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4.0 out of 5 stars Val Lewton gives us a new genre: Endearing horror films, 19 July 2007
This review is from: Val Lewton Horror Collection [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
Val Lewton was that Hollywood anomaly: A creative producer, but whose talents never exceeded the B-movie environment in which he operated. The result was a series of horror films made fast and on the cheap but which, 60 years later, still have enough interest to qualify for their own genre: The endearing horror movie. Through the happenstance of Lewton's ability to attract and work with some talented (and inexpensive) directors and writers, we now have the opportunity to watch these nine movies. Some, notably Bedlam and The Body Snatchers, are very good. Some, like The Leopard Man, are eerily satisfying. Sit back and enjoy.

Says psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd to Irena Reed, his reluctant patient. He is describing the things they have just talked about. "...and the cat women of your village...women who in jealousy or anger or out of their own corrupt passions can change into great cats, like panthers. And if one of these women were to fall in love, and her lover was to kiss her and to take her into his embrace, she would be driven by her own evil to kill him." As we can tell, Irena may have a problem. Her husband may have an even worse one.

Great potential within limited means, and then the slow leak of air from the balloon. The Curse of the Cat People pulls together Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph from Cat People. This time, however, despite great photography and some eerie situations, the pieces simply fall apart. There is some tension and suspense, but to no great purpose. We just wind up knowing more than we want to about the needs of lonely children.

"Everything seems beautiful because you don't understand," says Paul Holland (Tom Conway) to nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), on their voyage to Haiti where she will take care of his seriously ill wife. "Those flying fish, they're jumping in terror because bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies, the glitter of putrescence..." If that attitude isn't enough to be off-putting, Betsy discovers that Holland's "ill" wife may well be a zombie. The movie veers into melodramatic silliness; still, there's plenty of eerie atmosphere.

For a low-budget, B movie horror quickie, The Body Snatcher holds up remarkably well. The horror is in the situation, not the actors' make-up or the staggering around of corpses. Corpses there are, but they're freshly dug up, and their purpose is not to grasp and choke, but to be dissected by a complex and morally ambiguous surgeon. We're watching a duel, as director Robert Wise says, between the two lead characters. Henry Daniell, the surgeon, and Boris Karloff, who provides bodies, pull off the trick of combining distaste, arrogance and mutual need.

This programmer is a good example of why B movies are B movies. The story could be interesting: A small group of people in an isolated setting are forced to deal with a threat to their lives. In the course of the movie some will live and some will die, some will prove brave and some will go mad. "The vorvolaka still lives," whispers the crone of a housekeeper, "rose-cheeked and full of blood!" Even with ripe dialogue like this, the movie becomes predictable.

Bedlam was not successful at the box office yet was probably the best constructed of Lewton's films. Along with The Body Snatchers, it stands up as a compelling story with solid dialogue and better acting than we've come to expect from Lewton's films. Boris Karloff, in a performance of skill and complexity, plays Master George Sims, the ruler of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum in London...a forbidding hulk of a stone building. Bedlam, for short. The time is 1761. Bedlam is the place where the insane are sent, as well as inconvenient or embarrassing relatives. Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), is the smart, privileged and arrogant protege of a fat English lord. When she meets Sims, her dislike is instant. Before long, Mistress Bowen finds herself committed to Bedlam and must find a way to expose Sims. Bedlam is a clever and well-made film.

Sure, The Leopard Man is a cheap B movie, but I like it a lot. It only runs 66 minutes and it packs a lot of craftsmanship into that time. What seems unusual to me is that the film, made to be filled with dread, is also filled with regret. "What sort of man would kill like a leopard and leave traces of a leopard..." says one character. When we find out, we're a little saddened. This was no raving monster with steel claws taped to his hands, just a quiet guy who was the victim of his nature and his obsessions.

This quickie is the story of a mad sea captain who has become fixated on doing away with his young third officer. Most of the action takes place on ship as the young man tries to convince the crew that the captain is mad. There is no style to the movie and the acting is just passable.

This programer is noteworthy for just three things. First, an atmosphere of creepy mystery. Second, some effective characterizations by actors who never escaped from B-movie purgatory. Third, and by far the most important, an excellent performance by Kim Hunter in her first movie role. The movie has to do with a coven whose members seem to believe in death...for others.
All the movies look just fine on their two-to-a-disc DVDs.
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