When looking at the history of the horror film the decade of the 1940s doesn’t generally have much to offer – the 1920’s saw the rise of the European horror, the 1930s of Universal and each subsequent decade has had its own distinctive movements and trends. But the 1940s offered pretty scant fare – Universal’s output had become increasingly erratic and eventually descended into a series of parodies beginning with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), while the best that Britain could muster was the (admittedly excellent) Dead of Night (1945).

There was, however, a saviour in the shape of Val Lewton who created an influential brand of horror that has few equals. Not only were the films he produced undeniably of the horror genre they were also literate and intelligent. From Cat People (1942) to Bedlam (1946) Lewton produced some of the most distinctive films of the period.

Born Vladimir Leventon his family emigrated to the US from Russia when he was five, changing their name to Lewton. His mother Nina managed to get Val a job in Hollywood as story editor and general writer for among others David O Selznick, with whom he collaborated, among thousands of others, on Gone with the Wind (1939). In 1942 he was approached by RKO Radio Pictures, then suffering a downturn in their fortunes, to produce a series of low-budget horror films with the initial intention of filling the lesser half of double bills. It was as close to a foolproof money-spinner as they could get as most cinematic output prior to mainstream adoption of television consisted of a programme of various items and two features. The second or B-Feature received a prescribed percentage of the takings so providing the initial budget was low enough, RKO couldn’t fail to make money.

Lewton was given complete control over the enterprise providing he agreed to two conditions; that the films needed to be restricted in length (the B-Feature was traditionally shorter than the main attraction) and the studio would choose the title based on market research. Because of this the films Lewton produced in this period all have provocative titles, often sensationalist posters and were marketed as simple thrill-pictures yet paradoxically remain amongst the most literate and poetic of the genre.

Traditionally theories of authorship have concentrated on the director as guiding force when considering a canon of work. What makes Val Lewton so interesting is not only do the films bear the hallmarks of the directors who made them but they also remain irrefutably his. Lewton’s role in these films is far greater than his producer status would suggest. He often provided the inspiration for the tales or located the source material, he was involved in all aspects of the scripting, occasionally taking co-screenwriting credits under the pseudonym Carlos Keith and he certainly imbued the films with their feel and tone, creating a distinctive house style.

More importantly Lewton realised the need for establishing a team of professional people he could trust in order to realise his projects on such tight budgets and schedules – his films were nothing if not collaborative efforts. The eleven films that Lewton produced for RKO’s low-budget division – nine of which could be loosely described as horror – were directed by only three men, the earlier films by Jacques Tourneur and the later ones by neophytes Mark Robson and Robert Wise.

Tourneur had made several short films and shot some second unit work in both the US and France but the job of directing Cat People (1942), the unit’s first film, was his major break, a subtle psychological drama about repressed sexuality and superstition. Touching on contemporary themes of the relationship between the US and the "exotic" European at a time when America was just entering World War 2, Cat People tells the story of Irena, a Serbian woman who believes she is descended from a village of satanic witches and, once aroused, will turn into a lethal cat-woman. This leads to her marriage being unconsummated, her husband’s sexual frustration leading him to start an affair with a colleague, Alice, while Irena seeks psychiatric help. The complex play between the characters provides a rich emotional depth to this lycanthropy-based drama but Tourneur really enhances the scares in a series of perfectly staged set-pieces that are as tense today as when they were first shown. Most famous of these (and still the blueprint for misdirection scares in horror films) occurs when Alice fears she is being pursued by an unseen creature – darting through the park in a desperate attempt to reach safety. Filmed entirely on RKO’s sound stage the scene ends with Alice reaching the shelter of a passing bus, but not before the sound of the vehicle’s brakes has caused the audience to jump out of their seats in anticipation of a far less pleasant outcome.

Critically and financially successful Cat People was followed by the evocative I Walked with a Zombie (1943), a beautifully shot elegiac piece based in part on Jane Eyre. This was Lewton’s trump card, instead of relying on penny dreadful horrors or fairy-tale thrillers he turned to literary and artistic precedents for his screenplays, the works of Bronte and Stevenson, of psychoanalytic theory, even the poetry of Milton and Shakespeare. The yearning meanderings in I Walked with a Zombie invoke an ethereal yet harsh romantic world far detached from the standard B-Movie potboiler. So impressed were RKO with Tourneur’s work that they promised him A-list status should he complete a third film for Lewton’s unit.

The Leopard Man(1943) was again full of the hints of exotic ritual, superstition and folk tale undercurrents, recalling the lycanthropy of Cat People but with less ambiguity. After leaving the RKO horror unit Tourneur made a substantial number of film noir and westerns, including the wonderful Build My Gallows High (1947), returning to horror for Night Of The Demon (1957), an intelligent working of M.R. James’ Casting The Runes with glowing black and white cinematography and a memorable (if controversial – the decision to include the monster was taken from Tourneur’s hands) demon.

With his main director moving up the Hollywood ladder Lewton had a vacancy to fill. Both Mark Robson and Robert Wise had worked as editors, collaborating on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Robson had also served as an editor on Cat People but Lewton saw potential in him as a director and was determined to put him behind the camera. RKO were not happy at this decision as there were accepted ways of progressing through the system but Lewton stuck to his guns and even turned down a promotion opportunity to give Robson the chance to direct. He did not disappoint; The Seventh Victim (1943) features sumptuously shot garden sets as an evocative backdrop for mysterious happenings. When her sister goes missing Mary decides to uncover the truth but instead finds herself embroiled in a deadly satanic cult. Robson followed this atmospheric thriller with the claustrophobic Ghost Ship (1943) where suspicions that a psychopath is at large aboard the Altair lead to tensions among the crew even as the dead are increasing in number.

