by Victor Halperin
White Zombie, as many others have noted, is one of the best American horror films of the early sound era. It's straight-faced, unlike Dracula or The Invisible Man, engaging, unlike The Mummy, and not too wierd like The Black Cat. It does, however lose a bit of it's frightening quality after the first act, not unlike Island of Lost Souls. It is however nicely paced, has a few decent shocks, and a mostly reigned in performance by Bela Lugosi. His supporting cast are really just that (all competent, no one exceptional. Madge Bellamy does a fine job as a vegetable, Robert Frazer the same as a jilted eccentric). The 1932 release date explains a lot (the scripts reliance on a christian in Haiti to do all of the spiritual and physical legwork, the attitude towards the natives). There are, as I said, many fine moments, the introduction the sugar mill being the very best. There's also the Matte painting that stands in for Murder's lair that looks sufficiently spooky. The ending is a bit romantic (even by 30s standards), but I can't really expect much else. Thoroughly confusing is why the only black person in the film is Neil and Madeleine's chauffeur and why Victor Halperin made no effort whatsoever to make the natives appear as anything but porky white guys. Perhaps it was this ethic that brought about the ruin of his career four years later when he and his brother attempted to cash in on their success. The simple and haunting White Zombie gave way to the dull and wrongheaded Revolt of the Zombies, a movie with no connection to this except for some recycled footage of Bela Lugosi in close-up and the same men behind the lens. All in all, at an hour and 5 minutes, you could do a right sight worse.
I Walked With A Zombie
by Jacques Tourneur
One night shortly after arriving, Betsy hears a strange crying coming from an empty stone tower on the Holland's property. When she sneaks out to discover its origin, she comes face to face with Jessica in ghastly white robes. Paul calms the frightened nurse while Wesley grabs Jessica and carries her back to the house. Talk about priorities. And as for that, Betsy finds herself tragically falling love with Paul (Christ the 40s were a melodramatic time). Anyway, so Betsy realizes she and Paul can't be together, but she wants to make him happy, and gets it into her head that the only way to do this is to take Jessica, in secret, to a voodoo ceremony to see if someone can't magic all the coma out of her. So, in the middle of the night, nurse guides patient through a dead field to the ceremony where they come face to face with....A Zombie! And a scary bastard he is. The ceremony doesn't go as expected, it just has the effect of making the voodoo worshippers interested in kidnapping Jessica to add to their zombie collection. A whole slew of starcrossed lovers, an antsy voodoo cult, and a zombie wandering about. Sounds like fun to me.
I Walked With A Zombie gets mixed reviews from the zombie loving crowd. Some find it tedious and boring, others calculated and chilling. Everyone however agrees about the power of the films best scenes. The first, the discovery of Mrs. Holland in the bell tower and the second, the first appearance of the zombie. Personally I don't think there's been a better cinematic zombie than the one Darby Jones portrays here. Rigid posture, bugging eyes, Jones has some real cosmic menace. His performance is about the one thing everyone finds to like about I Walked With A Zombie. There are some other decent performances here, but I for one don't really get Tom Conway as a romantic lead. Depressed husband I get, but not future prospect. He did better playing stodgy men of science and perverted psychiatrists. That voice and his mad appearance lend themselves to characters, not leads, if you get my meaning. Frances Dee is wholly uninspiring, but Edith Barrett as Mrs. Rand and James Ellison as Wesley make up for it. Ellison's finest moment comes when he spies Jessica leaving the premises, headed for the voodoo priest bidding her with spiritual finger come hither. His wordless response is perfect and the movie closes on a simultaneous up and down beat. It's one of my favorite ending shots of all time. The film has a sort of sun-drenched look to it that Tourneur delivers flawlessly and it makes me love I Walked With A Zombie all the more. I really like this film and I think it's one of those rare works of art that lends weight to the horror genre's transcendent power. It is very thoughtfully composed, a little heavy-handed, legitimately scary at times, and quite beautiful to watch.
Incidentally, if you happen upon the Val Lewton Collection of this, it's worth it to watch again with Kim Newman's commentary. The man is brilliant and knows everything there is to know about this film. Plus who doesn't like the sound of a British film critic's voice?