The Leopard Man (1943)

Based on the book Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich, The Leopard Man is one of the first movies to depict a serial killer. Written by Ardel Wray and Edward Dein for producer Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, the master artist behind Cat PeopleI Walked with a Zombie and Night of the Demon.

Somewhere in New Mexico, nightclub owner Jerry Manning hires a black leopard as a publicity stunt for his girlfriend, Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks, who is also in Lewton’s The Seventh Victim). She uses the giant cat to interrupt her rival, Clo-Clo (Margo, the wife of Eddie Albert, whose career was decimated by the blacklist), as she performs. Clo-Clo uses her castanets to scare the animal which runs into the night.

A series of murders happens, all blamed on the leopard, but when its body is found, the hypothesis that a human being may be at the center of these killings becomes fact. This film may be only sixty-six minutes, but each moment is infused with dark terror and dread. The beast waits for nearly everyone in the darkness of town and even moments in the daylight are offset with reminders of how North America’s indigenous people were treated by explorers.

This film was critically savaged when it came out, which astound me. It was also re-issued in 1952 along with King Kong, as RKO needed another movie title that sounded like it could have a creature in it.

The Leopard Man appears as one of the movies on The Church of Satan’s film list, perhaps as much for its subject matter as the fact that a big cat — one of LaVey’s favorite things — appears. It’s also a movie in which nearly every character is responsible for the murders, no matter their intentions, not just the one doing the actual killing. That’s quite a Satanic notion.

The Seventh Victim (1943)

The Seventh Victim is a movie that haunts me.

Its main character, Jacqueline Gibson, exemplifies the nightmare of existence that is at the heart of so many of Val Lewton’s characters. For her, life is absolutely meaningless and the only way out is to end things, despite the efforts of so many people to discover her, to save her and to add meaning.

Her only relative is Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), who learns that her sister — the owner of a cosmetics firm — has disappeared and can no longer pay for her religious education. Jacqueline has been missing for eight months and has left behind only a room she’d rented above a restaurant, one that has a tipped chair and a hanging noose.

Mary’s quest to find out what happened to her sister leads her to meet a secret husband (Hugh Beaumont!) and psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), who has somehow survived his death in Cat People. He tells her that her sister had been his patient due to the depression that resulted from her membership in a Satanic coven. That group possesses great power, having taken over Jacqueline’s company and even killing the detective that Mary hires to learn more.

Judd has kept Jacquline hidden all this time and she’s become even more brittle as the group attempts to destroy her for revealing their existence to the world. She would be the seventh person the cult has destroyed — The Seventh Victim — but they are averse to violence. As she’d wanted to end her life for so long, they tell her to drink poison. She refuses and even eludes a switchblade-wielding killer that they sent for her, only to have one last encounter with a girl in her apartment complex that is terminally ill. She tells Jacqueline that even though she knows she will die that she deserves one night on the town before the haunted center of this film enters her apartment and apparently kills herself.

There are many layers that you can view this movie under. There are definitely undercurrents of lesbian love between Jacqueline and one of the cultists named Frances. And there’s also the matter of so many scenes being removed from this film. For some, they may induce the feeling that something is missing, which they would call a plot hole. To others, it makes the film seem more like a dark dream. To me, it’s about. the occult power of large cities, places that can swallow people.

Charles O’Neal’s original script for this movie was all about an orphaned heroine caught up in a series of murders that happen around the Signal Hills oil wells. The title came from the fact that she would be the killer’s seventh victim. Lewton wanted the story to go in a different direction and called in DeWitt Bodeen, who had experience with an actual Satanic coven in New York City that he had encountered. Rumor has it that Bodeen was homosexual, which may or may not inform much of the subtext.

This movie doesn’t just embrace nihilism, it has rough sex with it. To wit, this burst of dialogue:

Gregory Ward: I love your sister, Mary. I love her very much. It’s easy to understand now, isn’t it? A man would look for her anywhere, Mary. There’s something… exciting and unforgettable about Jacqueline. Something you never… quite get hold of. Something that keeps a man following after her.

Mary Gibson: Because I loved Jacqueline I thought I knew her. Today I found out such strange things, frightening things. I saw a hangman’s noose that Jacqueline had hanging… waiting.

Gregory Ward: Well, at least I can explain about that. Your sister had a feeling about life; that it wasn’t worth living unless one could end it. I helped her get that rope.

The Seventh Victim is noir, occult, proto-giallo — hell, whatever you want to call it. It’s one of those movies that I return to every once in a while, as haunted by it as every character in the film is when they encounter its main character.

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

Producer Val Lewton’s second film for RKO took two different inspirations that were pretty different. First was an article by Inez Wallace and the other was Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Despite that pedigree, this film got one of those “get ’em in the theater” titles that was forced on Lewton by RKO.

