walked with a zombie
Posted on May 14, 2019

Val Lewton and Oz Perkins: The Downward Road is Crowded

Guest Post

What distinguishes the remarkable films of Val Lewton is not just the sorely needed life that they injected into the horror genre in the 1940’s. Nor is it that Lewton and his inner circle fashioned a unified aesthetic that, even in their lesser films, produced evocative imagery and memorably scary set pieces that still stand up today. Rather, it is Lewton’s resolute darkness of vision that sets his work apart from all others. Movies like Cat People (1942), Isle of the Dead (1945), and I Walked With a Zombie (1943) are shrouded in “an unshakeable apprehension of death’s hold on life”[i]  that moves to the foreground in almost every film. The feelings that linger are horror but also a palpable sadness.

Until recently I assumed that this quality could only be found in the Lewton catalogue. But the first two films from director Oz Perkins, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015) and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016), are assured outings that also possess an unflinchingly despondent outlook that perhaps goes Val one better. Could Oz Perkins be the second coming of Val Lewton? Let’s take a look.

Ruth Wilson in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Perkins and Lewton share notable similarities of style and approach. RKO limited Lewton to three-week shooting schedules and $150,000 budgets for every production. Perkins maintains that his first film, The Blackcoat’s Daughter was completed in 23 days. It also took him several years to secure the minimal financial backing needed for that project. The high quality work produced by both filmmakers is all the more impressive given their scarce resources.

Another thing these filmmakers share is absolute clarity of authorship. Producer Lewton famously exerted direct influence on virtually every aspect of his films. He created obsessively detailed pre-production notes and rewrote most of the scripts. Although he recruited a team of top-notch collaborators, including directors Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise, director/editor Mark Robson, and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, the final results are always decidedly Lewtonesque. Likewise, Perkins makes no bones about where the vision for his work comes from. As he comments on The Blackcoat’s Daughter,

“We didn’t make anything up in the editing room, and we didn’t improvise at all on the set. Everything you see onscreen was written, and I tend to write what everything looks like and smells like, so there isn’t much guessing that needs to be done by the time it gets to the editing room. It was all on the page.”[ii]

Now there is nothing I would like more than to magically share a glass of wine with Val and Oz while they discuss the virtues of Auteur Theory, but I think they would agree that what gives their artistic statements heft is that they exist in credible horror films.

Kiernan Shipka in The Blackcoat’s Daughter

In their horror films, the stylistic strategy that Perkins and Lewton each favor to draw in the audience is to establish such an unsettling atmosphere that the moviegoer’s imagination begins to fill in what Lewton called the “dark patches.” Perkins shows a solid grasp of old school techniques. In Blackcoat’s Daughter, he derives surprising mileage out of creaking doors and barely lit hallways. In the haunted house story Pretty Thing, he causes a feeling of unease in the viewer by simply holding onto a shot of an empty bedroom or entryway a quarter note too long. Lewton and Perkins movies are light on action, but they are brimming with moments that slowly build tension, so that the horror scenes achieve maximum impact when they do arrive.

You can watch The Seventh Victim here:

Based on this commonality, it is tempting to join Val and Oz at the hip. However, the truth is that the more I looked, I discovered several key differences that differentiate their work from each other.

After watching a screening of the Lewton film The Seventh Victim (1943), an RKO executive said that films shouldn’t have “so many messages.” Lewton retorted furiously, “Well, our film does have a message, and the message is, ‘Death is good!’”[iii]

The Seventh Victim (1943)

The best Lewton films are dark parables that are carefully constructed to communicate his views on the human condition. He starts by presenting an incredible problem. In Cat People, newlywed Irena is afraid to have sex with her husband because she believes that it will trigger her transformation into a panther. Jacqueline is a lapsed member of a satanic cult that has marked her for death in The Seventh Victim. A group of people are trapped on a small Greek island during a deadly outbreak of the plague in Isle of the Dead. And in I Walked with a Zombie, well, Jessica Holland is a zombie.

Jessica Holland in I Walked with a Zombie

These films offer the characters two possible paths to resolution. On one side is the known, rational world. Doctors, psychiatrists, and even a military general weigh in on how to take charge of each situation and “figure out” a solution. The other way is the realm of myth, legend, the unknown.

