Thursday, 27 April 2017
“Remember – no messages”
“We do have a message. Death is good.”
With this stark reply to a studio executive, Val Lewton boldly stated his uncompromising vision for the fourth film of his producing career at RKO. It was be controversial, lacking the success of his previous releases, but some argue that the undiluted nihilism of The Seventh Victim (1943) is what renders it a masterpiece. Lewton knew all too well that war-time audiences needed escapist thrills and horror - his films catered to that, yet at the same time he committed to a story whose main character rejected all hope, pursuing a trajectory toward death whose only positivity was that it was her goal.
As we discussed, after The Leopard Man Lewton and his director collaborator Jacques Tourneur had become so successful that RKO thought they could double their profitability by splitting the two into separate production divisions, baiting them with promotion to the prestige shop window of A-features. Tourneur later reflected on the real secret to their profitable partnership that should have made separation unthinkable: “Val was the dreamer, the idealist. I was the materialist, the realist”. Lewton had no say in the split. He did however have a choice in whether to accept advancement. Despite the higher budgets, the studio were not willing to risk his decision to assign a first directing role to editor Mark Robson. Their deal-breaker ultimatum was that either he chose a more experienced A-feature helmer or stayed in B-pictures where such a gamble had much less to lose. The artist and the loyal friend in Lewton made him stay where he was.
Lewton had gained great satisfaction from the expert team he nurtured around him, and when planning The Seventh Victim he wanted editor Mark Robson to direct. Robson had graduated from being uncredited assistant editor of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), under fellow Lewton protégé Robert Wise, to sole editor of Journey into Fear (1942). When RKO finally lost patience with Welles’ costly demands, Robson was transferred to Lewton’s B-picture wing and found he had landed on his feet. Under his new mentor, Robson could fully express his talents into crafting a style that for example created the signature ’Lewton bus’ jump-shock editing in Cat People (1942). Now that Lewton was short of a director, he felt the time was right for Robson to helm his own film, writing to his mother during production that he was very fond of the young man and the skills that made him ‘almost as good as Jacques’. As work began on
The Seventh Victim, Robson was still operating out of the 8’ x 8’ office he had continued to share with Robert Wise. Never mind; it was time to grab the brass ring and show what he could do.
Robson was fortunate to inherit a well-oiled machine of proven talents to assist him, not to mention Lewton’s defining hands-on influence as a producer. Although this extended to very department, it was most crucially felt in the foundation of any production’s chances: a good script. Having begun as a writer then story editor for David O. Selznick, Lewton never lost sight of this as the core of quality. He would perform uncredited rewrites of all nine of his films, which is why they contain such remarkably dense, often autobiographical themes and literary depth.
To begin with, he saw that the studio-enforced title of The Seventh Victim could be co-opted to support a tale of modern-day black magic in New York’s Greenwich Village. The crippling demands of the B-picture format meant that a first draft was commissioned from his Cat People screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen whilst I Walked with A Zombie (1943) was still in production. This was unsatisfactory, so Charles O’Neal (father of actor Ryan) submitted a 72-page treatment more to Lewton’s liking, much of which made it into the final script.
Bringing his trademark exacting research to the project, Lewton had Bodeen inquire about attending Satanist meeting in New York. His presence was surprisingly welcome – and the resulting fascinating glimpse into their world inspired the eerie surface normality of the film’s occultists. He recalled a group of genteel elderly pensioners who could have been at a coffee morning. Far from being conduits for ancient evil, their spell-casting was directed at the Allies’ approved nemesis, Adolf Hitler. The power of The Seventh Victim comes from the incongruity of dark witchcraft practises hiding almost in plain sight in a (sometimes daylight) modern urban setting. Roman Polanski would develop this with the stunningly creepy Rosemary’s Baby (1967) yet in a still relatively God-fearing America of the Forties, the bravery of Lewton and Robson’s vision remains potent for its greater subversiveness.
We are confronted with tragic foreshadowing right from the opening shot - a quote from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet VII: “I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterdays”. Make no mistake, someone over the next seventy minutes willingly embraces an accelerated trajectory to doom. This qualifies The Seventh Victim as Film Noir; a sense that the deadly cards of fate are already dealt, and inescapably so since destiny will be determined not by random chance, but by character choices.
Our Everyman protagonist on this crazy journey is late-teens schoolgirl Mary Gibson, well played by future Oscar-winner (for 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire) Kim Hunter. Hers will be a path from sheltered youth into harsh experience as traumatic as that undergone by soldiers on the battlefield. The 20 year-old Hunter was perfect for the part. She exudes a thoughtful poise and a genuine innocence; being her first film role coming from a stage background, her fear of making extraneous movements caused Lewton to urge her to relax her initial stiffness. We meet her in the Highcliff boarding school run by frosty headmistress Mrs Loughwood (Ottola Nesmith) - whose name is an homage to the cruel Lowood school of Jane Eyre’s formative years. Mrs Loughwood and her assistant Mildred Gilchrist (Eve March) break the news to Mary that her sister Jacqueline, who was funding her there, has gone missing. Rather than pay her owed fees in employed tutelage, Mary sets out to track her down, leaving behind the tinge of dom-sub lesbianism between Loughwood and Gilchrist. This hint of Sapphic subtext will recur more than once in the film’s female relationships.
Mary heads for the cosmetic firm of La Sagesse owned by the wealthy Jacqueline. In Steve Haberman’s otherwise superb DVD commentary he erroneously translates the company name as ‘the way’ instead of the more accurate ‘wisdom’. This hints at some private knowledge Jacqueline may be seeking. Jacqueline’s employee friend Frances played by Isabel Jewell, (Gone with the Wind’s Emmy Slattery) recommends that Mary try Dante’s restaurant where she saw her a week ago. Here is a lightly autobiographical touch of Lewton’s, basing the restaurant and the Greenwich Village locale on the area he and his wife frequented early in their married life. He also added literary flourishes to the venue, not just in the name but establishing the soon-to-be important character of Jason (Erford Gage) tellingly at the feet of a Dante mural. Is this a foretelling of hellishness we ask? Not to begin with as once-celebrated poet Jason flirts with Marguerite Sylva, the owner’s wife and comes over at her request to cheer up the troubled Mary. He deserves points for trying as Mary has just been up to the spare room Jacqueline rented from them and been met with the portentous sight of a hanging noose and a wooden chair. Clearly, Jacqueline had darker matters in mind than lipstick shades.
The sombre mood is amplified when Mary goes to the depressing Missing Person’s Bureau, underscoring the air of dismal isolation and the ease with which the modern city loses its neglected inhabitants. A ray of hope though is the ambulance-chasing private investigator Irving August (Lou Lubin). Despite circling for potential clients like a vulture, he takes pity on the penniless Mary and offers to take her case for nothing, a Good Samaritan deed he possibly regrets when she persuades him to go snooping with her to the factory. This sequence is classic Lewton, combining Nicholas Musuraca’s artfully shadowy lighting with a single soundtrack detail (here a ticking clock) to crank up the tension. August staggers out of the room that Mary has shamed him into exploring alone, and collapses dead, a pair of scissors embedded in his back.
From here, the hidden horror gradually bleeds into the everyday world. As Mary returns home on the subway, across from her two apparent drunks nurse their paralytic pal. She is shocked to suddenly recognise their fallen comrade is the dead body of August. She hurries to flee the compartment while one of the men fixes her with an utterly sober accusatory stare.
