Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Val Lewton, the Man in the Shadows, on TCM

Val Lewton is one of the few film producers who is granted something akin to auteurist status. He “made” all of RKO’s classic horror films, including Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim. Known for their use of suggestive sound and imagery, they could be considered the first “elevated” horror films. One of Lewton’s most famous admirers, Martin Scorsese, helps chronicle his life and work, as narrator and producer of Kent Jones’ Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, which airs tomorrow night on TCM.

Lewton was a protégé of David O. Selznick. In that role, he made critical but mostly uncredited contributions to
Gone with the Wind. When he came to RKO, he had no burning desire to make horror films, but that was what the studio wanted. They also mandated his first title, “Cat People,” but Lewton took the picture in a radically different direction than the monster movies Universal produced—at a much greater cost.

To stretch his stingy budgets, Lewton often relied on shadows and clever camera work to heighten the atmosphere and suspense. As a result, every clip Jones incorporates is strikingly stylish and vividly evoke the eerie, otherworldly vibe of Lewton’s films. Technically, Lewton never directed a narrative feature, but all his RKO horror films have a similar look and feel.

Man in the Shadows
was originally produced for TCM over a decade ago (prior to the release of Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut and Letters to Elia, his full-collaboration with Scorsese), so mercifully, there is no apologizing for the subject matter of Lewton’s Caribbean-set voodoo film, I Walked with a Zombie, or his late career western, Apache Drums. In fact, his depiction of zombies is one of the earliest appearances of the genre’s most enduring menaces. The same is arguably true of the Satanic cult in The Seventh Victim.

Beyond Lewton’s son, there are relatively few talking heads in
Shadows, but Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Roger Corman certainly have enormous credibility with horror fans. Just about all of Lewton’s horror films are analyzed in-depth, with special attention reserved for Curse of the Cat People, as one of the best non-sequel sequels ever. He also gets due credit for revitalizing Boris Karloff’s career, the only established horror star to appear in his RKO films.

Throughout the doc, Jones and Scorsese definitely put viewers in the mood to re-watch Lewton’s masterful horror films (or experience them for the first time), which is really the whole point. If you consider the themes of his films and the way they were made, Lewton’s influence on the genre could be considered even greater now than when
Man in the Shadows first premiered. Recommended for fans of Lewtons films and docs like Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows airs tomorrow (10/20) on TCM.