Youth Runs Wild (1944) was a departure for the unit, an early example of the JD (juvenile delinquent) film that would become more prevalent in the 1950s, but with Isle of the Dead (1945) Robson returned to the horror genre with a vengeance. Set on an island cut off from a land decimated by war and plague the few residents are in fear of their lives. From the opening mist-clad shots of cartloads of corpses being unceremoniously dumped into mass graves the putrefied air never clears. Amidst this backdrop of despair Isle of the Dead features a character who suffers from acute narcolepsy, at one point found apparently dead. The camera lingers on her coffin as water drips slowly, rhythmically on its lid like a litany. From the wooden box a piercing scream cuts through the dank night as she awakens to realise her (apparently) horrible fate. It is one of the cinema’s most horrific moments despite there being nothing to see but an empty box.

Robson’s final film for the unit was Bedlam (1946), a dense, humourless, but remarkable offering with almost inconceivably highbrow dialogue (scripted by Lewton and Robson) based upon William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress series of paintings. Set in the notorious asylum St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, Bedlam is a sobering examination of the treatment of psychiatric patients under the watch of the sadistic warden Sims (played with piercingly heartless intensity by Boris Karloff), who makes his money showing off the inmates to the paying aristocracy. A catalogue of physical and sexual abuse, exploitation and cruelty Robson shoots his film in a flat, detached tableaux style that emphasises its painterly origins and helps keep the material from becoming sentimentalised. Full of striking imagery (the stuttering of a boy suffocating because he is covered in gold paint, the tattered dress being used to tend the wounds of a man in irons, pleading arms bursting from the darkness of cells to grope in the light) Bedlam is a harsh and striking, if disinterested, addition to the genre. Robson went on to be a versatile director in higher budgeted films like Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and Earthquake (1974) but he is at his best when understating his intentions.

Robert Wise’s debut (co-directed with Gunther V Fritsch) was the sequel to Lewton’s original hit, The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Following on from the original film paranoid ex-husband of Irena, Oliver, has remarried but is concerned that his insular daughter Amy is subject to the same shape-shifting curse. Following an adaptation of a selection of Guy de Maupassant short stories, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), which explored class perception in France, Lewton and Wise returned to horror with The Body Snatcher (1945), an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story. Based in part on the case of Burke and Hare The Body Snatcher concerns the procurement of cadavers for medical research in 19th century Edinburgh. Dr MacFarlane enlists the services of brutal cab driver Gray to obtain bodies for his medical classes. But the doctor’s increased remuneration for fresh corpses leads Gray to take a proactive stance with his job and he soon begins to murder for money. Featuring Karloff and Lugosi in their final on-screen pairing The Body Snatcher proved to be a sizable hit but it also suffered the wrath of the BBFC’s shears who removed all mention of Burke and Hare from the film as well as reducing some of the scenes of violence. Again the literate screenplay helped temper the more sensationalist aspects of the film and Wise’s direction contrasts scenes of simple, implied, elegant violence (when a street singer is killed we watch Gray’s coach move slowly forward as her voice abruptly stops mid-verse) with graphic depictions of Gray’s protracted "snuffing" technique. The fog shrouded exteriors manage to make atmosphere out of the film’s limited budget. Wise went on to make an extraordinary range of prestigious films in a wide variety of genres including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1954), West Side Story (1961) and The Sound Of Music (1965), returning to horror 1963 with The Haunting, still the finest haunted house film ever committed to celluloid.

The success of Val Lewton’s string of low-budget features (on re-issue many of them topped the bill rather than sat at the bottom) led to his promotion and A-list status. This meant a higher salary and far greater budgets to command coupled with no running-time constraints. However, increased responsibility came with more studio interference and Lewton found himself having to deal with the hard earning side of the industry; on a B-unit he was left alone as he couldn’t lose money, but on the A-unit he could potentially cripple the studios if he made the wrong decisions. Much of the eloquence that had run through his earlier films were excised in favour of "proven" box-office friendly simplicity. My Own True Love (1949) may well have been based upon Jolan Foldes popular book but lacked the literacy of Lewton’s own screenplays. Similarly Please Believe Me (1950) was an even, watchable but uninvolving romantic comedy staring Deborah Kerr juggling the attentions of three suitors on a boat-trip to gain her inheritance in the US.

Departing to Universal Lewton’s final film was a modestly budgeted western – Apache Drums (1951) – a routine story of a town under siege. With his health deteriorating Lewton suffered an untimely death in 1951 following a heart attack. His influence on the psychological thriller genre such as Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1945) and Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) is immense, as is the debt owed by subtle horrors such as The Sixth Sense (1999) to his ethos of atmosphere and scripting over convention and viscera. His expressive use of language and literary screenplays mark him as one of the more unusual figures of the horror genre but one whose work has made it far richer and more stimulating.

The text above is an extract of Kamera Book’s latest title, Horror Films by Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell, which has just been released. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.