The web of intrigue is further spun by the addition of other interesting principal characters who get to live longer. There is Gregory Ward, a lawyer who helps Mary while at first concealing from her that Jacqueline is his wife. He is played by Hugh Beaumont, later to find fame as sitcom dad Ward Cleaver in the hugely popular Leave it to Beaver (1957-63). Our anticipation of Jacqueline strengthens from his description of the bewitching impact she possesses: “Something exciting and unforgettable about Jacqueline…something you never quite get hold of – something that keeps a man following after her”. Such a femme fatale can lead a man to his own tragedy, another component of classic Film noir. As the plot develops, inadvertently so too does Mary’s inappropriate attraction toward him.
More complexity is provided by the novel return of Cat People’s suavely naughty psychiatrist Dr Louis Judd (Tom Conway), last seen dying at Irina’s claws while he attempted some highly inappropriate therapy of his own. (We can only speculate that this case is earlier in his life or exists in a parallel dimension. Anything is possible in the world of the supernatural). He projects callousness for someone from a caring profession, choosing to write instead of slumming it with unstimulating patients: “Dipsomania is rather sordid”, he tells one client’s relative.
Even so, we can’t help liking Judd for his ambiguity. He is still a bad boy who flirts with danger. “I prefer the left – the sinister side”, he says of the two opposing staircases when he takes Mary to meet her sister. We are never quite sure which side Judd is really on until the end, and the film is all the better for it. What we do know is that Judd was treating Jacqueline for depression after she left a strange cult known as the Palladists. More enigmatic still is the first brief glimpse given to us of Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), pressing her finger to her lips upon seeing the stunned Mary. A natural blonde coming from Johnny Mack Brown westerns, Brooks makes a striking entrance in a black, straight-fringed wig. There is something haunting and haunted about her, and this tantalising sight before she vanishes is like a spectral visitation. She must stay in hiding, a fugitive from justice for August’s murder.
Our examination of the therapist deepens when Mary goes to a party with Ward. Here, Judd reveals that he envies his friend Jason’s literary gifts that he abandoned after a well-received debut book. A loudmouth partygoer remarks ambiguously about Judd and Jacqueline that “When she took up with Louis, she went out of circulation just like that” – which might suggest private practising of either an unethical or sinister nature. It’s worth noting Judd’s magic card trick at the side for a group of guests. Does this conversely argue him as a sceptic of hocus pocus?
Jason takes up the poisoned chalice of detective and from his library research uncovers the parallelogram symbol of the Palladists which, not by coincidence, is also the logo for the cosmetics company. As Mary gets closer to the coven, she is given a subtly malevolent warning not to interfere from employee Mrs Redi (Mary Newton) that prefigures Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene in Psycho (1960). Redi delivers her literally veiled threat – “I have no intention whatsoever of hinting” - as a looming silhouette on the other side of the shower curtain, while poor Mary is nakedly vulnerable in the stall. The quasi-lesbian dominance of the older woman’s position did not go unnoticed by perceptive critics either.
When we finally meet the Palladists, the very ordinariness of their respectable, middle-aged membership, faithful to Bodeen’s real-life experience, adds to the chilling secrecy of their work. They even have the everyday committee problems of staying true to their defined ethos, in this case a pledge to non-violence, that must be side-lined to punish Jacqueline just like their previous six betrayers, thus fitting the title of The Seventh Victim. When they finally abduct Jacqueline, the quiet potency of their manner is devilishly effective. Instead of forcing her to drink poison, they surround her like genteel interventionists of support, encouraging her softly in a bid to come to the decision herself - (”It won’t hurt”). Frances reveals the depth of her private love for Jacqueline by an outburst protecting her employee from taking up the fatal wine glass.
Before the final confrontation, there is one notable scene where Lewton makes Jacqueline’s death-wish, on her own terms, undeniably clear. Back home, she meets a neighbour across the hall - “I’m Mimi. I’m dying”. This is Elizabeth Russell, whom we last saw as the mysterious Serbian soul-sister interrupting Irina’s wedding meal in Cat People (and would play one of the leads in the 1944 sequel Curse of the Cat People). Her Eastern European beauty masks a damaged soul battling her inner demons, an anonymous casualty of mental illness adrift in the big city. It’s no coincidence she connects briefly with Jacqueline - they too are kindred spirits. “I’ve always wanted to die. Always…” agrees Jacqueline solemnly. Mimi declares that she will dance with gay abandon tonight, but Jacqueline knows she is not fooling anyone. “You will die”, she prophesies after Mimi exits.
This becomes the catalyst for a strikingly understated climax whereby Judd returns to the devil-worshippers who sent Jacqueline into her downward spiral. He confronts them in a manner wholly untypical of the average horror film, yet perfectly in keeping with Robson’s understated tone. Their leader Mr Brun (a persuasive Ben Bard, lit by Musuraca from below for extra menace) argues for the sanctity of private belief: “Who knows what is wrong or right? If I prefer to believe in Satanic majesty and power, who can deny me? What proof can you bring that good is superior to evil?” In reply, Judd hits him solely with the power of conviction. From belittling scorn, (“It’s a joke, a pathetic little joke”), to the simple righteousness of quoting the Lord’s Prayer, his condemnation is superior yet strangely moving, like a headmaster who is not angry but disappointed with wayward pupils. Brun looks to the floor as if in schoolboy shame.
Leaving the coven oddly suspended, the last scene is equally uncompromising. A defiantly glamorous Mimi heads out of her apartment, and the sound of a falling chair next door denotes Jacqueline’s terminal self-realisation.
The Seventh Victim’s bleak tone and downbeat ending may have played into its relative failure with audiences and critics at the time. The seductiveness of suicide was not what they wanted to hear during WWII. Another factor was the confusing narrative gaps resulting from four scenes removed in post-production by Robson and editor John Lockart (explaining for example how the Palladists knew where Jacqueline was hiding). It also feels congested in trying to impart and then resolve all the public and private sides of an incestuously small main cast.
Nevertheless, the late Sixties saw a rediscovery and positive reappraisal of this along with all of Lewton’s RKO period. In 1968, as anti-authoritarian dissent rioted in Paris and on student campuses across America, Rosemary’s Baby birthed a little devil into the heart of modern society’s cosy complacency. And one of its seemingly benign godparents looking over the cradle would be the influence of Val Lewton…
Monday, 24 April 2017
For their third official instalment in the Dracula series, following the first film in 1931 and the weak cash-in of Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Universal stretched the tendrils of implausibility even further with Son of Dracula released in 1943. The first sequel at least had the benefit of Gloria Holden’s ethereally strange Countess Zaleska to offset its tenous link to Lugosi’s original. For this follow-on, the studio plugged in Lon Chaney (Jr) as part of his unique but ill-conceived run inhabiting every other famous Universal creature aside from The Wolf Man (1941). The experiment had so far proved a wasted series of opportunities in roles ill-befitting the qualities or leading status he had demonstrated for himself as their sole werewolf actor. His monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) only made use of his physical size; lumbering around under bandages in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) could have been any big contract player, except that it kept his name above the title on the poster. Only his return to lyncanthropy in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) reminded audiences of the wounded vulnerability he could bring to his signature horror part of Larry Talbot.
