In his 1998 essay “American Movie Classic,” critic Kent Jones makes a persuasive case for John Carpenter as “the last genre filmmaker in America” and “author of one of the most consistent and coherent bodies of work in modern cinema.” Upending the consensus view that Carpenter fell off after the early successes Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, Jones mounts a multifaceted appreciation for unsung gems like Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, noting the consistency, humility, and “reclusive air” of these movies (“as though they were the work of a man who lived by the heraldic codes or the teachings of Epicurus”); specifying their moral concern (“the many forms evil can take, the infinite ways in which it can announce itself, the ease with which it can blend into the rhythms and atmospheres of everyday life”); and, most brilliantly, deliniating their formal and stylistic achievement. Carpenter is “the widescreen master of contemporary cinema,” Jones boldly proclaims, then shrewdly proceeds to demonstrate— locating an uncommon visual intelligence and sense of the uncanny even in a “thematically maddening” film like Starman, beneath whose surface gloss of “new-aged hokum” churns “a strange coordination between people and inanimate objects.”
First published in Film Comment
magazine, where Jones now serves as
editor-at-large (and for whom—full
disclosure—I’m a contributing editor), and recently collected in Physical Evidence, a volume of his selected criticism, “American Movie Classic” prepared the ground for another appreciation of a B-movie master, the legendary producer Val Lewton. Written and directed by Jones, narrated by Martin Scorsese, and currently available on DVD as an individual disc or packaged in a boxed set of Lewton-produced horror films, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows celebrates much of the same strange, subtle, modest movie magic to be found in the low-budget thrillers of Carpenter.
Jones makes a deft sketch of Lewton 101: his Russian roots and immigration to America, which would later mark his films with a touch of old-world mystique and an affinity for outsiders; his apprenticeship under David O. Selznick and rise to the head of the B-horror unit at RKO; the cultivation of a devoted crew of filmmakers and the meticulous care he took with every aspect of production, from writing and lighting to mood and symbol, stamping his personality on every project and achieving the status of auteur.
Produced by Turner Classic Movies, The Man in the Shadows assumes the usual film clips + talking heads format. But some heads are better than others, and the talk here is uncommonly good. As it happens, Jones invited Carpenter to add his voice to the mix, and he agreed—with the caveat that he didn’t like Lewton’s movies, because “you should always show the monster.” So Jones turned to another director with a Lewton-esque knack for elision, insinuation, and suggestion. J-horror cerebralist Kyoshi Kurosawa testifies to Lewton’s poetry, forged from tight budgets and breakneck production schedules by an imagination inclined to the precise, evocative gesture over the grand effect: the sinuous terrors of Cat People, with its trance-like step along the threshold of unknowable fears, and the unnerving, hallucinatory atmosphere of I Walked With a Zombie.
Shadows works through its subject with a multiplicity of voices (the B-movie expertise of Roger Corman, the acumen of critic Geoffrey O’Brien, the psycho-analytic perspective of Dr. Glen Gabbard), directing attention to marginal energies and subterranean influences (the vitality of bit players, the unspoken impact of World War II). As in his Carpenter campaign, Jones is building on the model of his critical mentor, Manny Farber, champion of the rough pleasures and overlooked refinements in Hollywood B-pictures. When Jones comes to the defense of Carpenter, aligning his achievement with Lewton’s, he harmonizes two traditions: a small-scale cinema of discreet, unsettling pleasures—as practiced in different eras by similarly gifted craftsmen—and a critical approach, focused and alert, that recognizes such modest excellence.