1930s, Horror/Eerie

White Zombie (1932)

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Director: Victor Halperin
Screenwriter: Garnett Weston

By Roderick Heath

Victor Halperin’s White Zombie holds status as one of the true oddities of classic Hollywood Horror cinema. The Chicago-born Halperin and his brother Edward, who often served as his producer, were entrepreneurial Hollywood players: Victor broke into moviemaking penning the screenplay of 1922’s The Danger Point, debuted as a director on Greater Than Marriage (1924), and served as writer, producer, and director on the Agnes Ayres vehicle When A Girl Loves (1924). Like many other Hollywood talents the Halperins had difficulty negotiating the transition to sound, but when the enormous popularity of Béla Lugosi’s star-making vehicle Dracula (1931) unleashed a craze for Horror films, the brothers mounted what was then a relative rarity, an independently produced film, filmed on a budget of $50,000, making canny used of Universal Studios’ infrastructure and staff and managing to land Lugosi for one week’s work a few hundred dollars. Today Halperin is best remembered by far for White Zombie. The film’s profitability and popularity gained Halperin a fresh studio contract with Paramount, although his two horror follow-ups, Supernatural (1933) and Revolt of the Zombies (1936), were interesting but sketchy disappointments, and the director himself reportedly disliked working in the genre despite his affinity with it. Later Halperin worked at the Poverty Row studio PRC, managing the occasional oddity like the Jack London adaptation Torture Ship (1938), before retiring from directing at 47: he would live for another 41 years.

White Zombie also owes some of its stature to being the first zombie movie, albeit one with few links to the subgenre as we recognise it today. The infamously hard-living journalist and travel writer William Seabrook had grabbed international attention with his report on Haitian voodoo practises in his 1929 book The Magic Island, popularising the word “zombie.” A play by Kenneth Webb took the word as its title and gave inspiration to Halperin, but legal tussles obliged Halperin to amend his own title. The film’s early vignettes, including Haitians burying bodies in the middle of the road to prevent them being resurrected, are drawn directly from Seabrook’s book. One famous episode recounted in the book was the story of a young bride who realises she’s attending a wedding party where all the guests are dead: Halperin references this with his own benighted wedding but inverts the situation so it’s the bride who joins the undead ranks. But White Zombie is really more a classical fairy tale, with its central villain, the notorious dark sorcerer “Murder” Legendre (Lugosi) offered as a figure akin to Koschei the Dread from Slavic myth or Atlantes from Orlando Furioso, a figure of vast and evil power ensconced in a fortress, snatching away the decorous maiden and suborning all to his will.

Like Karl Freund’s The Mummy from the same year, White Zombie’s minatory charge stems from the way it hovers stylistically in a grey zone between silent and sound cinema, between generic Horror cinema and something more primal and poetic. The film’s opening credits unfold over the burial in the road, the ritual singing of the funeral party offering a stark and throbbing rhythm on sound. Upon this scene intrudes a horse-drawn coach carrying the young about-to-be-marrieds Madeleine Short and Neil Parker (Madge Bellamy and John Harron). Neil and Madeleine have come to Haiti to be married after accepting the hospitality and patronage of Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer), a local plantation owner they met on a cruise, with the promise of a job for Neil as Beaumont’s agent in New York. “A cheerful introduction for you to our West Indies,” Neil comments to Madeleine after rolling over the fresh grave. Halperin follows this immediate with the first and most notable example of his peculiar imagistic imagination, cutting to a shot of the carriage rolling along the lonely, shadowy country road with a pair of huge, glowing eyes appearing as a spectral presence tracking the vehicle’s passage, before revealing a tall figure standing by the road waiting for the carriage.

The huge eyes become smaller and zero in on the figure’s head, telling the viewer this figure is an uncanny, threatening, very interested presence with supernatural power. The driver (Clarence Muse) halts to ask the figure for directions, and we gain our first proper glimpse of Lugosi as Legendre, a Satanic figure with blazing, mesmeric eyes, widow’s peak sharp as a scalpel, flaring eyebrows and inward-crooking beard forks. Legendre approaches the carriage and clasps Madeleine’s trailing white silk scarf even as he holds her and Neil rapt with his powerful gaze. Against the night horizon, upon a slope above the road, a procession of slowly moving, disquieting figures, men the coach driver recognises instinctively: “Zombies!” The driver whips up the horses and charges away, leaving Legendre with the scarf in hand, much to his satisfaction. When the carriage finally arrives at the Beaumont house, a place of lush splendour and genteel pretence, Madeleine and Neil listen to the driver’s credulous explanation that the people they saw were the living dead, and the driver points to the line of figures moving down a slope silhouetted against the sky in fear, declaring these to be the zombies.

A mysterious man approaching through the shadowy garden of the Beaumont estate proves to be Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), a missionary and theologian who’s been invited by Beaumont to officiate at the couple’s wedding and a hearty, reassuring figure. He dispels the eerie atmosphere, but only to a degree, as even he admits that Haiti is a place filled with such mysteries that would “turn your hair grey.” Bruner becomes uncomfortable as he listens to Neil and Madeleine’s explanation of why they’re here and what Beaumont has promised them, noting that Beaumont never struck him as such an altruistic romantic. Halperin illustrates how right Bruner is, as Beaumont (Robert Frazer) is seen instructing his manservant Silver (Brandon Hurst), asking if he’s heard anything from “that gentleman” and quickly enough revealing that his actual motivation for inviting the young couple is because he’s in love with Madeleine and wants to find some way to cleave them apart. Even as he greets the couple warmly and declares himself ready to help them along, Beaumont is planning to head out and visit Legendre, a dark sorcerer and voodoo master, who promises he can render Madeleine Beaumont’s passive and obedient slave.

Beaumont’s visit to the sugar mill Legendre owns is one of the more delicately strange and important sequences in Horror cinema. Legendre’s zombie slaves toil in shuffling, dead-eyed ranks to feed cane into a huge grinding machine, itself driven by zombies turning the gears, machinery still working obliviously as one of the zombies trips and falls into the feed chute to be chewed up along with the cane. Halperin betrays unique awareness of how sound cinema could operate in the genre here, allowing the unnerving creak and grind of the machinery and the unnatural silence of the zombies to forge the uncanny atmosphere as well as draw out the fascinating thematic undercurrents of what we’re seeing. Later, he uses the ambient croaks of frogs and insects, and the bloodcurdling shriek of a vulture to equally odd and unnerving effect. Seeds for the ominous sound design of David Lynch in this, conjuring oneiric and psychological dimensions beyond what visuals can gain on their own. Indeed, White Zombie, described by Phil Hardy as “one of the underground classics of horror,” feels like a root leading as much to Lynch, Kenneth Anger, and other icons of underground and experimental cinema and surrealist music videos, as it does to George Romero’s Dead movies and his manifold imitators.

White Zombie certainly birthed a subgenre followed by zombie movies with highly varying levels of ethnographic validity and dramatic tension, like Roy William Neill’s Black Moon (1934), Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Edward L. Cahn’s Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), and on to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979) and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987). But the film’s more vital influence feels more rarefied, writing cheques more exalted filmmakers like Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman, and Lynch would cash. Something about White Zombie seems to sit outside the normal boundaries of the liminal. Some of this air of the alien is due to the archaic, shoestring production, like the wheezing, tinny classical music on the soundtrack: the glaze of oldness as an aesthetic unto itself has a taunting appeal, the awareness of the limitations of past technology operating in its own way as a force of black magic itself, sustaining the ghostly presence of people long dead. But it also connects to the otherworldly charge of Halperin’s carefully composed visuals, which by contrast to the primitive sound still retain vibrant lustre. The early shot of the huge, spectral eyes that shrink and find their place in Legendre’s head is a marvellous jolt of visual invention, whilst the column of gnarled and mindless zombies tracking Legendre around the dark Universal backlot standing in for Haiti are a memorable, eerie sight, bolstering the idea of the land beyond the wrought iron boundaries of the plantation as ruled over by primal and unnatural forces which know no easy quieting, where the dead walk and the irrational still rules.

