Halloween and the Art of Horror
By George A. Haloulakos
Although celebrated on the last day of the month, Halloween dominates October from start to finish as Baby Boomers enjoy revisiting classic horror films designed to entertain, surprise and scare the audience. In this month's GNN Blog, we pay tribute to filmmaker Val Lewton, who is best remembered for his signature work, the 1942 film "The Cat People." This landmark film is a case study of high-quality low-budget filmmaking that captivates its audience through implied rather than explicit horror. Lewton's masterful use of sound, shadows and low lighting in "The Cat People" easily surpasses today's reliance on computer graphics with its shock-and-awe approach. Moreover, it provides a sharp contrast to the blood and gore of the 1940s violent slasher films or terrifying monsters (think Universal Studios with The Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein, et al).
This is because Lewton created suspense along with a sense of terror by focusing on the unknown or the unseen such as a feeling of being followed, watched or stalked by an unknown presence or force. Despite operating on a $150,000 budget (a rather low sum even by the industry standards of the 1940s), Lewton created a taut, psychological thriller that continues to scare its audience decades after its release while affirming filmmaking -- especially the horror film -- as an art.
In this month's GNN Blog, yours truly will try to refrain from major spoilers regarding the plot of this vintage horror classic. However, with the hope of stimulating the interest of those who have not seen "The Cat People" I will offer the following as a teaser.
The main character, Irena Dubrovna (expertly portrayed by Simone Simon) is NEVER shown in cat form but there are a couple of notable scenes where the power of suggestion and the film viewer's imagination provide moments of sheer terror. For example, supporting character Alice (portrayed by Jane Randolph) is shown walking at night in New York City alongside a large wall bordering a park with the sound of her clicking heels growing ever louder as Alice feels she is being stalked and starts to walk at a more brisk pace. Was that a gust of wind that rattled the bushes overhead along the wall? Or was something or someone there? Later as Alice is swimming in an indoor pool, are the shadows in the dimly lit swimming area a giant cat, reflections of the water or perhaps a trick of the eye? When Alice emerges from the pool, she finds her terry cloth robe torn to shreds as if a large animal (perhaps a feline) with very sharp claws had gotten hold of it. Irena (Simone Simon) suddenly emerges from the shadows and surprises Alice (as well as the film audience) making a seemingly innocent query as to the whereabouts of her (Irena's) husband.
The clicking of heels on pavement and the echoing of screams in an indoor pool from the two aforementioned scenes, are demonstrations of great film noir as the sharp contrast of black-and-white film, fog and shadows are equally important to the plot in helping to create a memorable horror movie. The ambiance is terrifying while still evoking empathy for Irena, who feels haunted by the curse of "The Cat People" from her native Serbia.
As testimony that profit and artistic filmmaking are not mutually exclusive, "The Cat People" ended up costing $134,000 (well below its $150,000 budget) while grossing $4 million in box office receipts -- a nearly 30x return on investment! In sum, "The Cat People" is a film noir aficionado's Halloween delight, a triumph of filmmaking artistry and a great financial success.
What are your favorite horror films that you enjoy watching to celebrate Halloween? Please share them with us either through the Galaxy Nostalgia Network (GNN) website or go to the GNN Facebook Page (and please "like" us when doing so). From all of us here at GNN, Happy Halloween!