I Walked with a Zombie

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Everything seems beautiful because you don’t understand. Those flying fish, they’re not leaping for joy, they’re jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay.

From time to time I like to revisit the films of Val Lewton, those nine macabre tales he made as head of his own production unit at RKO and upon which his reputation rests. I can’t say it’s ever an especially arduous task, they all have brief running times and I rank them among my favorite works since I first made their acquaintance as a young boy, alternating between fascination and fear during those late night TV screenings. One of the first I saw was I Walked with a Zombie (1943), a title guaranteed to fire the imagination of any young viewer. As with all of Lewton’s pictures, it’s not so much a shock-filled horror film as a dreamy study of unease and dread, where suggestion and atmosphere creep up behind you and softly whisper “Boo” in your ear.

It all starts out bright and crisp, like the snow falling outside the window of the Ottawa office where Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) accepts the job of nursing an invalid woman on a West Indian island. It’s only when she’s aboard the ship that will transport across the sea to her new appointment that Betsy’s new employer Paul Holland (Tom Conway) makes that little speech which I used as an intro that darkness, along with its faithful companions doubt and suspicion, extends its shadowy fingers. Holland owns a sugar plantation and shares his home there with his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) and his wife Jessica (Christine Gordon), the zombie of the title. Jessica exists in a semi-catatonic state, awake but no longer aware of the world around her, apparently the result of a bad bout of fever. Holland is keen to impress on Betsy the melancholy history of the island, a place where the inhabitants, all descended from slaves, still live in thrall to the Voodoo religion. She finds herself fascinated by the reserved and withdrawn Holland, sympathetic to the hard-drinking Wesley, and simultaneously repelled and intrigued by the shattered beauty of the listless Jessica. As her attraction to her employer grows, the young nurse gradually learns more of the tragic history of this family residing on an island which itself is no stranger to suffering. In that contrary way that love often manifests itself, Betsy resolves to do all in her power to haul Jessica back to the living. That will involve putting her faith in the mysterious beliefs of the islanders and taking a nighttime walk through the cane fields that take on an eerie complexion in the twilight cast by a warm Caribbean moon. What she finds at the end of it will answer some of her questions but, paradoxically, raise as many more.

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Producer Val Lewton was tasked with running a low budget horror unit at RKO and it’s often said that his low-key approach and reliance on atmosphere and the inherent creepiness of the unknown was fueled by the lack of funds and the subsequent desire to avoid being seen as a cut-price version of Universal with its gallery of monsters and freaks, the only concession being the pulpy and frequently lurid titles of the pictures. I’ve no doubt this played a significant part in the process but I’d also like to think that Lewton’s own artistic sensibility entered into the equation too. For there is a high level of artistry involved in these movies, which beguile and chill the viewer in equal measure. The horror movie can be a rather obvious genre, only rarely restraining itself from the temptation to provide instant gratification via visual shocks and, as time has gone on the audiences more jaded, an over-reliance on gore. But that wasn’t Lewton’s style; he worked with three fine directors over the course of his nine RKO  horrors – Mark Robson, Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur. All those films are good, but I feel that it’s with the latter that the best work was done. As far as I’m concerned, this is no coincidence as Tourneur was a master of subtlety. He was fully aware of the power of his camera and his compositions and pacing have a smoothness that belongs only to the truly talented. In truth, there’s not a bad shot in the whole movie, but the highlight has to be the trek through the cane fields, the recreation of which is a tribute to the art department, with the sense of dread and foreboding ever present but always that crucial step short of overwhelming.

The cast is led by Frances Dee and her performance hits exactly the right tone, vulnerable enough to make the threatening atmosphere believable yet grounded by a practicality that befits one charged with the task of caring for an essentially helpless woman. The film and role calls for a degree of nobility, or perhaps selflessness is a better term, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off successfully; there’s always the risk of it appearing somehow insufferable and it takes a fair bit of skill to dance around that particular pitfall. In short, it’s a balancing act and one which I feel Ms Dee negotiated with aplomb. Similarly, Tom Conway (who had the distinction of appearing in three of Lewton’s very best productions) plays it cool and keeps away from the histrionics. Like his brother George Sanders, suave and debonair were second nature to Conway and I’ve always enjoyed seeing him work – The Falcon movies are among my absolute favorites when it comes to series detective fare. However, a love story, and this is certainly as much a romance as a horror film, needs some overt passion to be displayed. That is provided by James Ellison as the volatile half-brother, an unpleasant part in many ways but well performed all the same. The supporting players are rounded out by Edith Barrett, James Bell, Sir Lancelot, Theresa Harris and the wonderfully spooky Darby Jones as the sinister, bug-eyed Carrefour.

