These days, Martin Scorsese seems almost as valuable as a fan of films as he is as a director of films. Scorsese never tires of hailing the great filmmakers who've gone before him. A while back, for example, he revisited the great directors of his family homeland in "My Voyage to Italy."
The DVDs of "The Departed" included a tribute to Scorsese's gangster pic roots. He just penned the booklet notes for the Beatles' "Help!" The man just loves film.
The director's latest docu tribute is "Martin Scorsese Presents Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows." The "Raging Bull" director produced and narrates this look at Lewton, the great B-movie producer of the 1940s best known for "Cat People." No Scorsese fan could miss Lewton's influence on the famous modern director.
Warner Home Video is updating its outstanding "The Val Lewton Horror Collection" with a new Lewton box set that's identical except for inclusion of Scorsese's docu. (Amazon's price on the new set is a bit cheaper.)
Lewton admirers who own the previous (terrific) box set should buy "Man in the Shadows" separately. Or record TCM's broadcast of the docu Jan. 14, the day before it's released on DVD.
The docu premiered at the AFI film festival last week and was reviewed by the Hollywood Reporter, which found: "The film argues, with psychoanalytic fervor, that the dark, haunted spirit of most of the Lewton films grew out of the producer's own melancholy temperament. In this sense he was more the auteur of these films than their credited writers or directors." On the down side, "The weakness of the film is its overly verbose narration, which is read by Scorsese himself."
The "Lewton Collection," regardless of which version you buy, contains nine B-movie wonders he produced for RKO in the 1940s. Lewton's best-known works -- the stylish and sexy "Cat People" and the voodoo excursion "I Walked With a Zombie" -- staked out the psychological horror genre. Both were done with director Jacques Tourneur, who gave Lewton's works a sophisticated noirish look. The men "were like Lennon and McCartney," horror director Guillermo del Toro says in the extras.
This DVD set, which includes a trio of Boris Karloff thrillers, has the same titles as Image's 1995 laserdisc box. All but two of the films have commentaries by Lewton enthusiasts, which are uniformly good. The carried-over docu, "Shadows in the Dark," tracks the producer from his youth in Russia to his stint with David O. Selznick to his successful run at RKO. Del Toro, George A. Romero and Neil Gaiman are among the horror elite who pay tribute to Lewton.
RKO stole Lewton from Selznick, hungry for monster movies that could duplicate Universal's success. But, film historian Steve Haberman says, Lewton "was thinking about what in reality frightens people: the dark, the unknown, madness, death."
"Cat People" (1942) startled audiences with its brazen marriage of sex and suspense. "Twilight Zone" director John Landis says he's still amazed at "how sexually sophisticated it is." "Cat People" tells of a dark-haired beauty whose belief in "mad legends" makes her refuse to sleep with her new husband, fearing she will morph into a predator cat. Marketed as "stark shockery and killing chillery," the film gave Lewton a hit the first time out.
RKO ordered Lewton to use prefab titles, including the goofy "I Walked With a Zombie" (1943). Like "Cat People," "Zombie" made good use of RKO sets left over from the Orson Welles era, showcasing them in silky black and white. Borrowing from "Jane Eyre" and "Rebecca," Lewton and Tourneur delivered another 70-minute marvel, about a nurse who comes to the Caribbean to care for a woman who appears possessed by voodoo priests. Fast-talking British commentators Kim Newman and Steve Jones are spot on ("The dominant element of this film is Venetian blinds," one observes, deadpan).
Other gems include "The Seventh Victim" (directed by Mark Robson), "The Leopard Man" (Tourneur) and the night-and-fog Karloff starrer "The Body Snatcher" (Robert Wise).
All of these films show their age. They're damaged in varying degrees. Just like the lost souls in Lewton's pictures.
Preorder the new Val Lewton Collection.