Jump to the Val Lewton Halloween Party menu.
Orson Welles gets a bad wrap. Traditional lore blames him for bankrupting RKO studios with Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and the unfinished documentary It’s All True.
As is often the case, it’s a little more complicated than that (and true nerds can read all about it at this Wikipedia link on RKO). Meanwhile, Welles and the studio gave us one great movie (Kane), one movie that makes us cry because the studio cut it to shit in a fit of pet (Ambersons), and one helluva cautionary tale about pissing off employers (the aborted True).
It is partly thanks to Welles, whatever the extent of his role in putting RKO in a big red hole, that we have the marvelous ultra-cheap, ultra-stylish horror movies of Val Lewton. A journeyman who’d written novels and screenplays and knocked around a number of Hollywood studios, Lewton was hired in 1942 as Head of Horror at RKO.
He had 3 rules to follow:
- Bring the movies in under $150,000 bucks. That’s equal to about 2 million today. Kane cost around $800,00 in 1940s money.
- They couldn’t be longer than 75 minutes.
- The studio would provide the titles; Lewton would then make a movie around whatever he got. Shades of Kane’s direction, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”
The result is a series of elegant, evocative movies that rely on lighting, sound, and camera work for their creepy, haunting effects. And because they’re all so short, they make for a fabulous triple bill.
I’ve picked my three favorites for a dinner and movie night appropriate to the season. I’ve also given alternate suggestions in case you want to pair one of the Lewtons with something more contemporary.
The Val Lewton Halloween Party: First Course
Ignore the bad remake with Nastassja Kinski and the David Bowie song. Instead, kick your night off with Cat People, a marvelous walk on the wild side of 1942 New Orleans. Simone Simon slinks around as our Cat Person, stalking around the Big Easy. According to some ancient curse, passion—not limited to sex but extending into any strong emotion—is going to turn her into a big scary panther. There’s a prey-stalking sequence that’s bloodcurdling, as well as the famous swimming pool scene, which never gets old. Director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicolas Musuraca provide the chills, and Mark Robson edits for brittle tension.
Our first course food-wise is, naturally, a famous NOLA soup: Gumbo Z’Herbes. It’s pronounced, by the way, with a short “e” sound like in “met,” not to rhyme with urban; it’s a French thing. You can see it being made here, and get the correct pronunciation and a really delightful history, direct from Leah Chase, a New Orleans legend. If you go to NOLA, you gotta eat at Dooky Chase right on the edge of the Treme. Trust me.
As Ms. Chase notes, Gumbo Z’Herbes depends on a mess of greens. An odd number, please, as an even number is bad luck. I hit up my friends at Frog Holler farm to come up with my recipe for Gumbo Z’Herbes. It’s a great first course that you can make as vegan or carniverous as you like.
The Val Lewton Halloween Party: The Main
The second movie on the menu is 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie. I hate zombie stuff (other than the brilliant Shawn of the Dead; see below). All that chomping on flesh just ain’t my thing. Lewton’s Zombie instead focuses on a woman who simply walks around with unstaring eyes. On paper, the story’s utterly ridiculous, featuring lots of “voodoo” flourishes and Caribbean fripperies. Yet Zombie has an irresistible hynotic quality, a melancholy air that can’t help but remind you of Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s marvelous chronicle of Mrs. Rochester, before she became Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic.
To go with this, I offer this recipe for a Caribbean bowl. Saute the protein of your choice with jerk seasoning, served in a bowl with tropical fruits and vegetables over coconut rice.
The Val Lewton Halloween Party: Dessert
The same year, 1943, Lewton made The Seventh Victim. A quest for a missing sister, abduction by a Satanic cult that doesn’t like violence, and a chase through an alley all take place in Greenwich Village. It may be the saddest of Lewton’s movies.