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I Walked with a Zombie is pretty easy to see – I bought it years ago as part of the excellent Val Lewton box set released by Warner Brothers in the US, but there are a range of European editions on the market too. The US version has it paired on DVD with The Body Snatcher, and the transfer is reasonable. RKO titles can prove problematic and there are instances of print damage visible but I can’t honestly say I’ve been overly troubled by them – the film just kind of sweeps you along. The disc also includes a commentary track by Kim Newman and Steve Jones. Halloween is a good time of year to wheel out these kinds of movies but a classic tale like this is really timeless and works its magic regardless of the season – after all, I first saw it and fell in love with it on a July evening way back in 1981. Anyone wondering what to view as the witching hour draws ever closer could do worse than give this a spin, and those who have yet to experience the delightful art of Lewton and Tourneur should rectify that as soon as possible.

 

 

Apache Drums

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Filmmakers assigned to B movie projects always faced an uphill struggle at the outset: inflexible and restrictive shooting schedules, budgets pared right down to the bone, and scripts that, as often as not, lacked any spark of originality. Still and all, there were a select few who seemed to thrive under such circumstances, who had the vision or the maybe even the guts to shape something worthwhile out of the modest resources before them. Fans of classic horror are familiar with, and hold in high regard, the name of Val Lewton. This was the man whose specialist unit at RKO managed to produce a series of classy, polished little nightmares that not only transcended their frugal budgets but actually succeeded because there was so little money available. Apache Drums (1951), made at Universal, was Lewton’s last feature as producer before his untimely death from a heart attack. The film is the only western he was involved in, and it’s such an effective and atmospheric little picture that I can’t help but wonder how he might have fared within the genre had his life not ended so prematurely.

The story is derived from Harry Brown’s Stand at Spanish Boot, and it tells a fairly standard tale. Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) is a gambler, a seemingly incorrigible ne’er-do-well (he’s even earned himself the unwelcome nickname “Slick”) who quite literally opens proceedings with a bang, shooting dead a rival card player in the stark saloon in the town of Spanish Boot. I found it a particularly nice touch that the shooting takes place off-screen as it immediately lends a sense of ambiguity to Sam’s character. He says it was self-defense and no-one seriously doubts that, still the seeds of suspicion are planted in our minds right from the off. The shooting comes at a bad time from Sam’s perspective: the mayor/blacksmith Joe Madden (Willard Parker) has been talked into a kind of moral crusade by the Welsh (the nationality has some significance later in the movie) parson Griffin (Arthur Shields) and Sam is given his marching orders. The fact that Madden is Sam’s rival for the affections of local girl Sally (Coleen Gray) rubs further salt into his wounds but he has no alternative. The dance hall girls have just been sent packing, and Sam is the next undesirable to be ejected. Thus we have the classic western staple of the outcast, shunned by the decent folk and driven out beyond the bounds of civilization. However, Sam’s exile is a short-lived one; he soon caches up with the wagon of girls, or rather their massacred remains. With his dying breath, the freshly scalped piano player who had been accompanying the spurned ladies tells of a formidable Apache raiding party appearing ghostlike and descending upon them. Sam gives his word to hightail it back to Spanish Boot and warn the solid citizens of the impending attack. The thing is he’s neither welcome nor trusted in his former home, the residents, with the tacit support of Madden, being on the point of riding him out of town on a rail before the arrival of a shot-up stagecoach bears out his words. It’s at this stage that the tension starts to build, as the Apache threat draws ever closer. Eventually, the net closes in to the point where all the survivors are holed up and under siege in the old church. Here, in the latter half of the movie, the camera never leaves the interior of the building and so heightens the feeling of helplessness and suspense, as the drums pound throughout the night and the defenders wait and watch for the Apache to leap howling through the high windows.

