THE VAL LEWTON COLLECTION
One of the remaining treasures of from my Laserdisc library can finally be retired now that THE VAL LEWTON COLLECTION ($60) has finally been issued on DVD. For those unfamiliar with the name Val Lewton, he was one of the great icons of horror cinema. No, Lewton wasnít an actor and itís doubtful that even the fans of his films would recognize his face, but the name Val Lewton is synonymous with great horror movies. From the years 1942 to 1946, under the RKO banner, Lewton produced some of the most thought provoking and influential horror movies in the history of the cinema. These nine modestly budgeted films proved to be some of the most inventive horror movies ever made thanks to their reliance on suggestion, the audienceís imaginations and the one thing that is universally frightening- the dark. THE VAL LEWTON COLLECTION comes as a five-disc set of double features that includes all nine of the horror classics, plus a documentary on the career of the legendary producer.
CAT PEOPLE / THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE
CAT PEOPLE (1942) was the first of the nine, and its tremendous success helped give Lewton the creative freedom to make the remaining eight classics. Stylishly directed by Jacques Tourneur, CAT PEOPLE starred the beautiful Simone Simon as the tragic Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian-born fashion artist who believes that she will be transformed into a leopard and murder her new husband Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) should she become sexually aroused. The cast of CAT PEOPLE also features Tom Conway as the lecherous psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd, who tries to cure Irena of her delusions and Jane Randolph as Alice Moore, Oliverís coworker and Irenaís romantic rival.
THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) marked the directorial debut of Robert Wise, who helped make this pseudo sequel to CAT PEOPLE more of a dark childhood fable than an out and out horror movie. Featuring three of the main players from CAT PEOPLE, the plot of THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE focuses on Amy Reed (Ann Carter), the daydreaming daughter of Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), whose imaginary friend turns out to be none other than Oliverís first wife Irena (Simone Simon). The cast of also features Eve March as Amy's teacher Miss Callahan, Julia Dean as the elderly and semi-delusional former stage actress Julia Farren and Elizabeth Russell as the old womanís beleaguered daughter Barbara Farren.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE / THE BODY SNATCHER
Directed by Jacques Tourneur, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) is a haunting reworking of Charlotte Bronteís Jane Eyre for the voodoo set. The plot of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE follows Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) to the Caribbean island of St. Sebastian, where she is to care for the wife of sugar planter Paul Holland (Tom Conway). As it turns out, Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) suffered from a terrible fever that burnt out most portions of her brain, leaving her in an almost "zombie like" state, which really isnít a good thing on an island where the natives are active practitioners of voodoo. The cast of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE also features James Ellison as Wesley Rand, Holland's Half-brother, Edith Barrett as Mrs. Rand, Wesley's Mother and James Bell as island physician Dr. Maxwell.
Notable for reuniting horror titans Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) is another of director Robert Wiseís earliest efforts, one that has become a pure genre classic. Karloff is an absolute standout in his chilling title role as John Gray, a cabman by trade, who supplies cadavers, by whatever means necessary, to Dr. 'Toddy' MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) for his anatomy classes. Karloff really shows off his acting prowess; adding complexity and nuance to his ghoulish role making him more than just another mere monster. The cast of THE BODY SNATCHER also includes Edith Atwater, Russell Wade and Rita Corday.
ISLE OF THE DEAD / BEDLAM
ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) is probably one of the lesser Lewtonís, but it is still a film that this reviewer likes a whole lot thanks to the presence of horror icon Boris Karloff. Set in 1912, ISLE OF THE DEAD stars Karloff as General Nikolas Pherides, who ventures to a small island to visit his wifeís tomb during a break in the battle. After remaining on the island overnight, it appears that one of the islands residents has died of the plague. At this point, the General quarantines the island, but then he slowly falls prey to ancient Greek superstitions; becoming convinced that a vorvolakas (vampire) is in their midst. The cast of ISLE OF THE DEAD also features Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer, Katherine Emery, Helen Thimig, Alan Napier, Jason Robards Sr. and Ernst Deutsch.
BEDLAM (1946) is another marvelous horror outing featuring Boris Karloff in a decidedly evil role. Once upon a time, before mental illness was considered a real treatable disease, insane asylums were real chambers of horrors. The plot of BEDLAM depicts one of these horror chambers circa 1761, which is overseen by Master George Sims (Boris Karloff), a petty man who makes the most of the power he wields. Anna Lee is Nell Bowen, a woman whose concern for the treatment of the asylum inmates garners her a number of enemies. As you might expect, Nell finds herself confined to the asylum and facing the iron fist of Master Sims. The cast of BEDLAM also features Billy House, Richard Fraser, Glen Vernon, Ian Wolfe, Jason Robards Sr., Leyland Hodgson, Joan Newton and Elizabeth Russell.
