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Warner Home Video presents
The Val Lewton Collection (1942-1946)

"He's coming! He's coming closer! I can see him!"
- Teresa Delgado (Margaret Landry) in The Leopard Man

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: October 19, 2005

Stars: Dennis O'Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Richard Dix, Russell Wade, Tom Conway, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter
Other Stars: James Bell, Margaret Landry, Abner Biberman, Ben Bard, Edmund Glover, Skelton Knaggs, Evelyn Brant, Erford Gage, Hugh Beaumont, Elizabeth Russell
Director: Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some violence, suicide, thematic material)
Run Time: 10h:44m:59s
Release Date: October 04, 2005
UPC: 053939727029
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

The auteur theory that gives most of the credit to the director generally works pretty well. But there are always exceptions, such as producer David O. Selznick, who was notorious for controlling every aspect of his films, even when he had strong-willed directors such as Alfred Hitchcock. Another such exception was producer Val Lewton, a Russian immigrant who was best known for an atmospheric (but inexpensive) series of horror films he produced for RKO Radio Pictures in the early and mid-1940s. Warner Home Video has finally collected these masterpieces of mood in a reasonably-priced box set, and several of the most readily marketable have also been released as separate volumes. Those separately-available volumes are reviewed under their own listings:

Cat People / The Curse of the Cat People
I Walked with a Zombie / The Body Snatcher
Isle of the Dead / Bedlam

The fourth disc in the set collects The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship (both 1943). The Leopard Man is short, even for a Lewton picture, but contains some of the most effective horror sequences of any picture. In a cantina in New Mexico, castanet dancer Clo-Clo (Margo) and (singer? dancer? the movie is never quite clear) Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks) are rivals for top billing. Kiki's agent/boyfriend Jerry Manning (Dennis O'Keefe) hits on the idea of Kiki bringing a leashed black panther in during the middle of Clo-Clo's act in order to disrupt it. But Clo-Clo frightens the leopard with her castanets and it escapes. Soon there's a killing spree, apparently the fault of the leopard, but Jerry begins to suspect that someone may be committing the murders and pinning them on the big cat. Or is there a supernatural element present?

The classic sequence in this film is the pursuit of Teresa Delgado (Margaret Landry) through deserted streets on her way home. The leopard is seen clearly only once during this extended segment, but it's chillingly effective, almost entirely done through suggestioin and implication. But even though nothing is shown onscreen, few horror films can compare with the nerve-wracking segment where Teresa pounds on the door as her mother ineffectually tries to get the lock open (a point underlined in pathos since the mother had angrily sent Teresa out in the night to buy cornmeal and had firmly locked the door behind her).

The structure of The Leopard Man is interesting; it tends to be episodic, following the main cast for a while, then picking up a previously unseen person who will become the next victim and we get to know her before she is ripped to shreds, before coming back to the main cast as they attempt to unravel the mystery. The film has a heavy emphasis on fate: Clo-Clo's gypsy fortune teller friend Maria (Isabell Jewell) tries to read her fortune in the cards but keeps getting the death card, the ace of spades, every time. In juxtaposition with this determinative viewpoint, there's a sensation of shared guilt amongst the people of the town. To defend against their own guilt, they keep pushing off blame from themselves and others; "It's not your fault," is a consistent refrain, even when it's completely insincere. Perhaps otherwise their situation would be too much to bear.

One of the most difficult of the Lewton films to see has been The Ghost Ship, due to suppression for decades for legal issues. Its lack of a reputation should not be taken for a lack of merit. This shipboard thriller isn't exactly a horror film but the suspense is masterfully realized. Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is the new third officer on the freighter Altair, and he quickly becomes friends with the telegraph operator Sparks Winslow (Edmund Glover). At first Tom is willing to learn at the knee of captain Will Stone (Richard Dix), who has some odd theories about the responsibilities and benefits of authority, including a life and death power over the crew. When one sailor brings complaints to the Captain and is mysteriously crushed to death by the anchor chain shortly thereafter, Tom begins to suspect the captain is a homicidal maniac. Bringing charges against the captain, Merriam is distressed to learn that no one in the crew will support him. Unfortunately for Merriam, he awakens aboard the ship on its return trip, and Tom becomes convinced that the captain means to do him in as well.