Son of Dracula (1943) completed Chaney’s tour of duty now covering all four of the legendary icons, yet for my money is the most unsuitable of all. Chaney did not have the natural, aristocratic imperiousness of Bela Lugosi, which the Hungarian star could channel effortlessly as the Prince of Darkness (and in many other later roles). Instead, he comes across as wooden as the stake he fears under the direction of Robert Siodmak, whose brother Curt (The Wolf Man) Siodmak created the story for this film.
The story attempts to create intrigue by bringing the undead Count Alucard (do you see what they did there?) to America for once, with a set of luggage whose semordnilap name is immediately picked up on by Frank Craven’s Dr Brewster. Craven incidentally achieved theatre and film fame as the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s classic American play Our Town in 1938. Here, he gives shrewd busybody wiliness from the start by being suspicious of the foreigner even before we meet him. Accompanying him is Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) who is just as wary of the mysterious nobleman since he seems to have an unholy influence upon Stanley’s fiancé Kay even from afar. Kay (Louise Allbritton) is one of two daughters to Colonel Caldwell (George Irving) and stands to inherit his estate along with her sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers in her third Lon Chaney vehicle after The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein during a run of many horror films for Universal).
Kay is a morbid soul who appears an easy mark for the undead-related, having already brought back from Hungary an occultist called Queen Zimba. The old lady pays her way by warning Kay with deathly simplicity: “I see you marrying a corpse...living in a grave”. (Incidentally, the elderly Adeline DeWalt Reynolds who plays Zimba must have set a record for advanced age film debuts as she was 79 when cast as James Stewart’s grandmother in 1941’s Come Live with Me). The queen promptly loses her throne courtesy of that herald of the supernaturally abysmal, a dodgy rubber bat.
Kay also has an unhealthy interest in taking full ownership of Dark Oaks, the family’s gothically-named New Orleans plantation. She achieves this via a previously-secret second will leaving it to her, that comes to light with unfortunate haste when the Colonel dies of petrified heart failure mysteriously soon after the Count’s arrival.
Our first glimpse of Chaney’s Alucard is unintentionally amusing. He surveys the dancing guests earlier that evening, then offers a sly look seemingly at us over his shoulder. What this is meant to convey escapes me, but if there is actorly regret in there, it is too late. Chaney’s performance throughout is bereft of vampire fangs and any real bite at all. All that Emmy Eckhardt and Jack P Pierce can do is give him a hair and moustache combination aiming perhaps for seasoned elegance, instead suggesting Rhett Butler at a Halloween party . Chaney’s well-fed, stout labourer’s build is of no help however in conveying the cadaverousness of a desperate bloodsucker. Nor does his accent aid him, consisting of plain American spoken without contractions. This only makes Eric Taylor’s hokey dialogue sound worse: “The soil is red with the blood of a hundred races” he tells Kay. “There is no life there”.
There is little here either for Dracula fans. The lineage alone is confusing. Brewster enlists the help of Hungarian genealogy expert Professor Lazlo (genuine Austro-Hungarian J. Edward Bromberg), who partly clarifies that Count Dracula died out in the nineteenth-century, which tallies with the Stoker novel, then speculates that he may be a descendant, but questions the sense if he was to be an imposter since all Hungarians know the family name as “only associated with evil”. Later on, Kay will add to the mystery by telling Frank that Alucard actually is Dracula.
Whoever he is, this creature is a menace who although unable to appear comfortable in human acting form, can assume the shape of the aforementioned winged mouse and wisps of spectral smoke. The effects work is effective when portraying vampiric vapours, less so when called upon to handle the transformation from bat to man. This is shown simply by a jump-cut from suspended rubber air-rodent to Chaney. One notable element is Hans J. Salter’s reedy organ cues underscoring Alucard’s scenes. These foreshadow the distinctive soundtracks of Fifties science-fiction horrors.
Kay and the Count marry with obscene clandestine haste, the news of which Frank takes less than well by shooting Alucard. Not understanding his newly-spliced nemesis, he is mortified to discover the bullet passes right through Alucard and kills Kay. To make matters worse, he must endure a swamp chase pursued by the flapping bat. The demands of the role are tough all round on Robert Paige, a capable B-movie lead who continually goes up the meter into over-wrought melodrama in trying to either convince Kay of his rightfulness for her, or the authorities of Alucard’s wrongfulness.
Whilst Dr Brewster is inclined toward a suspicious curiosity, it takes the arrival of the expert Lazlo to lay out the grisly mythology of the real vampiric evil at hand, much to the Dr’s disbelief: “That’s a nauseating thought”. And then, as if to illustrate the theorising, Alucard materialises in a milky mist to threaten them both. Only now is Brewster fully convinced that Frank was right about the powers of the cuckolding Count. Meanwhile Frank is accorded a ghostly visit of his own by Kay in jail, whose conscience overcomes her vampire Svengali and a light snacking on Frank’s blood enough to urge him to destroy her master’s grave. Then the two of them can be immortal together as the undead.
Wisely, Frank concentrates on the first mission and burns the Count’s sacred coffin before him. This is the one moment where Chaney is affecting in his portrayal. His fatal witnessing of the sunrise as its rays bathe his face shows us the inner torment that was his greatest strength as an actor. How much better the film might have been if his role was conceived with that forlorn, yearning quality - as for example Klaus Kinski brought strikingly to Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979).
Frank must of course suffer his own soul-crushing despair in knowing that he must take the life of Kay the same way to ensure her eternal peace. As he watches the flames consume his love, fans of the Universal horror monsters would soon come to know the same feeling as their beloved creatures would go up in the fiasco flames of House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945).
Friday, 21 April 2017
A mere 17 days after releasing their second horror collaboration of distinction in I Walked with A Zombie, producer Val Lewton and his director Jacques Tourneur had also unleashed The Leopard Man for RKO. It was a testament to their brilliance and Lewton’s marvellous team that they could sustain outstanding work of care and depth under the studio’s relentless B-movie scheduling.
This latest project (with a title once more forced upon Lewton by the studio) had more in common with Cat People than simply its animal-human connection. Similarly, it contained rich layers of meaning well beyond the remit of the usual low-budget factory-style quickie. Certainly The Leopard Man has the hair-raising suspense required, but at the same time is dense with themes, some of which were purposefully sewn in by Lewton with screenwriter Ardel Wray (writer of I walked with a Zombie) and Edward Dein, based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel. The film’s preoccupation with humanity and inhuman cruelty while it was shot at the height of WWII conflict may have sunk in more by osmosis for future generations to note with greater retrospective clarity. Then there is the personal expression of Lewton himself; such a close relationship of supervising every aspect of his films meant that they reflected his concerns and world view as surely as if he wrote or directed them himself.
The Leopard Man’s inciting relationship presented to us is a clear depiction
At this point, a recurring structural device comes into play that cleverly unsettles the viewer, confounding our usual expectations. We suddenly shift perspective from one established character’s storyline, assumed to be a lead part, to another. We are introduced to teenager Teresa Delgado (Margaret Landry) whose fear of going out alone at night are dismissed by her mother’s urgent need for provisions. Transitions like this add intrigue - we can’t take for granted who is the main focus so we pay attention to everyone, looking for clues and connections. In his illuminating DVD commentary, director and fan William Friedkin noted how this may well have inspired Hitchcock’s ground-breaking sudden murder of his presumed main character Marion Crane forty minutes into Psycho (1960). He also believes that the inter-weaving of seemingly separate narratives consciously influenced Quentin Tarantino in writing Pulp Fiction (1994).
