White Zombie (1932): The Evil Eye

posterLet me start out by saying that I’m happy we seem to be living in the Age of the Zombie. It’s nice to see zombies get their due share of attention.

I mean, once upon a time they couldn’t sit at the cool monsters’ table with Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Imhotep the Mummy. I’m glad for them. Really.

But… I guess I have some issues with what passes for a zombie lately.

Today’s representations of zombies tend to focus on the relatively new premise of a zombie apocalypse, on zombie-ism as a modern plague. Such a concept totally spaces out on the occult origins of this most exotic of horror creatures. Lately, the emphasis on zombies as horrific, contagious beings has led us to neglect the notion of the walking dead as victims of external control—a kind of interpersonal imperialism or supernatural bondage, if you will. I long for the days where one didn’t merely become a zombie, but was turned into one.

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I miss that key figure, the bokor, the wicked Voodoo necromancer capable of raising an army of cadavers from their graves and forcing them to do his wicked bidding. The concept of a sorcerer willing to enslave his fellow humans scares me much more than all the gross-out zombies in the world. Perhaps the bokor has gone out of fashion along with the idea of the soul.

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In place of the alienation or contamination metaphors that we get in post-Romero zombie films, the original celluloid zombies played out morbid variations on the theme of domination. Reaping the heritage of the Gothic, White Zombie traces a twisted story of sexual obsession, like most films of the original talkie horror cycle. The poster definitely plays up the kink angle with taglines like, “She was neither alive nor dead… Just a white zombie, performing his every desire!”

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The story centers on a perky, sweet couple—exquisite Madeleine and her affable fiancé Neil come to Haiti to celebrate their wedding at a friend’s plantation. Unfortunately, that friend, wealthy Monsieur Beaumont, carries a torch for Madeleine, so he asks the diabolical sorcerer ‘Murder’ Legendre to help him win the damsel to his will. Of course, that doesn’t work out so well for Neil—or indeed for Beaumont, because Legendre changes Madeleine into a white zombie (…and we have a title!) that he plans to keep for his own pleasure.

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Apart from its important status as the first zombie movie, White Zombie also deserves recognition as a landmark indie horror film. Brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, the film’s director and producer, were pioneers who borrowed sets from Universal horror flicks to shoot their movie in 11 days. Even without the infrastructure of the studio system, the Halperins delivered a classic that stands up to—and in some ways surpasses—the more high-profile horror monuments of the time.

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In particular, the soundtrack paints a rich, full sense of place, in contrast to an era of relative silence in cinema, ironically brought on by the talkies. The use of Caribbean-sounding music provides appropriate emotional cues. Better yet, a range of authentic diegetic sounds, from shrill cricket chirps to Voodoo drums to the wince-inducing creak of a sugar mill, make us squirm.

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White Zombie also excels at exploring psychological states through unusual trick effects, especially skillful double exposures. For instance, after Madeleine’s burial, Neil tries to drink away his sorrows in a dive bar, but sees his beloved’s face in every fleeing shadow. The contrast between the white veil of her apparition and the dark silhouettes on the wall imbue the scene with a phantasmagoric ambiance worthy of high German Expressionism.

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The Halperins also cannily showcase Bela Lugosi by featuring his hypnotic eyes even more prominently than Dracula did. His eyes mesmerize as they appear floating through the landscape, sparkling in a glass of champagne, or headed straight towards the camera, as he walks into a harrowing extreme close-up.

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His gleaming peepers, ever-present, seem to survey everything, omniscient and menacing. In fact, those disembodied eyes are the first we see of ‘Murder’ Legendre, superimposed over the Haitian landscape, until they shrink to little pinpoints on either side of his silhouette. We understand that this dark stranger can see you, whether he’s looking at you or not. Having viewed a nice print of White Zombie only on the small screen of my laptop, I can barely begin to imagine how looming and oppressive those glowing eyes must be when they flash on a movie theater screen. It must feel like the film is not being watched, but rather is watching you.

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On a thematic level, a number of ceremonies—and inversions of ceremonies—structure this chilling fairy tale. The film begins with a funeral, transitions to a wedding, then modulates back to a funeral, after Madeleine, the maiden bride, is poisoned and laid to rest in her crypt. However, the implicit fear of these ceremonies being undone adds a layer of complexity and dread to each ritual. The native burial that opens the film takes place in the middle of a road, in order to assure that the grave won’t be robbed and that its occupant won’t be compelled to live eternally as an undead slave.

