Wednesday, 30 March 2016
In 1932, the RKO studio waded into the horror genre with The Most Dangerous Game, a reliable Hollywood plot that would be remade many times over the decades, based on a short story by Richard Edward Connell. The film itself made good use of recycling as its sets and some of the cast were to be reused shortly after for the awesome King Kong.
Mixing a sinister atmosphere with action-thriller overtones, the film details the evil game played by an insane Russian Count (Leslie Banks) who ensnares ship-wreck survivors onto his island in order to hunt them to death for his own sickening sport. It’s a pleasing, fat-free 62 minutes of perverse fun, plunging us almost literally into a prologue for our hero Joel McCrea (later achieving fame with Sullivan’s Travels and Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent). McCrea is Bob Rainsford, a handsome, none-too cerebral big-game hunter and writer devoid of sympathy for the creatures he hunts. Controversially, he claims in recounting one adventure to his friends on board a ship that his quarry, conveniently anthropomorphised, enjoyed the sport as much as he did: “As a matter of fact, we admired each other” - (forgetting the small matter of the disparity between each sides’ resources for one thing). Rainsford sees society as made up of either being the hunter or the hunted – and soon he will get to test that hypothesis from the other side.
Using excellent model-work, the ship is wrecked by the coral reefs the party were warned about by the Captain. We see some of Rainsford’s friends picked off by opportunistic sharks, already proving his point, while he is washed ashore on an island as the sole survivor. He makes his way to a chateau, observing that the shore lights have now changed. Something macabre is afoot, a feeling amplified by the chilling knocker on the iron door of a figure cradling a woman, whether captive or saved damsel we do not know - but the arrow piercing his chest foreshadows mortal combat to come.
Rainsford finds himself accepted immediately as the house-guest of Count Zaroff, the aforementioned noble, an elegant émigré of the Russian Revolution. Banks enjoys himself in the role, channelling his English suavity into a Russian (and occasional Scottish?) no doubt picked up in his classical stage work which would lead him to Olivier’s film of Henry V in 1944. Zaroff’s warm sense of hospitality clashes with an odd intense stare, matched only by that of his mute cossack man-servant Ivan (Noble Johnson). A welcome glimmer of dark humour is offered when Zaroff bullies Ivan into smiling for his new guest. The hench-man’s mouth cracks into an oddball grin totally at odds with the fierce eyes above them.
Rainsford discovers he is not the only stranger in a strange land. Four other survivors of a previous wreck have been taken in - in more ways than one. They include Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong as siblings Martin and Eve Trowbridge, biding their time till they play heroine Ann Darrow and the great showman Carl Denham respectively in King Kong. Armstrong distinguises (and extinguishes) himself as Martin, a nouveau-riche lush whose permanently-sozzled state allows him to be late-night fodder for Zaroff’s merciless gaming. Eve and Rainsford stumble across his body brought back by their host, and are made an offer they can’t refuse – to be give the chance to escape pursuit across the island - “No bigger than a deer park”. If they can avoid capture by dawn, they will be set free. In Zaroff’s world, the most dangerous game is not the animal but the human…
The scene is set for an engrossing last act game of cat-and-mouse whereby all of Rainsford’s experience at setting animal traps is easily dodged by the supremely confident Zaroff across lushly-furnished jungle sets. The hunter begins his hunt firing from a Tartar War Bow he is proud of, evading a falling log-trap and mocking the twosome playfully in his fetching black Milk Tray cat-burglar rollneck. When a fog rolls in, the cheating swine cannot resist increasing the home advantage further by switching to a high-powered telescopic rifle and then unleashing his hounds after the couple. The Hounds of Zaroff incidentally was the UK title for the picture. King Kong fans will recognise the log across the ravine that would figure in a memorable fight scene in that movie. Chased up a tree, Rainsford sees the slavering dogs below and grows enough of a sudden conscience to ruefully observe of his former sport’s victims: “I know how they feel…”
Finally, Zaroff gets his comeuppance in battle after thinking his attack pooches have dispatched Rainsford off a cliff. Even at the last dying breath, he tries in vain to still be the big game-hunter.
