If it’s a month with 31 days in it, you can be sure that Jules will be firing out the horror movie reviews.
So, following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August, Jules is once travelling across the pond this October with… you guessed it… 31 MORE Days of American Horror!
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks
A year after they changed the game with Cat People and only a month after releasing the stunning I Walked With A Zombie, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur did it again with The Leopard Man.
Eschewing the supernatural for a very realistic serial killer story (decades before there was a word for that, obviously), it still beats all the hallmarks that the pair had already made their own, being a quiet, lyrical and subtle film, where overt horror is discarded in favour of suggestion and shadows, while still managing to be utterly terrifying at the same time.
Based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woodrich, The Leopard Man might not quite hit the stellar heights of Tourneur’s last two films, but it’s not far off.
Kiki (Jean Brooks) is a nightclub singer in New Mexico who’s boyfriend Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) hires her a black leopard to walk on a lead as a PR stunt. Fearing being upstaged, her bitter rival Clo Clo (Margo) startles the animal and it escapes from the club. It’s not long before a young woman is found mauled to death and a posse is formed to catch the rogue animal.
Kiki and Manning feel responsible for the death, but when the bodies begin to mount up, the latter begins to suspect that the killer might not be the animal at all…
As is apparent there, The Leopard Man doesn’t have the most complex of plots, but it makes up for it with a cast full of rich, vivid characters and an ever-present feeling of tension, as if death might leap from the dark at any point.
That atmosphere is at its most nerve-shredding at the frequent set pieces involving a woman walking the streets alone. There’s an initial red herring when Clo Clo heads home, building the tension to almost unbearable levels, or so you think. Then Teresa (Margaret Landry), a girl sent to fetch cornmeal by her mother in the middle of the night, becomes the first victim and its so, so much worse. Tourneur lets her get almost home, twisting the knife throughout, until she gets to her front door, screaming to be let in as her mother takes her sweet time, until it all goes quiet and blood seeps under the door. It’s like a nightmare come to life, a slow, dreadful death in slow motion with a killer that you can’t see but know is there.
The death of Consuelo (Tula Parma), a young woman locked inside a cemetery is a masterclass in suggestion, where a branch slowly bends, cracks, then is released to the sound of a scream. We see nothing, but we know everything and that’s much more disturbing.
There’s a constant presence of wind blowing in the background too, adding to feeling of space, emptiness and solitude. It’s a bustling, vibrant community these people live in but when they die, they’re alone and completely helpless and Tourneur uses sound and light (or the lack of it) to reinforce their separation from the rest of the town in their last moments. Chilling.
None of this would work half as well if the town didn’t live and breathe, with even the supporting characters feeling like real people, ones with ambitions, jealousies, desires and passions, which still works with some only being introduced halfway through the film, such is the skilled interplay between the story’s mini-narratives.
The Leopard Man is for all intents and purposes one of the first proto-slashers in American cinema, if not the first, but it’s so much more than that. For the third time in a year, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur created a masterpiece in doing so much with so little and delivered yet another classic. Magnificent.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy