The Stanford Theatre

Val Lewton

Terror on a Shoestring

Val Lewton produced a series of low-budget "horror" classic at RKO, starting with Cat People (1942). These are not what you might associate with the horror genre. Relying on suggestion and understatement rather than shocking visuals, these are small poetic masterpieces. Our calendar offers the opportunity to see all nine of these classics on the big screen.

Lewton was born in 1904 in Yalta, in the Crimea. His mother's sister was the celebrated actress Alla Nazimova, and she arranged for his family to come to America in 1909. After working as a reporter, attending Columbia for two years, and writing several novels, he became a story editor for David O. Selznick, working on A Tale of Two Cities and even Gone With the Wind. In 1942 he left Selznick to head a newly-created B-picture unit at RKO, specializing in horror pictures.

The fact that these were B pictures, made on very small budgets, seems to have inspired Lewton to show what could be achieved by intelligence and improvisation rather than money. Fortunately, since his films made money, the studio did not interfere, except by dictating sensational titles for the films and designing sensational posters. We have many of these posters on display in our gallery.

The films may belong technically to the horror genre, but they can be remarkably haunting and even beautiful. Lewton assembled a team that worked together on many of these films, including Jacques Tourneur (director), Mark Robson (editor and director), DeWitt Bodeen (writer), Nicholas Musuraca (photography), Albert D'Agostino and Walter E. Keller (art direction), and Roy Webb (music). Each film was shot in only a few weeks, something that was possible only with the extraordinary depth of technical and artistic talent presnt in the studio system.

Thes nine films represent a remarkable legacy of the Golden Age of Hollywood. They are well worth discovering.

The Stanford Theatre is dedicated to bringing back the movie-going experience of Hollywood's Golden Age. It is one of the few places where you can still watch movies on a big screen projected the way they were intended — in 35mm prints. Great classic films were not made to be watched on a video screen in your living room. They depend on a larger-than-life image, and the shared reactions of a real audience.

The Stanford Theatre first opened in June of 1925. For decades nearly every important Hollywood picture played there on its first release. The people of Palo Alto saw them all for the very first time in this theatre.

In 1987 the Packard Foundation bought the theatre and restored it to its original condition. It quickly became America's most popular classic movie house. More people saw Casablanca there on its 50th anniverary in 1992 than at any other theatre in America.

The non-profit Stanford Theatre Foundation is dedicated to the preservation and public exhibition of films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. This means classic movies in a classic movie palace, complete with Wurlitzer organ rising from the orchestra pit every night before and after the 7:30 show, or providing the accompaniment to “silent” films.

Note: This is an unofficial posting of the Stanford Theatre schedules, from published information. This site is in no way connected with the Stanford Theatre nor the Stanford Theatre Foundation. Please check out the official site at in case this schedule isn't quite up-to-date! Programs are subject to change. For information, call (650) 324-3700.

(Showtimes in parentheses are for the Saturday and Sunday screenings.)

Mar 27 – 30: closed

Mar 31 – Apr 2:
I Walked With a Zombie (1943) (4:45), 7:30
p Val Lewton. d Jacques Tourneur. w Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray, based on a story by Inez Wallace. ph J. Roy Hunt. m Roy Webb. RKO. 68 min.

James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Christine Gordon, Theresa Harris, Sir Lancelot, Darby Jones, Jeni Le Gon.

A rich American planter brings a nurse to Haiti to care for his mysteriously ill wife. Tha Haitians think she has become a Zombie.

This was the film debut of Sir Lancelot, a celebrated calypso singer from Trinidad, who had acting roles in several of Val Lewton's films. Frances Dee is very good as the frightened, resourceful nurse.

Do not be fooled by the title into expecting something macabre or violent. Despite its low budget, this film creates a languid visual world worthy of Josef von Sternberg. It is an extraordinary poetic film.

"An unqualified horror masterpiece. Essential viewing." Baseline Movie Guide

"Exceptional Val Lewton chiller with rich atmosphere, mesmerizing story." Leonard Maltin

"The film sees Voodoo going on and accepts what the natives believe... The result is unanny. The ridiculous suddenly becomes beautiful and arresting." David Thomson

first played at the Stanford Theatre Nov 15, 2000; last played June 2013

The Cat People (1942) 6:05, 8:50
p Val Lewton. d Jacques Tourneur. w DeWitt Bodeen. ph Nicholas Musuraca. m Roy Webb. RKO. 73 min.

Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, Jack Holt, Kent Smith, Alan Napier, Elizabeth Dunne, Elizabeth Russell, Mary Halsey, Alec Craig.

A Serbian emigrée in New York City (Simone Simon) believes that she suffers from a hereditary curse and will become a panther if her passions are aroused.

This remarkable low-budget B picture — extraordinary on any budget — cost only $134,000 to make, but grossed over $2,000,000. It was producer Lewton's first and greatest success.

"Testifies to the power of suggestion and the priority of imagination over budget in the creation of great cinema." Baseline Movie Guide

first played at the Stanford Theatre Feb 20, 1943; last played Aug 2013

Apr 3 – 6: closed

Apr 7 – 9:
"I runne to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday"

The Seventh Victim (1943) (4:45), 7:30
p Val Lewton. d Mark Robson. w Charles O'Neal, DeWitt Bodeen. ph Nicholas Musuraca. m Roy Webb. RKO. 71 min.

Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, Evelyn Brent, Erford Gage, Hugh Beaumont, Ben Bard, Chef Milani.

A young woman searching for her missing sister stumbles upon devil worshipers in New York City.

"The film has a haunting, lyrical, overwhelming sense of melancholy and despair." Baseline Movie Guide

first played at the Stanford Theatre Nov 1, 2000; last played Mar 2011

The Leopard Man (1943) 6:10, 8:55
p Val Lewton. d Jacques Tourneur. w Ardel Wray, based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich. ph Robert De Grasse. m Roy Webb. RKO. 66 min.

Dennis O'Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, James Bell, Margaret Landry, Abner Biberman, Tula Parma, Ben Bard.

A series of murders in a sleepy New Mexico village is blamed on an escaped leopard.

The overt supernatural element is less evident in this film, which resembles an Hispanic film noir with Val Lewton's trademark walks in the terrifying darkness.

first played at the Stanford Theatre Nov 8, 2000; last played Feb 2011

Apr 10 – 13: closed

Apr 14 – 16:
The Curse of the Cat People (1944) (4:50), 7:30
p Val Lewton. d Robert Wise & Gunther V. Fritsch. w DeWitt Bodeen. ph Nicholas Musuraca. m Roy Webb. RKO. 70 min.

Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Ann Carter, Eve March, Julia Dean, Elizabeth Russell, Erford Gage, Sir Lancelot.

A lonely little girl creates her own fantasy world, with a mysterious friend, a beautiful lady who could possibly be only a figment of her imagination.

This wonderfully poetic sequel to the sensationally successful Cat People is more of a childhood fantasy than a true horror picture, notwithstanding the lurid title given by the studio. The performance by 8-year-old Ann Carter is exquisite.

first played at the Stanford Theatre Mar 6, 1991; last played Aug 2013

"Who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock."
The Ghost Ship (1943) 6:10, 8:50
p Val Lewton. d Mark Robson. w Donald Henderson Clarke. ph Nicholas Musuraca. m Roy Webb. RKO. 69 min.

Richard Dix, Russell Wade, Edith Barrett, Ben Bard, Edmund Glover, Skelton Knaggs, Tom Burton, Steve Winston, Robert Rice.

A young third officer questions the irrational behaviour of the ship's captain.

This is more psychological drama than true horror picture, somewhat resembling The Caine Mutiny.

Richard Dix, who gave a restrained but highly effective performance as the mentally unbalanced captain, appeared in nearly fifty silent films (most now lost), and he starred in Cimmaron, which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1931. Later in his career he appeared in The Whistler series.

first played at the Stanford Theatre Nov 22, 2000; last played Feb 2011

Apr 17 – 20: closed

Apr 21 – 23:
"All the roads of learning begin in darkness and go out into light"
The Body Snatcher (1945) (4:35), 7:30
p Val Lewton. d Robert Wise. w Philip MacDonald, Carlos Keith, based on the story by Robert Louis Stevenson. ph Robert De Grasse. m Roy Webb. RKO. 77 min.

Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade, Rita Corday, Sharyn Moffett, Donna Lee.

Hansom cab driver Boris Karloff supplies corpses to medical professor Henry Daniell in 1831 Edinburgh.

Boris Karloff made three pictures with Val Lewton. He was in full sympathy with Lewton's conception that horror films (he preferred the word "terror") should use subtlety and suggestion rather than crude violence. In 1943 Karloff published an anthology of terror stories. His introduction perfectly describes the Lewton approach:

"Go out and stand quite alone in your garden, far from your house, on a really dark, still night. Without warning every tree and bush and blade of grass is agitated by some mysterious movement coming from nowhere, and ceasing as suddenly as it began. What was it? Where did that odd sense of chill come from, and what was it that brushed your cheek?"
"The mightiest weapon of the writer of the terror tale is the power of suggestion — the skill to take the reader by means of that power into an atmosphere where even the incredible seems credible. Boris Karloff, in Tales of Terror.

"Fine atmospheric tale." Leonard Maltin

"One of the most literate and restrained of all horror films." William K. Everson

first played at the Stanford Theatre Nov 8, 2000; last played Feb 2011

"The horseman on the pale horse is pestilence — he follows the wars."
The Isle of the Dead (1945) 6:05, 9:00
p Val Lewton. d Mark Robson. w Ardel Wray. ph Jack Mackenzie. m Leigh Harline. RKO. 72 min.

Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer, Katherine Emery, Helene Thimig, Alan Napier, Jason Robards, Ernest Dorian.

A group of travelers is stranded on a Greek island, quarantined by a plague — or perhaps something more sinister. A pretty young woman is suspected of being a vorvolaka, a sinister agent of death in Greek folklore, but others prefer a more scientific explanation. One guest has a special horror of premature burial, which provides the film's most famous "horror" sequence.

Boris Karloff gives a fascinating performance as the Greek general in charge of the claustrophobic gathering.

Some critics complained about the leisurely pace, but this film has many admirers, including Martin Scorsese.

first played at the Stanford Theatre Nov 22, 2000; last played June 2013

Apr 24 – 27: closed

Apr 28 – 30:
"Are we lovers, that you thee and thou me?"
Bedlam (1946) (3:50), 7:30
p Val Lewton. d Mark Robson. w Charles Keith, Mark Robson. ph Nicholas Musuraca. m Roy Webb. RKO. 80 min.

Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House, Richard Fraser, Glenn Vernon, Ian Wolfe, Jason Robards, Leland Hodgson.

An actress tries to improve the conditions at London's notorious Bedlam asylum, but the sadistic head of the asylum (Boris Karloff) has her declared insane.

first played at the Stanford Theatre Oct 31, 1946; last played Feb 2011

"I don't want to win awards. Give me pictures that end with a kiss and black ink on the books."
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) 5:20, 9:00
d Vincente Minnelli. w Charles Schnee. ph Robert Surtees. m David Raksin. MGM. 118 min.

Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Gloria Grahame, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Gilbert Roland, Leo G. Carroll, Vanessa Brown, Paul Stewart.

In perhaps the greatest movie ever made about Hollywood (it won five Oscars), a brilliant but egomaniacal producer (Douglas) asks three of his protegés to work again with him, but they cannot forgive him for the price they had to pay for their success. David Raksin's musical score is one of the best ever composed for a Hollywood film.

This picture was not made by Val Lewton, but we include it because its central character, the producer Jonathan Shields (played by Kirk Douglas), is at least partly based on Val Lewton. The low-budget horror film, The Doom of the Cat Men, is an obvious reference to Lewton's Cat People. A discussion between the producer and director applies perfectly to Lewton's films:

"Put five men dressed like cats on the screen, what do they look like? Like five men dressed like cats. When an audience pays to see a picture like this, what do they pay for? To get the pants scared off them. And what scares the human race more than any other single thing? The dark. Of course. Why? Because the dark has a life of its own. In the dark all sorts of things come alive. Suppose we never do show the cat men?"

The Bad and the Beautiful has been the sixty-seventh most widely attended film at the Stanford Theatre — 16,571 tickets since 1989.
first played at the Stanford Theatre July 6, 1990; last played Mar 2012