The Most Dangerous Game benefits from its lean construction and execution by Ernest P Schoedsack as writer and co-director with Irving Pichel. It discards any leaden back-story or sub-plots, eschewing for example any pace-killing romance between Rainsford and Eve that would tempt other film-makers, to make a horror thriller that travels light and plays entertainingly with the dark side...
Tuesday, 22 March 2016
This 1932 M-G-M horror melodrama, based on the stage play by Chester Devonde and Kilbourn Gordon is a rarity and not often discussed within the genre, perhaps because it is essentially a jungle soap opera with only suggestions of the macabre. The one element that does work on a vividly Grand Guignol level is the central performance by Walter Huston as Deadlegs Flint, a bitter, wheelchair-bound monomaniac consumed with the need to avenge an old score on his ex-partner Gregg who stole his wife deep in the heart of the African jungle setting. Huston is terrific in the role, a cigar-chomping, grizzled piratical tyrant – reprising his part from the original Broadway Biltmore run in 1926.
He rules the servile natives, his chattering chimp Kong, white cronies Hogan and Cookie (Mitchell Lewis and Forrester Harvey) and his mistress Tula with an iron hand, which doesn’t stop those closest to him from ripping of his brandy and cigarettes behind his back. The most subversive of his camp is Tula, played by Lupe Velez, in real life known as the ‘Mexican Spitfire’ due to her fiery temper and sexuality, a monicker that gave rise to a same name film series capitalising on her personality before her tempestuous life flamed out suicidally at age 36.
Flint subjugates the natives with tricks that create the illusion of his having real magical powers of a voodoo doctor, as well as bribing them with booze and sugar lumps. He has used this blend of the supernatural and cynical greed as a hold over the villagers to construct an 80 mile zone that he controls all access to for the last 18 years while he bides his time plotting against Gregg, ‘The man who sneered’, and left him lame, on a wall calendar.
Flint had arranged to have Gregg’s daughter Ann (musical star Virginia Bruce) raised by nuns in a Cape Town convent, feeding her the myth that her father is a missionary of God. Hogan is sent to bring her to Flint, posing as one himself. Her cloistered purity is then horribly degraded over two years as Flint reduces her saintly innocence to the level of a run-down alcoholic hooker before bringing her into his camp.
Fortunately, aid comes in the unlikely form of grimy and drug-addicted Doctor Kingsland, played by Conrad Nagel, an actor whose matinee-idol looks brought him fame from the silent era easily into the talkies. He shows his character versatility by entering the world of Kongo against type, tottering in a soiled suit and hopelessly dependent on the druggy properties of Biang root. He falls almost literally for Ann after a toxic episode with Tula weakens his resolve and increases his addiction temporarily. Flint wants the doctor to operate on his legs and ghoulishly detoxes him by an off-screen slitting of his chest: ‘I’m gonna puncture ya and let the leeches do the rest…” Ann rescues him from the worst excesses of the blood-sucking treatment outside and the operation on Flint is undertaken.
When Gregg arrives in the compound, Flint discovers that his plot to shock his old rival with the appalling state he has driven the man’s daughter to backfires when Gregg reveals that Ann is in fact Flint’s daughter, a cruel twist of biological fate later used in the Jean de Florette films. Flint is so crushed by the news that his conscience finally gets the better of him. He is unable to save Gregg from being killed by protective tribal henchman Fuzzy, but at least manages to send Kingsland and Ann to safety while he holds off the natives. In a touching moment before sacrificing himself to the marauding villagers, Flint finds it in his soul to pray for the lovers, and then hauls himself out of his wheelchair to meet his doom under the natives’ onslaught.