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As the traditional wedding takes place at Beaumont’s plantation, Legendre performs another ritual in the garden below, carving a wax candle into a Voodoo doll of the bride. Whereas the Christian ceremony of marriage emphasizes purity, Legendre makes a mockery of this, whittling an anatomically correct nude figure. Even seen in a long shot, the gleeful obscenity of the sculpture reminds us that we’re dealing with pre-Code horror.

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Lugosi’s dancing hands and surreptitious smile leave no doubt that this kind of remote-control violation both echoes and undermines the simultaneous wedding vows. Even Madeleine’s solemn burial is shortly reversed when Legendre and his zombie henchmen break into her tomb and make off with her cadaver.

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Yet, for all this subversion of Christian ritual, White Zombie suggests that love goes a whole lot further than ’til death do us part. As Neil sleeps outside the castle where Madeleine lingers as a catatonic prisoner, a lyrical series of split screens and unusual wipes telepathically connects the pair.

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At one point, an image lifts like a curtain, recalling how a groom lifts the veil to kiss his bride. In contrast to the static wedding scene, this distinctly filmic visual poem, accompanied by angelic, soulful native choirs, represents a mystical wedding of souls. Love, the thing that justifies all of our rituals, has is own secrets, stronger than death or black magic.

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You can watch White Zombie for free, either on YouTube or at the Internet Archive. I strongly recommend the HD YouTube version, because it’s the best quality I’ve seen online.

Eyes of Another: Perspective in the Films of Val Lewton

Stunning camerawork. Noirish lighting. Deep psychological insight. Moments of elliptical, primal terror. All of these qualities fuse to form the meteoric legacy of Val Lewton, a powerhouse of the horror genre. But, for me, there’s one essential element missing from the list above: complexity of perspective.

When you watch a Val Lewton film, you’re often plunged into the tortured psyche of not just one character, but of several. Some movies, especially horror films, resort to a fixed point-of-view, linked to a model of absorption and identification with the main character. Lewton’s horror films, however, jump into the minds and souls of different people, creatures, and even, I would argue, cultures.

From voice-over narration to framing to subtle changes of mise-en-scène, Lewton and his collaborators employed many techniques to shade and shape nuanced points-of-view. In so doing, the auteur pioneered the “psychological realism” that was to become a hallmark of later European art cinema. Except that Lewton’s movies are a lot more fun, frankly.

So, for this special occasion, the 2012 Halloween Val Lewton Blogathon, I’d like to take a look at three Lewton films that transcend horror as a genre through their manipulation of perspective. Instead of mere thrills and chills, these movies become bridges between good and evil, between fantasy and reality, between innocence and experience.

The Ghost Ship (1943) – Sounds of Silence

Directed by Mark Robson.

Even though Tom Merriam (the guy being threatened with a knife below) serves as our clean-cut, likable protagonist, he’s really just part of the stakes of this self-consciously allegoric struggle between good and evil.

 After all, we never get an ounce of Merriam’s subjectivity—at least not as we do for Captain Stone and for the deaf-mute Finn. At different times in the film, voice-over narration allows us to hear their thoughts or delusions. For instance, when Stone is worried that his crew will mutiny, he hears the doubtful statement, “Maybe the boy is right” evolve into “The boy is right!” as it loops over and over on the soundtrack.

A POV shot from Stone’s perspective sets up his psychotic break, as we begin to hear his obsessive thoughts.

The audience is privileged to even more of Finn’s thoughts. We meet him just a few minutes into the film—Merriam bumps into him and we expect to stay with Merriam. However, the camera stops and tracks in on Finn’s rough, stirring face as he “speaks” to us through the film medium—something he couldn’t do with his voice, being unable to talk.

Throughout The Ghost Ship, the camera repeats this almost spiritual, creeping, reverent track-in. When Robson focuses on Finn, he freezes the action and emphasizes the kind of telepathic link the viewer possesses with this character, thanks to the voice-over.

