The axiom “less is more” seldom comes up in discussion of modern horror blockbusters such as this year’s “It” — unless you mean, of course, that less attached first-grader arm is more disgusting.
But there was a time, believe it or not, when you could sit through an entire “monster movie” and not even see a monster, much less a pool of gore.
The high priest of nuanced horror filmmaking, director Jacques Tourneur, will be showcased on Saturday with a double bill of his definitive “Cat People” (1942) and “I Walked With a Zombie” (1943) at the Louisville Free Public Library’s Main Branch.
The free screenings are part of the library’s Wild & Woolly series, and former W&W owner Todd Brashear picked these two gems from Tourneur’s sizable cannon. Brashear will be on hand to discuss the movies with audience members.
Film lovers who tend not to like horror films will still find lots to love with Tourneur, who, along with producer Val Lewton, crafted a house style for RKO Pictures that can be best be described as “horror noir.”
As juggernaut Universal and other studios jammed more and more monsters into their franchises, RKO films relied on the use of shadow, suspense and suggestion to creep out audiences.
(Tourner also directed the 1947 Robert Mitchum crime noir “Out of the Past,” and the parallels in style are obvious.)
“The essence of these films is in the execution,” said Jim Blanton, the director at LFPL and a self-avowed horror movie buff. “The premises can be very interesting, but it’s the craft of the filmmaking that really connects with modern audiences, I think … they just don’t get dated, as some other horror moves from the ’40s do.”
In “Cat People,” essentially the “Double Indemnity” (1944) of its sub-genre, Tourneur lays out his template for visual suspense — close shots of feet hurrying along an abandoned street; a terrified victim looking this way and that, unable to determine exactly where that off-screen growl is coming from; and misdirected jump scares that harm nothing but the viewer’s blood pressure.
The boss gets credit for this last device, and “Lewton buses,” as they are called, can be found in pretty much every horror film made since — think that damn cat in “Alien” (1979).
In addition to its technical prowess, “Cat People” also reflects the moral complexity that set ’40s RKO films apart from their more comic-bookish contemporaries. The antagonist, if you want to call her that, is a young woman caught in a love triangle who fears that heightened emotions cause her to transform into a predator, literally.
“It’s about a person who has lost control of their own identity and destiny,” Blanton said. “That’s a universal theme that resonates with audiences of any era.”
The evening’s second screening, “I Walked with a Zombie,” is a little harder to pin down. It’s essentially Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940) with a healthy dose of voodoo thrown in (this was 25 years before George Romero transformed zombies into a staple of the whole watch-me-eat-this-arm idiom).
The ingénue’s flights through Caribbean sugar cane fields are visually haunting and echoed in pretty much every horror flick where the female lead goes on a transformative journey. It’s gorgeous, like the rest of Tourneur’s work.
The screenings begin at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 14, at the library’s Main Branch. They are free.
Tourneur’s influence is so great that suggesting even a small sampling of his legacy would take a week.
For example, Blanton noted that Robert Wise directed “The Body Snatcher” (1945) for RKO in the Lewton/Tourneur house style and then went on to create “The Haunting” (1963), which oddly looks nothing at all like his other classics, including “The Sound of Music” (1965). So, something stuck.
For this post, we’ll stick with recommending some of Tourneur’s own horror classics.
The Leopard Man (1943)
Tourneur builds unrivaled tension as a young girl beats desperately on her family’s door while the menace of the dark closes in. Seriously, a dozen “Saw” sequels won’t get under your skin like this one scene. (We don’t usually point to spoilers, but if you need convincing, here you go.)
“The Leopard Man” is often cited as the point where horror cinema stopped being safe; it’s a very early depiction of a serial killer, and perhaps the first in what could be considered a straight “horror” movie. (Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931) is in a class itself, of course). “The Exorcist” director Will Friedkin, a big fan of the “Lewton bus” himself, points to this one as a key inspiration.
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Boris Karloff emerges from under the makeup to portray an aging military autocrat who is driven to supernatural paranoia (maybe?) during an outbreak of the plague on an isolated island. Premature burials and jumping off cliffs follow.
Calling any Karloff performance his “best” is an invite to a nerd fight, but this case study in vengeance is clearly on the list. Blanton says it’s among his favorites, so there.
Night of the Demon (1957)
Tourneur parted ways with producer Lewton and hopped the pond to direct what is, at least in this nerd’s opinion, his best film. Uptight American cynic Dana Andrews should have known better than to meddle in the affairs of occultist aristocrat Niall MacGinnis, who could glib you to death without bothering to summon that demon — which he gleefully will do, by the way.
Unlike Karloff in “Isle of the Dead,” MacGinnis is pretty clearly evil, but he has so much fun at it that it can’t be all bad, right?
Fans debate the inclusion of a little extra demon footage in the U.S. “Curse” release cut (Blanton votes no, the nerd with the byline says yes), but in any cut of “Demon,” Tourneur deftly takes the audience along with protagonist on the trip from “yeah, right” to “oh crap.”
And MacGinnis is black magic, particularly as the creepiest clown in cinema history. Suck it, Pennywise.