Legendre’s sugar mill offers a wealth of hallucinatory space around the dark grinding machines and hobbling black bodies. The stout but carefully crafted gates that separate Legendre’s managerial space evoke the pretences of Old World civility erected as a barrier to separate from the ruler from the ruled, whilst also allowing Halperin to work through his recurring fascination with images captured spying through barriers and loopholes. Beaumont’s visit to Legendre sees the self-deluding and desperate planter begging Legendre to facilitate his desire to make Madeleine fall in love with him – “If she were to disappear for a month!” – but Legendre tells him with detached thoughtfulness that she is too deeply in love with Neil and implies his only option for obtaining her is to make her into a zombie. Legendre hands him a vial of the powder he uses for the zombie-making ritual and tells him a pinprick will suffice on some object, but Beaumont initially announces his refusal to take this option. Legendre hovers outside Beaumont’s house whilst the wedding proceeds within, Beaumont making desperate entreaty to Madeleine to her love-struck disinterest.

This finally provokes Beaumont to a desperate, fateful gesture that directly engages a folkloric feel as he hands Madeleine a rose impregnated with the zombifying powder. This causes her to pitch over and collapse, apparently dead, at the wedding banquet. The visuals in this sequence are particularly memorable in the sharp alternations of romantic and sepulchral imagery. The impending wedding amidst the splendour of Beaumont’s mansion with its gilt fixtures and candelabra and flowers has some of the teeming lushness of Josef von Sternberg. Legendre without exists in a hoary netherworld as he presents the equally folkloric figure of death intruding upon a wedding, standing before an ornate gateway as the master of life and death, the dark antithesis to the settled, ordered pretence and ritual sustained within the house. Legendre, watched over the harshly shrieking vulture that seems to be his familiar, clutches Madeleine’s white scarf as he takes a candle from a carriage lamp and carves it into a voodoo doll so he can work his influence over the hapless bride.

Another seminal 1932 Horror film White Zombie bears a striking similarity to is Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, a resemblance particularly keen when comparing Dreyer’s tour of a mysterious abode where the shadows of dancers play on walls with Halperin’s take on the same idea, finding a way of acknowledging the world beyond the primal drama consuming the protagonist without dispelling the mood of oneiric isolation. Neil is glimpsed in a tavern drinking away his sorrow after Madeleine’s burial, the revelry around him casting shadows on the wall, amidst which he sees Madeleine’s spectral, pleading visage. Neil, close to madness with grief and drink, stumbles up the path to the cemetery to visit Madeleine’s mausoleum, only for Halperin to fade out as his scream echoes from within in finding Madeleine’s body gone. The fairy tale qualities of the film, focusing on objects like the cursed rose given at the wedding and the climactic images of the possessed princess in the dark tower under the sorcerer’s spell, connect with a nascent surrealist sensibility. Neil’s desperate liebestod comes touched with a morbidly hysterical, almost necrophiliac edge as he goes to join Madeleine in the grave, intercut with the sight of Legendre and Beaumont supervising as the zombies remove Maadeleine’s coffin from its place and open, revealing her doll-like form, nominally dead now the perfect, passive feminine love object. Years later Buñuel would approximate aspects of Halperin’s vision in Abismos de Pasion (1953), whilst Halperin’s insidious feel for animal life infesting his conjured world is also Buñuel-like.

Halperin and his screenwriter Garnett Weston deliberately tried to lessen the reliance on dialogue, to make the production easier and expecting beforehand that on a stringent budget they weren’t likely to land particularly good actors. It’s commonly noted that the two romantic leads, Bellamy and Harron, are insipid, and Frazer, with his shock of dark hair and sensual lips, has a Byronic quality that’s good for his part even as he often walks the edges of the overripe. All the more space for Lugosi to dominate. Lugosi’s star wattage was at its zenith when he made White Zombie, which makes it all the more interesting that he was willing to appear in a low-budget independent film, particularly after he had so recently turned down the role of the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), in doing so handing over an opportunity to the man about to be his great, even eclipsing rival as a horror star, Boris Karloff. The attraction of the role is obvious, however, offering Lugosi, Dracula notwithstanding, his greatest genre role. Legendre is a perfectly iconic villain with his unmistakeable appearance and costume, a figure of dread and sepulchral stature supllying an intelligent brand of evil, relishing the power he wields with an edge of vengeful purpose.

Weston’s dialogue registers on a more subtly sinister key than Lugosi’s better-known Dracula lines, allowing Lugosi to turn his much-mimicked but still unique intonations to drawing out an undercurrent of sardonic and self-satisfied menace, most pointedly in his comment to Beaumont as the planter slips ever deeply under his power after once snubbing him, gripping the sorcerer’s hand in a bleakly useless appeal to his humanity: “You refused to shake hands with me once, I remember…Well, well. We understand each-other better – now.” Legendre watches Beaumont succumbing with a quiet, almost indulgent sense of entertainment whilst he whittles another candle down to a voodoo doll of the planter. White Zombie exploits the image that had been built around Lugosi even well before he started playing Dracula on stage, as a man imbued with preternatural stature and mesmeric eyes often highlighted with pencil spotlights. In Dracula this was part of his role as the ultimate dark seducer-destroyer, a bringer of sexual evil, whereas Legendre is in that regard a more ambiguous creature.

It’s signalled that Legendre is driven on by resentment and a cruel sense of poetic justice, as he points out the members of his favoured zombie cabal, consisting of people who tried to control or sit in judgment on him, including his former mentor in sorcery, a minister of the government, and the state executioner “who might have executed me!” Beaumont immediately and unthinkingly gets on Legendre’s wrong side when he neglects to accept the sorcerer’s proffered hand at their first meeting. Legendre’s delight in controlling people has the inevitable dimension of claiming the virginal young beauty as he zombifies Madeleine but also gains a homoerotic edge as he does the same to Beaumont, taunting him in his bleakly transforming state with the dread knowledge, “You are the first man to know what is happening,” and regretting that Beaumont can no longer speak to describe the experience. The sight of Beaumont, twisting up, slowly losing control of his limbs and faculties as a malignant force takes him over, speaks eloquently nonetheless of a state that actually seems to live up to the old cliché of a fate worse than death.

Where the vampire becomes in death a wielder of mysterious power and therefore has long served as a metaphor for potency ranging from the political to the erotic, the zombie is the opposite, driven on purely by either the will of a master or the remnant of a life instinct. Zombie movies have long since become detached from the zombie figure’s roots in the black magic esoterica attached to voodoo religious tradition. That’s largely for understandable reasons: dealing with voodoo obliges storytellers to anchor their stories in a specific cultural and historical dimension, often with an edge of racist assumption even despite the best intentions of the filmmakers. But the figure of the mindlessly shuffling walking dead nonetheless retains a potency that can be applied to a variety of paradigms. Despite its pointed metaphors and mindful aspects White Zombie doesn’t entirely avoid such discomfort, sporting one actor in blackface playing ancient witch doctor Pierre (Dan Crimmins), who Bruner visits to learn more about Legendre, whilst Muse’s performances manages to imbue his part with an edge of baleful awareness and solicitous purpose even as it also treads the edges of bug-eyed, timorous stereotype.

