Born Vladimir Ivan Leventon in what is now the Ukraine, Lewton emigrated to the U.S. in 1909 at the age of five. He grew up a suburban kid, then went to Columbia University. He worked for a while as a reporter, but was fired when it was discovered that he had invented a story about a bunch of kosher chickens dying in a heat wave. After that, how could he not go to Hollywood?
Val Lewton began his film career in earnest as an assistant and story editor for David O Selznick, the legendary MGM studio head. In that capacity he worked on A Tale of Two Cities and Gone With the Wind, in which he is said to have penned the famous Atlanta Depot scene. His ambition was to create smart, literary films.
In 1942 he was named head of the horror unit for RKO Pictures, for which he was paid the princely sum of $250 a week. It was there that he produced the atmospheric horror films that I love so well, effectively translating his sophisticated aesthetic into the embracing genre of horror.
His first production, called Cat People (in my opinion one of the finest psychological thrillers ever made) was one of the top money makers for RKO that year. This allowed Lewton to operate with only a modicum of studio interference on his next several films. Basically he was allowed to make the movies he wanted as long as he used the sensational titles he was given. Cat People was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who also directed I Walked with a Zombie (a clever and haunting re-telling of Jane Eyre) and The Leopard Man for Lewton.
Lewton worked closely on the screenplays for all nine of his RKO films, but only took writing credit for two: The Body Snatchers and Bedlam. Even so, he didn't use his real name, choosing instead to be credited as "Carlos Kieth", the same pseudonym he had used for his oddly titled novel Where the Cobra Sings.
After Tourneur left RKO Lewton launched the careers of directors Robert Wise and Mark Robson, former editors both. But as the 4o's wound to a close so did the horror unit at RKO. Wise and Robson went on to direct many films, but Lewton found himself unemployed and sickly after a heart attack and problems with his gall bladder. He worked at other studios, but never again produced films of such ominous beauty and existential yearning as those made at RKO. He died in 1951 at the much-to-young age of only 46.
So if you are looking for something a little different this Halloween consider watching one of Val Lewton's masterful horror movies. Filmed in
glorious black and white, I promise they will leave you with more to think about than if you just went to see Saw VI again.