31 Spooky Movies in October: 2012 Edition, Part 7

by kdlough

19.  Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)

The first of the Val Lewton-produced horror films is a haunting classic.  Lewton famously didn’t care for horror movies, and when he was put in charge of a production unit dedicated to churning out cheapo imitations of Universal’s monster money-makers instead created a series of oblique art films centered around superstition and the subconscious.

Cat People focuses on a young Serbian fashion designer who believes herself to be a descendant of a long line of witches who, when moved to romantic passion or jealousy, turn into murderous panther-like monsters.  This proves to be a problem when she gets married, especially after she begins to suspect that her husband is cheating on her with a co-worker.

 

Jacques Tourneur creates a dark, emotionally fraught atmosphere that helps cover up for a script that sometimes isn’t quite on the level of later Lewton film.  The husband and his romantically-inclined coworker in particular aren’t given much character to work with, but everybody seems to be taking it seriously and their dedication makes up for a lot.  Simone Simon’s adorable catlike face alone, with its subtle flashes of fear and rage, makes this worth a watch.

As does the cinematography, which is practically a character on its own.  The deep, dark shadows of noir got one of their earliest bit-time commercial introductions here.  Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s genius in setting up the scare scenes makes us more afraid of the fog than the panther.

SCORE: 8 inexplicably creepy shadows out of 10

20.  Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava, 1974)

 

After a brief commercial resurgence in the early 70s, Bava was finally given free reign to make the kind of movie he wanted.  The result is Lisa and the Devil, a movie that takes Bava’s dream-atmosphere and weird plotting to the nth degree.  A baffling combination of Last Year at Marienbad and Psycho, Lisa tells the story of a tourist lost while visiting an old Spanish city.  Pursued by a man who claims to be her lover, she winds up staying the night in a stately manor.  The young master of the house too claims that she has been there before.  Soon everyone is getting brutally murdered, there’s a rotting corpse in the bed upstairs, and the butler bears an odd resemblance to a fresco of Satan…

Lisa and the Devil moves without warning between several layers of time and from the subjective viewpoints of several characters who might be crazy/dead; it’s impossible to determine any point in the film where there is a clear distinction between fantasy and reality.  Also, there’s the occasional violent murder.  If you want to know what a Mario Bava art film would look like, this is it.

 

I can’t say I would recommend this movie to just anybody; it’s for fanatics only.  But it’s great to see Bava engaged with the material, and the colors are FANTASTIC.  Really, on a technical level Lisa and the Devil has a lot of inspired sequences.  The opening, when Lisa runs frantically through, dark, narrow streets yet, through editing, never seems to move anywhere in the composition is just great.  The cast for the most part seem into it; Telly Savalas is the creepy butler/Satan(?) so of course he’s constantly eating candy.

After some disastrous screenings in Italy, producer Alfred Leone recut the footage, somehow managing to transform it into an Exorcist rip-off named The House of Exorcism and dumped it into grindhouse theaters.  Sounds terrible, but I’d like to check it out sometime; whatever the film’s flaws, I can’t imagine any way that Lisa and the Devil could be retrofitted into something else.

SCORE: 7 bags of candy decimated by Telly Savalas out of 10

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