The theatrical source behind Kongo is evident on screen - the stage production was based in Flint’s store and the film rarely steps outside the set, relying on long, talky expository scenes that are often less than engrossing or cinematic before the climax heats things up. The actors give the piece a sweaty energy and commitment, yet Kongo’s third-act parental revelation and business skulduggery belong more to melodrama than horror cinema…
Monday, 21 March 2016
DR X (1932)
In the early years of sound film, it wasn’t always a monochrome world on screen. Warner Brothers had been experimenting with two-strip technicolour for their releases, including horror films. In 1931 they produced The Runaround as part of an abortive attempt to make colour a viable attraction, restricting costly colour prints to major cities whilst striking monochrome prints for lesser markets. Dr X was released a year later and although the technique failed to catch on, it allows us to enjoy an early horror big studio talkie with an added lustre and modern look.
Dr X was based on the play Terror by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller in 1928. Upon mounting it in New York in 1931 they had to change the name to avoid it being confused with The Terror by Edgar Wallace. The play thus became Dr X and retained the name when Warner’s decided to film it, bringing in Hungarian émigré Michael Curtiz as director, who would become famed for such classics as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Aside from the brightness accorded by colouring, Dr X benefits from the black humour and the exuberant fast-talking, wise-cracking of Lee Tracy as Lee Taylor, intrepid reporter on the trail of New York’s ‘Moon Killer’, who rips out the deltoid muscle from the base of the brain of each of six victims and subjects them to cannibalism, murdering them on successive full moons. Tracy supplies the same wise-guy energy as later movie screwball comedies, offsetting the grislier meat elsewhere on display courtesy of Lionel Atwill and his Academy of Surgical Research.
British-born Atwill was already a star on Broadway and parlayed this into notable horror film roles as cultured professionals in the 30s and 40s for Warner’s, Fox and Universal - such as Mystery of the Wax Museum, Mark of the Vampire and Son of Frankenstein.
Atwill’s Dr Xavier finds himself under the spotlight from local detectives since each slaying occurs close to his academy. Dr X takes the men on a quick lab tour, introducing them to each of his eccentric and vaguely sinister colleagues, all of whom are presented with equally suspicious clues and backgrounds. There is the voyeuristic Haines (John Wray), the secretive and wheelchair-using Duke, Harry Beresford, and the facially-scarred Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe). Upon hearing that Professor Wells (Preston Foster) has been to Africa to study cannibalism, one of the cops practically falls over himself to clamp Wells into an electric chair before even meeting him: “Why didn’t you tell us this before? It’s as good as a conviction”. Fortunately, he’s not a presiding judge. His premature shutting of the case is hampered when they discover Wells has no left hand, instead making do with a prosthetic glove.
Taylor meets the doctor’s daughter in the captivating form of Fay Wray, who began a fruitful run in horror cinema here culminating in becoming an indelible scream with 1993’s legendary King Kong. As Joan Xavier, she uses her charms to persuade the lovestruck Taylor to hold off his story while her father tries to clear his institute’s name.
Dr X offers the police a test at his Long Island estate that may prove the innocence of his team or find the killer. Echoing Prince Hamlet and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, he plans to subject each team member to images and a re-enactment of the committed murders while they are strapped to their chairs. Bamboozling the cops and the audience with some expository flimflam about using *cough*radio waves as well as a heart-rate monitor, X is sure that any guilty party will incriminate himself by causing their assigned ‘thermal tube’ to overflow. Dr X recruits his maid and butler to perform the re-enactment, but pandemonium ensues – Taylor hides in a closet but is gassed by an unattributed skeletal hand; Wells, whose handicap allows him to run the experiment free of blame, suffers his own tubal overheating by suddenly falling through a glass door; meanwhile, after a disorienting blackout the suspected Rowitz is found dead, a scalpel having been applied to the base of his brain. He is later cannibalised for good measure.
