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Those who love a good scare don’t need the excuse of Halloween to watch movies widely associated with the holiday—whether it’s silents like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or more recent films like “The Exorcist”...

Master of Dark Arts

Those who love a good scare don’t need the excuse of Halloween to watch movies widely associated with the holiday—whether it’s silents like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or more recent films like “The Exorcist”...

Master of Dark Arts

Those who love a good scare don’t need the excuse of Halloween to watch movies widely associated with the holiday—whether it’s silents like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or more recent films like “The Exorcist” and “The Others.” Yet the day’s allure proves hard to ignore, so it’s no surprise to find the producer Val Lewton spooking our thoughts as the air gets crisp and the leaves turn brown.

Lewton was a Russian-born, naturalized American who found himself attracted to Hollywood and became a close associate of David O. Selznick before attaining producer status himself. His big break arrived when RKO, a welterweight studio bruised by its short but historic association with Orson Welles, hired Lewton to head a B-picture horror unit meant to challenge Universal’s dominance in the genre.

The first result of this collaboration, which afforded the meticulous Lewton wide oversight powers but small budgets, was “Cat People” (1942), recently released in a stunning new transfer on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection. The black-and-white picture, directed by Jacques Tourneur, who was known almost exclusively for short subjects until then, remains Lewton’s most famous effort thanks to its uncanny visual style, expressive subtlety and superbly judged moments of tension. It’s also a cinematic object lesson in demonstrating that less is more.

With a running time of only 73 minutes, Tourneur and Lewton had to tell the story briskly. Using DeWitt Bodeen’s lean screenplay, they limned the tale of a mysterious Serbian émigré, Irena (the kitten-faced Simone Simon in an iconic role), whose doomed love for Oliver, a tweedy engineer ( Kent Smith, a poor man’s Dana Andrews), prompts her undoing via an atavistic curse that causes her to take the form of a black panther. Two other characters also figure prominently: the assertive Alice ( Jane Randolph), Oliver’s workplace confidante, who not-so-secretly loves him, and her friend Dr. Judd ( Tom Conway), a suave psychiatrist of malleable professional ethics.

For a horror film, the story is surprisingly taut—all such movies naturally strain credulity—and various narrative threads (women in the workplace, psychotherapy, unconsummated marriage, the impact of immigrants) elevate the material well above the era’s typical fare. But the wonder here is the mise-en- scène, the unique sense of mood that Lewton supervised and Tourneur executed, accomplished by suggestion rather than depiction, and impossible without Nicholas Musuraca’s high-contrast cinematography, Mark Robson’s sharp edits and Roy Webb’s lush score. Virtually every frame of “Cat People” holds our attention, but three scenes—Irena’s stalking of Alice in Central Park and then again at an indoor pool, and Alice and Oliver’s narrow escape from their office—are models of suspense cinema, no less thrilling, and chilling, now than when the film was first released.

Lewton and Tourneur went on to make two more features in this vein before RKO split them up, elevating the director to A pictures. Their second effort, “The Leopard Man” (1943), has just been re-released by Warner Archive as a manufactured-on-demand disc, part of a double-feature that includes “The Ghost Ship” (1943), directed by Robson, the editor of “Cat People” and a Lewton protégé. As with “Cat People,” the horror is mostly implied, the suspense conveyed through atmosphere and editing.

In “The Leopard Man,” a small town in New Mexico is terrorized by an escaped black panther (a not-so-subtle nod toward “Cat People”)—or is a man murdering those unlucky young women? “The Ghost Ship” is a parable, warning against blind acceptance of authority (fascism in particular, given the film’s vintage), with Richard Dix, a silent-era leading man, coolly superb as the murderous, aptly named Capt. Stone.

Warner Archive has also just re-released on a single disc two of the three films Lewton made starring Boris Karloff. Under Lewton, the actor shed his familiar monster mantle for more nuanced parts. In “Isle of the Dead” (1945), he plays a Greek general who descends from rationality to superstition to madness during an outbreak of the plague. In the period picture “Bedlam” (1946), Lewton’s ninth and final horror film, Karloff portrays Sims, the sadistic master of London’s most famous madhouse.

Lewton left RKO in 1946, his fortunes falling as the war years receded and the affections of moviegoers shifted from horror to science fiction. He then endured short stints at various studios—Paramount, MGM, Universal, Columbia. Long overworked, he died after his third heart attack, in 1951, at the age of 46. Numerous interesting projects were left unproduced. But the films Lewton did make continue to impress, and never more so than at this time of year.

Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on film and classical music.

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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