The very title of White Zombie invokes games of racial coding – a white zombie is something else again from a black zombie, apparently. But Halperin’s film also predicts the later detachment of concept from root in the scene at Legendre’s mill, the zombie immediately and plainly rendered a vessel of potent metaphorical malleability. Legendre is also a classical figure of devolved European culture, with his great gothic castle grafted onto a new world shore like some cancerous offshoot. The vision of Legendre’s sugar mill zeroes in on the ghostly echo of slavery sustained in zombie folklore with Legendre as a Baron Samedi figure, whilst also linking it to a more general, mordant portrayal of exploitative labour that must have echoed with excruciating clarity for a Depression-era audience: “They work faithfully,” Legendre tells Beaumont as he encourages the planter to take them up for his own workforce, “They are not worried about long hours.” The perfect state of capitalist endeavour.

It’s also tempting to view Legendre as an analogue for the rising tide of totalitarianism in Europe, a prototypical fascist dictator suborning people to his will, as well as embodying the dark side of western colonialism and exploitation. The zombie cadre that follows Legendre consists of defeated and enslaved enemies from the ranks of the local law and politics, as well as rivals and his former mentor in magic “whose secrets I tortured out of him,” rivals in power suborned in a fashion comparable to fascist takeover of the mechanisms of civic democracy, although at the same time he also exhibits a mischievously subversive attitude towards state power. In this regard he also rather strongly resembles the type of gangster-outlaw hero so popular in films around the same time, subverting the machinery of justice and morality to service his own will. His enthralled servants wear the symbols of defeated creeds – one has an iron cross slung around his neck, whilst his former mentor still wears a robe inscribed with cabalistic signs. Halperin would reiterate this shade of political commentary, however clumsily, in Revolt of the Zombies, where the story revolves around trying to bury the potential zombie threat stemming out of a misbegotten attempt to use them as soldiers during World War I.

The theme of domination also resonates on a more interpersonal level. White Zombie offers a dark lampoon the concept of the trophy wife, the beauty suborned to plutocratic ego as both Legendre and Beaumont in their way attempt to impose their will on Madeleine. Beaumont’s desperate passion shades into a sense of entitled prerogative that drives him, despite his scruples, to impose on his beloved a most terrible fate, only to then cringe in remorse as he beholds her, a dead-eyed, blank-minded automaton playing piano in Legendre’s castle, a prettified object. Beaumont is remorseful as he perceives the ultimate logic of his choices, only to quickly pay the price. For Legendre, such perfect annihilation of personality and agency seems on the other hand the most relished edge of his power, steadily consuming every being that comes into range, happy to force the mindless Madeleine to slay Neil when he comes to rescue her, and having his zombie cadre carry the screaming Silver out to the castle battlements and drop him into the whirlpool churning below.

After finding Madeleine’s body missing, Neil visits Bruner, who speaks sceptically about the supernatural even as he readies for a contest of magic, showing Neil statutes in Haitian law against poisoning in a form that reproduces the appearance of zombiehood. Bruner has no pretences to being a sorcerer but explains in his position as a preacher he’s picked up lore from all sorts of sources. Bruner and Neil set out across country and approach the territory where Legendre dominates, a veritable fiefdom of death where he rules unchallenged, and camp on the wave-tossed beach beneath Legendre’s citadel, Neil stricken with fever. Legendre’s keep, based around a central set redressed from Dracula, is a marvellously incongruous outpost of gothic architecture and outsized aristocratic pretence, a space entrapping Legendre’s dark fantasies and egotisms as well as his human pets, with an interior replete with odd and inchoate dimensions, including a flooded dungeon and a whirlpool below for easy disposal of unwanted guests. Halperin returns to liebestod imagery as he splits his frame between the mindless Madeleine hovering on a high balcony in the keep whilst Neil, visionary in his feverish state, senses her presence and the bond of their love achieves its own, delirious spiritual force, and the young husband begins a stumbling journey towards the castle.

White Zombie occasionally signals the relative freedom of the pre-code independent filmmakers as Halperin offers glimpses of Madeleine before her nuptials in her underwear, and gore, as when Neil shoots a zombie only behold the bloodless hole it leaves in its chest, tame of course by later standards but provocative enough for the time, particularly the latter touch, at a time when Lugosi’s Dracula wasn’t even shown biting anyone or being staked. Moreover such touches simply feed rather than disrupt the weird atmosphere, marking out the corporeal stakes of the magical drama. Halperin’s unusual, oblique, reality-destabilising grammar approach is maintained even as the film nears its ending. Legendre mesmerically directs Madeleine to stab the collapsed Neil after he manages to penetrate the house, stirring the white-clad captive from her bed and drawing her through the cavernous twists of the castle for the deed, filming her through a loophole in a balustrade in a frame charged with a sense of onerous constriction. As she moves to stab Neil, a hand reaches into the frame and grips her wrist, staying the killing blow, the unseen figure’s black cape also visible.

This helps identify that it’s actually Bruner who stops her blow, having followed Neil into the house and dressed in the cape in literally assuming the mantle of opposing white magician, but Halperin transforms the gesture into something rather more abstract, almost like the hand of fate, or the author, intervening to break the chains of Legendre’s control. As the zombies shuffle in to aid their master in the final battle, Halperin shows their ragged, stalky shadows cast on a wall, incarnations of the darkness scuttling out of its burrow to meet the white of Madeleine’s nightgown and Neil’s suit. As Madeleine takes up Legendre’s dagger the sorcerer’s command from the table where he was talking at Beaumont, the latter attempts in his last throes of transformation to prevent her, with no success. The climax comes as sudden, hysterical blur of action as Neil finds himself surrounded by the zombies, Bruner offering an amusingly curt answer to Legendre’s vast necromantic power by sneaking up behind him and knocking him out with a blow to the head, before ordering the zombies to leap over the battlements into the surging surf.

The recovering Legendre smashes a vial of his zombifying powder on the masonry when Bruner and Neil try to charge him, and holds them at bay with his will, only for Beaumont, advancing with the last of his human strength and purpose, to ambush and grab the sorcerer, and drive them both over the precipice to their deaths, whereupon Madeleine returns to life. The film’s simple yet rich narrative closes a tragic circle as Beaumont undoes the evil he set in motion and even provides a proof that his passion was as authentic for Madeleine as Neil’s, as he uses his last breath to save her and the man she loves as well as avenging himself. Halperin signs off with a leave-‘em-laughing touch of Bruner interrupting the couple’s reuniting kiss to ask for a light for his pipe, but it actually comes as a welcome release from the atmosphere Halperin has sustained despite all limitations for the previous seventy minutes, that suffocating netherworld where the dead walk and romance has poisoned thorns under the pretty petals.

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1940s, Horror/Eerie, Romance

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

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Director: Jacques Tourneur

By Roderick Heath

The success of Cat People (1942) took many by surprise. The film’s producer was Val Lewton, a sometime journalist and novelist, and nephew to the once-exalted screen idol Alla Nazimova. Lewton had gained a reputation in Hollywood working as assistant to David Selznick. When the time came for Lewton to break out on his own, he was offered a niche at RKO Pictures. The studio wanted to create a unit devoted to horror films, hoping to make some quick money-spinners after the studio’s engagement with wunderkind Orson Welles resulted in several projects abandoned or dumped at great cost, at a time when Universal Films were still making a tidy mint with their horror brand. Lewton, hired for $250 a week, was given control over his product if he obeyed two basic precepts: the movies he made had to cost under $150,000, and he had to use titles given to him by studio executives. The first project was to be called Cat People, probably in response to George Waggner’s The Wolf Man from the previous year. Lewton determined to use this chance to make something that might fulfil his studio mandate but also meet his own expectations of what a film sporting his name as producer could be. Lewton put together a team of like-minded collaborators, including screenwriters DeWitt Bodeen and Ardel Wray, editor Mark Robson, and director Jacques Tourneur, a talent Lewton had met several years earlier when both worked on Selznick’s production of A Tale of Two Cities (1936).