It turns out that the ruled-out Wells was in fact the killer all along. His Africa flesh-finding mission was just that, a red alert not a red herring. (Maybe the hasty cop shouldn’t have been held back by that pesky ‘innocent till proven guilty’ red tape). He’d been secretly studying a way to create ‘Synthetic fleshhhhh’, famously rumbling the line as he liberally coats his face and hands with a porridge-like paste that reconstitutes his skin, covering the dummy hand and disguising his face into Rondo Hatton-esque heavy features. It’s not explained what, if any, are the supernatural properties of the human flesh he went all that way to harvest. (If there were none inherent, why go so far for immaterial material since he’s not above killing folk on his home turf for it?). No matter, for as he threatens to add Joan to his digestive tract, Taylor overcomes a cowardly streak to grapple with the mad doctor, hurling a lamp at him which causes Wells to turn into a human fireball, smashing through the window to plummet down on to the rocks below. Taylor is now free to put an ad in his newspaper’s society column concerning his heroic self and the lovely Joan.
Dr X is fun and deftly mixes comedy with the horror in a blending of laughs, cannibalism, murder and implied prostitution which definitely would have struggled to get past the censor board when the draconian Hays Code soon came into force. There’s also an all-too-brief sassy cameo by Mae Busch, who varied her marvellous battle-axe turns as fearsome wives or girlfriends for Laurel and Hardy with other genres: e.g. Rosie O’Grady opposite Lon Chaney in the 1925 silent version of The Unholy Three and here a cathouse madam whose telephone Taylor borrows to call in his story.
Curtiz, Atwill and Wray would be reunited in Technicolor the following year in Mystery of the Wax Museum as part of an incredible production output by Curtiz. According to IMDB he directed 13 films just between 1932-33, a furious pace that at one point on a Saturday during Dr X had him shooting for 24 hours solid, lensing eight minutes of the finished film in that one day. This explains why at times you can hear slightly garbled or hesitant delivery of lines, particularly by Atwill. Though Curtiz wasn’t in the same league as the notorious William ‘one-shot’ Beaudine, he could perhaps have allowed re-takes of the more obvious fluffs to the trained ear…
Friday, 11 March 2016
The early 1930s were not just a period of raiding classic literature for horror studios eager to profit from the new booming business in horror films. Anything that could create profitable terror in the hearts of the punters was viable material, so when Victor Halpern’s film White Zombie debuted in July 1932, its themes of voodoo witchcraft and occult possession in far-flung Haiti injected an exotic variant. Though the film itself is highly-flawed and tame, it was the first to hint at the coming sub-genre of the zombie movie. How was this mythology begun and why did it arrive at the time it did? Let’s put it into context by setting sail back through time to a dark chapter in world history.
THE HISTORY OF VOODOO
There are many misconceptions about Voodoo. The depiction of colourful practises, especially within the realms of on-screen horror, have tainted it with entirely negative connotations. We often associate it with an intoxicating, primitive overload of the senses – the seductive, insistent thump of primal drumming, lurid imagery of priests gibbering in tongues, black magic rituals of animal sacrifice, tranced worshippers hurling themselves about in a rising, orgiastic fervour, pins jammed into dolls transmitting pain to a remote victim - all presided over by the top-hatted, grinning funster Baron Samedi. There is tribal excitement, the anticipation of supernatural feats and by the end of the show one unlucky (or unwilling) contestant may be dead or alive…or something unnervingly in between.
All of these elements are prurient fun if not taken seriously, but Voodoo is actually a genuine, sober religion that was forged under the most appalling conditions to give a beleaguered people a means of uniting and protecting them. It is condescended to by the mainstream yet forged with earnest principles and rituals no more fantastical than those held to by the major faiths. (The resurrection of life as proof of mystical power and faith? Miracles? These are all strangely familiar).
