THE VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION (includes CAT PEOPLE, THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE BODY SNATCHER, ISLE OF THE DEAD, BEDLAM, THE LEOPARD MAN, THE GHOST SHIP , THE 7th VICTIM

 (WARNER HOME VIDEO)

 
"I think that few people in Hollywood show in their work that they know or care half as much about movies or human beings as Val Lewton does." --(James Agee - 3/23/46) 

I recently had the singular misfortune to tune in to That Other Golden Age Classics station. You know the one I mean. They're the ones that bastardize their admittedly fine library of vintage cinema treasures by often running them in the incorrect ratio and, adding insult to injury, repeat ad nauseum endless "features" that gleefully extol the "virtues" of their latest adolescent-targeted theatrical special effects extravaganzas. The predominant underlying theme that seems to dwell like a noxious fog beneath the slick surface of these self-congratulatory promotional puff-pieces is the participant's continual proclamations of wonder at the ability of contemporary special effects to literally conjure up any and all images that emanate from the fevered screenwriter's mind. "These special effects leave nothing to the imagination!" gloated one rather pleased-as-punch-with-himself producer. The fact is that he's 100% correct ------ nothing is left to the imagination. What a relief it is to know that the kajillions of dollars spent on these cinematic visual tricks have relieved today's audiences (as well as a prodigious amount of "mainstream producers and directors" of the tiresome need to imagine, to participate, to (gasp) think.

But what if these resources didn't exist? What if severely limited budgets and shorter-than-short schedules made it impossible to graphically illustrate anything in full or even partial visual detail and forced the cinecreators to resort to drastic tactics like inventing three-dimensional characters you can actually care about as the tension slowly builds to a crescendo? What if a penny-pinching studio forced you to conjure up the most nightmarish images through the application of skillful implication and suggestion rather than blatant visualization. What if you were handed titles from the Top Brass such as CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE LEOPARD MAN and told to throw something together? And what if you somehow managed to take these exploitative and empty-headed titles and transform them into distinctively thought-provoking and bonafide mini-masterpieces? What would you have then? You'd have Val Lewton. 

Of course the claim that Lewton single-handedly was responsible for the uniqueness of these remarkable features is somewhat disingenuous as he had at his disposal some truly superb behind-the-scenes RKO contract artists who contributed mightily to the look, feel and sound of each and every one. Let's briefly focus on whom I believe to be two of Lewton's most noteworthy collaborators. 

RKO's house composer Roy Webb contributed the melodically dense but never overstated musical scores to Lewton's films and displayed a spectacularly keen ability not only to pinpoint the most important psychological elements of each scene and support them brilliantly but to also understand fully the importance of silence and when to step back and let the visuals speak for themselves.

And what visuals! The uninformed who believe that the black-and-white palette has its limitations are hereby sentenced to watch each and every film in this splendid collection with the sound off so they may truly appreciate the mesmerizing artistry of director of photography Nicholas Musuraca, whose strikingly varied and moody images are simply without parallel.

The full-screen transfers of CAT PEOPLE and THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE shimmer and shine to the extent that one would suspect that these are restorations though no mention is made of this in the Warner press release provided. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE , ISLE OF THE DEAD, THE LEOPARD MAN, THE GHOST SHIP and THE SEVENTH VICTIM are reasonably good transfers that display occasional dirt and damage that aren't particularly distracting, but I must confess my slight disappointment with the image quality of my two favorite Lewton films--BEDLAM, which looks rather light and listless, and THE BODY SNATCHER, which appears to these tired eyes to be somewhat too dark and soft. The mono sound on virtually all of these titles is confident and vibrantly increases one's appreciation for Lewton's extraordinarily sensitive ear for the importance of effects and music. 

The Warner Home Video folk continue to display their dominance of the Golden Age Classic dvd release field with this mind-boggling collection which should not be missed by any individual claiming to be a movie buff. While some of the above titles are indeed available separately, my recommendation is to pop for the entire collection in order to fully understand the true significance of Val Lewton's contribution to the cinema.

--DICK DINMAN 

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