Relocating Lewton: Cultural Distinctions, Critical Reception, and the Val Lewton Horror Films

By Jancovich, Mark | Journal of Film and Video, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Relocating Lewton: Cultural Distinctions, Critical Reception, and the Val Lewton Horror Films


Jancovich, Mark, Journal of Film and Video


according to john brosnan, the "films of Val Lewton have a unique place in the history of the horror film" (73). Like many critics, he argues that they were "subtle in their style and presentation" when compared to other horror films, so not only "the public but also the critics responded to Lewton's new style of horror film, and he received a great deal of praise, one of his most vocal supporters being James Agee" (73). Although Brosnan may be right about Lewton's "unique place in the history of the horror film," the precise character of this uniqueness needs clarifying. For Brosnan and others, Lewton's films stand apart both from the period in which they were made and from the dominant trends within the development of the horror film. However, as this article demonstrates, these films were fundamentally shaped in response to the various trends in 1940s horror, and it is rather historical studies of horror that have dislocated them from that history and that have presented these films as "a singular body" of work that exists in privileged isolation (Telotte, Dreams 119).

Repeating the critical consensus, Punter has claimed that the 1940s constituted a "period of comparative infertility" that was "relieved only by the undoubted but minor-key successes of the Lewton/Tourneur production team" (347). In this way, he reproduces a portrait of the 1940s as a decade that witnessed a decline in the quality of horror production, as the Universal films degenerated into repetitive and formulaic series formats.1 In this context, Clarens argues, "the movies of Val Lewton stand out as chamber music against the seedy bombast of the claw-and-fang epics of the day" (111). As a result, the Lewton productions are claimed to be not only the "best remembered films" of the period (Tudor 38), but also the most "distinctive" (Tudor 31).

In this way, critics set these films apart from their period and even from the dominant trends of horror history, with Wood claiming that they "are in some ways outside the mainstream development of the horror film" and "seem to have had little direct influence on its evolution," outside of isolated examples such as The Uninvited (1944) and The Haunting (1963) (Wood, Hollywood 85). Gifford even claims that the Lewton films ended up "a long way from horror," although this is not meant as a criticism, and Curse of the Cat People (1944) is identified as a "brilliant piece of supernatural cinema" (161).

The distinction of Lewton's films is further emphasized by their supposed prescience: if, as Wood maintained, they "seem to have had little direct influence on" the "evolution" of the horror film, this was supposedly due to the ways in which they "strikingly anticipate, by at least two decades, some of the features of the modern horror film" (Wood, Hollywood 85). Similarly, Gifford has referred to Cat People (1942) as "a minor masterpiece that changed the face of horror films" (161), and Frank has claimed that the Lewton productions were "the tion was far less stable in the 1940s, and the New York Times was particularly critical of these films. Many studies suggest that the lurid titles were what led 1940s critics to dismiss these films, but the New York Times was actually rather fond of lowbrow horror (Jancovich, "Two Ways"). As this article demonstrates, therefore, the New York Times and other publications did not object to the lowbrow elements of these films but rather criticized these films as "pretentious" horror films that were awkwardly positioned between the lowbrow horror films exemplified by the Universal productions and a prestige horror cycle that was exemplified by films produced or packaged by David O. Selznick- films such as Rebecca (1940), Jane Eyre (1943), and The Spiral Staircase (1945) (Jancovich, "Bluebeard's Wives").

This is not to claim that the reviewers of the 1940s were "right" in their assessment of the films or to present them as "failed criticism" that needed correction by later critics. …

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