young Robert Wise, would collaborate on a number of Lewton ventures. Released in 1942, the quickie was an effort to recoup the losses incurred the year before on Welles’ extravagant "Citizen Kane." With its shoestring budget of under $150,000, the smash grossed over $4 million. Much of its success can be attributed to the cache of its star, the exotic new French import, Simone Simon. As Irena, a descendant of a foreign people who transform themselves into savage felines, she marries unsuspecting Kent Smith, who is secretly loved by his co-worker Jane Randolph. Despite the atmospheric touches, the film is merely talky build-up for the first half; though things improve when Irena turns "catty" with her rival. TCM offers a superb print, which is annotated by comprehensive commentary.

The sequel, "The Curse of the Cat People," has Smith and Randolph married, with a lonely little daughter who finds a secret playmate in the spirit of the dead Irena. This sedate, offbeat, beautifully photographed film belies its horrific title and makes for enjoyable watching with TCM’s exquisite print quality.

For those unfamiliar with the work of this visionary producer, TCM’s new collection will prove a treasure.

Something of a voodoo "Jane Eyre," "I Walked with a Zombie," has Frances Dee as a nurse who travels to the Caribbean to care for the catatonic wife of a troubled plantation owner. Complications ensue when she falls for him, and dabbles in primitive voodoo rituals to cure his wife, the titled zombie. Arresting camera-work, moody lighting, and a literate Curt Siodmak script, contribute to the success of this little gem.

The lesser-known, 1943 "The Body Snatcher," is the best of the box, due in large part to Boris Karloff’s virtuoso performance as a sociopathic grave-robber. The doctor who purchases the corpses for dissection, Henry Daniell is his best customer, and the object of Karloff’s sadistic badgering. Psychologically complex, and often deeply disturbing, the film has barely a ray of light in it. The terrifying finale is truly memorable. In the fascinating commentary, director Robert Wise discusses his career, and the making of the film.

Val Lewton fanatics may opt for Warners’ comprehensive 9-film DVD set. Although, for those unfamiliar with the work of this visionary producer, TCM’s new collection will prove a treasure.

TCM Greatest Classic Legends Legends Collection: Val Lewton
DVD
$19.99
www.TCM.com

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