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Val Lewton’s 75-Minute Masterpieces

A lot of old movies are boring. That admission may cost me my credibility as a film nerd, but it’s true. Even though I’ll complain about how modern movies are formulaic and overburdened with action scenes, I’m not always in the mood to watch something slow, old-fashioned and in black and white. But there are classic films that even my limited attention span can wholeheartedly enjoy, and very high on that list are the horror movies of Val Lewton.

Chances are that you’ve not heard of Lewton before. He was never very famous, and the beginnings of his filmmaking career were hardly promising. In 1942, he signed on to produce horror movies for the studio RKO Pictures, with his superiors setting three requirements. The first rule was that each film’s budget had to be under $150,000, or approximately $2,520,000 adjusted for inflation; for comparison, Investopedia estimates that an average movie’s budget is currently around 65 million dollars. The second rule was that each film had to be under 75 minutes long. The third was that his superiors would supply the titles—lurid, dramatic ones like I Walked With A Zombie and The Curse of the Cat People—leaving Lewton to develop them into full stories.

I Walked With A Zombie, Lewton’s second movie for RKO Pictures, is a good example of how Lewton made this system work. Working with up-and-coming director Jacques Tourneur, Lewton and his writers created a story about a nurse employed by the Hollands, a wealthy family in the Caribbean, and her discovery that the invalid woman she cares for may be a mindless zombie cursed by a family member. It’s well-paced and full of intriguing twists, not wasting any of its short 70-minute running time.

The movie’s horror is built on implication and uncertainty—the titular zombie may merely be a sick woman, but other scenes imply the reality of the supernatural. And the film’s conclusion, intercutting between a ceremony to destroy the zombie and a character’s efforts to put the woman out of her misery, is ambiguous and eerie in the best way.

But beyond its atmosphere of doubt, what makes this movie scary? Well, it’s a cliche, but the real monster of the story is humanity. The Hollands grew rich from slavery, and a slave ship’s figurehead—depicting a man shot through with arrows—proudly adorns their gardens. Instead of depicting Caribbean voodoo as evil, the film reveals that its ceremonies are manipulated by one of the Hollands, masquerading as a voodoo priest to convince islanders to embrace modern medicine, a plot point highlighting the morally ambiguous power dynamics of colonialism. The film concludes with a character plucking an arrow out of the slave ship’s figurehead and using it to free the zombie from living death, a literal but still effective symbol connecting the story’s conflicts to a real history of violence.

It’s not a perfect story—the film’s brevity leaves some characters underdeveloped, and Black and Caribbean characters are confined to the background—but its thought-provoking themes are characteristic of the movies Lewton produced. Cat People, for instance, explores contemporary attitudes towards marriage and female sexuality, and builds some truly tense scenes out of a female character’s sense of isolation when alone at night, while its loose sequel, Curse of the Cat People, explores threats lurking within an idyllic neighbourhood—mental illness, parental neglect and hints of the supernatural.

If you ask a film nerd like me what they think about modern blockbusters, you’ll probably get lectured about how, even when studios bother to hire innovative directors, their vision either gets ignored by higher-ups, or ends up dividing audiences. Even Marvel’s box-office dominance was recently shaken by the mixed reception to Chloe Zhao’s Eternals, whose unusual storytelling choices polarized viewers. But despite these limitations, there are directors who’ve made blockbusters and started franchises, and still layer in emotional complexity and thematic nuance. Just look at Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, or the Wachowski sisters’ Matrix series, or even contemporary horror filmmakers like Mike Flanagan.

Maybe that’s why I like Val Lewton’s work so much. I admire the craft behind his movies,  their efficient storytelling and eerie visuals, but what lingers in my mind is how Lewton challenged the boundaries his studio set. His films are a reminder that directors have always worked to be creative even within difficult circumstances—and that, with some effort and a lot of luck, they’ll continue doing just that.

Artwork by Wang Sum Luk

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