Maria’s trip back from an outlying grocery store is filled with tension as she enters an underpass. The staging of this sequence recalls the mounting dread preying on Jane Randolph as she walks home in Cat People, only here we see a glimpse of the feline stalker above her. Degrasse’s oppressive shading combines with Tourneur’s sure handling of pace and John C. Grubb’s detailed sound design of echoing water droplets in the girl’s otherwise deathly silent progress through the tunnel – till Mark Robson’s sharp editing shocks us with the shrieking blast of a train going by, briefly lighting Maria’s face. Cinema audiences would have jumped at this signature use of what became known as the ‘Lewton bus’ (named after the actual bus bursting into frame during Randolph’s quietly terrifying journey).
There is added suggestive artistry in the poor girl’s arrival home. Just as we hear her arrive at the sanctuary of her front door, we can only hear Maria scream, the terrible growl of the leopard as it attacks, and a dreadful seeping of blood under the door. The reliance on pure audio to portray her murder embeds itself in our imagination like a powerful radio play.
Teresa’s death hits everyone in the community hard, everyone it appears except Kiki, At the funeral parlour, she is remarkably unsympathetic, softly admonishing Jerry (“Don’t be soft”) when he feels guilty enough about the leopard to want to donate money to her family. Kiki’s current feelings will become part of her emotional journey as the story progresses. So too will those of Jerry; the theme of guilt is another that will resonate throughout the town, tying everyone together in grief.
To track the big cat, Jerry enlists the advice of an academic expert in the field of leopards, the tweedy, pipe-puffing curator of the local museum, a nicely etched Dr Galbraith by actor James Bell, usually cast as figures of reasoning authority. He is a very cool customer indeed, cosy in the profundity of wisdom he bestows to the earnest Jerry about our inability to comprehend our own actions and destiny. “We know as little about the forces that move us and move the world around us as that empty ball does”, he says wistfully. What he refers to is an interesting visual motif that Tourneur returns to repeatedly: a ball suspended on the water spout from the nightclub’s fountain. The duelling performers encircle it at the start and by referring to it in later scenes we are reminded of the ineffable path of life. This is no help to Jerry though.
As Clu-Clu is caught stealing a rose from the florist, here again the plot glides us away to another life altogether that will be impacted by events. A maid gifts her a rose from her bouquet and then takes us into an idyllic birthday wake-up for her mistress Consuela (Tuulikki Paananen). With expert economy, we are told that she has a secret lover, Raoul, and will spend the afternoon awaiting him in the cemetery near her father’s grave. This sadly will end up as her final resting place too, yet not before another key idea is imprinted on us.
Throughout his life, Lewton acutely felt the loss of his father - his mother shipped the family from Russia to America without him after her failed marriage. It is hard to know how consciously this emotional wound influenced his work, especially as grief not only manifests in many forms but can also be extremely private; however the let-down of an absent father figure occurs often, particularly in The Leopard Man. Each of the victims are vulnerable females without the comfort of this vital relationship. (It is no coincidence that Kiki, secure in Jerry’s protection, is never in danger). Indeed, in Consuela’s case she is doubly disappointed – Raoul is an unreliable no-show, and upon realising she is locked in the graveyard, a wise elder statesman statue looks on impotently as she tries to get out. The mounting horror is even more subtly conveyed here than in Teresa’s plight. A possible male saviour is only a voice over the wall, who leaves her against her protests to find a ladder. Crucially, Consuela’s killer is also unseen, a masterful bowing branch effect is the only clue to the pouncing of feline death upon her.
By now, Jeff has become obsessed with solving the killings for which he feels responsible. He finds himself caught between two opposing opinions. Charlie How-Come (Abner Biberman), the aggrieved Indian owner of the leopard, believes that an extraordinary creature is behind the killings: “It doesn’t know how to hunt its natural prey”. Jery is convinced that the culprit may be a man. Galbraith agrees, going as far as to speculate about Charlie as a suspect, an insensitive joke which poor Charlie takes to heart. “I’m sick”, he moans in self-condemnation like Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941) and promptly implores the local cops to put him into protective custody.
Meanwhile, Clu-Clu is given a macabre clue of her own destiny by the constant resurfacing of that death card no matter how the fortune-teller re-shuffles the deck. “Something black. Something on its way to you”, she tells the dancer. She is offered a ride home by a Stetson-wearing samaritan (Russell Wade, the voice that tried to help Consuela) but shuns him, fearing his black car is a portent of possible death. Wade would drive on to play a lead role in Lewton’s The Body Snatcher (1945). What actually seals Clu-Clu demise is her gold-digging nature. She gets home, then leaves again to look for the dropped $100 chip given to her by an avuncular faux sugar-daddy at the club (William Halligan). This once more illustrates the theme of the unconscious control that guides our actions. Her death at the hands of something still unseen is prefigured only by an eerily heavy shuffling sound.
Gradually the pace increases and it is here that the townsfolk confront their failings honestly, leading each one to overcome their past in favour of a new sense of community care. The hard-nosed Kiki reveals to Jerry the hidden compassion masked by her survivalist shell “Confession. I’m a complete softie”. The enigmatic alcoholic Raoul (Richard Martin) is infected by the pall of guilt hanging over the town and mans up to assist Jerry.
Galbraith makes it back to the museum after an unsettling walk home. He feels hunted, even behind closed doors. We hear his footsteps echo inside, an effect signalled earlier but now strangely sinister. The clack of Clu-Clu’s castanets haunt him. Suddenly Kiki appears and we realise that he is the chief suspect.
What follows is an extremely powerful and haunting climax, beginning with Galbraith overpowered while in the background we hear the ethereal chanting of the approaching festival of the dead. The costumes of the procession leaders radiate foreboding, black monk robes topped with faceless hoods trooping to an inexorable appointment with doom. Galbraith’s eroding composure dissolves into sweaty gibbering as he is frog-marched by Jerry and Raoul across a beautifully-lit landscape of dusky gloom. “You don’t know what it means to be tormented this way” he pleads, pathetically. Any sympathy earned is soon vaporised by the almost pornographic pleasure he takes in recounting the last moments of his prey. “Her little frail body, soft skin and then…she screamed”. Mercifully, Raoul saves the state a sickening trial of such testimony by shooting him.
The galvanising of the better aspects of humanity to purge evil from their midst must surely have been a moral imperative for the filmmakers in the awful daily turbulence of World War Two. Although Galbraith’s character seeks to shed light on the criminal mind (where he can, considering his stated position about our unfathomability), that hope would be tested to its limits two years later when concentration camps such as Belsen were liberated of the emaciated human victims of a truly unfathomable malice.
This third partnership of Lewton and Tourneur would unfortunately be their last. In their avarice, RKO executives ignored the rare chemistry that made their films so lucrative and figured that by splitting these two great talents into separate units they could double their success. Tourneur was promoted to A-feature direction which included the classic Robert Mitchum film noir Out of the Past (1947) and the 1957 cult horror hit Curse of the Demon (Night of the Demon in the UK). Lewton was offered the same promotion, but when he chose editor Mark Robson to make his directing debut on their next picture The Seventh Victim, the studio would only agree to such a risk on a supporting feature. Out of admirable loyalty to his friends, one of his finest traits, Lewton decided to stay in lower budget B-movies and continue his relative creative freedom.
