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Have You Seen…? Episode 15

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“Have You Seen…? with David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf explores the horror films of producer Val Lewton. From ‘Cat People’ and ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ to ‘The Leopard Man’ and ‘Bedlam,’ Lewton produced 9 movies for RKO Pictures in the 1940’s that stand alone among genre classics.

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Cat People?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen Cat People and it's a fantastic movie.

DH: Isn't it great?

SVW: And of course we're talking about the original 1942 version, not the 1982 version directed by Grand Rapids native Paul Schrader.

DH: Right, which is a fun remake, but it's not the classic that the 1942 Cat People is and Cat People was the first of 9 horror films produced by Val Luton, sort of gothic horror, psychological horror films.

SVW: And all for RKO Pictures.

DH: Yeah, it's an interesting story because Val Luton’s 9 films made between 1942 and 1946 are unique. They're just a style and structure and just a type of movie that really stands by itself and I’ll read the names of them because they're great. These are 9 films from 42 to 46: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard man, the 7th Victim, the Ghost Ship, Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, and Bedlam.

SVW: And some of these star Boris Karloff and they all have a look and a feel that are totally unique in terms of the horror movies of the time. And they and they have almost a uniform feel in terms of tone and presentation.

DH: Right, and that's what's very interesting about them, because the main thing they have in common is the work of this one producer and this producer working with a particular unit from RKO Pictures. The story behind Luton, he was a protege of David O Selznick, one of the great producers of the 1930's. He produced Gone with the Wind, for example, and he has a few credits like on Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, and A Star is Born. Then he got this job with RKO Pictures and RKO was reeling because they had lost huge money on the two Orson Welles films, Citizen Kane and the Magnificent Ambersons. They’re classics today, many people consider ‘Kane’ one of the greatest movies ever made, but they were box office flops. And so RKO said, what can we do? And they looked around and he saw the example of Universal Studios. Universal Pictures had been a minor studio throughout the silent era and at the beginning of the sound era, and then they got this great idea: they made all these horror films; Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, Wolf Man, and all the sequels, and they made a fortune on them. They were these incredibly successful low budget pictures. So RKO hired Val Luton and they said you're going to be the producer and run this B movie unit and we're going to give you 3 conditions. They wanted horror movies like Universal. And they said here's the conditions: We will give you the title for each movie. You have to produce it for under $150,000, which now seems ridiculous, but even then it wasn't very much money, and number 3, it has to be under 75 minutes long.

SVW: And because they're going to be B movies and they're going to be playing either before or after the A movie.

DH: Right. You know, again, B movies are both an esthetic judgment, nowadays it's more used to say a low budget kind of goofy movie or whatever, but in those days it meant a specific thing because every movie, every showing a movie theater had 2 movies it's like the flip side of a single the A side, the B side. But these B movies were so successful they were drawing people into the theater a lot of times instead of the headliner ‘A’ picture.

SVW: And one of the things that I found really interesting, were talking about Val Luton as the producer and he had directors like Joc Tenure, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise, but it's really the Val Luton stamp on all these movies.

DH: It is the Val Luton stamp but we can also again avoid that trap of saying the au tour is one person because Luton worked with this one unit at RKO Pictures, he got the same people in over, over, and over again. Like you mentioned the directors, of those 9 films, Tenure directed 3, Mark Robson directed 4 and Robert Wise directed 2. And here's a few other things: The art directors, with the same 2 people, Albert D'Agostino and Walter Keller, all 9 pictures, same art directors in the art director, you know, nowadays might more often be called the production designer, that's a person who oversees all the style that you see except for the lighting and camera work of the director of photography. But, you know, the costumes, the props, the setting, locations…the kind of look of the film, and they had the same one in every one. And then you get a director of photography to further what influenced the look. 5 of the 9 were Nicholas Museraca, a famous Film Noir cinematographer Guy Robert DeGras a couple more. The music for 8 of the 9, music is really important in setting the mood, especially in something like a horror film, 8 of the 9 where this composer Roy Well. There was a real team.

SVW: The other thing that I noticed was that the actors are spread out through all the movies. A lot of times, it's not necessarily the main actors as much as a lot of the supporting cast, they’re all RKO players.

DH: Right. Most of them were people under contract. Someone like Boris Karloff who was in 3 of the film's; The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam, those are the last 3, I'm not sure he was under contract with RKO at first, but they reached out to him. And he was very pleased to do films where he got to play kind of a real character. Maybe it's an evil character, but it's not a monster, right? Like it's not the Frankenstein monster for once.

SVW: I grew up loving Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster and also, of course, as the narrator of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas But I have to say, I have a greater appreciation for him as an actor fromthe 3 movies that he's on here, especially The Body Snatcher, he is just fantastic in that.

DH: He's terrific. And that movie is based on the real story of some doctors in the 19th century who in order to teach their medical students in dissections, were stealing bodies from graves. But then they actually committed a couple murders in order to get bodies. So he plays he plays a terrible character. But yeah, what a performance.

SVW: Mister Gray. And also in that film is, in a much a smaller role is Bela Lugosi.

DH: Yeah. One of the times they’re on screen together. A few other people got starts in them, Kim Hunter -who is famous for Planet of the Apes.

SVW: Yes.

DH: She had her film debut in the 7th Victim. But what we should talk about what is it about these films that makes him so interesting. How are they different than horror films now? I have a quote here. This is from Val Luten, he said: “Our formula is very simple. A love story. 3 scenes of suggested terror, one scene of actual violence and it's all over in less than 70 minutes. No grisly stuff for us. No mask-like faces, hardly human with gnashing teeth and hair standing on end, know creaking, no physical manifestations, no horror piled on horror. You can't keep up that long sustained, it becomes something to laugh at that.” That’s a note for us today right? There are so many horro movies that after a while it's just whatever. But take a sweet love story or a story of sexual antagonisms, people like the rest of us, and you cut in here and there by suggestion, and you've got something.

SVW: And, I mean, so much of Cat People fits that description. The way that it's directed and paced. And yet you really don't see anything in certain scenes, there's just a suggestion, but it still makes a very scary.

DH: Yeah, that's the great thing, because I mean, so if you go back to you see the Wolfman, you watch Juan Chaney Jr. in the Universal picture, Wolfman from the early 30's. You watch him transform from a human into a wolf, or a wolfman on screen, but in Cat People. So you've got this suggestion. The characters even believe that this one character's kind of cursed and she's turning into a leopard, but we never see that transformation on screen. So it seems like maybe is just psychological horror. But then you go, “maybe in that one scene, she did turn into a leopard”, you know, and that's what's great is there they do have a supernatural element.

SVW: And another thing that's that's great about the films are what you mentioned in terms of the brevity. You know, so many films these days that are 3 hours long. Sometimes it's necessary to have a 3 hour movie but certainly with a suspense film or a horror film, anything that's over 90 minutes sometimes is overkill.

DH: Yeah. But these older all under I think there's one that exceeded 75 by couple.

SVW: One is 77 minutes.

DH: Okay. You check and I think that's bedlam. But all the rest are under 75, some are even in the high 60

SVW: Yeah, like 67 Minutes.

DH: Yeah. Which almost seems like an episode of a TV series now, but it also shows you how you can tell a great story if you're efficient, you don't have any extra junk in it. And and then, of course, these movies have just upped their all black and white, of course. And they're all they just have a beautiful, you know, dark shadowy film noir-ish look a little. They're not mystery film noir type films. They really are horror and suspense type films.

SVW: And you're talking about the art directors and one of the thing that things that I watched the documentary after seeing the movies, in the documentary, they point out that there are scenes that in Cat People it's supposed to be Central Park in New York City. I Walked With A Zombie is supposed to be on this island.

DH: These I think it would be 80.

SVW: And actually these are indoor sets and it, you know, I didn't really pick up on that and watching it. It's so effectively filmed.

DH: Oh, yeah, they're very much Hollywood Studio films made entirely on Hollywood sets for $150,000. They could have even traveled to the place to make more money to make to make location shots. And, you know, some of the stuff like I Walked With a Zombie and think how huge the zombie genre is. But this is before the sort of stuff, you know, virus-laden, brain eating monsters, zombies. Now, this is more like the zombie idea out of out of voodoo or whatever. And.

SVW: Although it is still up to the zombie, still supposedly a dead person that still living.

DH: Right, right. Curse of the Cat People is an amazing one. It's not really a sequel.

SVW: It's not really a sequel and it's not really a horror movie. It's more like a fantasy film and in the main characters, a child.

DH: Yeah, this actress what was, Anne Carter was 7 years old. If you want to see one of the greatest performances ever by a kid in a movie I mean she's in virtually every scene, it's like she's in always on screen. And it's really a story about how adults try to kill children's dreams, how children make stuff up and see things and an adult say, oh, no, be real, you know, and and bring the try to bring them out down to Earth and take away their imagination.

SVW: And the film doesn't not just with the main character and her family, but also a secondary character an older woman who is an actress and her daughter. And she doesn't recognize her daughter is being her daughter. She thinks that she's an imposter.

DH: But that's also because maybe her daughter's a ghost, right? It's a ghost story, too. So, all these films, you know, they're they're very moody. But they also do have this supernatural element and and uh, scary elements. You know, if you're willing to give yourself over to the old school type of movie they can be pretty scary, too.

SVW: Now in terms of my introduction to Val Luton back, you know, almost 40 years ago, it was actually with The Leopard Man, which was based on Black Alibi, a novel by Cornell Woolrich, the mystery writer. And I knew about that because of one of my heroes, the writer, Harlan Ellison, always said that that was one of his favorite movies and we were talking about this before we started recording about how the 3 um sort of scary scenes in there the the the violent scenes are are very effectively done.

DH: They are. Also it's a good example of how Universal I mean, how RKO gave him these titles and said make a horror film and you see the Leopard Man and everyone thinks, oh, it's going to be like Wolfman. We're going to see someone transform into a leopard. All that referred to was a guy who had a the who had a leopard called the leopard man and a leopard escaped. But then the scenes you're referring to the first scene is when that escape leopard kills someone and the next 2 at first we think it's the leopard. But then…

SVW: Who knows?

DH: Right.

SVW: You find out later…

DH: Murders.

SVW: Who knows what?

DH: Exactly. And that when, you know, that's one of not one of my favorites. I know you probably like it more than me. But even if you're not like by the end, you're like that was OK, you cannot deny that you have seen 2 or 3 scenes that they're they're just burned in your memory for their just visual amazing-ness.

SVW: Now, one of the things that to me that's really fascinating with these 9 movies is that like you said they they’re they’re it made between 1942 and 1946. Four years that they made the that these were made. And then Val Luton didn't produce any more of these type of movie, he produced some other films before his death. And but it's

DH: Very early died early. 36 of a heart attack.

SVW: And there's nothing that I can think of that even is remotely like these films that were made later.

DH: There really isn't. I mean, Val Luton really does have a sort of cult following. And then if you restored all as movies. It's just this little gem moment in film history of of these wonderful, unusual films.

SVW: Thank you for joining us.

DH: Thanks, Scott.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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