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In describing his string of wildly successful horror films for RKO, 1940s power-producer Val Lewton once said, “Our formula is simple: A love story, three scenes of suggested horror, and one of actual violence. Fadeout. It’s all over in 70 minutes.” If that sounds mercenary, it is – RKO hired Lewton partly as a response to the commercial failure of 1941’s CITIZEN KANE – but it also does an injustice to the artfulness of the pictures. The key is that second item: while “suggested horror” sounds like a budgetary cop-out, in the hands of Lewton (and his directors, including Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise) it served as the foundation for some of the most chilling and influential scare scenes of the first half of the 20th century.

Much of that “suggestion” is the result of moody, monochromatic cinematography. The heavy, all-encompassing shadows (particularly in Tourneur’s films) evoke the then-contemporary film noir vogue, but instead of cloaking the monstrous tendencies of man, this darkness hides literal monsters. Which is not, of course, to say that Lewton’s films are lacking in psychology; in skirting the other major taboos of the era, the horrors onscreen frequently serve as stand-ins for sexuality (CAT PEOPLE), alternative lifestyles (THE SEVENTH VICTIM), and racial tension (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE).

The non-metaphorical horrors still pack a punch, as well. Take the most famous scene in 1943’s THE LEOPARD MAN: a young girl is stalked through her village by an unseen menace. When she reaches her door, her mother refuses to open it, thinking her daughter is simply being dramatic. So far, so familiar. But then comes the kicker: the screaming stops, and the mother watches in horror as a pool of blood slowly seeps under the door. It’s a hell of a scene, which somehow simultaneously bolsters and refutes the old refrain that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do.

While never a household name on par with the iconic masters of horror, interest in Lewton’s films has slowly been gaining momentum. Super-fan Martin Scorsese produced the feature-length documentary VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS in 2007, and his films were compiled in an excellent DVD box set that every serious genre fan should own. Hopefully, this series will win even more converts to his sinister, murky world.

3/21: CAT PEOPLE (1942) dir. Jacques Tourneur

3/21: THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) dir. Gunther V. Fritsch & Robert Wise

3/22: I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur

3/23: MADEMOISELLE FIFI (1944) dir. Robert Wise

3/24: THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) dir. Robert Wise

3/28: THE GHOST SHIP (1943) dir. Mark Robson

3/28: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) dir. Mark Robson

3/29: THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943) dir. Mark Robson

3/29: YOUTH RUNS WILD aka THE DANGEROUS AGE (1944) dir. Mark Robson

3/30: BEDLAM (1946) dir. Mark Robson

3/30: THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur

The Harvard Film Archive (24 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138)

All shows $9.00

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