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Lewton laid out a formula he later summarised as, “A love story, three scenes of suggested horror, and one of actual violence,” and always worked scripts over himself without credit, working in carefully interpolated details and knitting a unified sensibility. Cat People proved a forlornly romantic tale of psychic distress, alienation, and fear of crumbling sanity and aberrant sexuality, possibly presenting a highly coded commentary on Nazimova. Such fretfully implied notions struck a chord with wartime audiences, along with the ingeniously orchestrated suspense sequences that exploited fear of the unseen. Rumours that Cat People saved RKO from bankruptcy might have been exaggerated, and RKO brass hardly felt like celebrating what seemed a disreputable success. But the film’s impact was real, and Lewton and Tourneur were quickly asked to make a follow-up, this time handed the title I Walked With a Zombie, taken from a magazine article written by Inez Wallace. With characteristic litterateur impulse, Lewton decided he could fit that title to a variation on Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, an idea that might have seemed interminably pretentious at first airing.

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Tourneur was the son of French master silent filmmaker Maurice Tourneur. Young Jacques had travelled to Hollywood with his father, who made films there including The Last of the Mohicans (1920) and The Mysterious Island (1925), but soon the family returned to France. Jacques made his directorial debut with Toto (1933) before returning to America and working for a time as an assistant director, before graduating to helming B-movies like Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939) and Phantom Raiders (1940). Tourneur and Lewton’s shared experience as émigrés with respected relatives and cultured backgrounds now fending for themselves in a tough racket seems to have been a crucial aspect of their accord, as well as Tourneur’s gift, inherited from his father, for creating cinema with careful visual textures based in intricate lighting and set dressing. Lewton was a rationalist interested in psychology and sociological insights, whilst Tourneur was credulous of the supernatural, a divide that might have resulted in clashing visions but which proved entirely appropriate as the two men laboured to carefully smudge perceptions of just what their movies were about, and deploy a then-radically minimalist and suggestive sense of menace. I Walked With a Zombie saw input from another émigré, Curt Siodmak, who had started his career in the German film industry and was becoming one of Hollywood’s familiar creators of fantastic cinema, penning the same year’s Son of Dracula over at Universal for his director brother Robert.

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Not as dense with references and ideas as The Leopard Man or The Seventh Victim (both 1943) after it, nor as compressed as a nightmarish metaphor as Isle of the Dead (1945) or penetrating as a tale of the rational and irrational at war as The Body Snatcher (1945), I Walked With a Zombie is nonetheless the height of Lewton’s creed, a lushly composed, sinister-hued tone-poem. Where Cat People had been notable for creating a contemporary, urban style of horror movie, I Walked With a Zombie might have nudged Lewton and Tourneur into more familiar territory, voyaging off to a sequestered isle where the rules of life and death feel more mutable. The esoteric world of the voodoo creed was often sensationalised and caricatured as a crude amalgam of mainstream religion and bloodthirsty cult practiced by primitives, but fascination in the topic had been fed by works like William Seabrook’s The Magic Island and Wallace’s journalistic report. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) was one of the first real screen zombie movies. Halperin introduced an explicit consideration of zombie-making as a logical extension of slavery and business exploitation of a workforce as well as a device of interpersonal domination, presaging the modern tendency to use zombies as a metaphor for, well, anything you care to think of. But the notion of separating the zombie from this background would have to wait until Night of the Living Dead (1968) many years later.

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The opening credits pull off the trick of turning the hype title into a poetic missive, as two figures walk along a beach under a dappled dawn sky, iconographic versions of the film’s heroine Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) and the hulking menace of the night, the zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones), strolling along in placid amity, perched between earth and sea, night and day, black and white, states of being in life and death. “I walked with a zombie…It does seem an odd thing to say…” Betsy accepts a job offered to her by an agent (Alan Edmiston) on the Caribbean island of St Sebastian, one that means good pay and a chance to escape a bitter Toronto winter: the promise of palm trees beckon to her with the voice of paradise in a snow-smothered city. On the last leg of the journey, Betsy voyages on a sailing ship across a black sea, crew members carved into a Gustav Dore etching by lantern light. “Byronic character” Paul Holland (Tom Conway) stands on the stern, gazing out to sea with a stark and silent affect.

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Paul takes unseemly pleasure in shooting down Betsy’s delight in the beauty: the glow in the water is the “glitter of putrescence,” the flying fish jumping because “bigger fish want to eat them.” The coachman (Clinton Rosemond) who takes her to Holland’s home chuckles indulgently at the notion they live in a beautiful place and says, “If you say so, miss.” The island is named for a statue of the saint that stands in the compound of the Holland family, a figurehead carving that once festooned the bow of the slave ship that brought the modern-day islanders to it, depicting the Catholic martyr executed by arrows. The same figurehead now offers cruelly piquant decoration and spiritual symbol of human suffering imposed on both self and others as well as the perpetual need for redemption: the descendants of the slaves call the figure “Ti-Misery”.

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Cat People had commenced with a title card sporting a fake quote from a work supposedly written by the psychiatrist Louis Judd, a character in the film, declaring that “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low place, the depressions in the world consciousness.” This could also be the thesis statement for I Walked With a Zombie, although the prior film’s evocations onerous social mythology guarding the gates to transgressive sexuality here gives way to a more overt concept for the insidious grip of the past. St Sebastian doesn’t seem to have quite entered the twentieth century yet. Paul Holland and his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) are men produced by the polarised shores of modern western civilisation’s best seats of learning, as one was schooled in the US and the other in England. They’re blessed with social status and advantage as they manage the sugar plantation that is their inheritance along with all the guilty self-knowledge of being the descendants of slave masters. The brothers span old world and new uneasily, lacking even the strange kind of certainty the Voodoo faith offers those who practice it. Paul maintains a hard and morose attitude, whilst Wes is slowly declining into alcoholism in trying to throttle his lingering anger and heartbreak. Their mother Mrs Rand (Edith Barrett) is the nominal voice of rationality, offering calm maternal advice with good sense, taking up the practice of voodoo itself with the hope of encouraging safe behaviour from islanders.

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The Holland compound is first envisioned without a human presence, instead offered with Betsy’s narrated emotional associations for its various spaces and rooms heard on sound as Tourneur’s camera explores its environs. A homestead built around the ruins of an old military installation, the compound is at once fairy-tale castle fitting for discovering knowledge of self and love as well as confessions of madness, a cradle for bad dreams and septic memory as well as delicate fantasias. The Saint Sebastian figurehead abides, metal arrows jutting from his carved ribs, with a fountain’s water trickling down his form, in place of blood, tears, and lapping seawater. An old watchtower rises at the heart of the compound, gothic interpolation in a colonial landscape, haunted by echoes tears and white-draped somnambulists. The tower is the scene of Betsy’s rude introduction to her charge, Paul’s wife Jessica (Christine Gordon), whose apparently mindless, perpetually somnambulant wanderings scare Betsy after she’s awoken in the night by the sound of crying. The tears were those of servant Alma (Theresa Harris), celebrating in the inverted rituals of birth and burial seen on the island, mourning for the child being cursed with life and joy for all dispatched to peace. Betsy meets the sight of the blindly wandering Jessica, advancing on her up the watchtower interior, with the film’s single scream that brings others to gently lead away Jessica.