Thursday, 20 April 2017
Despite Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur briefly elevating the Haitian witchcraft-inspired living dead in RKO’s hauntingly poetic I Walked with a Zombie, later that same year the promising shoots were tramped back into mud again by the only studio still making laughably ultra-cheap zombie movies. For sheer cost-effective hackery, it was left to Monogram to go do that voodoo that they did so badly.
Revenge of the Zombies (1943) was a dreary sequel to their 1941 shambolic shambler King of the Zombies (reviewed on 5/12/2016) bringing back Manton Moreland as scaredy-cat valet Jeff, as if he hadn’t enough punishment, and Madame Sul-Te-Wan, High Priestess Tahama in the previous film and now a variation of the same as housekeeper occultist Mammy Beulah. The title promises grisly vengeance thrills, but of course from Poverty Row we are prepared for disappointment on all levels. The plot is really a half-baked roadkill of horror movie and tepid Nazi skulduggery co-written by Van Norcross and Edmund Kelso, the latter of whom was the sole culprit behind King of the Zombies. The director was the trilingual Steve Sekely who directed films in his native Hungarian, English and German. Many years later he would redeem himself helming 1963’s cult hit Day of the Triffids.
Originally, Bela Lugosi was to have been the lead in Revenge. One of his perennial stage rehashes of Dracula enabled him to dodge this bullet, if not saving him from the other wretched Monogram films he would inhabit. In the meantime, the one plus point of this turgid Z-movie is the opportunity to see another early lead role for John Carradine in his first Monogram role, supplying cadaverous medical megalomania as Dr Von Altermann, a German scientist seeking to provide the Fatherland with a new master race of weaponised zombie soldiers. You should see the material he has to work with, both on the page and the slab. No wonder the Third Reich lost the war. His henchman Lazarus is a pidgin-speaking zombie with upstanding Don King hair played by James Baskett - who thankfully rose from this graveyard to become the first black male actor to win an Academy Award for his Uncle Remus in Disney’s controversial Song of the South (1946). The ragbag nascent army Von Altermann has created thus far consist of three men: one tubby, one skeletal and a balding pensioner in a makeshift loin-cloth, all of whom goose-step rather than shuffle in undead servitude. Nitzschean supermen they are not.
Von Altermann’s zero-budget experimenting has not gone completely unnoticed. His most prized subject is his dead wife Lila (Veda Ann Borg) whose suspicious death by poisoning is being investigated by her brother Scott Warrington (Mauritz Hugo) and his friend, detective Larry Miller. Actor Robert Lowery would parlay such hero roles as Miller into his time as the second screen incarnation of the Dark Knight in Columbia’s 1949 Batman and Robin serial, under former Monogram producer Sam Katzman. The two pals team up with Dr Keating, a sometimes uncertain-looking Barry Macollum (who otherwise displayed more confidence in a Broadway career spanning 1915-1968).
Moreland meanwhile gets to interact for comic relief with Lazarus, who frightens him with a deadpan admiration of his boss’s vehicle: “I drove car like this for master…when I was alive”. Jeff also takes an immediate shine to Sybil Lewis’s sassy Rosella who warns him that there are “Things walkin’ that ain’t got no business walkin’”.
The crackpot main plot sees Scott and Larry initially try a pointless masquerade passing themselves off as each other during their sleuthing visit to Dr Von Altermann’s house. Whilst this serves no practical purpose, it does afford them an eyewitness view of Lila having been reactivated from her chapel of rest by Lazarus as a zombie. Carradine uses the soothing gravitas of a funeral director when claiming disbelief at this account. On the sly, he is negotiating with a Nazi agent (Bob Steele) to earn his ticket back home with his invincible army of half-naked extras. Steele then fakes being a police Sheriff to fool the heroes into thinking their man has now been apprehended. If you think he looks more like a cowboy in his wide-brimmed hat disguise, this is explained partly by the fact that Steele’s movie career was almost entirely made up of western roles for B-movies and then on TV. Moreover, unbeknownst to the mad doctor, his character is really a U.S. agent pretending to be a Nazi pretending to be a sheriff.
While we give up trying to find any credibility in this story, Von Altermann realises that he still has work to do in removing any reason and resistance in his subjects. Lila, for example, shows intermittent signs of objecting to his devilish orders, most notably by disappearing from the compound. Jeff finds a murdered body in the forest, which then appears in the trunk of a car and then is driven away just as his friends arrive to check it out.
Scott gets in on the subterfuge again when he uncovers the scientist’s radio set used for contacting the Third Reich and poses as the agent over the airwaves making contact with them. Unfortunately Von Altermann apprehends him and has his zombie slaves tie him up and chuck him into a closet. Outside, Mammy Beulah summons Lila to come to Larry (by an irritatingly lame ‘ah-ooo’ wolf cry used throughout the film). Entranced waters seemingly run deep as the semi-zombified lady has a secret plot hidden away in her somnambulist state to destroy Von Altermann. “Only his death can release the zombies”.
Lila asks Larry to protect Scott till her plan comes to fruition at midnight. He aims to do this through a full-dress dinner that the doctor has perplexingly invited them both to attend. Wasn’t the snooping Scott a bound hostage of his a few minutes ago? One has to admire his all-inclusive hospitality. Larry and Von Altermann exchange veiled barbs of loaded one-upmanship until Larry and Scott are both drugged by the dastardly doctor. Note the cliched, almost parodic later-that-evening segue during the meal: a musical harp cue is heard as the camera closes in then pulls out from the flowers on the table.
On the subject of verging on parody, spare a thought for Von Altermann’s blackmailed secretary Jennifer Rand, played by the unbelievably named Gale Storm. Better suited to a porn star or a spoof super-hero, it was RKO who lumbered Texan Josephine Cottle with this stage name while they had her under a brief contract. These were the same marketing geniuses who hampered Val Lewton with such albatross production titles as Cat People and The Leopard Man. She had the last laugh though, achieving the rare legacy of three Hollywood Walk of Fame stars for a career of radio, recording and TV work.
One final ruse is pulled whereby Larry is revealed to be awake, the Sheriff exposes his real identity and with the aid of Jeff’s impressive axe-work on the laboratory door, the heroes burst in on Von Altermann before he can operate on the slumbering Scott. This is where Lila finally actions the title’s vendetta by co-opting the growing platoon of zombies against Von Altermann that he was building for Hitler’s use - though it’s hard to see how the Fuhrer would have benefitted from a lacklustre conga line of refugees from a middle-aged toga party. The doctor backs out into the forest where Lila sacrifices herself to submerge them both in fatal swamp ooze. If only the Axis powers had been that ineffectual in reality…
Wednesday, 19 April 2017
For their second foray mixing the lightest of criminality with even lighter horror (i.e. non-existent), the East Side Kids toplined Ghosts on the Loose for Monogram in 1943. The young tearaways were now in such demand across town that you needed a flowchart to follow their releases. In this busiest period of the Forties, they worked contracts for Warners, Universal and Monogram (for the latter two simultaneously) and under various gang names including the Dead End Kids, the East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys (from 1945). Displaying rough talent on-screen, and even rougher antics off-screen, they were essentially the Sex Pistols of micro-budget horror. As I discussed in the Boys of the City review (13/12/2016) their first boss William Wyler had sold their contract to Universal because he could no longer tolerate wrangling the endless chimps’ tea-party on set that made them so popular on camera. By 1940 Universal had off-loaded them to a buy-out by Monogram and under the new name of the East Side Kids here they made 22 films between 1940 and 1945.
