Thursday, October 9, 2008

October Shall Be Voodoo Month!

Ok, now it’s time for a history lesson. Not a very in depth one, and nothing below the surface, but it’s still important, damn you. A little while ago I sat in on a zombie panel at the release of Jonathan Maberry’s Zombie CSU and the question of the first zombie movie we’d seen came up. Fantasy author Gregory Frost's answer was I Walked With A Zombie, which he thought might have been the first zombie movie ever made. I, the upstart of the group, told him otherwise. So the inevitable next question was, “Just what was the first zombie film?” The answer in a moment, but first a digression. It’s no secret to anyone with an interest in ethnobotany or more than a passing familiarity with zombies that zombies are in fact a real thing. They aren’t the George A. Romero-created horror paradigm that so many of us are obsessed with but rather laborers who ingest one drug that stops their hearts so they can be revived later by another drug (Maberry and the other panel members knew more about the actual cocktail you have to take to get undead). This practice is not new and there are a few books on the subject (Harlem Renaissance pariah Zore Neale Hurston’s 1937 account of her trip to Haiti, Tell My Horse, and Wade Davis’ 1985 expose on the subject, The Serpent and the Rainbow, to name a few), but we’re here for the cinematic side of things. Before those books were published, there was exactly one account of zombies as we know them in American culture until 1932; a 1926 short story by H.P. Lovecraft called Cool Air was really all there was. In 1932 the first [voodoo] zombie movie was directed by Victor Halperin and produced by his brother Edward. Bela Lugosi plays the ring leader of the zombies and the story is not unlike many of his other post-Dracula roles.

White Zombie
by Victor Halperin
A young couple, not unlike the one from The Black Cat, The Raven, or The Old Dark House, ride through the night in a horse drawn carriage. The two lovebirds, Neil and Madeline, are in Haiti and they’re to be married that night. Why have they come here of all places? Well, they’re seeing an old acquaintance of the young woman named Charles Beaumont. He’s graciously offered his hacienda as the site of their nuptials, but what the husband in this equation doesn’t realize is that this acquaintance has a different marriage in mind. Seems Beaumont and Madeline used to have a bit of a thing and Beaumont isn’t really over the young lass. Seems he brought her here to win her back and he’s got an ace up his sleeve if she says no. As if it needed to be said, she does, which sends Beaumont for his lifeboat, an old man by the name of Murder Legendre. We know this man is evil because he’s played by Bela Lugosi, and also because he runs a sugar mill staffed entirely by zombies. Beaumont and Murder (well I'll never be able to type those names together again) have come to a little agreement; Beaumont wants some of Murder’s zombie powder - the stuff that made his staff so efficient - so he can administer it to his former lover and have her all to himself. You know how this goes: she gets drugged, seems to die, the body gets stolen, revived in private. Now both Neil and Beaumont have pretty awful prospects staring at them. Neil and Dr. Bruner, the missionary who was to wed the young lovers set about trying to find the body after Neil spies Murder’s zombie minions making off with it. Once Madeline gets her second wind she acts not like the lively young lass Beaumont envisioned, but as catatonic as the workers in the mill; the White Zombie of the title. Careful what you wish for, eh?

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.

It would be a while before anyone got the voodoo zombie formula right again, so viewers with a taste for the islands had to mire in thoughtless crap like King of the Zombies and Ouanga or Drums of the Jungle. It was in 1943, a full decade after the first zombie film that we have the second great one. Incidentally, it's the first one Gregory Frost ever saw.

I Walked With A Zombie
by Jacques Tourneur
Curt Siodmak's screenplay begins (as his often do) in transit. Betsy Connell is a nurse headed to the West Indies to care for a woman named Jessica in a vegetative state (sound familiar). She is part of the wealthy, but incredibly petty Holland family. Paul Holland, the husband of said patient-to-be, is a reserved man who is himself in something of a catatonic state. He's become incredibly reserved since his wife's coma struck and rarely leaves his house. Wesley is Paul's half-brother and he is a drunk who clearly harbours more than a little resentment towards Paul. Wesley it seems, is the one who really cares enough about Jessica to get her help, not her husband. And then there's Wesley's mom who oversees the whole thing like a Tennessee Williams character. She discovers this in a series of rather awkward encounters with both men, and once those are out of the way, Tourneur starts turning on the creep.

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.

A precursor to both Bernardo Bertolucci and David Cronenberg, Jacques Tourneur was able to make very effective films that dripped with sexual overtones. He was at his best, strangely, with his first few films working for notorious noirror film producer Val Lewton. Tourneur's three films for Lewton (Zombie, Cat People, and The Leopard Man) are standouts in Lewton's RKO output and as horror films that stand the test of time. Cat People is quite simply one of the finest movies ever made, genre aside. After parting ways with horror he made a good many movies in the 40s and 50s, the most famous of which, Out Of The Past, is a delicious bit of noir filmmaking; many of Lewton's lessons clearly paid off. He would make one last masterpiece - 1957's Curse of the Demon - before fading into the limbo state of Italian no-budget filmmaking and bad TV, poor Jacques. But what he was able to accomplish before the art world turned cold and shut him out is enough to make any filmmaker green with envy.

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?

1 comment:

James'n Jazz said...

Two well written reviews on movies I haven't seen. Haha. Maybe I'll get around to it. Just wanted to say that 1000misspenthours might be my new favorite site. Thanks for that.