The English-speaking world was not introduced to the concept of the zombie, the infantryman of the voodoo world, until 1889 when journalist Lafcadio Hearn wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine called ‘The Country of the Comers-Back’ about the phenomenon of the ‘corps cadavres’ or ‘walking dead’ that he heard rumours about in Martinique. He was only able to provide a flavour of the superstitious mutterings. It would take another travel writer, the American William Seabrook, to plunge whole-heartedly into his research first-hand and bring back the raw meat of folklore for westerners in the crucial volume The Magic Island.
Seabrook began as a buttoned-down square, following his college education into journalism then the advertising world before realising that he had the thrill-junkie soul of a true adventurer to satisfy. Rather than wait for America to draft him into World War One, he joined the French Army as an ambulance driver to drive right into the heart of the action. After the war, he tried to fit himself into the hip arts scene of New York’s Greenwich village literary set, but the highbrow elitists dismissed him as pandering to sensationalist supernatural stories and lurid sex crimes. He would ultimately develop the persona of the risk-taking, globe-trotting reporter who dared to travel where white men rarely ventured. He thrived on encountering bizarre and hostile cultures, immersing himself in their ways even to the point of tasting human flesh when studying cannibals.
Seabrook lived with the Bedouins in Arabia, the jungle tribes of Africa, and many other places but his greatest impact came from his time in the Caribbean island of Haiti. On the surface, this conventional-looking chap blended right in with the other white settlers in the capital, Port-Au-Prince in 1928 – but what he would transmit to his readers was anything but decent and restrained. Far from being a critical observer, his prose pulsed with recording only the direct experiences of unbridled perversion and sexual experimentation in his new environment (hence the insistence on trying cannibalism for his book Jungle Ways). He had already developed a taste for the kinky, reputedly travelling the world equipped with whips and chains in his luggage, and although this robbed him of objectivity, who cared when they could vicariously feast on the exciting eye-witness accounts he brought back?
It was a Haitian farmer, Polynice, who was Seabrook’s passport into the chilling territory of Caribbean ‘voudoun’. Through him, the writer understood how the economic culture of slavery first of all created the melting-pot from which voodoo and its belief system emerged. Thousands of captured slaves had been imported from Africa to the West Indies to work the enormous French-governed plantations trading in sugar, coffee and cotton since the 17th century. Indeed, by the time of the French Revolution in 1789, Haiti (its name meaning ‘mountainous’ in the native Indian tongue) produced over half the world’s coffee and 40 percent of the sugar for Britain and France, which was the dominant European nation at that time). As their industrial need for cheap, illegally-exploited labour grew, the French shipped in thousands more slaves from West Africa. Gradually, the religions of the native Indians, the white slave traders and the various African cultures began to merge into a complicated belief system taking elements of African faiths and Roman Catholicism. This was the basis of Voodoo.
By 1804, Haiti’s black population had managed to free itself from slavery for good via revolutions led by Toussaint Louverture and Dessalines, even repelling a 40,000 strong French force led by Napoleon – to finally declare itself free with an Act of Independence. However, the freedom-fighting left a devastated country that had no infrastructure or experience in self-rule. Into the early twentieth century the country was continually besieged, particularly by repeated interventions from America, keen to maintain control of the Panama Canal. By the time of Seabrook’s fact-finding mission, Haiti had been an unwilling victim of American military and cultural occupation since 1915.
Under its new masters, the Haitian religion of Voodoo was prohibited, forcing it underground. Practitioners were forced to worship within the privacy of mainstream Roman Catholic churches - a co-existence that did not trouble them, but was not mutually-supported by Catholics. In spite of, and maybe because of, such opposition, Voodoo established a growing following among the powerless, inhumanely-treated people in Haitian society.