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In writing about a lot of 50s westerns, one word crops up again and again – redemption. There’s no getting away from it; it quite literally pervades the genre throughout the decade, with even relatively humble and unpretentious efforts like Apache Drums having the concept at their core. All of the three main characters – Sam Leeds, Griffin and Madden – redeem themselves before the final fade out. Madden initially comes across as a vaguely priggish figure, allowing his preconceptions of Sam to colour his judgement and using his authority as means of furthering his own personal desires. But through enforced confinement with the man he regards as his opponent, he’s able to rise above his own inherent pettiness to attain a kind of nobility by the end. Griffin is a moral and religious absolutist, quick to judge and condemn all those who he considers to have strayed from the path of righteousness. Again, the circumstances he’s forced into lead to a reassessment of his former stance. There’s a marvelous little moment during the siege, where the preacher who had previously spoken in the most derogatory and disparaging terms about the Apache scout in their midst, Pedro-Peter (Armando Silvestre), moves across to kneel beside him. With the shadows of death creeping ever nearer, these two men pray to their respective deities side by side. And finally there’s Sam Leeds. He starts out expressing nothing but casual contempt for all those poor saps who slave away trying to earn an honest living and build a community. He’s of the opinion that he’s too smart for all that guff, that his only concern is his own welfare and comfort. Yet, he too (perhaps more than the others) finds that the threat from without carries a lesson for him. By putting aside his selfishness and obsession with self-preservation, he grows visibly as a human being. In their roles, Parker, Shields and McNally all manage to create rounded characters that are believable due to their respective weaknesses and prejudices. When you’re dealing with a low budget production such as this, good characterization, and the performers capable of achieving it, is a huge plus.

While the acting is important if you’re counting the pennies, it’s all likely to come to nothing if the technical expertise isn’t present behind the cameras. As I said in the introduction, producer Val Lewton was a past master at wringing the maximum out of limited resources. His RKO chillers all had a very distinctive look and feel, regarding shadow, darkness and the unseen and unknown as assets rather than obstacles. Such is the case with Apache Drums. Some of the most effective sequences follow on from events that the audience never get to see: both Sam’s deadly gunplay and the massacre of the saloon girls happen off-screen and the viewer only gets to witness the consequences of these events. The final section of the movie, which leaves the audience with no choice other than to view the action from the perspective of the terrified townsfolk means that we share in their sense of helplessness and dread. Of course Lewton was either clever or fortunate enough to work with talented directors on his projects. Between them the producer and director Hugo Fregonese work wonders in this section of the film: the image of garishly painted warriors springing through the high windows, backlit by the flames of the burning town, is like a vision out of hell, and retains a powerful shock value. I made brief mention earlier of the fact that Arthur Shields played a Welsh preacher. The reason for my drawing attention to his character’s nationality relates to a passage which takes place during the climactic siege. As the incessant beating of the war drums outside the walls begins to take its psychological toll on those inside, the decision is made to do something in an attempt to boost morale. Shields, playing a Welshman, leads the defenders in a chorus of Men of Harlech. In itself it’s a nice moment, but it’s also significant in that the scene would be mirrored in Cy Endfield’s Zulu over a decade later.

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Apache Drums is a film that seemed quite difficult to see for many years. I caught a television broadcast back when I was a teenager and it stuck in my mind, probably because of the imagery as much as anything. At the moment, there are three DVD editions available: from France, Spain and Germany. From various comments I’ve seen, I get the impression they are all derived from the same source, though the French release will have forced subtitles. I have the Spanish DVD from Llamentol, which presents the film in the correct Academy ratio, and boasts a fine overall transfer – it’s sharp, colourful and well-defined. Subtitles are not an issue and can be turned off on the setup menu. The disc also offers the original theatrical trailer for the film, but that’s it in terms of extra features. I really like the film; it’s pacy, well structured and exciting. Aside from that, it looks good, with the kind of visual flair that’s typical of a Lewton production. A low budget sleeper that I happily recommend.

 

 

The Leopard Man

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Seeing as Halloween is only a matter of days away I thought I’d feature something with a seasonal flavour to mark the occasion. A casual glance would suggest that The Leopard Man (1943) ought to be a slice of classic horror. Bearing in mind the title, and the fact it was produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, one might expect to get another anthropomorphic chiller along the lines of Cat People. However, it’s the source material, a story by Cornell Woolrich, that dictates the kind of movie that’s ultimately delivered. Woolrich wasn’t a horror writer, though his darkly fatalistic tales do border on the macabre at times, instead he concentrated on bleak and pessimistic crime stories. So, the combination of director, producer and writer here results in a moody crime picture that bears the trappings, atmosphere and feel of a horror movie.