This is a nightmarish masterpiece, borrowing elements from The Lady Vanishes, such as the crew that pretends that nothing at all has happened. Even though we see things from Tom's point of view, we begin to wonder whether Tom might be an unreliable narrator and whether we should actually believe what we've ourselves seen on the screen. It also makes good use of the terrifying possibilities of absolute power, with the appropriate corrupting results. The drama is helped by the intensity of Dix, who is a convincing authority figure descending into fascistic madness. But one of the highlights of the film is the depiction of a mute sailor by bit player Skelton Knaggs; although he's saddled with an occasionally regrettable voiceover, he's highly memorable, using physicality like a veteran of silents. His twisted and gaunt persona, seemingly always sharpening knives, makes a huge impression. The atmosphere is endlessly creepy, with shadows and fog everywhere until land is reached; the fog is symbolic of the confusion that plagues Merriam while aboard the ship. He is unable to sort through the details until he decides to just trust his instincts, though he has no support from the rest of the crew, and causing him to doubt his own sanity as well as the captain's.

The fifth disc contains Mark Robson's first of four directorial features for Lewton, The 7th Victim (1943). A noir mystery, it centers on young boarding school student Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter in her first film role) who leaves for Manhattan to find out what happened to her sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). After giving her employee Mrs. Redi (Mary Newton) her cosmetics business, Jacqueline seems to have vanished, leaving only sinister clues such as a noose hanging in a rented room. But friendly Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont, Ward Cleaver himself) and poet Jason Hoag (Erford Gage) provide assistance to Mary, but seem to be holding information back. Before long, it becomes clear that Jacqueline has gotten involved with the Palladists, a sinister secret society loosely based on the Rosicrucians, who consider her to have betrayed them by confiding in her psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway, who had also served as Simone Simon's psychiatrist in Cat People). There's plenty of mayhem and murder lurking in the shadows.

This film, with its obsession with death, makes for a good closing picture to the set, as a sort of valedictory. Among the notable sequences it contains are a threatening shower scene, as a dark and misshapen silhouette hints that the vulnerable Mary would be best served by returned to her schoolbooks. Another influence can be felt in Rosemary's Baby, in its depiction of seemingly respectable people and businessmen and women secretly worshipping devils. Jacqueline almost feels like Rebecca for much of the film, talked about and beloved by everyone but remaining unseen. The motif of the locked room reappears over and over, symbolizing both secrets and repression (commentator Steve Haberman points out a lesbian subtext), but the locks also represent one of the frustrating elements of the film: after Jacqueline has actually been located and recovered, she's left alone by Mary in an unlocked building even though she's well aware that she's in danger. It's one of the few truly false notes in a Lewton film where the people behave a certain way because the script requires them to. Nonetheless, it's still an effective little thriller with a devastating finale involving a minor character, Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), just seen briefly enough onscreen to set up her situation.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame transfers generally look acceptable. There's heavy speckling on The 7th Victim in spots, and all films contain issues regarding nicks, spots, minor dirt and the like. The transfers are somewhat soft, but the greyscales on the whole are quite attractive, especially on The Ghost Ship with its velvety fog.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 1.0 mono tracks are adequate for B-movies of this period; there's modest hiss and crackle and a certain amount of tinniness to the Roy Webb scores, which is unsurprising. The chirruping castanets in The Leopard Man come across with vibrancy.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 64 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) director William Friedkin 2) film historian Steve Haberman
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
5 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: In addition to the extras on the individually-reviewed discs, the set includes full commentaries on The Leopard Man and The 7th Victim. Director William Friedkin provides a heart-felt appreciation for the former, though he does have an unfortunate tendency to lapse into narration at times. The commentary by Steve Haberman for The 7th Victim is quite thorough and one of the best on the set, utilizing Kim Hunter's memoirs, shooting scripts and other materials to assemble a solid background for the film as well as providing insightful analysis of the film's technique. These two films also carry trailers, but there are no extras for The Ghost Ship.

The other main attraction on the full set is a solid 53m20s documentary on Lewton and his career, including his pulp fiction background and time working with Selznick, who was apparently a role model. There are ample film clips and appreciations from the commentators as well as such notables as John Landis, George Romero and Richard Matheson. There's a thorough-going analysis of the Lewton style, though much of it will be familiar to those who've listened to all the commentaries. But if you're not up for commentaries this documentary is certainly the next best thing.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

If you had been considering just buying select titles from the Val Lewton Collection, you should reconsider. The full set contains three additional films ranging from very good to magnificent, as well as a valuable documentary. Highly recommended.


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