Ghosts on the Loose reunited the Kids with Bela Lugosi, who had previously tangled with them good-naturedly in Spooks Run Wild (see 14/12/2016) for the studio. This was Lugosi’s seventh inning out of his contracted Monogram Nine and is no stretch at all, leaving the bulk of the film to be carried by their mischievous energy. His screen time as head of a Nazi spy ring is so light, he could have telegrammed his performance instead of ‘phoning it in. And as B-movie schlock often does, its title misrepresents the contents, featuring no ghosts whatsoever whilst the only things loose are the wheels on this busted vehicle.
Our old friend William Beaudine directed in a typical Monogram factory schedule of six days from a workmanlike screenplay by Kenneth Higgins which begins with the Kids’ preparations for a family wedding organised by their tousle-haired, bullying leader Muggs (Leo Gorcey). Glimpy (the dimwit co-lead of the gang, Huntz Hall) is Best Man as his sister Betty is getting married. The first unlikely sight of the movie is seeing the boys in the parlour rehearsing the sweet song ‘Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes’ under Muggs’ self-appointed choirmaster sadism. This is surely the only time playwright Ben Jonson will ever be quoted in an East Side Kids movie (the lyrics are from his 1616 poem Song to Celia). Surprisingly, the young punks’ harmonies are not bad, yet still allow Gorcey some choice one-liner insults. “You’re dimming in your dimuendo”, he tells one of them.
The second unexpected vision is to see Ava Gardner making one of her earliest screen appearances here as Betty. As Tom Weaver pointed out, she was on a starter contract at M-G-M of $100 a week and the loan-out to companies like Monogram became a habit of theirs that she resented for many years. “I got sold like a prize hog as often as the studio could manage it”, she railed in her autobiography. She looks lovely but has no more to do than Lugosi, being simply an attractive ornament to distract from the low-frequency crime shenanigans of the ugly mugs on offer.
The Kids use their victimless crime resourcefulness to borrow a decorative wreath for the big day and a tuxedo for Gimpy from the local funeral director. Such is their soft-boiled gangsterism, they even secure a police escort by telling the Chief that festivities will be invaded by mobsters from the Katzman gang. (an in-joke by Gorcey aimed at Monogram’s tightwad producer Sam Katzman).
On the wedding day, Betty’s husband-to-be Jack Gibson (Rick Vallin, a later frequent supporting player to the Bowery Boys) proves to be less canny in his own business dealings. The house he’s bought at a rock-bottom price is rumoured to be haunted, a result of buying it for some reason sight unseen. (Where did he do this? In a bar?) This is where Lugosi enters the frame as the furious Nazi ring-leader Emil who wants both houses so he can use the connecting tunnels between the properties for his activities. He dispatches henchman Tony (Wheeler Oakman) to successfully negotiate with Gibson in a hurry before the ceremony.
The contact address card Tony gives Jack for the Nazis’ house next door then leads to a mix-up whereby the Kids find it and, thinking this is the Gibsons’ new home, decide to give them a wedding present of secretly decorating for them. On finding the newlyweds’ home oddly empty, characteristically the Kids figure they can go next door and simply liberate the on-sale property of its furniture to be reimbursed later. Meanwhile Jack and the police are warned by the original owner about the neighbours’ ongoing suspicious behaviour masked by these supernatural stories. He and Betty hightail it over there, accompanied by the police.
The spy ring then attempts to scare the Kids with a ham-fisted spooky gambit in which Lugosi switches places with a wall portrait to frighten Sammy Morrison’s Scruno whilst he dusts. (It’s worth rewinding this sequence for the moment where Lugosi sneezes as it sounds remarkably like “Ow shit!”) . Muggs and his gang discover a propaganda printing press in the neighbours’ cellar, used by Emil’s gang for churning out ‘What the New Order Means to You’. In their ignorance, the Kids ship the press over to the Gibsons’, thinking it will make a bonus gift. This plays right into the hands of the tiresome teutonics, relieving them of incriminating evidence when the cops arrive.
What follows is a game of pass-the-parcel where the press is shunted back again to the Nazis’ pad, after which Muggs and Gimpy are taken hostage when they stumble upon the interconnecting tunnels bridging the houses. This climax does hold one nice visual joke when the trussed-up Muggs remarks how quiet his friend is all of a sudden; Gimpy takes a free hand from behind his chair and releases his gag to reply “Are you kiddin’?”
Whilst we’re on the subject of propaganda, the fairest thing to say about Higgins’ script is a sprinkling of lame topicality. Whilst it possesses zero frights, it does at least recognise the war effort. When Scroono’s jumpiness is blamed on excessive caffeine intake, Gimpy button-holes him with “Where’d you get it?” a reference to the recent rationing of coffee. Once the spies have been collared by the police, the final gag sees the Kids quarantined, having contracted German Measles in the form of tiny swastikas. Even a daffy sight-gag like this, reminiscent of the Three Stooges, cannot save the shoddiness of Ghosts on the Loose, whose only purpose historically was to speed Bela Lugosi closer to the end of his contractual obligation with Monogram.
The only real suggestion of crime (other than enduring this routine pot-boiler) occurred ten days prior to the start of filming in February 1943, when Sam Katzman’s co-producer Jack Dietz was jailed for seven months for evading $200,000 worth of back taxes. For the untarnished East Side Kids however, the film was simply one more in their long streak of programmers that would incorporate later humour-horror hybrids under their future name of the Bowery Boys.
Friday, 14 April 2017
For their second collaboration, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur were keen to build on the overnight success of Cat People (1942) that had greatly exceeded studio and audience expectations. RKO’s punishing release schedule however gave them no time for ‘difficult second album’ musings. Val Lewton was contracted to deliver his next production less than four months later, (a total of four by the end of 1943). It would take a workaholic to manage this workload and yet still imbue each film with quality far beyond the typical cranked-out schlock – and that he was.
I Walked With a Zombie, like its predecessor, hampered Lewton with a title forced upon him that he would need to work against, while at the same time somehow fulfilling. The zombie horror film was also tarred with racist and cheapjack connotations. Since the sub-genre emerged with the dire White Zombie (1932), the only major studio picture to attempt a Caribbean voodoo-flavoured horror was Paramount’s The Ghost Breakers (see my review of 4/11/2016) and this was played for comedy as a Bob Hope vehicle. While it gave us the first example of a nightmarish, undead soul in Noble Johnson’s unsettling zombie, there was an uncomfortable imperialist racism embedded that tarnished all of the first decade’s iterations. Indigenous West Indians who believed in the undead returning to life were exploited superficially as a primitive device for shocks, rather than a culture to understand. There was no better treatment for the black western characters either that accompanied the white heroes. Whether played by Willie Best in The Ghost Breakers or Manton Moreland in Monogram’s awful King of the Zombies (1941), they were as denigrated as the natives, but more sharply-detailed as comic-relief, wide-eyed, lazy cowards.
