Val Lewton - Scariest man in black and white on a chills/$ production cost basis. So for Halloween, we watched a double feature: The Leopard Man / The Ghost Ship. You may know Lewton as the producer of Cat People - not the one with Natassia Kinski. He was brilliant at creating a mood that suggests horror without actually showing very much. This is partially due to having no budget, but he elevated it to an art form.
The Leopard Man, directed by noir icon Jacques Tourneur, takes place in a southwestern border town. Jean Brooks is a cabaret singer and her manager, Dennis O'Keefe, convinces her to make an entrance with a leopard on a leash. The cat gets a fright and bolts, leading to the death of a young girl. Now the town is in a panic, and more girls turn up dead. The leopard is running amok - or something is.
One of the charms of Leopard Man is the range of characters. We get 3 cabaret performers, a manager, two young women and their families and a few local characters, including the local leopard rental man, Indian Charlie How-Come (and the leopard, returning from Cat People). In a very short movie, each is allowed to come alive. It's a very full movie that way.
My main complaint is the protagonists, who released the darn cat at the start of the movie. They almost feel as if they are responsible for all the killing and maiming. Crazy kids.
The Ghost Ship starts with a window display of knives in a ship's chandlery. A young ship's officer gives a coin to a blind street singer, who gives him a terrible augury. He boards the vessel and asks a sailor for the captain. The sailor only gestures with his knife. Oh, there will be knives in this movie, indeed. As the officer leaves, the sailor delivers a voice-over internal monologue, for he is mute and no man can know him.
When our young officer meets the captain, the mood lifts a little. The officer is third mate, just out of cadet school on his first voyage. The captain seems a kindly philosophical sort, looking forward to sharing thoughts with the young man on the long voyage.
But after they are at sea for a while, the captain begins to look different - capricious, indecisive, possibly worse. Men are killed. Our young man loses all faith in the captain, but what can he do? Even his best friend aboard, Sparks the radioman, doesn't want to "rock the boat". And he can't even get off the ship.
This movie doesn't have as much of the spooky shadows as traditional Lewton fare. But it does have some lovely freighter location shooting. It is also filled with symbols and portents, like a the knives and the mute and a plaque reading, "Who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock".
Bonus: Because these movies are so short, we had time for an Instant movie - Phantom Ship, with Bela Lugosi. A fictionalized story of the mystery of the Marie Celeste, with Lugosi aboard on a mysterious mission of vengeance. Like Ghost Ship, one of it's best features is the use of a real ship, this time a wooden sailing ship. But there is the same slow attrition of the men and questions of the authority of the captain.
For those who like it, there are also sea chanties, lots of them. For those who don't like sea chanties, -SPOILER- there is a concertina, totally destroyed.