My love of horror came from old black and white classics. The Shock Theater/Creature Features shows were still popular in the late 70's, though by the end of the decade they would fade away. People didn't want atmosphere, Gothic castles, creaky monsters anymore.

The Universal classics will always be among my favorite movies. The archetypal Gods of Horror, Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Phantom, the Hunchback, the Invisible Man, held sway over the 1930's, but by the forties they were relegated to silly monster mashes, and they played second fiddle to Abbott and Costello. I loved all of it, but the genre surely needed something new.

It came in the form of visionary producer named Val Lewton. Lewton, a former novelist, was the guiding force behind eight wonderful horror movies. These productions had lurid titles, but were suggestive and lyrical. Innovative camerawork, inspired set designs, and smart screenplays instead of shocking scenes of horror.

Lewton's first movie is often cited as his best. Cat People stars Simone Simon as a mysterious woman who believes she will transform into a deadly feline if she feels desire. She meets a man and they become romantically involved. Her tales of satanism and witchery from her native Serbia unnerve him, as passion begins to boil and suspense mounts.

Cat People is an early examination of psychological horror versus supernatural fantasy. This sort of thing became common in later decades, but in 1942 it was bold and original.

Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur overcome their modest budget with mounting dread and striking use of light and shadow. It is one of the most influential and important horror films of all time.

The history books I read in my youth generally dismiss The Curse of the Cat People as inferior to the first movie. Critics bemoaned that it was not really a horror movie, but more of a fairy tale. It does have a lyrical fairy tale quality, and I not only consider it to be underrated, I like it more than Cat People. The Curse of the Cat People is one of my favorite old horror movies.

Two characters from Cat People are now married and have a lovely little daughter. The girl doesn't get along well with other children and lives in world of her own imagination. Her backyard becomes an enchanted wonderland and she is visited by a gentle spirit who appears to be the same woman played by Simone Simon in Cat People.

The Curse of the Cat People hit me hard, and I could relate all too well. I remember what it was like to feel ostracized by other kids, and to not only be misunderstood by my parents, but to be on the receiving end of their anger because of my introspective personality.

The Curse of the Cat People was co-directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise. I don't know a lot about the former, but Wise made two of my favorite motion pictures. The Day the Earth Stood Still is probably my favorite science fiction movie, and The Haunting is definitely my favorite horror picture. The outdoor scenes in The Curse of the Cat People are stunning. It's easy to see Wise's visual style at work, and it anticipates the stunning cinematography of The Haunting. The hand of Val Lewton is strongly evident in the Shirley Jackson adaptation as well.

These and other Val Lewton productions may not appeal to gorehounds or the Marvel Universe crowd, but they are among the most important movies in the horror genre. All serious fans owe it to themselves to watch them and learn from them.

Written by Mark Sieber

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