In Jaime Russell’s comprehensive guide to zombie film history, Book of the Dead, he zeroes in on a vital aspect of Voodoo, that of bodily possession by the gods:
“A person is comprised of two souls, the gros-bon-ange (literally ‘the big good angel’) and the ti-bon-ange (the little good angel). The first of these is an individual’s life force, the second is everything that defines them as them. For a god to take possession of a worshipper, the second of these two souls has to be cast out of the body. The spirit of the god then takes over the empty shell of flesh. Later, when the god departs, the ti-bon-ange returns to the body. In voodoo, much as in Christianity, the soul and the body are considered separate entities…”
This is crucial in understanding the vulnerability of the voodoo worshipper to perceived hijacking of their disembodied soul as a zombie by agents of evil beyond the safety of their rituals:
“According to zombie legend, such necromancy usually occurred after the sorcerer brought about the victim’s “death” through a combination of magic and potions… the sorcerer captured their essential soul and, on the eve of the burial, opened up their grave and removed the body…then bring(s) this corpse back to “life” as an obedient, mindless slave that could be put to work on some distant part of the island…”
To Haitians, the threat of zombification of their dead relatives was no mere superstition. They took it so seriously that they would take elaborate precautions to prevent it happening in the afterlife. A wealthy family could afford the security of a private tomb to prevent access. Poorer families might bury their loved one under heavy stonework or at a busy cross-roads (referenced in White Zombie), or even station a family member to watch over the graveside till the body had time to decompose. A more extreme measure was to poison the body or shoot it so it would be of no use to evil sorcerers.
In a culture so barbarically treated by self-imposed overlords, the Haitians feared the prospect of becoming a zombie far more than being the victim of one. Death was at least regarded as a heavenly escape from the earth-bound misery of subjugation, so everything humanly possible was done to avoid their monstrous servitude being carried over for eternity into the afterlife.
After Polynice told Seabrook his account of seeing an army of undead employed by an unscrupulous farmer during the bumper sugar crop of 1918, he took the writer two hours’ ride away to allegedly witness slave zombies himself working in the sugar cane fields. True to his creed of reporting only personal experience, Seabrook got up close and personal: “There was something about them unnatural and strange. They were plodding like brutes, like automatons…The eyes were the worst…in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind but staring, unfocused, unseeing...”
To an audience back home, reading such lurid accounts of far-off events not only gave them a vicarious thrill but Seabrook’s journals were a justification for America’s foreign domination of the territory under the guise of civilising what was seen as a savage land. With this ghoulish interest in mind, the eventual co-opting of the material by Hollywood studios was inevitable, but like Dracula and Frankenstein before it, voodoo mythology was first presented as American entertainment in the theatre. In February 1932, producer and writer Kenneth Webb mounted the play Zombie in New York. It was a cheapjack three-act piece that avoided any of the costly copyright issues that came with translating the previous two horror juggernauts. The play was crude, racist and exploitative, narrowing not only its budget but its focus to one room in a Haitian bungalow, wherein the husband half of a plantation-owning couple dies and then is revived as a zombie by one of the senior native staff to fulfil his plan for estate control. The wife solves the mystery with the aid of two American friends, while the rich history of Haiti is reduced to two black-faced white actors (later replaced with Haitians to garner publicity goodwill) and a staged walking-dead attack.
Reading the plot, Zombie suggests a poor attempt at a single-set, Agatha Christie whodunnit with voodoo elements tacked on. Unsurprisingly it failed in the theatre, but the possibilities for the basic ingredients were not lost on brothers Victor and Edward Halperin (director and producer respectively). They believed that in more talented hands, a voodoo-related story could capitalise on the new wave of cinema horror and set about proving this, much to Webb’s initial excitement and then despair when he realised that they had no need of clearing any rights or recompense for him. (Webb naively thought that somehow he had a claim on anyone using voodoo and its living dead concepts in their story). The Halperins’ commissioned film script wasn’t based on his material, so his law suit was groundless.
