Icons of Grief: Val Lewton's Home Front Pictures
University of California Press, 2005
226 pp., $31.95
Peter T. Chattaway
To show, or to suggest: for horror movies, that is the question. New technologies have allowed filmmakers to conjure up all sorts of fantastical creatures and to rub our faces in all manner of blood and gore, but the most effective horror movies remain the ones that do their work by hints and murmurs. Today, the difference between these two aesthetic approaches is evident in the campy special-effects sprees of, say, Stephen Sommers (whose Mummy and Van Helsing movies are too infatuated with digital spectacle to bother teasing out the audience's fears), in contrast to the moody, evocative films of M. Night Shyamalan. But the tug of war between these two styles goes back much furtherand Val Lewton, producer of several surprisingly mature horror movies in the 1940s, was an early master of the power of suggestion.
To some extent, this restraint was a necessity. Lewton, a sometime novelist and story editor for Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick, was hired by rko to produce low-budget thrillers at a time when the studio was coping with the box-office disappointment of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. "Showmanship, not genius" was the studio's new motto, but in Lewton, the studio got a bit of both. Hoping to emulate the success that Universal Studios had enjoyed with monster movies like the recent hit The Wolf Man, Lewton's new bosses told him to make a film with the title Cat People (1942). The result was a sophisticated tale about a Serbian woman, an immigrant to the United States, who lives under the cloud of an ancestral curse, and is afraid to consummate her marriage lest she turn into a feline beast. While the film hints that such a transformation occurs, the details are never depicted directly. What lingers instead in the viewer's mind is the psychological tension between Irena (Simone Simon), her husband Oliver (Kent Smith), and his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), who may be a rival for Oliver's affections; the viewer is also likely to remember the scenes ...