Producer Val Lewton established the gold standard for a particular kind of B movie—smart, literate, and economical. Like his equally cultivated contemporary Preston Sturges, Lewton flourished at a single studio, enjoyed a period of intense creativity during the early ’40s, and was essentially finished by the end of World War II. Lewton’s critical supporters included Sturges proponents James Agee and Manny Farber, and as with Sturges, his name remains a reproach to lesser, more prodigal filmmakers. Lewton recycled Simone Simon and the set from The Magnificent Ambersons for Cat People—a sleeper that nearly saved RKO—and, handed the title I Walked With a Zombie, he came back with a gloss on Jane Eyre as clever in its way as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Nominally horror films, Lewton productions were unusually subtle and based on suggestion. Cutting was his major special effect—he inherited two editors, Mark Robson and Robert Wise, who had worked with Orson Welles, and converted them into directors.
This well-produced Warner Bros. box includes Lewton’s nine prize productions—Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), Isle of the Dead (1945), The Body Snatcher (1945), and Bedlam (1946)—plus a new documentary portrait, Shadows in the Dark. None of these films is over 80 minutes; several of the best are under 70. All have their qualities—even the costume chillers cum Boris Karloff vehicles—but the first four are the essential Lewton. Three were directed by Jacques Tourneur and are characterized by his fluid camera and atmospheric lighting; The Seventh Victim, with which the more stolid Robson made his directorial debut, may be less visually striking but it’s still the greatest movie ever made on the subject of devil worship in Greenwich Village.