The brothers Halperin were taking a mighty gamble with their proposed ‘zombie movie’ as they did not have a major studio to bankroll them. The only form of insurance they could take out was to head-line the film with a recognised star, and this they did by asking Bela Lugosi. He jumped at the chance of the lead role of the suave, mesmeric Murder Legendre soon after finishing the film of Dracula. This was largely due to his dire need to generate income since his contract for the aforementioned smash hit only paid him $500 a week – he’d been low-balled by Universal all too easily when they saw how desperately he wanted to transfer his stage success in the part to the film version. Also, his high-handedness in turning down the role of the Frankenstein monster placed him in temporary disfavour with them, increasing his concerns about where else he could gain employment. This poor bargaining position in the Halperins’ favour attached him to their movie, White Zombie, for $800 a week over just 11 days. Sadly, this repeat of his Dracula exploitation went further when the film turned a $62,500 budget into a surprising $8m box-office take, probably indicative of the public’s burgeoning taste for horror chills.
White Zombie is essentially a love-triangle co-opting voodoo practises and Lugosi’s now crystallised screen persona into a tale with only scant connection to the modern zombie film. A young American couple, Neil and Madeleine Parker - Madge Bellamy and John Harron - are reunited in Haiti and plan to wed. On their coach-drive to the home of plantation owner Charles Beaumont, played by Robert Frazer, they encounter bodies being buried at a crossroads. Their frightened black driver explains the lore we explored earlier about protecting the dead from after-life servitude. We are also introduced to Lugosi with two impactful close-ups of his fiercely staring eyes before he speaks, thus conveying his malevolent hypnotic influence. (At least in this film, charges of racist portrayals are mitigated by having the evil machinations perpetrated by the westerners rather than the ‘natives’).
Lugosi’s Legendre is a dark colleague of Beaumont, who it transpires has designs upon the lovely Madeleine and enlists his occult friend to poison her so that after the funeral he can revive her as a zombified life companion. This of course soon pales when he realises that he can have her pallid presence but never the soul and life she had when alive. After Neil is plagued by nightmares of his dead bride-to-be, he finds her tomb empty and teams up with missionary Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) who follows the clues to Legendre’s cliff-top castle. Madeleine is ordered by Legendre to kill Neil but Bruner prevents her. Neil and Bruner battle a motley crew of zombies Legendre has converted out of his sworn enemies - a witch doctor, a Captain of the Gendarmerie, A Minister of the Interior who resembles a Disney Pirate and an oddly grimacing High Executioner, before breaking the spell held over Madeleine by temporarily knocking out the voodoo maestro. The zombies are dispatched over the edge of the cliff, and the regretful Beaumont, who’d pleaded with Legendre to undo his handiwork, is poisoned into fellow undead slavery, but on being freed from his master joins him in a header over the cliff edge into oblivion. Madeleine is restored to life and the lovers are once again reunited.
In spite of its limitations that make the horror elements feel applied to the film rather than an organic part of the story, White Zombie is not without interest. An early scene showing Legendre’s sugar mill business populated by an army of zombie labourers is atmospheric and amplified by the harsh industrial sound effects of the machinery. Victor Halperin’s use of shadows has drawn comparison in later decades with the work of Val Lewton. Lugosi in the role of Legendre had by now already developed a Svengali showman ‘type’ that Hollywood had been recycling as an evil plot catalyst since The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It is an easy gig for him as the evening-dressed, suave, glowering subjugator of impressionable minds he had already essayed in Dracula and also in 1932’s Murders in the Rue Morgue but it was work and arguably a recognisable niche for him, not yet an imprisonment as Count Dracula would later become. He gives this part a novel touch in the recurring hypnotic reinforcement gesture of touching the finger-tips of both hands together and then rolling the fingers around in a spiralling clasp – a move lovingly emulated by Martin Landau in his portrayal of Lugosi in Ed Wood.
Ultimately White Zombie is mostly of interest for what it heralds in zombie cinema rather than what it contains. Over the next decades the offspring of voodoo rites (and not forgetting bad science) would stir, shamble inexorably forward then break into hair-raising speed into the new millennium…