Now that RKO has reached an interim agreement with the WGA, the studio is ready to launch its horror quickie label, newly dubbed Roseblood Movie Co. As RKO head Ted Hartley said, the most successful business these days “comes from scary movies that get wide release and cost under $10 million,” so that’s what Roseblood is all about. And to the surprise of no one who’s been paying attention, classic RKO producer Val Lewton is the label’s primary target and inspiration.
Last year it was announced that several of his flicks would go under the blade of modernization: Bedlam, The Body Snatcher, I Walked With A Zombie along with Five Came Back, which wasn’t a Lewton picture but did feature Lucille Ball and a Dalton Trumbo writing credit. Now added to the slate are three non-Lewton pics (Lady Scarface, While the City Sleeps, The Monkey’s Paw) and Lewton’s crowning achievement The Seventh Victim.
It’s that last one that will raise eyebrows. Ostensibly because it’s a true classic, but my own suspicions are raised because it’s an accidental classic; the movie’s charm and effectiveness are almost incidental to the thing itself. It’s one of those unpredictable movies that shouldn’t work at all, but manages to achieve something special in spite of every possible limiting factor. Then there’s the fact that Victim is wildly dated and very much a thing of its time. Arguably anti-feminist and anti-life (Lewton supposedly claimed ‘death is good’ as the film’s message) it’s a weird little picture. The ‘cult in NYC’ plot might work today, but it would have to be swapped for something truly diabolical. Make this a movie about Scientology and I’m on board.
There’s no small irony in this development; Lewton’s films were low-budget quickies that usually began with a lurid title. He was enough of a storyteller to spin straw into gold, but from the studio’s perspective his movies were never meant as art. So when it comes to these remakes, I’d almost hope that Roseblood would just give the title to a producer, writer or director and see what they could do with it. Some of the new pics have writers already on board: Tony Puryear for Lady Scarface, Shin Shimosawa and Jim Morris for City and Todd Farmer for Paw. If they treat the originals as gospel they’re almost universally bound for failure; get a little of the Lewton spirit going and we might get at least one watchable picture out of the deal.
Finally, I really hope that Val Lewton isn’t one of those names you read about
on a movie website and just shrug off as another codger who made slow,
murky pics that filmmakers and journalists love just because we’re
supposed to. We’ve given a lot of love to the guy before in a set of DVD reviews (all linked here) and his best movies are on par with esteemed noir and monster movies for the atmosphere they evoke.