By the early Forties, Monogram was in fact the only studio still churning out zombie pictures. This Poverty Row outfit was an ideal place for the living dead in more ways than one. Cost-wise, there was zero requirement for talent or extra outlay for costumes. All they needed were a few glassy-eyed shamblers who could be upgraded for a few dollars into monotone delivery day-players. If you’ve ever seen a Monogram film, there were plenty to choose from.
Lewton and Tourneur worked hard to distance themselves from any association with past tawdry efforts in the field. The source material was as much a hindrance as an inspiration. RKO bosses had handed them I Walked with a Zombie as the title of an American Weekly newspaper article by Inez Wallace which was basically a fabricated riip-off of Walter Seabrook’s The Magic Island, itself a questionably lurid account of his own first-hand experiences of voodoo practises in Haiti. Although the veracity of Wallace’s article could not be relied upon, in his superb history of undead cinema, Book of the Dead, Jamie Russell argues that “The finished film mimics Wallace’s uncertainty and hesitation, absorbing the inherent paradoxes between the clash of knowledge and ignorance found in the article”.
Tales of roaming zombified slave-workers and black magic ritual were far too crude and flimsy for Lewton’s refined taste when overseeing Kurt (The Wolf Man) Siodmak and Ardel Wray in their screenplay. He rejected Siodmak’s populist early drafts and asked them to ground any depiction of Haitian voodoo in genuine research (possibly inspired by the integrity that his mentor David O. Selznick instilled in him), and to use Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as a blueprint for the emotionally engaging story.
The result had more in common with Cat People than its quality beyond the call of duty. Both films share such strength in their plot, characterisation and brooding atmosphere that if the supernatural element was removed, each would still make a gripping story of doomed love. I Walked with a Zombie is even more subtle than its predecessor. There are no murders or jump shocks, and even its single presumed figure of terror is ambiguous and sympathetic.
There are emotive echoes of the Bronte novel’s structure underpinning the film. We see events through a first person narrative by a female character (Canadian nurse Betsy Connell, played by Frances Dee) sent to work in a caring role in an unfamiliar environment, who cannot help falling in love with a tortured, reserved employer (Tom Conway). Both struggle to remain principled while haunted by his alive yet mentally-disturbed first wife that she is treating. Events will ultimately reveal dark secrets that impact on all. I Walked with a Zombie weaves in other relationship complexities and a rich, respected Caribbean culture alien to Betsy on its way to a downbeat ending open to interpretation.
From the opening scene, Tourneur immediately provides a tone designed to mystify and intrigue the viewer. Betsy’s voiceover draws us in with an almost light-hearted wistfulness, recognising the absurdity of how “I walked with a zombie. It does seem an odd thing to say” while we see her strolling along the beach in silhouette with a very tall unidentified person, presumed to be him. This scene is never referenced again. Before we can dwell on this, she is being given a cursory interview for a nursing post that would take her to exotic San Sebastian. She doesn’t leap naively at the opportunity, and when knowledge of witchcraft is vaguely asked about, she claims ignorance facetiously.
Once on the island, Betsy is gradually drip-fed its history, made up of a minority white ruling community and a happy, deferential black majority descended from the old slave trade. Straight away we see a radical and welcome difference in how Lewton and Tourneur depict their world and behaviour compared to Hollywood’s usual portrayal of anyone dark-skinned. There is as much gentle respect accorded them as shown by them. The maid Alma (Theresa Harris) is gracious and pleasant without being a servile ‘mammy’ stereotype spouting slang (much as she was allowed to be as Minnie the waitress in Cat People). Nor are the men relegated to being grotesque pantomiming dimwits with outrageous, cartoony voices. Even the musicians dress spotlessly in white suits and carry themselves with a serene dignity.
As Betsy’s suave English gent employer, Conway is well cast as Paul Holland. He has the air of languid privilege reminiscent of the British Raj and an impassive coolness of manner that conceals passion and torment. His half-brother and mostly-functioning alcoholic employee Wesley Rand (James Ellison) is another who masks private pain. Before we peer into his sozzled soul, Betsy is distracted that night by plaintive weeping and goes to find the cause. The scene pulls back the discreet veil that the household dissembles in front of; Tourneur builds tension with a staircase tantalisingly lit by J. Roy Hunt, the top of which is hidden in shadow. Betsy is pursued by an ethereal woman in white who heads straight for her with a chilling, silent directness. It’s a claustrophobic moment and shows what an unsettling effect can be achieved on camera with simple, deliberate intent devoid of any tricksiness. Fortunately Betsy is saved by the appearance of Paul. This is an unforgettable way to introduce her to Jessica Holland, the woman she has been hired to look after.
Betsy is told that Jessica’s trance state is the result of a fever that damaged her spinal cord into a ruinous helplessness. She learns even more when drinking al fresco with Wesley. His aw-shucks folksiness beguiles her until the unwitting calypso singer (the marvellously-named Sir Lancelot) sings a lilting tune whose lyrics lay out Wesley’s thwarted elopement with Jessica by Paul. Suddenly Wesley turns from mushy to venomous, rounding on him for resurrecting the heartache Wesley medicates daily with booze.
Betsy meets Mrs Rand, a doctor and mother to the men who is also not as straight-forward as her friendly bedside manner. Playing the piano one evening, Paul reveals to Betsy a tenderness and self-critical fear that he feels responsible for his wife’s state. Betsy was already falling for him; his confessional intensifies her anguish to the point where she sublimates it by promising to cure Jessica.
From here onwards, Betsy becomes more than just a white colonial spectator as she ventures into the secluded world of voodoo ritual. Alma gives her and Jessica directions through the corn fields, and cloth brooches that function as all-access passes when they encounter the film’s single yet fascinating zombie guardian. Our first sight of the towering Carre-Four (Darby Jones), shot from below and lit by moonlight, is an unforgettably potent sight. His glazed-eyed guardian symbolises the gateway for Betsy into the supernatural – if she dares. Despite his size, he offers no active threat, but neither can his calm stance be taken for granted either. Coupled with the sighing wind amid the high corn rows dwarfing Betsy and Jessica, this no-going-back sequence staged by Tourneur is thick with atmospheric foreboding.
The arcane practises choreographed at the houmfort worshipping site are mesmerising and utterly credible. The sabreur wielding a sword’s ceremonial power, the two dancers’ jagged thrusts before meeting their foreheads over the drummer, not to mention the insistent earworm incantations driven by the beating heart of drumming, images like these have a fierce, eerie commitment far removed from the dodgy Hollywood musical moves typically passed off as exotic rites in horror movies. What follows though reveals that actually even the preserved mystery of the locals has been devious claimed by the white colonial settlers, masked as being for their betterment. Mrs Rand has been posing as a voodoo priestess to dispense modern medicine under the guise of serving the gods. She tells Betsy that Jessica is beyond salvation. Meanwhile, the Sabreur is conducting his own occult tests. He pierces her arm with the sword, convincing the attending folk that she is a zombie. This prompts the ancient world to impact on the sanctity of the present in return when Carre-Four is sent to collect Jessica for their further examination. The formidable Mrs Rand denies him, and then fuels further ambiguous mystery by springing on Betsy that she believes she was a possessed conduit for a voodoo god who cursed Jessica into zombification.
