November 12, 2014
If we rated directors by the quality and influence of their five best movies, then JACQUES TOURNEUR (1903–77) would be as famous as Hitchcock. The three B-movies that the French-American director made with Val Lewton at RKO established him as the premier horror director of the 1940s. The first of these was Cat People (1942) a dark fable of repressed sexuality and perfectly calibrated suspense. The movie draws from Lewton’s romantic fatalism and emphasis on imagined but unseen horror, but it’s Tourneur’s elegant, innovative direction that make it work on film. There’s a tenderness and poetry in Tourneur’s style that produced something singular when married to Lewton’s dark vision. You see it particularly in I Walked With A Zombie (1943), an exotic voodoo remake of Jane Eyre; though Tourneur could certainly engineer jump shocks, here he leads us away on the hypnotic pulse of drums from a tropical melodrama out into the sugar cane until we’ve crossed into something unimaginably eerie. After The Leopard Man (1943), Tourneur became an A-List director, working steadily through the ’40s and ’50s, turning out fine work in everything from swashbucklers to Westerns. Most notably, he helmed what is perhaps the quintessential film noir, Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum; and his 1958 horror movie Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon), based on M.R. James story “Casting The Runes,” is a masterpiece. At the mention of Tourneur’s name, you hear, “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!”, and you see see a woman swimming in a pool at night, and you see a man in clown face laughing as a windstorm blows a party away. And in your heart, you remember dread.
MORE HORROR ON HILOBROW: Early ’60s Horror, a series by David Smay | Phone Horror, a series by Devin McKinney | Philip Stone’s Hat-Trick | Shocking Blocking: Candyman | Shocking Blocking: A Bucket of Blood | Kenneth Anger | Sax Rohmer | August Derleth | Edgar Ulmer | Vincent Price | Max von Sydow | Lon Chaney Sr. | James Whale | Wes Craven | Roman Polanski | Ed Wood | John Carpenter | George A. Romero | David Cronenberg | Roger Corman | Georges Franju | Shirley Jackson | Jacques Tourneur | Ray Bradbury | Edgar Allan Poe | Algernon Blackwood | H.P. Lovecraft | Clark Ashton Smith | Gaston Leroux |
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