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Betsy arrives at the Holland compound to do a job but she quickly also finds herself slotted into various roles required by the household. Alma is happy to have a lady to care for, and Paul and Wesley are both pleased in their different ways to have an attractive young lady for company, much as neither can escape Jessica. Alma’s presentation of a brioche to Betsy for breakfast makes for a gentle gag as Betsy is initially intimidated by the prolixity of food only to find it collapses – a joke that presages the darkness and menace Betsy confronts, which likewise proves mostly illusion and a small amount of consequence. Betsy soon finds herself drafted into the family quarrels when she encounters Mrs Rand, who asks her to get Paul to leave aside the whiskey decanter that usually decorates the dining table. But this simply peels the scab off a festering wound, a fraternal hatred that cannot heal, just as Jessica cannot live nor properly die, played out in spasms of liquor-loosed rage and tense decorum held together by a well-ironed dinner jacket. Betsy finds herself transfixed by “love, deep through the heart” for Paul, and, knowing it’s an impossible ardour, resolves instead to cure Jessica, talking family doctor Maxwell (James Bell) into trying a dangerous cure through insulin shock, and then listening to Alma’s suggestion she try the “better doctors” at the houmfort, the centre of voodoo worship on the island.

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I Walked With a Zombie doesn’t simply transplant Jane Eyre, but revises and inverts many of its inferences and basic concepts, getting the jump on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea by a couple of decades as a work considering classic literature’s relationship to the modern world’s viewpoints. Bronte’s portrayal of madness and repression was partly rooted in diseased transplantation and racial paranoia, as embodied in the figure of Rochester’s creole wife, who then infests an annex of the English country mansion to occasionally escape and offer feral threat. Betsy, avatar of Jane, travels from a cold climate into the sweat-stoking environs of the tropics, where the cycle of life and death is fast and blatant. Here the placidity of zombified Jessica strikes a radically different posture, identifying Jessica in her way as the perfect version of a certain ideal of femininity – blank, pretty, “a great big doll” as Alma calls her. The tormenting visage that set brother against brother, has been literally objectivised, reduced to perfect, empty, decorative existence. Tourneur’s depiction of the air of studious repression that subsists in the Holland household diagnoses people urgently trying to keep up facades in spite of knowing full well the futility of such efforts; Jessica is the only person who can perfectly play her part because she has been emptied of all inner life. Such a fate has been imposed on Jessica by her mother-in-law, an act of spasmodic anger from a rational and decent yet momentarily vengeful woman. Or, at least, so Mrs Rand thinks, holding herself responsible for evil thoughts that seem to have become manifest in the real world. All these people might count themselves masters of their nut shells if not for bad dreams.

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The power of the mind to create its own reality is one of the obsessive refrains of Lewton’s films, their overseeing creator’s way of mediating the irrationalism of his genre turf with his convictions about life. His series was mostly made during World War II, and whilst never overtly paid heed to it, still they often betray a searching concern for a basic, humane sensibility in the face of an age demanding everyone turn themselves into parts for an engine of warfare, betraying a pedagogic edge on occasions in the urgent plea to retain finer feelings and instincts. The portrayals of characters who give themselves up to dark and compulsive, eventually maniacal worldviews – Irena in Cat People, in The Leopard Man, Captain Stone in The Ghost Ship (1943), General Pharides in Isle of the Dead, and Master Sims in Bedlam (1946), all diagnose a problem of morbid obsession that in several cases shades into definite cases of megalomania, to, as Judd describes it in Cat People, give in to a temptation to release evil into the world. In this mould, Mrs Rand’s attempts to safeguard her family and the people she’s made her responsibility have the best intentions but also have made her vitally susceptible to temptations of misusing power. The beguiling Harris had appeared in Cat People where she played a waitress who diagnosed character by the desserts they ordered, and Lewton began a habit of using black actors in ways that were for the time all but radical in their normality and fresh, everyday demeanour. Here Harris is a very ordinary, worldly person – “She didn’t impress me none, hollerin’ around in a towel,” she quips after being chided for upsetting Betsy with her ritualised tears. But she’s also a figure who initiates Betsy into a nocturnal world where magic is a possibility and existence is charged with unseen forces: “Better doctors,” she whispers with the strange light of promise in her eyes and hints of things marvellous at bay.

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I Walked With a Zombie is a panoply of the carefully crafted and deployed landmarks of physical and dramatic detail which accumulate into a small, isolated universe at once tangible and dreamlike, something the Lewton’s brand is justly famous for, and perhaps at its height here. The arrows jutting from the statue of Ti-Misery, one of which will be repurposed into a weapon of relief. The ruined tower, exterior crawling with vines, interior with its stark, blank, shadow-drenched walls and gleaming, spiralling steps, haunted by the dead-eyed, white-draped “beautiful zombie.” The drums that announce midnight arts of sugar syrup-pouring and the blown conch horn that calls the faithful to worship at the houmfort, economic and spiritual life-bloods. The gently hummed song of the sailors and the oracular songs of Sir Lancelot. The dappled leaves of the Holland compound and softly lit interiors with gently waving curtains and mosquito nets and a copy of Bocklin’s “Isle of the Dead” on the wall, announcing future Lewton adventures. The precisely-charted way-stations on the path to the houmfort. A sword thrust through an arm that does not bleed. A store-bought doll that becomes the avatar of a woman. A droning voice through a door that promises the beatification of a strange god. The visuals are decorated by the elegant curlicues of Wray and Siodmak’s dialogue, rendered in a style consistent with the rest of Lewton’s films in refusing mere naturalism, sometimes tending towards elegant curlicues of romanticism reminiscent of Hemingway (“Since knowing you I’ve learned how sweet and fine things can be between a man and a woman,” Paul tells Betsy, via the incomparable instrument of Conway’s rum-rich voice) and resolving in outright elegy in the final voice-over.

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All Lewton’s films weave in fragments of folk culture, usually in songs. It’s a way of communicating the flavour of any locale but also offering subtler orientation, of mental and social reflex, exposing the underlying cultural lexicon and habits of thought in any place. I Walked With a Zombie depends even more crucially upon such flourishes, as culture as a mode of retention and transmission is part of its deep meaning. St Sebastian’s culture is defined by terrible schisms of experience and the way such motifs join, mix, blend, become something new and strange, to itself as well as the outside world. Paul pointedly refuses to offer any separation of them and us in his accounts of the island’s history, indicating all are marked by old crimes and deep sorrows and blighted lives, and, possibly, racial mixing that’s invisible but conscious. The folk-culture reflex is embodied most obviously by the Trinidad-born troubadour Sir Lancelot, who plays a chorus-like street singer. His warbling in the streets of the island’s large town alerts Betsy to the true nature of the triangle between Paul and Wes and Jessica, much to Wes’s embarrassment, as the duo converse at a café table. This seems a moment of pure happenstance, as the singer insists it is, offering apologies with gentlemanly forthrightness: “I’ll creep in just like a little fox and warm myself in his heart.”

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The singer however returns as day has become night, Wes has drunk himself into a stupor, and the moonlit surf washes the shore, to offer grim warning to Betsy that she will be woven into this story (“The brothers are lonely and the nurse is young – and now you must see that my song is sung.”) to play out its last act. The feeling of an unseen conspiracy evinced in this scene constantly nudges the surface of things throughout I Walked With a Zombie but never properly resolves. The influence of the Voodoo practitioners seems to have potency, but of a kind that’s impossible to deduce entirely, perhaps really guiding events and creating monsters or perhaps merely feeding susceptible minds with solutions when life feel terribly random otherwise. Only Tourneur’s director-as-god actions knit a conspicuous chain of events, as when he cuts between the rituals of the voodoo practitioners and the people they’re supposed to be influencing. Similarly, the script refuses to entirely discount any point of view; Wesley’s vision of Paul as a cold and vicious creep is analysed and found to be, in part, the result of Paul’s being married to an unfaithful narcissist, but also reflects truth about Paul himself, a general cynicism given exquisite permission.

