During the 1940s, Russian born Val Lewton headed the horror production arm of RKO Pictures. During an almost five year run, he oversaw the creation of some of the most atmospheric thrillers ever made. Influenced in some part by the budgetary restrictions imposed by the studio, films like CAT PEOPLE, ISLE OF THE DEAD and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE were nothing like the special effects driven monster movies released by Universal Pictures during that time. Lewton’s productions were far more atmospheric and psychological, to the extent that sometimes no supernatural presence of any kind could be pinpointed in his films. A major contributor to the look and tone was frequent collaborator Jacques Tournier, a director who established a film noir like approach that would mark RKO’s style throughout the 1940s. But as 1945 drew to a close, Val Lewton was ready to move on.
But Val Lewton’s association with RKO did not end there. After having completed a screenplay for a Paramount Studios produced period piece on Lucrezia Borgia, RKO asked Val Lewton to return and make good on a contract obligation to produce one more horror film. THE WOLFMAN himself Lon Chaney, Jr. was on loan from Universal Pictures. After having been critically derided for his performance as a crazed, cannibalistic psychologist in the otherwise forgettable RED DRAGON, Chaney was desperately looking for work and RKO wanted to rush something into production starring their new leading man. Reluctantly, Lewton agreed. RKO had been none too kind to him after his friend, former production head Charles Koerner, died in 1946. Not to mention the resulting personnel upheavals had taken an almost fatal toll on Lewton’s health. But an obligation was an obligation. And so Lewton collaborated with Jacques Tournier for just one more time. And together they created one of the most disturbing psychological horror films of the mid 20th century.
In the film a young, newly widowed mother finds her home haunted by the physicalization of her child’s nightmares. This malevolent boogeyman is referred to as “The Babadook,” a name taken from a story told to the boy by his late father. Lon Chaney, Jr. would portray both “The Babadook” and the father in flashbacks thus connecting the real world to the fantastic while heavily implying both spousal and child abuse on the dead father’s part. Patricia Neal made her screen debut in the role of the mom (she would follow this up with a star making turn 1949’s THE FOUNTAINHEAD). And veteran child actor Roddy McDowell would play the troubled boy. The film was rushed through production and it is said that Lewton’s heart wasn’t in it. So maybe the credit should go to Tournier for what turned out to be a very suspenseful, very well acted movie. The film could’ve been marred by the studio imposed ending; the Babadook is eventually defeated by the ghost of the dead father who then asks for his son’s (and his wife’s) forgiveness for his abusive ways. But Lewton came up with a surprise final coda, a shot suggesting that it was all in the mother’s head and that the threat may not have been averted after all.
While it did receive some positive reviews, THE BABADOOK was pretty much a box office failure, helped to no end by RKO’s lack of faith in the project. It wasn’t until the late 1960s when French iconoclast Jean Luc Godard made the claim that THE BABADOOK was “a lost masterpiece” thus renewing interest among critics and Godard’s contemporaries. It has since developed a well-deserved cult following.
As for the principals involved, RKO Pictures closed up shop after a string of bombs in 1957. Patricia Neal went on to become one of the most respected American actresses of her generation. Roddy McDowell would grow up to star in the wildly popular television series THE MONKEES. Lon Chaney, Jr. managed to turn his career around and eventually won the Oscar for his performance as Marlon Brando’s brother in ON THE WATERFRONT. And not too long after THE BABADOOK had ended production, Val Lewton would die of a heart attack in 1951. Jacques Tournier continued directing films throughout the 50s and 60s having been responsible for some of the finer film noirs of the 1950s, culminating with his masterpiece CHINATOWN. But it is a shame how little he (or Val Lewton for that matter) would know just how well regarded THE BABADOOK would come to be.