Yesterday, much to my delight, I got delivery of The Val Lewton Horror Collection (region 1 only).
For those of you unfamiliar with the man, Val Lewton was appointed head of the Horror unit in RKO in 1942.
He proceeded to commission a series of films that only had to conform to three rules:
1. The budget had to be under $150,000.
2. The film could not run more than 75 minutes (each film was shown as half of a double feature).
3. The title of the film was supplied by Lewton’s supervisors.
The obvious 4th rule that is not normally mentioned is that it had to be scary. Horror films have always wallowed in low-budget waters. As long as Lewton complied with these limits he was given an artistic free reign.
Under these guidelines Lewton’s first film in 1942 was the cult classic Cat People: it cost $134,000, and went on to net nearly $4 million; it was RKO’s best moneymaker of the year.
In a four-year period Lewton produced eleven horror films, nine of which are collected in the DVD box set: Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People (1944), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Body Snatcher (1945), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), Isle of the Dead (1945), and Bedlam (1946). There’s also a documentary bundled with the collection entitled Shadows In the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy.
There are commentary tracks on eight of the nine films, by historians or the director involved, including one by director Robert Wise (for The Body Snatcher), who passed away in September of last year.
I’m very much looking forward to watching these films. I’ll have to stop sleeping in order to get time for everything these days.
This is part of my undertaking to expand my knowledge of early horror films. I’m a believer in going back to the roots of a subject in order to attain an appreciation of how it has evolved as an art form. Considering the emphasis on low-budget horror films these days I suspect there is a lot to be learned from these examples of the genre.