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The following year, Lewton would contort a dictated sequel to Cat People into Curse of the Cat People (1944), into a wistful evocation of troubled childhood, but there’s a quality of the childlike to all of Lewton’s films, unfolding as they do like a child’s nocturnal adventure, overactive imagination conjuring monsters in dim places and imagining threats in every corner. Betsy’s moment of fear in the tower upon first seeing Jessica occasions the film’s only scream, wrung from her in anxiety for the unknown and the foreboding rather than real threat. “I used to be afraid of the dark when I was a child, but I’m not afraid anymore,” Betsy tells Paul, unconvincingly. Betsy vehemently denies being what Paul calls her, “a frightened girl,” and yet everyone on St Sebastian seems on some level beset by childish instinct, a desire for certainties that never come, lost and locked in their dreamy states of solitude and faith. Eventually, Betsy will oblige herself to lead Jessica to the houmfort in search of a cure, an act in defiance of the dark and Betsy’s own, tremulous anxiety as well as self-abnegation. The trek to the houmfort is the central sequence of I Walked With a Zombie and one of the greatest moments in horror cinema, indeed, of cinema in general. Nothing overtly frightening or spectacular takes place; it is rather an exercise in pure mood that depicts and transmits the process of being walked through a succession of devices designed to inculcate credulity and susceptibility in the face of unknown forces.

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Tourneur’s camera glides along with Betsy and Jessica, the silk threads of Jessica’s nightgown flickering in the breeze, waving sugar cane obscuring and crowding, turning the escape into the landscape into a claustrophobic experience whilst the call of the conch and the tattoo of drums offer elusive guidance. Totems of obscure meaning and disconcerting effect litter the path. A lamb carcass dangling from a tree, a ram’s skull on a pike, a human skull neatly set up on the dirt, a wind chime hung from a frame humming eerily. Guarding the way is the towering form of Carrefour, the supposed zombie guard set to fend off unwelcome visitors from the houmfort, who can only be passed by those wearing a special badge. He’s glimpsed at the very start of the sequence, backlit and menacing, and soon to be picked out in Betsy’s torch, staring-eyed, seemingly oblivious yet formidable. Alma has pinned a badge on both Betsy and Jessica, but Betsy’s is lost during the trek, so she has to shuffle carefully past gripping Jessica close. They move out of the sugar cane down through passages between twisting trees and vines, the whistling wind now riven with drums, drawing them on.

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Tourneur exploits the studio-bound recreation of the tropical island setting here to create a zone that’s realer than reality, something straight out of dreams, a scene you can watch over and over again and still feel you’ve never quite grasped the essence of it. The houmfort itself proves a scene where the worshippers gather in a religious ceremony that has an aspect of parochial familiarity, like the male congregants in neat shirts and ties, and the incantatory, in the intense, ritualised dancing and thunderous drumming that builds a sense of frenzied anticipation. The sudden cessation of the drumming presages no momentous arrival but the muffled sound of a godly visitation emanating from the hut at the heart of the houmfort. Except, as Betsy finds when she makes her appeal to Dumbala, that the voice emanating in the dark is that of Mrs Rand. Betsy’s own attempt to work good instead provokes a new possibility of danger as the voodoo faithful recognise in Jessica something unnatural. A member of the congregation who dances with a sword, called the Sabreur (Jieno Moxzer), punctures Jessica’s arm with it: seeing that the wound seems not to bleed, the worshippers decide she really is a zombie, and begin a campaign to draw her back to the houmfort again presumably to destroy her in ritual fashion. They send out Carrefour for this first, resulting in a close encounter for Paul and Betsy forestalled by Mrs Rand’s barked commands for the guardian to go away. But the resulting stir, and Wesley’s angry insinuations, stir new police interest in Jessica’s illness, and the threat of possible arrests forces Mrs Rand to explain her conviction of her own guilt.

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I Walked With a Zombie offered something of a challenge to Lewton, as zombie movies up until this one depended at least in part in a traditional, paranoid vision of black people as more credulous to superstition and engaging in primitive rites, often intending harm upon some milk-skinned woman. Some, like White Zombie and, later, Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) and Plague of the Zombies (1966), got around this by portraying white characters who have subsumed and perverted voodoo practices or totems. This is also true, after a fashion, of this film, where Mrs Rand has subsumed the role of priestess to further her agenda, but through not taking it seriously, leaves herself vulnerable to its temptations. As intimidated as they are by the sight of Carrefour lurching out of the shadows like the personification of the blighted past lurching out to torment the living, he’s actually an agent of good, for the rest of the voodoo congregation act not to harm but to initiate an act of healing and to remove the canker that blighting lives in their vicinity, as well as the shadow of black magic behind it. The white characters define their own rationalist creeds against an alternative faith, but they’re also, in the end, utterly enthralled by the notion of such powers.

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The very end offers Mrs Rand’s aide as voodoo priest giving a eulogy to the eased pain of the living and the deliverance of the dead, good and bad as they were in life. That confirms that above all voodoo is another mode of religion, and that the zombie is a creation, if it’s anything, symbolises the refusal of the past to take its place as past. Wesley finally moves, obeying either his own fraying line of reasoning or the demands of the voodoo drums, to end Jessica’s pain and his own, allowing her to leave the Holland compound and then stabbing her through the heart with one of the arrows plucked from Ti-Misery’s chest. This is intercut with the Sabreur with his incantatory dance style, seeming to guide actions with a store-bought doll embodying Jessica, and plunging a pin through the simulacrum. Cause may be effect, but either way, Wesley walks out into the sea with Jessica’s body to drown and cheat Carrefour of his prize. Tourneur offers another of his most beautiful vignettes as the bodies of Wesley and Jessica are found lolling in shallow water by men fishing by torchlight, pluming flames and Jessica’s bloodless face both specks of brightness against the black sea and a horizon vanishing towards opaque eternity. The bodies are carried back home to the tears of Wesley’s mother and the solemn self-knowledge of Paul and Betsy, both grieving and delivered. Te-Misery abides still, but with one less barb in him.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Blaxploitation, Horror/Eerie, Political

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

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Director: Wes Craven

By Roderick Heath

Wes Craven’s career making horror films lasted over forty years, but he remained devilishly hard to contain or categorise. A former philosophy student and English professor, he often exhibited great conceptual intelligence in his work, utilising highbrow ideas like metatextuality and nested realities well before they became fashionable, as well as pursuing a definite satirical interest in confronting the violent and perverse impulses lurking under the surface of the modern world. But he also gleefully delivered the down-and-dirty pleasures of his chosen genre, and as he developed from the relatively straightforward rawness of his infamous debut, Last House on the Left (1972), he began to revel in a stylised, madcap, virtually slapstick version of horror. There was a strong dash of Looney Tunes to his horror – the villains reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam in their braggart ferocity, the heroes fighting back with their Acme kit-like improvised methods. His sixth feature film, A Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), was the kind of hit every low-budget, ghettoised filmmaker dreams of, one that made mountains of lucre and impacted upon the genre significantly. And yet the director himself was forced to sell the rights to the film before its release, and could only stand and watch as his brainchild became a pop cultural phenomenon. Craven’s career would remain skittish, even after he finally found a degree of stature and mainstream success with the Scream series. In the phase following Elm Street, Craven did some of his best, most distinctive and vigorous work, but little of it was well-received at the time, including the would-be new franchise creator, Shocker (1989), the freakish, scabrous parable The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the ingeniously self-referential Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1993).

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The Serpent and the Rainbow might have seemed at first glance a play for relative respectability. Craven took on a script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman, adapted a memoir by researcher Wade Davis, recounting his investigations into tetrodotoxin, a chemical derived from puffer fish venom and used by Haitian voodoo practitioners in zombie creation rituals, with the hope of adapting it for medical use. Respectability seems the last thing on Craven’s mind when the viewer is confronted by the resulting film, however. Long before Charlie Kaufman made a joke out of trying to turn dry reportage into a popular genre movie in Adaptation. (2002), Craven beat him to the reality, creating one of his strangest, most defiantly individual films, as well as one of his best – ridiculous, weird, and riotously entertaining. The Serpent and the Rainbow arrived as a near-freeform assault on familiar narrative niceties, shifting through familiar modes at breakneck speed. It’s a travelogue, anthropological study, political thriller, surrealist fugue, blood-and-thunder horror yarn, and action blockbuster all at once. It looks back to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s great I Walked With a Zombie (1943) in trying to seriously and even realistically encompass voodoo as a socio-religious tradition, with an aspect of a specific, very ‘80s brand of fashionable ethnographic study and Third World consciousness-raiser a la The Emerald Forest (1984) or Under Fire (1983). But it also shifts into utterly whacko B-movie shtick and haunted house ride-like showmanship when it feels like it.

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Davis becomes Dennis Alan, played by Bill Pullman, a dashing young Harvard-trained ethnobotanist (!) who arrives deep in the Amazon forest hoping to find commercially exploitable herbal remedies amongst tribal shamans. One shaman (Evencio Mosquera Slaco) feeds him a hallucinogenic concoction as he thinks Dennis needs to perceive things beyond, because there’s some immensely evil force looming over him. Dennis, in his altered state, encounters a jaguar that terrifies him at first but proves to actually be his protective spirit animal. But the shaman is replaced in the fugue by a fearsome, leering sorcerer (Zakes Mokae), who torments Dennis with visions of being dragged down into the earth by dead and buried men. When he awakens from this grotesque trip, Dennis heads to his helicopter in relief but finds the pilot dead, killed by some malediction. Dennis is forced instead to hike out of the jungle, seemingly guided to safety by the jaguar spirit. When he gets back to the US, Dennis is hired by his mentor, Earl Schoonbacher (Michael Gough), who now works for pharmaceutical company boss Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle): Schoonbacher and Cassedy want him to go to Haiti, to investigate a seemingly authentic case of somebody having been made into a zombie. The first scenes of the film have already shown this, as the evil magician of Dennis’s dream, actually Captain Dargent Peytraud, oversaw the burial of the man, who was pronounced dead but, as Craven reveals, lay weeping in his coffin. The Captain works for the Tonton Macoute, the secret police force that did the dirty work for the government of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.

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The unfortunate victim, Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts), has since been disinterred and briefly sheltered for a time by psychiatrist Marielle Duchamp (the ever-excellent Cathy Tyson), whose report attracted outside attention. Dennis meets up with Marielle but Christophe has long since left the run-down, grimy asylum Marielle tries to administrate. Eventually they track him to where he now lives, the cemetery where he was buried, lurking in the shadows as a distraught and disorientated shell of his former self. Christophe was a schoolteacher who was fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, and Peytraud targeted him for destruction. Dennis tries to get on with his job, approaching braggart gambler and alchemist Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) to make some of the supposed zombiefying concoction he’s famous for, and Louis happily agrees for a few hundred dollars. Louis tries to cheat Dennis by giving him a batch of the bogus blend he sells to tourists, but Dennis spots the gag and forces Louis to put up the real thing. Louis eventually agrees but insists Dennis join him the long and complex preparation process for this mysterious concoction. Trouble is, the longer he spends in Haiti, the more deeply Dennis becomes involved with both the local culture and its marvels, and also the evil of the Duvalier regime, as represented by Peytraud, who uses both torture and voodoo to torment and terrorise anyone who attracts his sadistic interests.

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Standing on the side of the just is Marielle’s friend, fellow resistance member, and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), who tries to use white magic to protect Dennis and Marielle as they tread on territory Peytraud jealously defends. In many ways Craven’s sense of style could hardly have been more different to the elegance and suggestiveness of the classic Universal and Val Lewton horror films: his camerawork, quite often utilising hand-held and steadicam shots that roam about his characters and vivid lensing effects that mimic the presence of unseen forces assailing them, is vigorous in a manner that suggests Werner Herzog’s work on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) on crack, the special effects unrestrained, and the manifestations of primal and supernatural terror visualised with gusto. And yet in other ways, particularly in Craven’s obsession with dreams and visions as the bridging point between the concrete and the fantastic, The Serpent and the Rainbow maintains links with an older, more ethereal brand of horror; reality and dream, worldly power and magic are in such a constant flux that they become inseparable. A richly visualised, otherworldly elegance pervades parts of the film, particularly a magical sequence in which Marielle takes Dennis on a trek along with thousands of worshippers on a religious festival. Streams of worshippers flow through the jungle to a rock pool high in the mountains where they carry a statue of the Virgin Mary, camping at night along the way in forests bedecked with jewels and totems and guttering candles, and Dennis and Marielle make love in a cave with a sense of ritualistic fervour, capping a movement of deliriously sensual textures.

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In the midst of this movement, Craven offers an interlude when Dennis has another of his prophetic visions, seeing himself visited in the night in the forest by Christophe carrying the corpse of a voodoo priestess in a white grave dress, which then disgorges a snake for a tongue that bites Dennis on the face. Such are the breakneck shifts of mood and effect in this film, which come so often as to become their own, weird form of lucidity in creating a world where just about anything can and does happen. Dennis is constantly assailed with similarly strange and often spectacular dreams hallucinations and Craven uses these to give a more pyrotechnic brand of horror. Dennis’ early vision of being dragged down into the earth sees corpses thrusting rotting fingers at him before plunging into a black abyss, as if the dread sins of the past buried however deep are about to claim Dennis. Later, when he’s retreated from the villains to a small beachfront cabin, he sees a burning boat drifting to the shore, carrying the voodoo priestess, before the cabin closes up, shrinks down, and becomes a coffin, blood filling it up like a bathtub. The idea that villain Peytraud fights his battles on both a physical level and on the spiritual lets Craven go to town in portraying the totality of this form of warfare. Peytraud also represents for Craven one of several attempts to create another Freddy Krueger, a trickster villain who respects no usual limitations of physical law and logic to attack his enemies. Mokae was a South African actor who first found repute working with playwright Athol Fugard, and his later acting career was usually split between politically oriented dramas and horror films. Here he had a chance to combine those two, and he’s an unrestrained hoot in the role, with his rolling, bugging eyes and gold tooth flashing matched by rasping voice of cruel relish, as if someone recast Robert Newton’s Long John Silver as a Blaxploitation villain.