Lewton then proceeds to mix these elements together and rolls them out like dice from a cup to show us that both approaches are equally ineffectual. General Pherides in Isle of the Dead starts out as a man who only believes in what he can “feel, and see, and know about.” But as the body count climbs, he becomes susceptible to the peasant woman Kyra’s insistence that one of their group is a vorvolaka, a vampiric creature whom she thinks has brought the plague to the island. In I Walked with a Zombie, after all medical treatments have failed, live-in nurse Betsey takes Jessica to a voodoo ceremony in hopes of curing her affliction. And in the climax of Cat People it is the sexual advance of Irena’s “trusted” psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, that precipitates her change into a deadly panther.

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Lewton’s point is that you can believe in psychiatry or satanism, military order or voodoo. But none of it ultimately works. This is why the release of death for Lewton is good. It is the only way to get free from life’s hostile and often inscrutable forces. As we will see with Oz Perkins, his characters are not afforded even this cold comfort.

Perkins’ movies are hermetically sealed from hope. Kat, the young girl who is possessed by a demon in Blackcoat’s Daughter, and Lily, the live-in nurse being stalked by a ghost in I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House are both on their own and in way over their heads. Experiencing a Perkins film is like watching a small snake eat a large frog. It is utterly fascinating, even though you sense that the outcome will be inevitably awful.

Watch The Blackcoat’s Daughter here:

In the Lewton films, the character at risk often has someone in their corner. When Jacqueline goes into hiding from the Satanists in The Seventh Victim, her kid sister rushes to New York City to find her. Betsey goes to great lengths to try to cure Jessica in I Walked with a Zombie. There are no advocates allowed by Perkins, however, and Kat and Lily’s infrequent human interactions are strained and without warmth. Oz treats Kay and Lily more like carefully observed specimens than well-rounded characters. By contrast, Lewton elicits compassion for characters like Irena and Jacqueline because they are clearly stand-ins for himself. Their acts of violence occur off-screen, but the camera lingers on scenes showing their personal torment and vulnerability.

When I first watched The Blackcoat’s Daughter I was so taken aback by its ending that I had to view the film again to confirm that the movie was saying what I thought it was saying. I won’t get into spoilers, but the movie ends with a final shot of Kat in a state of abject sadness. Death offers no relief because it is Kat’s soul that is irretrievably lost. I think Perkins constructs the entire film so that it will arrive at this moment. Likewise, I am the Pretty thing that Lives in the House is one long buildup to the scene when Lily finally meets the ghost. Lily’s dissolve into terror is harrowing, but also oddly heart wrenching. Like Kat, it is her fate to learn that there are things far more troubling than death.

You can watch Lewton’s Cat People here:

While it is clear that bleakness abounds in the work of Val Lewton and Oz Perkins, each filmmaker delivers the darkness in his own unique voice. For Lewton, it is a natural extension of his personal philosophy. For Perkins, it has more to do with communicating a specific emotional statement to his audience. Despite their shared traits, Oz Perkins is not the new Val Lewton. But he is certainly the one and only Oz Perkins, and, based on the early returns, I am quite happy with that. The Lewton innovations in atmospheric, psychological horror are still an influence on films made over 75 years later. What will be the legacy of Oz Perkins? To that I say, stay tuned.

Watch Isle of the Dead here:

[i] The Glitter of Putrescence – Val Lewton at RKO / Max Goldberg / Harvard Film Archive / March 30th, 2014.

[ii] A Movie Can Be a Poem: Oz Perkins on “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” / Matt Fagerholm / Roger Ebert.com / March 20th, 2017

[iii] Val Lewton Sez Death is Good! / Eileen Jones / The Exiledonline.com / October 28th, 2012

Watch I Walked with a Zombie here:

Related: Read more about Oz Perkins’ I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House and The Blackcoat’s Daughter. And Liz writes about coded lesbianism in Tourneur and Lewton’s Cat People here.

About Rich Dishman – My fascination with horror began with a way inappropriately aged viewing of the Universal Frankenstein. It was an experience so terrifying yet so exhilarating that I have spent the rest of my movie going life trying to top it. I began writing movie reviews for Classic-Horror.com in 2010. Since its retirement in 2012, I have been a regular contributor at the multi-media British site, Contains Moderate Peril, and more recently for the horror website Ravenous Monster. I have a day job, but I am also a professional musician (well, drummer). I want to start a project to perform a repertoire consisting exclusively of soundtrack music from horror and sci-fi films. Is that weird? I live with my wonderful wife and two cats. They see and they know that I “wouldn’t even harm a fly”.

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