So, Halloween is just around the corner again! In honor of this most enjoyable of holidays I offer an appreciation of one of my favorite horror film makers, Val Lewton.
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.
Camila is our first dog. What kind? No one can quite figure it out. Maybe some Rottweiler, some Doberman, some lab? All we know for sure is that she is the kind that has lots of energy, likes cheese, and is most comfortable sleeping on the bed or the couch.
How did we ever find such a special dog? Well, therein lies the story!
Camila started out life in Mexico. But she didn't start out eating cheese and sleeping on couches. In fact, when she was found she was starving!
Some friends of ours were on a geology expedition, bumping along a lonely dirt road in a truck, when they spotted a man on horse back ahead of them. As they got closer they could see that he was dragging something. Closer still, and they could see that the "something" was a little puppy attached by her neck to a rope.
The poor pup was barely able to keep out from under the horse's hooves! They stopped the truck to talk to the man, telling him that he was killing his dog. He laughed at them! So they did something amazing. They cut the rope, grabbed the pup, and sped away. Was this a foolish thing to do? Undoubtably. But it is also one of the bravest things I've ever heard of!
Of course, then they were in the middle of Mexico doing field work with a tiny puppy along for the ride. So the pup got to do quite a bit of camping while they emailed friends asking for help. One friend researched the laws about bringing pets into the States. Another got the proper forms translated into spanish. And all the while the puppy grew stronger.
She visited veterinarians in small towns and got the proper vaccinations (apparently getting the one for rabies was a bit of a trial!). A leather smith made her a little collar, and the young daughter of a helpful vet named her Camila.
We airmailed her a crate, muzzle, and leash, all of which was supposedly necessary for her arrival into the US. Plans were laid: first a long train ride through Mexico, then a few nights in a hotel, then a shorter plane ride to LAX and her new home. The train ride was difficult; apparently animals aren't encouraged to ride on Mexican trains. They were almost put off in the middle of nowhere!
Finally the big day arrived. Would the forms hold up to scrutiny? What if someone had filled something in wrong? And how long would they really make her stay in quarantine? Officially it was to be a month, but by this point we had decided to adopt her (our friends were living in student housing, so no puppy for them) and we were anxious to meet her!
Well, to our joy but perhaps border security's chagrin, no one checked anything! They let her right through without even looking in the crate to see if there really was a puppy in there and not a giant monitor lizard or 20 rare parrots.
Now she's a SoCal girl, with all the rights and privileges that entails. She goes to doggie daycare and has gotten past her fear of horses. She had a long journey getting home, but hopefully she thinks it's worth it!
Well, ok. Perhaps "aftermath" is a bit strong. All in all it was a very pleasant show. We almost sold out of our graphic novel Heathentown, Gabriel stayed very busy doing sketches, and we got to sleep in our own bed every night. Not only that, but we got to reconnect with folks we hadn't seen since the San Diego Con, including Drew Rausch and Jocelyn Gajeway (the creators of the fabulous Sullen Grey) and David Gallaher, the charismatic writer behind High Moon, the popular Zuda strip.
The downside? That's easy. For some unknowable reason, there was a wrestling ring set up one aisle over from us. That sort of proximity to sweaty out-of-shape bad actors is not conducive to promoting an atmospheric horror story. The upside? We met lots of nice people and got to hang around with talented creators all weekend, and even made some money. The weird side? Lets just say that Angelenos really know what they want sketches of. And those sketches include lots of dinosaurs and "boisterous Scottish mermaids". Um, ok.
All in all we were glad to have been part of the first annual Long Beach Comic Con. There was even a nice bonus on the last day for me: Gabriel finally drew a sketch for me! And I am happy to report that my request was for something totally normal.
What do cats know anyway? They don't even read comics. Oh, sure, sometimes they'll try to sit on one while I'm reading it, but does that give them any room to criticize? I don't think so. And that minor detail about comics paying for most of their fancy prescription cat food? They seem to feel that they are entitled to that.
Even so, I expected a modicum of enthusiasm when I told them that Gabriel and I would be holding down a booth in Artists Alley at the Long Beach Comic Con this weekend. And what do I get? Bored stares and looks of annoyance.
So I've decided not to even invite the cats. But I am inviting all of you out there in blog-reading land. If you happen to be in Long Beach this weekend, October 2, 3, and 4th, please check out the Long Beach Comic Con. And if you do, be sure to stop by booth 74A.
We'll have copies of our original graphic novel Heathentown available for purchase and will be happy to sign it for you. And Gabriel will be doing sketches for $30. Plus, we promise not to yawn in your face, unlike some cats I know.