Certainly, it’s the biggest enigma. It’s one of those that has stuck in my head to a degree that initially surprised me. In a review for the NYT, Caryn James called it “a triumph of style over substance,” which is as good a way as any to say that the plot’s a bit of a mess, but the movie itself is memorable enough that it doesn’t matter. One thing to note: According to Val Lewton’s son Val E. Lewton, the final shot needs an extra 4-5 seconds to sink in. But the filmmakers couldn’t afford it. So just imagine it there. Also, Jean Brooks, the brunette, is SO MUCH prettier than this poster depicts.
For dessert, you can, of course, just pig out on Halloween candy. But if you want to be more dinner party-ish, a key scene in the movie takes place in an Italian restaurant. So I recommend a tart sorbet from talenti with some grated chocolate on top. While blood orange would be perfect, it’s can be hard to find. Raspberry does just fine.
Don’t miss the chocolate, though. Because, you know, it’s dark.
Variation 1: The NOLA Halloween
Of course, you can have a Val Lewton Halloween Party with just one of Mr. Lewton’s movies. To go with Cat People, start with it and Gumbo Z’Herbes. A natural follow-up would be Interview with the Vampire if it weren’t a pretty bad movie. More interesting in my book is the complete cluster F that is Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. If you can get past the eye-rolling awfulness of naming a devil character Louis Cypher, Angel Heart delivers a weird whirl of Mickey Rourke mumbling and smirking, Robert de Niro visibly wondering if he should try to twirl his pencil-thin mustaches, Charlotte Rampling ghosting about a creepy old mansion, and Lisa Bonet doing a very sexy dance with, of all things, a freshly slaughtered chicken.
You can easily adapt the Caribbean bowl into a Cajun one. Use a dirty rice mix instead of coconut, replace the lime with lemon and the jerk seasoning with Cajun spice, and you’ll be good to go. For dessert, Halloween Candy or sorbet are easy. You can also give this Bourbon Bread Pudding recipe, a classic NOLA sweet, a shot. As in, a shot of bourbon, which decadents up an otherwise innocent sauce.
Variation 2: The Haunted Halloween
Kick your night off with I Walked with a Zombie and pumpkin soup. On a recent trip to Jamaica, I was surprised and tickled to see pumpkin all over the place: in a soup, in Rasta Pasta (a vegetarian entree), and cubed and sauteed with fresh snapper. There are dozens of great pumpkin soup recipes out there; my recipe for pumpkin soup has a distinct Jamaican edge.
Follow that with the Caribbean bowl and your next movie. Of course, something from the Pirates of Caribbean franchise might be just the ticket, but I’ve never gotten into the series and can’t really recommend one. The “ish” in the title comes from the fact that I’m gonna blow off the Caribbean location for my second feature recos and suggest another great black and white scary movie, Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Based on Shirley Jackson’s creepy masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House, the 1963 black and white movie is the only one to capture the author’s sense of impending, tragic doom. The remake from the early aughts is completely awful, and the current Netflix series annoys me. Track down the original. And in the following trailer, you gotta love Russ Tamblyn trying to do a Scared Face.
Linday’s Hot Buttered Rum Bread Pudding is the perfect squishy, comfy dessert.
Variation 3: The Witch-y Halloween
Start with The Seventh Victim and a devilishly spicy tomato soup. This is from Tieghan and Half Baked Harvest, and it’s the one I always make.
For your main, counter all this gloom and doom and upcoming austerity (in our next feature) with something utterly decadent and comfy, my favorite Polenta with Mushrooms. The plus is you can cook it in the oven, so it’s pretty hands off for polenta.
Then queue up Robert Eggers 2015 The Witch. Another corner-of-the-eye, under-the-skin thriller, The Witch is also a history and psychology lesson. It’s based on primary sources from the time: King James I’s treatise on demonology, Cotton Mather’s blather. You know, the stuff they used to as a Scientific Basis to hang people.
As mentioned, blood orange sorbet covered in dark chocolate shreds would be perfect. But since that particular flavor can be hard to find ready-made at this point, raspberry stands in just fine. Or, if all this Puritan stuff is putting you in mind of a stiff drink, try Tieghan’s delightful Poison Apple Cocktail.
Shiver and enjoy.