Val Lewton, born Vladimir Lewton, was an RKO Pictures producer who oversaw the creation of a string of 1940s B-movies that have become acclaimed as among the best films of the era, horror or otherwise. These include the classics Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, which anticipate such modern horror features as "jump scares" and the replacement of external threats with internal, psychological threats.
Lewton was the nephew of actress Alla Nazimova, who helped him to get employed in the Hollywood studios. He worked as a script editor for David O. Selznick, whom he advised not to film Gone With the Wind, an error apparently referenced in Sunset Boulevard. RKO had lost money on their attempt to establish themselves as a "prestige" studio with films like Citizen Kane, and they employed Lewton to produce horror films under strict time and budget limitations. Aside from Universal, with their Lon Chaney, Jr. vehicles and campy monster comedies, RKO became the only major US producer of horror films in the 1940s.
Lewton did not have money for special effects or location settings, so he set his films in modern, urban locations that could reuse existing sets and relied on good screenwriting to create tension. His emphasis on the fear of the unknown helped him to overcome the difficulties of working with small budgets in a disrespected genre. Critics wrote of him as the hope for Hollywood's future. RKO released him from his contract when his postwar productions failed to make money, and Lewton made a few more independent productions before an early death from a heart attack.
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