To further muddy the swirling dark waters, Wesley and the Sabreur both duel over the soul of Jessica, the latter enacting the piercing of a voodoo doll effigy of her as the still-lovestruck Wesley stabs her with the symbolic arrow of Ti-Misery (Saint Sebastian). With Carre-Four striding silently after him, Wesley sacrifices himself and Jessica in the sea. Wading out with her in his arms suggests a religious, almost baptismal ceremony to the sad reuniting of their ill-fated love.
This mournful, poetic ending adds to the lingering enigma of unanswered questions in the film that have aided its longevity. And let’s not forget that opening which now seemingly identifies Carre-Four as Betsy’s companion on the shore - but why? When? Where were they going? Such musings haunt the viewer as though we’ve just awoken from an evocative yet unexplained fever dream. At a time when most horror pictures followed a routine plot often wrapped up with unimaginative haste, I Walked with a Zombie resonates for its daring bid to obscure easy answers. I remember vividly the aftermath of seeing The Blair Witch Project (1999) with friends at the cinema, and how the passionate debates about its own ending was a lively and wondrous antidote to forgettability. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur had taken audiences to that delightfully maddening place decades before…
Wednesday, 12 April 2017
Whilst Universal spent 1943 spinning the wheels of its monster properties in the lack-lustre franchise sequels Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and Son of Dracula, they were producing other stand-alone horror titles, even if not wholly original. Captive Wild Woman is an entertaining ape to human, body-swap B-movie enlivened by some risky-looking animal sequences and a silkily sinister mad scientist portrayal by John Carradine.
Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) is an animal trainer bringing back forty jungle cats from an expedition for his circus employer John Whipple, played by Lloyd Corrigan. His prize catch is a highly-intelligent female gorilla named Cheela, (actually that prolific man-in-a-monkey suit exponent Ray Corrigan whom we recently saw in The Strange Case of Dr RX – see review dated 17/3/2017). Fred’s fiancé Beth (Evelyn Ankers from The Ghost of Frankenstein) is more interested in telling him about her sister Dorothy’s glandular problems, which she hopes will be cured by taking her to Crestview SanItorium.
The resident expert there is Carradine’s eminent Dr Sigmund Walters, whose thin, slanted moustache emphasises his distinctive Asiatic eyes. He appears a charming and sympathetic specialist who has every confidence he can aid poor Dorothy (Martha Vickers). In private, Walters enthuses to Nurse Strand (Fay Helm) about the value to him of this “rare case of follicular cyst which induces the secretion of unusual amounts of the sex hormones”. He is experimenting on the potential benefits that glands offer in transforming organs to beyond normal size. (No, not those organs. See me after class). Dorothy will make a handy draught vessel overflowing with the very fluid he needs. His assistant is appalled by his publicly-concealed machinations. “I can see you’re not a scientist at heart, Nurse Strand…One must be daring”, he replies airily.
All Walters requires is a subject beneficiary strong enough to survive the operation. He finds this by chance when visiting Whipple’s Circus, where a handler is fired for almost being throttled after carelessly giving Cheela water. Since the circus won’t sell the gorilla to him, Walters bribes the ex-employee to steal Cheela for him. To compound his ethic-free approach to research, in lieu of payment he pushes the man into the ape’s homicidal arms – a marvellous moment of restrained evil by Carradine, witnessing the off-screen killing with a chilling, appreciative stillness. The next morning’s newspaper announces the death with the usual over-simplified headline; however there’s an amusingly specific sub-heading ‘Nails of beast press through back of neck severing spinal cord’ suggesting the reporter confused his job with giving a coroner’s report.
We are treated then to some hair-raising, tiger-taming sequences showing Frank at work in the circus cage. Actually for the most part he is simply acting the close-ups, intercut with scenes of celebrated real-life animal trainer Clyde Beatty doing the whip, chair and gun brandishing. These were taken from Universal’s circus drama The Big Cage (1933), and although modern audiences may find the footage cruel, his impressive skill merits a prologue card praising his ‘Inimitable talent in staging the thrilling animal sequences’.
Back in the equally questionable world of laboratory cruelty to animals, Dr Walters is having none of Helm’s overly melodramatic acting. He turns her refusal to voluntarily cooperate into a fatality gifting him a cerebral transplant for Cheela. This would be Helm’s second time on the receiving end of unfortunate intimacy with a hairy horror after her cameo as Jenny, murdered by Bela Lugosi’s werewolf in The Wolf Man (1941).
One new brain and a glandular oil change later, courtesy of Dorothy, and the gorilla is now transformed into a striking, olive-skinned woman, re-christened by Walters as Paula Dupree. The actress embodying this unusual role was given the enigmatic name of Acquanetta, though in reality she was born the slightly less exotic Mildred Davenport in Wyoming. Universal marketed her as ‘the Venezuelan Volcano’, confusing an ancestry that was interesting enough as she was of Arapaho lineage. Adding further complication was the rumour that she was African-American, causing print media of that culture to follow her career. (I mention this in passing only because her later prosthetic make-up looks uncomfortably like a racist caricature). Acquanetta would go on to several more B-movies including this film’s sequel Jungle Woman (1944).
Unleashed here, Dupree the naked ape has not so much lost a pelt and her animal memory but gained a paranormal talent that comes handily into play the next time Fred goes a few rounds in the ring with the jungle cats. She saves him from the volatile, roaring lion by mesmerising it with nothing more than her uncanny stare. Sensing a terrific (and potentially life-saving) partner for the act, Fred recruits her to stand sentinel outside the cage every time he performs. She has no trouble soothing the savage breast into rolling over like a passive pussycat; what she cannot control is the torrent of primitive jealousy within her at seeing Fred with his fiancé. This manifests externally as darkening skin mutating into a toothy, fright-wigged misfire by the normally admirable Jack P Pierce that gives her a laughable resemblance to a satanic Blaxploitation harpie. Dupree’s only outlet is a primal hunting of Beth, breaking into her bedroom at night to kill her rival, yet only succeeding in slashing her neighbour to death (Fern Emmett, who similarly dies for her interference in Dead Men Walk - see 6/4).
Suddenly the medical megalomania of Walters’s plans is being unravelled by his guinea-pigs. He scolds Dupree for going rogue. Her raging hormones have erased the tissue work keeping her human, meaning he must drain more secretions from Dorothy. She guesses as much and tries to call her sister for help, causing Walters to cut them off mid-call. Can’t they just be good little victims? When Beth shows up, he decides to make her a hands-on part of his work – once again Carradine dialling back the temptation for ripe histrionics into a more unsettling minimalist menace. He unwittingly gives Beth a get-out when he gloats at the fully-restored Cheela rattling her cage: “She senses what’s coming. She’d love to get her hands on me”. While Walters is distracted, Beth sets Cheela free to fulfill that wish.
Meanwhile Fred has opted to still perform his dangerous wild-cat act in the circus without supernatural supervision. As a freak storm panics crowd and animals alike, he seems about to become the lion’s supper again when Cheela redeems herself by rescuing him, and is shot dead by a cop. There’s gratitude.
It only remains for the elegant tones of an uncredited Turhan Bey (whom we saw as Mehemet Bey in The Mummy’s Tomb) to narrate a closing epilogue warning that fools like Walters will always pay a karmic price if they “tampered with things that men should not touch”.