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Most of Craven’s films had a powerful undercurrent sense of absurdist black comedy, and oftentimes entirely explicit. That streak is certainly present here, particularly apparent in just how much abuse Dennis receives throughout the film. It gets to the point where this all starts to feel like a lampoon on both the usual travails of venturesome heroes in pulp tales – young Pullman’s square-jawed, all-American visage needs only a pith helmet to complete the picture – and also of white western anxiety in the face of dangers beyond the safe limits of home, like Midnight Express (1978) gone troppo. In one sequence Craven reaches an apogee of discomfort in mainstream cinema whilst somehow avoiding depicting any actual gore. Peytraud seeks to terrify and punish Dennis by having him arrested, strapped to a chair naked in the secret police’s favourite torture chamber, and hammering a nail through his scrotum. Before striking his relished blow, Peytraud matches any Bond villain as he responds to Dennis’ desperate question “What do you want?” with, “I want to hear you scream!” This moment ranks with the “Squeal, piggy!” scene in Deliverance (1972) in literalising a protagonist’s emasculation by forces beyond his control. There is a disparity at the heart The Serpent and the Rainbow between the thesis Davis was arguing, that the apparent manifestations of the supernatural were actually the work of a complex, puzzling but actually rational work of nascent chemistry, and Craven’s casual demolition of that concept by embracing ooky-kooky magic. Voodoo as a religion and cultural phenomenon has been a constant source of interest for storytellers interested in the fantastic, but very few investigate it with much depth or seriousness as a genuine cultural phenomenon.

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Whilst The Serpent and the Rainbow throws out any pretences to being seen as a strict tract on the subject, it does find Craven with an anthropological bent, truly fascinated by the sights, sounds, and lifestyle of Haiti, considering it as a fully-fledged society present amidst but also cordoned off from familiar definitions of modernity. The eruptions of irrationality in the storyline literalise this schism and also lets Craven show his own sensibility, associating political tyranny with forces of evil. There’s an appealing casualness to the interracial romance of Dennis and Marielle that looks forward to Craven’s embrace of black heroism in The People Under the Stairs and fusion of horror with Blaxploitation lampooning on Vampire in Brooklyn (1994). The pilgrimage scene is a highpoint of this bent, amidst an immersive sense of place (although the production was forced to leave Haiti mid-shoot and was finished in other locations including the Dominican Republic), as is a brief but fascinating depiction of Lucien performing a wedding. The Duvalier government and the Tonton Macoute really did use the paraphernalia of voodoo as part of their arsenal of repression, although ironically Wade Davis himself had little trouble from them. Marielle, a modern rationalist by profession, is also famed for her performances when possessed by spirits, and Dennis witnesses this transformation with bewilderment: “There is no conflict between my science and my faith,” as she states.

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Craven’s pointed sense of humour makes itself apparent when a tourist-friendly display of local performers for a hotel crowd is portrayed as a festival of the strange with a male performer getting female guests to shove spikes through his cheeks, another chewing on glass, until finally Peytraud, who looks on, announces himself by mesmerically compelling one of the performers to attack Dennis. This scene is mirrored later in a vignette that counts amongst the most Cravenish of Craven moments, when Dennis returns to the States with the zombiefying powder and is treated to a swanky dinner by Cassedy and his wife Deborah (Dey Young) in their mansion as reward. Deborah, possessed by Peytraud in spite of the many miles and supposed barriers between these places, suddenly turns strange and sneering, begins chewing on a glass, and then launches herself across the dinner table in an attempt to stab Dennis, forcing her husband and Schoonbacher to drag her off. This makes for a disturbing/hilarious image of posh, lily-white insularity turned into funhouse for chaos and vengeful lunacy. There are seeds here for Craven’s later, equally wild and loopy The People Under the Stairs, which would turn the mirror back on Reaganite America and accuse it of being essentially the same thing. Craven didn’t help write the script here, which points to why some of Craven’s favourite themes are channelled in slightly different directions to his usual work, particularly his recurring motif of good and bad families and their avatars who, in the course of the tale, become increasingly blurred: Krug and his cohort and the bourgeois parents of Last House on the Left, the holidaying family and the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the suburbanites and their resurging tormentor/victim in Elm Street.

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Here the oppositions are more political and national. The corollary to that theme, of the “normal”, “good” people becoming increasingly warlike and competent in facing their enemies, is more clearly present here too but it takes a long time before Dennis, reduced to a worm before the boot of Peytraud’s intent, finally turns. Peytraud frames Dennis for the murder of Christophe’s sister and uses it to ensure he’ll have him executed if he ever returns to the country, before sticking him on the next plane out. However Mozart sneaks aboard the plane and gives Dennis the batch of zombiefying powder for free, asking only that Dennis let people know about his talents. But Mozart is captured and executed by Peytraud, and after the incident at the Cassedys’ house Dennis feels compelled to return to Haiti as he senses Marielle will be in danger too. Lucien arranges to have Dennis brought to safety by some of his men disguised as cops, pre-empting the Tonton Macoute, so Peytraud has Marielle kidnapped, uses a hex to kill Lucien, and has an operative treat Dennis to a dose of the zombie powder. Dennis desperately begs bewildered people not to bury him as he folds him and seems to drop dead. In his paralysed state, Dennis is forced to experience his own burial.

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This sequence sees Craven paying tribute to the famous dream of death and burial in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), shooting much of it subjectively from the view of the frozen Dennis as he passes under the eyes of friends and doctors, and his mocking enemy Peytraud. Just before he’s put into the ground, the Captain drops a tarantula into the coffin to keep him company, giving Craven a chance to stage a most iconically phobic horror image, the monstrous black arachnid crawling over Dennis’s stony face. Dennis is saved by Christophe, who knows very well what’s happened and digs Dennis out of his grave. The clash of aesthetic attitudes apparent in the texture of Craven’s filmmaking, and the ruthless way the original three-hour cut was pared down into a very peculiar 97 minutes, makes The Serpent and the Rainbow an experience that would probably seem to many perturbingly hectic. But it also finally exemplifies something rare about its maker and gives it force that refuses taming. The finale sees all hell break loose in both senses of the term, as the Duvalier government collapses, leading to scenes of explosive rage and rejoicing on the streets, through which threads the smaller but vital drama of Dennis taking on Peytraud for control of the nation’s spiritual as well as physical fate.

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Here Craven goes all-out with a riotous assault of inspired, crazy images – the torture chair coming to life and chasing Dennis about the room, Dennis being assaulted by Lucien’s shade, his bashing his way through a door only to find gravity inverting as if he’s in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and dangling from the doorframe, and a nod to Lewton and Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) as Dennis enters a hall of prison cells from which prisoners’ arms reach, unnaturally long, trying to grasp him. Craven connects Peytraud’s relish of holding the captured souls of his victims, including Lucien, with the political oppression, as Peytraud uses his control over the apparatus of terror to turn victims of that oppression into weapons. Except, naturally, this proves a double-edged sword, as Dennis and Marielle smash the pots containing the souls, letting loose the magical wrath of the repressed on their tormentor, spirits massing to drive Peytraud into a fire and burn him alive, whilst Lucien’s released shade passes on his powers to Dennis.

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Peytraud is defeated in the real world but there’s one fight left on the spiritual plane. Dennis, invested with Lucien’s magic and utilising the fierceness of his jaguar spirit, is able to overpower Peytraud here too, whereupon he hoists Peytraud by his own petard, psychically tethering him to the torture chair and punctured through the balls before being shunted off to hell, complete with reversal of the “I want to hear you scream!” line. The spirits of the dead arise in rainbow colours whilst the populace celebrates and Dennis and Marielle limp away, bloodied but triumphant. This climax goes so far over the top it all but hits orbit, and I dare say the film as a whole is a litmus test, either sweeping you up in its mad thrust or leaving you totally cold. But it’s also uproarious and casually flings brilliantly staged filmmaking at the audience, a perfect encapsulation of Craven’s delight in his art. Horror film will miss him.

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