The movie starts with nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) explaining how she walked with a zombie, as if you weren’t already sold. She’s on the island of Saint Sebastian to care for the wife of sugar plantation owner — and descendant of slave traders — Paul Holland (Tom Conway). The woman she is to nurse to health, Jessica, has had her spinal cord irreparably damaged by a serious illness. She no longer has the will to live or do anything for herself.

On a day off, Betsy sees Holland’s half brother Wesley at a bar. As he drinks himself into oblivion, the calypso singer Sir Lancelot uses the song “Shame and Scandal in the Family” as exposition, explaining that Jessica and Wesley were once in love, but Paul wouldn’t allow it. Then, she was struck by the fever that for all purposes ended her life. Meanwhile, Paul blames himself for his wife’s condition and if that isn’t enough, Betsy falls for him and decides that the best way to win his heart is to bring his wife back, whether by insulin shot or voodoo.

If that doesn’t shock you, this will: the voodoo priest of the island is really Paul and Wesley’s doctor mother, using the religions of the island to convince the locals to use modern medicine in the guise of magic. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from believing that Jessica is one of the walking dead. There’s one last surprise. The doctor believes that she was really possessed by voodoo and has made her daughter-in-law into a zombie.

The end of this film, as Wesley wanders into the water carrying his true love’s dying body as a voodoo spirit follows them into the sea. It’s mesmerizing, as is the spirit of doomed love that hands over this movie.

Director Jacques Tourneur was a master of the black and white horror film. I’d also recommend his movies Cat PeopleThe Leopard Man and Curse of the Demon.

The Ghost Ship (1943)

This was a lost Val Lewton movie for some time. That’s because the producer was sued for plagiarism by playwrights Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner, who claimed that they had submitted a script of this story to him as a possible movie. As a result, the film was taken out of theaters and not shown for fifty years, at which point it became available in the public domain. The whole affair deeply upset Lewton for a long period of time.

Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is a a young merchant marine officer new to the ship Altair. He bonds with Captain William Stone (Richard Dix), even as the ship begins to lose crew members. The captain starts to seem weak at best — unable to save a man with an emergency appendectomy until Tom covers for him — and murderous at worst — crushing another crewmember named Louie (Lawrence Tierney!) who spoke against him.

Merriam quickly realizes that the captain has gone insane, but he has an entire crew on his side and thre may be no way for him to survive. Even when our hero tries to save the men by pointing out the captain’s madness, they continue to take his side.

Using the fictional island of San Sebastian from I Walked with a Zombie and much of Lewton’s stock company like Ben Bard, Sir Lancelot and Edith Barrett, this is another example of his lean films. Director Mark Robson also was behind another one of my favorite Lewton films, The Seventh Victim.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

Curt Siodmak (I Walked with a ZombieSon of Dracula) made a joke to producer George Waggner that he needed a downpayment for a car and that they should make Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man. It was lunch. He was joking. Waggner called him to his office and said, “Go ahead, buy the car.” That’s how this movie, the sequel to The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein got made.

Bela Lugosi plays Frankenstein’s Monster here, eight years after he turned down the role that made Boris Karloff famous. This follows up the Monster getting the brain of Ygor and speaking in his voice at the end of Ghost. In the original version of this film, the Monster would speak for the entire film — in a Hungarian accent — and audiences could not accept it. Also, the fact that the Monster was blind as a side effect of the transplant was negated and many of these scenes were cut.

Grave robbers break into the coffin of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) and remove the wolfsbane on his body, which turns him back into the werewolf that his father’s bullets put to sleep. He makes his way to Vasaria, the home of Dr. Frankenstein, who he hopes can cure him once and for all.

There’s also the plot of Dr. Mannering, Lionel Atwill’s Mayor and Baroness Elsa Frankenstein trying to destroy the Monster. As a kid, I booed these horrible humans and their attempts to make this movie boring by stopping these awesome creatures from causing chaos.

Lugosi turned sixty while making this movie and suffered from exhaustion, so he was often doubled for any of the strenuous parts of the film. This is also the last Universal Monster movie for Dwight Frye, who died the very same year.

Here’s something nice, at least. The German shepherd that played Bruno is dog Bruno, who he adopted after he played the wolf that attacked him in The Wolf Man.

This film was part of the Shock Theater package that started off the monster kid era. These 52 films are pretty much the foundations of pre-1948 horror. Trust me, I watched them all so many times that I can recite them when asked.

In today’s Marvel movie world, we just accept movies crossing over and universe building. These movies just made it happen. They’re so ingrained in our DNA that crossover movies — King Kong vs. Godzilla and Alien vs. Predator — pay tribute by using the music and scenes from this film.