Martin Scorsese's visually spectacular psychological noir Shutter Island, opening in theaters tomorrow, was technically based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, but its real inspiration seems to be the thrillers of the 1940s-50s produced by Val Lewton. Lewton, best known for the original Cat People (in which Simone Simon plays a Serbian immigrant who turns into a jungle cat when sexually excited), produced a series of low-budget quasi-horror films that played on World War II and Cold War era American anxieties. What started as canny cost-effective shortcuts (ie: don't show the monster, show its shadow — that way we don't have spend money on a monster suit) developed into a Lewton house style; his best films eschew explicit horror to place identifiable American archetypes in a climate of pervasive melancholic dread.

Scorsese is an avowed fan of Lewton's films; he co-produced and narrated Kent Jones' documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, and he recently named Lewton's 1945 Boris Karloff starrer Isle of the Dead as the #2 scariest horror film of all time. Shutter Island feels like a Lewton film, in that uses a mystery with overtones of otherworldy evil as the vehicle for a more atmospheric evocation the paranoia and psychological damage rampant in a real world reeling from the horrors of technology-assisted war. But there are also elements of direct, almost frame-by-frame homage to Lewton's work, particularly to Isle and its 1945 follow-up, Bedlam

If you're looking for a Lewton primer before heading into Shutter Island, you can watch Isle of the Dead in eight parts on YouTube; the first part is embedded below the jump.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.