Val Lewton Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Val Lewton 1904-1951

(Born Vladimir Ivan Leventon) Russian-born American producer, screenwriter, novelist, poet, and nonfiction writer.

Considered a brilliant producer of B-movie features, Lewton is primarily known for the series of low-budget horror films he created in the early 1940s. Beginning with 1942's Cat People and ending with Bedlam four years later, Lewton's creative and critically-acclaimed motion pictures were said to have revived the flagging horror genre by injecting it with a renewed psychological intensity. Critics have since generally focused on Lewton's innovative use of shadow to create an encircling mood of terror in his pictures, a now staple method of the contemporary horror film.

Biographical Information

Lewton was born on May 7, 1904 in Yalta, Russia. His mother brought him to the United States when he was seven years old, and he was granted citizenship while still a child. Lewton attended Columbia University in New York City, and later began his career as a writer and as an employee of the publicity department at MGM studios. One of his earliest works, a book en-titled The Cossack Sword (1926) caught the attention of film producer David O. Selznick, whose staff Lewton joined in 1933. While a script editor for Selznick for nearly a decade Lewton penned several novels, most of them published under the assumed names H. C. Kerkow, Cosmos Forbes, or Carlos Keith. In 1942 Lewton left Selz-nick to join RKO as a producer—part of a new low-budget film studio designed to compete with Universal's like division. It was during the years 1942 to 1946 that Lewton—teamed with such directors as Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robeson, and Robert Wise—created a string of nine successful B-grade horror flicks, each shot over a period of about a month for approximately $150,000 apiece. In 1946, after his work on the last of these was complete, Lewton left RKO and continued his career as an independent producer. He made three more movies outside the horror genre with various studios before his death from a heart attack on March 14, 1951.

Major Works

While he wrote an assortment of novels and nonfiction, Lewton's primary artistic contribution remains his collection of nine horror pictures produced in the 1940s.

The first, Cat People, plays upon the theme of lycanthropy, and features a young New York fashion designer who claims to possess the ability to transform herself into a large, deadly feline. I Walked with a Zombie (1943) demonstrates Lewton's literary imagination. Its story is a version of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre set in the West Indies, and follows the activities of a young woman hired by a planter to look after his catatonic wife. The wife's nightly walks lead the natives to believe she is under a spell of voodoo, and is a member of the living dead. The setting of The Leopard Man (1943) is small-town New Mexico, where the locals suppose a leopard is the cause of several murders that in reality are the work of a psychopath. Lewton returns to Manhattan for The Seventh Victim (1943), a tale of satanic worship set in Greenwich Village. The Curse of the Cat People (1944) is a psychological thriller that explores the imaginary fantasy world of a seven-year-old girl. Derived from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Body Snatcher (1945) takes place in nineteenth-century Scotland and recounts the activities of two unseemly men who supply doctors and medical students with fresh cadavers for anatomical research. Isle of the Dead (1945) features a woman buried alive, while Bedlam (1946), Lewton's final horror film, visits the notorious London insane asylum of the same name.