In fact, Finn’s voice-over narration concludes the film, after he’s slain the tyrannical captain and restored Merriam’s faith in human nature. Like an omniscient angel, he affirms, “All is well,” to end this searing morality tale, as he stands by the wheel to guide our gentle hero.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) – Cinematic Fantasy

Directed by Gunther von Fristch and Robert Wise.

People have written books about perspective and subjectivity in The Curse of the Cat People. Rightly so. I’ll restrain myself to noting that Amy’s giftedly artistic, flamboyant perspective motivates all of the film’s beauty. Her quicksilver, low-key lit fantasies, as the trees darken and dance around her and Irena sings to her in the snow, endow her make-believe scenes with a poetry that the camera can enunciate.

In contrast to the clean lines of the Reed home, Amy’s fantasies dwell in forest lands which she infuses and populates with her feverish imagination.

She also brings legends to life. Both she and we hear the sound of passing wheels transform the clip-clop of the Headless Horseman.

To Amy’s eyes, an old woman telling stories turns into a glowing wellspring of entertainment.

Most importantly, her fantasy saves her life as she projects Irena onto the potentially homicidal Barbara. Amy’s innocence and conviction forces Barbara to realize that she should be Amy’s friend, instead of her killer!

When we fantasize, Lewton shows us, the world ascends to its highest level of enchantment. Why, oh, why would we ever want to throw that away and “grow up?” We shouldn’t, which is why, in the end, Oliver embraces Amy’s fantasy and “sees” Irena in the garden. The lost are never lost, so long as we keep them in our mind’s eye. Through the make-believe of movies, Lewton encourages us all to see what might be there and cherish it. The joy that illusions furnish us with, that glee more than compensates for being a little, well… deluded.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) – From Jane Eyre to Greek Chorus

Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

The voice-over which opens this film conforms to a long tradition of plucky female protagonists who reveal their struggles to the audience. It’s film’s inheritance from the 19thcentury novel. The narrator reassures us and suggests that we will be guided through the plot by a sensitive, caring woman who will both relate and reflect on events. And so she does.

Betsy Connell, a nurse, tells us about how she feels about the tropic night sky—and we see it.

She describes the stillness of the Holland house—and we see it.

She broods over her love for Holland—and we see her brooding by the ocean.

In other words, the film’s construction allows us to feel aligned with her perspective. And then, like, halfway through the film, the voice-over drops out, right about the time when Betsy visits the voodoo grounds. From then on, the soundtrack vibrates with the maddening drums. This shift gives the impression that the film has been subsumed by a consciousness greater and deeper than Betsy’s, a consciousness linked to the film’s most powerful symbol—the slave ship statue of Black Saint Sebastian. The Voodoo, Afro-Caribbean sounds and sights have commandeered the film, reclaimed it from the linear 19thcentury trajectory, to share woe, passion, hate, violence, and finally, peace.

Just as the ceremony seems to take over Jessica’s burnt-out consciousness, so too does the island culture seem to permeate and influence the conclusion of the film, taking it away from the white, optimistic female protagonist. It’s a very modernist take on Jane Eyre… slipping from a relatively straight-forward narration to something deeper and more mythic. After all, the key ending scene, in which Carrefour frightens Wesley into the sea, doesn’t even involve Betsy! Even the images could be interpreted in several different ways: is Carrefour trying to save the sinners as he reaches for them… or push them into the sea?

In the concluding sequence, the coda of the movie, a soulful native voice speaks the moral of the story and intones a prayer that binds together the Voodoo and Christian traditions.

Ti-Joseph’s voice-over explains that Jessica, the white zombie, was always a zombie, even while alive, because of her sinful desire to wound others:

Oh, Lord God most holy, deliver them from the bitter pains of eternal death. The woman was a wicked woman, and she was dead in her own life. Yea lord, dead in the selfishness of her spirit. And the man followed her. Her steps led him down to evil, her feet took hold on death. Forgive him oh Lord, who knowest the secret of all hearts. Yea Lord, pity them who are dead, and give peace and happiness to the living.

As the Black natives bring the bodies from the ocean, past the Saint Sebastian statue, Betsy no longer stands out as the moral center of the film.

Betsy’s sweet, sincere, but ultimately limited perspective has succumbed to a broader, more resonant point-of-view, one which echoes through time to deliver a message of transgression, pain, and forgiveness.