The next time I can remember encountering Lewton’s name was in Danny Peary’s book Alternate Oscars, in which the critic writes that he believes Boris Karloff should have won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1945 for “The Body Snatcher.” Learning about Lewton was getting frustrating, because at that time Lewton’s films were difficult to come by, unless they turned up on cable. Fortunately now, they often do (TCM will be airing “The Leopard Man” and “Cat People”  on Halloween); they can easily be rented online for a couple of bucks. So, if you haven’t already, you can now experience these truly sui generis works of dark horror.
Making horror films was not Lewton’s ambition, it was simply the assignment given to him by RKO Pictures. (He would parlay his success with the job into producing movies closer to his heart, like “Youth Runs Wild” and “Mademoiselle Fifi”). In fact, this bit of his career was loosely dramatized in Vincente Minelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful,” when we see Kirk Douglas’ producer character Jonathan Shields struggling to make a quality picture out of the pulp horror title, “Doom of the Cat Men,” given to him by the studio. This also happened to Lewton, who was given titles—not actual scripts, mind you—like “Cat People” and told to make those titles into feature films. In “The Bad and the Beautiful” we see Shields and his director (Barry Sullivan) finding art in this cheap job they’d previously not cared about (it’s worth noting that, at least in my opinion, “Doom of the Cat Men” sounds like a much better film than any of the ones Shields is actually passionate about). But this is what Lewton, a Russian-Jewish émigré who began his career as a writer of relatively realistic novels, did constantly—in the case of “I Walked With a Zombie” (1943), Lewton, director Tourneur, and screenwriters Wray and Curt Siodmak chose to use that title to create a kind of Voodoo riff on “Jane Eyre.”
So, by necessity, and because he wanted to good work, Lewton and his directors innovated. In “Cat People” there’s a jump scare so groundbreaking that it moved a young Richard Matheson to write to Lewton, care of RKO, and tell him that he, Matheson, had understood, and loved, the trick the Lewton and Tourneur pulled. In that same film, the decision was made—based in part on budget restrictions and on the psychological manipulation of the audience—to hint at the transformation implied by the title rather than show it outright (in one memorable scene using, among other things, the reflection of light off water in a swimming pool to set the mood, and mirror the shadowy special effects). This choice helped turn the film from a fun, scary movie for kids, which the studio would have no doubt been fine with, into something ambiguous, and almost tragic.