Q & A with the author of Music in the Horror Films of Val Lewton

by Michael Lee

Tell us a bit about your book…

Music in the Horror Films of Val Lewton offers interpretive analyses of Val Lewton’s horror films as seen through the lens of the music within them. Lewton, who both produced and wrote the scripts, transformed the horror genre by abandoning the film industry’s dominant practices as codified at Universal Pictures during the 1930s. In place of Universal’s vague European settings in an ill-defined past with copious depictions of monsters and monstrosity, Lewton emphasized mundane, contemporary settings where monstrosity appears in the minds of ordinary people possessed of unhealthy certainties about themselves and the world. Lewton’s radical approach required RKO Picture’s Music and Sound Departments to reinvent their roles in frightening audiences.

What inspired you to research this area?

These films have been dear to me since I was a teenager. They sang out of tune with their time and place, wartime Hollywood, for regarding askance casual certitudes about one’s claim to the mantle of normalcy. The more I watched them, the more certain I became that something wonderful, something worthy of minute examination lurked within them. 

What was the most exciting thing about this project for you?

Pouring over materials in archives. This sort of work thrills me. Looking at a sheet of music manuscript and seeing the marginal notes from composer to orchestrator then orchestrator to copyist inspired my imagination to discover the story behind these words. One example, composer Roy Webb often named the snatches of melody in his scores. Early in Lewton’s first film, he labels a quiet, shimmering passage in his score “Lalage.” Later, the film’s dialogue reveals Lalage to be the main character’s favorite perfume. This music returns, suggesting that Webb wanted his music to compensate for film’s inability to express a fragrance. Webb’s marginalia and labeling of musical materials reveal his engagement with the deeper meanings of the films for which he composed. This obscure figure from music history came to life for me in the archives as a keen observer of films with an analytical mind for understanding films crafted to upend the film industry’s approach to horror.

Did you discover anything strange or surprising?

I discovered that the US War Department requested that all Hollywood motion picture companies create a new “Victory Signature” to accompany their logo at the beginning of films. Webb created his and first deployed it on the film “Cat People.” While the War Department wanted “bright, cheerful, and triumphant” music; Webb created a discordant and somber variation on the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. My first chapter looks at this strange and even surprising detail of Hollywood film history.

Did you get exclusive access to any new or hard-to-find sources?

I cannot say “exclusive” as most everything I saw was held in various university and film industry archives. But I did interview Val Lewton’s son, the painter Val Lewton, Jr. I asked him if he recalled anything about his father’s views on the music in his films. He provided the most useful reply, quoted in full in the book. In it he reveals through amusing stories his father’s tone deafness. As Lewton is seen as the auteur producer of his films, that anecdote elevates the independence of the RKO Music Department’s contribution to Lewton’s films.

Did your research take you to any unexpected places or unusual situations?

Film Music scholars do not ordinarily visit the National Security Archive at George Washington University to review FBI files housed among the Michael Ravnitzky Papers. I learned there that the FBI concluded that Val Lewton was “a known communist” (interesting as he never joined the party). They tailed him to lunches and recorded the license plate numbers of his fellow diners, they sat outside his home to record his visitors, and so on. It all looks like the clumsiest of cloak and dagger and a glimpse into the ugly era of McCarthyism.

Has your research in this area changed the way you see the world today?

Since the digitization of cinema, the composition of film music by figures like Hans Zimmer has been relocated often to pre-production whereas in old Hollywood, musicians were always the last creative people to contribute to a finished film. From that vantage, the ideals of “playing the picture” which had prevailed since the earliest days of film allowed film music to provide the sort of analytical commentary that Roy Webb, Leigh Harline, LeRoy Antoine and others provided Lewton’s horror films. Music created as part of pre-production comprised of digital loops upon loops deny film composers the vantage of first viewers and last contributors. Writing this book has allowed me a perspective of regret for lost industrial procedures superseded by technological advances that appear on the surface more efficient.

What’s next for you?

I am working on a collection of essays that I believe will result in a book on monsters making music. Often in horror films, we find villains and monsters who make music within the film. The Phantom of the Opera plays the organ and composes, Dracula’s daughter is a pianist, many a devil plays violin, and a recent vampire expresses his regrets on electric guitar. These rueful monsters express their longings for release, realize their dreams of control, and charm their victims and adversaries musically. I am exploring this and look forward to sharing the results.

About the Book

Cover Image of Music in the Horror Films of Val Lewton

Val Lewton’s horror films revolutionized a popular genre through a much-studied and still widely emulated visual style emphasizing shadows and absences. By denying audiences visual confirmation of horror, his reforms placed a fresh burden on the soundtrack of his films. This book offers a fine-grained study of the Lewton unit’s transformational sonic style which introduced the first “jump scare,” liberal use of pre-musique concrète, and an original orchestral score for every film in the series in violation of “B” movie norms.

About the Author

Michael Lee is Professor of Musicology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of numerous articles on film music in horror films from studio-era Hollywood. His earlier work focuses on the American postwar avant-garde and the Ballets Russes in the 1920s.

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