This compact thriller takes place in a border town in New Mexico and, like a good deal of Woolrich’s material, sees a tragic train of events set in motion by a foolish mishap. In this case the event in question is brought about when a night club performer, Kiki (Jean Brooks), goes along with the suggestion of her manager/publicist, Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe), that she should make a dramatic entrance with a black leopard on a leash. The idea is to draw the spotlight and simultaneously upstage her rival, flamenco dancer Clo-Clo (Margo). Not a bad plan, as far as it goes. The trouble arises when Clo-Clo, in a fit of pique, startles the beast with the clacking of her castanets, causing it to bolt and and slip away into the shadowy streets of the town. This leads to one of the most celebrated sequences in producer Lewton’s movies. A young girl, a bit of a dreamer and slacker if the truth be known, is sent on a shopping errand by an impatient and exasperated mother. The girl tries to beg off, citing her fear of the wild animal roaming the surrounding countryside, but the mother is having none of it. To her, her daughter has too fanciful an imagination and too little sense of responsibility. The girl’s trip to the only store open at such a late hour, and more especially the return, is an exercise in how to draw tension tight through the use of suggestion and shadowy visuals. What makes this succeed is the fact that the growing panic and dread of the girl match perfectly what the viewers feel as we accompany her on her journey. The tragic outcome, playing on the old fable of the boy who cried wolf, is all the more effective as a result of our experiencing the same emotions as the girl. Suddenly, this sleepy backwater is transformed into a community stalked by fear and suspicion as the apparent victims of the escaped cat start to mount up. As I said in the introduction, this is not a real horror movie in the true sense of the word. There is nothing of the supernatural involved, unless you count Isabel Jewell’s gypsy fortune teller, yet the sense of menace is palpable throughout.

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In all honesty, the plot of The Leopard Man is fairly unremarkable, and the mystery story it’s built around isn’t so difficult to figure out. The strength of the movie derives from the mood evoked by the tale, and maybe more importantly, the way Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur go about presenting it. What they put on screen is every bit as morbid as the best of Poe. Lewton and Tourneur’s shadowy, expressionistic style play a significant part in creating the sense of doom and fatalism that seems to dog the characters. The flamenco dancer played by Margo is superficially in love with life, and her jaunty sashaying through the town streets, castanets always at the ready, appears to reinforce this. Yet, her thoughts are never far from darker matters, borne out by her near obsessive need to consult the fortune teller at every opportunity, despite the latter’s repeated discovery of death in the cards. Aside from the sequence with the girl on her late night errand that I already referred to, there are two other especially noteworthy passages. The first involves a lovelorn girl who visits a cemetary on her birthday to keep a date with her beau. Surely it’s only in a Lewton film where two youthful lovers would think it appropriate to pick a graveyard as the backdrop for a romantic assignation. This scene heightens the melancholic, oneiric quality that permeates the movie and comes close to the idea of horror being essentially a fairy tale for adults. The second takes place during the climax, where the real killer is pursued and finally cornered amid the hooded and solemn members of an historical/religious procession. All of these sequences serve as something of a definition of the characteristics of horror moviemaking. Cinematic horror is not so much about gore or actually scaring the audience – that has a limited, juvenile impact which rarely stands the test of time – as instilling a sense of dread and foreboding. After all, it’s the moody atmospheric stuff that lingers in the memory long after the cheaper shocks have worn off or been superseded by something more daring.

In the US Val Lewton collection form Warners The Leopard Man shares space on a disc with The Ghost Ship. The film has a reasonably good transfer, although there are certainly a number of speckles and scratches on show. The image is acceptably sharp and the contrast is good enough – particularly important in a movie such as this. Extras consist of a commentary by William Friedkin and the theatrical trailer. As I said, this is a crime story – with a noir sensibility, it should be added – dressed up as a horror film. I think it may be this hybrid quality that’s led to it’s being less celebrated than some of Lewton’s (or Tourneur’s for that matter) other pictures. Regardless, it remains a classy chiller that works well on both levels, and is a fine example of how to make a good movie on a shoestring budget.