The Val Lewton Horror Collection

The Val Lewton Horror Collection (1942)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Anna Lee, Simone Simon, Tom Conway
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Documentary, Trailers

The way Jack Arnold stands for 50s science fiction films, the way Universal stands for 40s monster movies, the same way Val Lewton stands for memorable classic horror films from the 40s with some of the genre's greatest stars. Warner Home Video has now brought us a box set containing five DVDs, filled with 9 movies produced by Val Lewton. Films that have been sorely absent from DVD and were missed by many fans. Fortunately that has changed.

The collection that Warner Brothers has released contains classics such as "Cat People," "Bedlam," "Isle Of The Dead," "I Walked With a Zombie" and "The Body Snatcher" and others. It would be too extensive to review each of them in detail but I want to highlight a few of the films, just to give you a taste what to expect.

"The Body Snatcher" is the film adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson short story, starring Boris Karloff. In the dark part of a grave robber who sells his bodies to a local doctor, Karloff simply shines – and he has a great scene with fellow horror icon Bela Lugosi. The film is a little gothic masterpiece directed by none other than Robert Wise, who also contributed a commentary track to the release together with film historian Robert Haberman.

On the same disc is "I Walked With A Zombie," a 1943 production that was sort of an experiment by taking the classic story of "Jane Eyre" and transposing it into the West Indies, combining it with Voodoo and the fear of the living dead. Wonderful movie with some truly memorable moments. It also comes with a commentary track that sheds additional light on the production and background of the film.

One of the undisputed highlights of the collection is Jacques Tourneur's "Cat People," in which a young women is shaken by fear that she may be a werebeast, as told in legends in her native village. She tries to break the spell but the harder she tries, the more she becomes convinced that the cat monster within her will break free anytime soon. The film is complemented by its 1944 sequel, "The Curse Of The Cat People," the film that marked Robert Wise's directorial debut and clearly shows his talent that would become so prevalent in later years.

Another one of the discs features "Isle Of The Dead," another Boris Karloff vehicle in which he plays a military general, quarantined on an island with other strangers, trying to avoid infecting the world – and himself – with a deadly plague.

This movie is complemented by "Bedlam" on the same disc, in which Karloff plays the overseer of an insane asylum in London who has two sides to himself and does not mind putting away people that are in his way. The film also features a commentary track by film historian Tom Weaver. The track contains a wealth of information and minute trivia, but Weaver is talking so fast throughout that his staccato turns into a wash sometimes making it virtually impossible to stay focused on what he says a lot of times. Better pacing would have helped this commentary a lot.

And on the list goes with more films of the same vein. Great stuff, really.

The transfers you will find on these DVDs are pretty good but a bit across the board. Some of them are exceptional, really while others do show sings of age and deterioration. "Bedlam" for example features two or three reel that are full of speckles and dirt while others are absolutely clean. The same goes for "The Bodysnatcher," although that transfer is surprisingly good throughout.
Contrast is absolutely balanced on these transfers. While some of the films have a very stark, high contrast look that is almost expressionist, but bear in mind that this is by design and not a result of shortcomings in the transfer. Others have a more balanced gradient fall off with deep blacks and good highlights. No edge-enhancement can be found on any of the transfers and the compression is without a flaw.

Each film comes with its original mono audio track in Dolby Digital. The tracks are free hiss or pops and although they have not been remastered, they make for a great presentation. With a narrow frequency response the dialogues sound a bit harsh at times and crescendi in the music are slightly distorted but overall these tracks are free of defects and background noise.

As an extra, the release also contains "Shadows In The Dark," a new documentary about the legacy of Val Lewton. Featuring interviews with filmmakers and actors, the documentary analyzes the success of these films as well as the impact they had on the gerne – and what they meant for Val Lewton, aspiring filmmakers like Jacques Tourneur, Robert wise and, of course, RKO Pictures. The film also shows us what kind of person Val Lewton was, his aspirations and ideals. It is an important addition to the collection, nicely rounding out the release with great background information.

"The Val Lewton Horror Collection" is a feast for every classic horror fan and these films have been absent from DVD far too long for my taste. By viewing films like "Cat People" or "I Walked With A Zombie" you will realize how absurd the film is in some ways and how some dialogue simply don't hold up anymore in today's world. Acting was different back then. Much more theatric and deliberate as opposed to today's very natural approach. But in the case of an actor of Boris Karloff's stature, it simply underscores his mesmerizing screen presence. There is a reason why he was one of the most famous actors of his time and if you watch films like "The Body Snatcher" or "Bedlam" it is easy to understand, why.

Five DVDs filled with 9 memorable horror classics plus a feature length documentary for the price of two DVDs. There can be no question that this set belongs in every classic horror fan's library, to have the ability to turn just about any night into a wonderful Halloween night.