THE LEOPARD MAN / THE GHOST SHIP
Although directed by Jacques Tourneur, THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) may not be the best remember of the films produced by Val Lewton at RKO. Still, THE LEOPARD MAN has an awful lot going for it in terms of suspense and unseen horror. Based upon a novel Cornell Woolrich, the plot of THE LEOPARD MAN is concerned with a series of savage maulings/killings in the wake of an escaped leopard. While at first, it seems that the big cat was responsible for all the deaths, the killings continue even after the body of the leopard is discovered. The cast of THE LEOPARD MAN features Dennis O'Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, James Bell, Margaret Landry, Abner Biberman, Tuulikki Paananen and Ben Bard.
THE GHOST SHIP (1943) is perhaps the "rarest" of the films in the collection by virtue of having been removed from distribution for decades, thanks to a lawsuit. Although the title implies the supernatural, THE GHOST SHIP is really a solid psychological horror movie. THE GHOST SHIP stars Richard Dix as Captain Will Stone of the freighter Altair and Russell Wade as his new 3rd Officer Tom Merriam. After a series of strange deaths on board the ship, combined with his captainís odd behavior, the new 3rd Officer comes to the realization that his captain is a psychopath, who calmly arranges for disloyal crewmembers to meet their unfortunate demise. The cast of THE GHOST SHIP also features Edith Barrett, Ben Bard and Edmund Glover.
THE SEVENTH VICTIM / SHADOWS IN THE DARK: THE VAL LEWTON LEGACY
There are those who regard THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943) as the most brilliant of the films produced by Val Lewton and there are those who regard it as the strangest. This reviewer falls somewhere in the middle, finding it strange, yet containing more than a few flashes of brilliance. THE SEVENTH VICTIM marked the directorial debut of Mark Robson and the screen debut actress Kim Hunter. In THE SEVENTH VICTIM, Kim Hunter portrays Mary Gibson, a young woman searching for the sister who has gone missing in Manhattan. Unraveling the mystery of her missing sister, Mary stumbles on a cult of Satan worshipers who have silenced six others that have broken their code of silence- has her sister become the seventh victim? The cast of THE SEVENTH VICTIM also features Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Evelyn Brent and Erford Gage.
SHADOWS IN THE DARK: THE VAL LEWTON LEGACY is the primary supplement contained in THE VAL LEWTON COLLECTION. While this nearly hour long program provides a good deal of biographical information on the producer, as well as looking at other aspects of his career, Lewtonís nine horror films at RKO remain its primary focus. Interviewees on SHADOWS IN THE DARK: THE VAL LEWTON LEGACY include Val Lewton, Jr., Sara Karloff, plus directors George Romero, Joe Dante, John Landis, William Friedkin, and Robert Wise.
Warner Home Video has made all nine films that comprise THE VAL LEWTON COLLECTION available on DVD in 4:3 full screen transfers that frame each film in their proper 1.37:1 aspect ratios. Overall, the black and white image quality of the films is quite nice, sometimes looking fantastic, sometimes merely very good- with each having its own strengths and weaknesses. Generally, sharpness and detail are very strong, with only individual shots coming off as soft or somewhat dupey. Most of the time, the blacks are inky and whites are crisp, plus the contrast and grayscale for each of the films veers between good and excellent. Various amounts of film grain appear throughout the nine movies, but it is never excessive. Signs of age and wear are present in each of the films, but it is never to the point where it becomes distracting. Digital compression artifacts are always nicely contained.
Each of the nine films that comprise THE VAL LEWTON COLLECTION comes with solid Dolby Digital monaural soundtracks. Most of the age related background hiss and other audible anomalies have been cleaned up in the mastering process, leaving each of the soundtracks with a very respectable sonic quality. Music can be a bit thin, but it is never harsh or distorted. Dialogue is crisply rendered and remains totally understandable in each of the nine features. No other language tracks are provided, but English, French and Spanish subtitles have been included on each.
Music underscores the basic interactive menus, which allow one access to the standard scene/episode selection and set up features, as well as a few nice extra features. As I mentioned above, SHADOWS IN THE DARK: THE VAL LEWTON LEGACY is the primary supplement for the set, while the others are included with the individual films. CAT PEOPLE and THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE both include a running audio commentary track with historian Greg Mank, along with excerpts of a telephone interview with actress Simone Simon; each film also includes a theatrical trailer. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE includes a running audio commentary track with film historians Kim Newman and Steve Jones, while THE BODY SNATCHER includes a running audio commentary track with director Robert Wise and film historian Steve Haberman; each film also includes a theatrical trailer. ISLE OF THE DEAD includes no extra features, but BEDLAM includes a running audio commentary track with film historian Tom Weaver. THE LEOPARD MAN includes a running audio commentary track with contemporary movie director William Friedkin, as well as a theatrical trailer; THE GHOST SHIP includes no extra features. THE SEVENTH VICTIM includes a running audio commentary track with film historian Steve Haberman, plus a theatrical trailer.
THE VAL LEWTON COLLECTION is one of the most significant DVD releases of 2005 for both movie buffs and horror fans. Warner has done their usual fine job, offering quality presentations and thoughtful extras. Absolutely recommended.
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