1930s

White Zombie (1932)

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White Zombie is set on the Caribbean island of Haiti and follows a young couple, Madeline Short and Neil Parker, played by Madge Bellamy (The Iron Horse) and John Harron (Silk Stockings) respectively who are visiting Charles Beaumont, a friend of Madeline. The film begins with the lovebirds arriving during a traditional Voodoo funeral and several passers-by, an ominous sign of what it to follow from which the coachman flees at a breakneck speed and drops the two at Beaumont’s plantation. Here we meet Beaumont, played by Robert Frazer (The Vampire Bat) with a clear crush on the doe-eyed Madeline. We are also introduced to the local (Christian) priest, Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn, The Great Ziegfeld) who conducts the wedding ceremony between Madeline and Neil.

Unfortunately for the newlyweds, Beaumont, desperate to have Madeline for his own, approaches Bela Lugosi’s character, ‘Murder’ Legendre, a voodoo master who possesses a crew of zombies, including the voodoo priest he learnt the dark art from and someone sent to execute him. Legendre and Beaumont ‘kill’ Madeline and turn her into a zombie, sending Neil into a drunken spiral of despair through which he is haunted by the spirit of his lost love. Wracked by grief, he goes to see Dr Bruner who explains his theory about the use of drugs to induce a zombie-like state in a victim and how he suspects this has happened to Madeline. The two then go on a mission to rescue Madeline from Legendre, who has since turned on the poor Beaumont.

White Zombie has all the hallmarks of a good 1930s horror film, a wide eyed damsel in distress, a strong hero and his side kick and a despicable villain. The main star of the film is Lugosi’s eyebrows, which has a lot of airtime including several close-ups, they resemble something of a handlebar moustache stuck other the top of his nose. They are so amazing, that I am putting the first screen shot in a review of them:

white zombie eyebrows

Understandably the sound and picture quality are poor compared to modern films and some of the scenes skip but that is only to be expected for a film that is over 80 year’s old. Similarly, a film with such blatant racism would not get made nowadays, but in from 1915-1934 Haiti was occupied by the US and an enforced labour regime was employed so it may be somewhat representative of the time the film was made. The scenery was borrowed from other horror films being filmed at the same studio so there is a lack of cohesion on the scenery that is confusing at times.

White Zombie is an interesting, little (at just over an hour long) film with a clear story. I like the fact that, unlike a lot of modern films, the film has a resolution (however predictable) and doesn’t leave an obvious opening for a sequel (e.g. Insidious). It is also a slightly different take on the zombie canon, from the common risen dead or the more recent disease infection. Whilst not scary, I would recommend White Zombie to all horror fans.

Rating: 4/5

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Fun Fact: Bellamy retired from screen after a scandal in the early 40s in which she shot at her then partner, Albert Stanwood Murphy and filed for divorce, despite never being legally married.

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Vampyr (1932)

vampyr

The full title of the film is Vampyr: the Dream of Allan Grey and follows Allan Grey a young man with an obsession for the occult and supernatural. Portrayed by Julian West, Grey is twitchy and slightly gormless looking and finds himself in a riverside inn in the French countryside. In his first night he is awoken by an old man unlocking the door from the wrong side who talks to him about death. Things continue to get stranger for Grey who then sees shadows about the village moving as ghosts with nobody casting them. These include dancing couples, a running figure reflected in the river and a soldier with a wooden leg climbing a ladder who Grey then observes to return to its rightful owner.

It is soon revealed that the old man lives in a chateau nearby with his two teenage daughters, Gisèlle and Léone, along with a handful of servants. All is not well in the chateau with both girls appearing to be ill with a lack of blood, and it soon becomes clear that both are the victims of a vampire. The audience learn a lot about the vampire folklore present in this film from “The History of Vampires” by Paul Bonnard that Grey is reading, from which we find out that once bitten by a vampire, the victim then develops a lust for blood and becomes a vampire, thus wiping out whole villages. Alongside the unfortunate family is the village doctor played by Jan Hieronimko, who looks like Albert Einstein who has been left to shrivel in a low oven for ten hours. It is clear from the subject matter of the books Grey (and thus the audience) is reading that he doesn’t trust the doctor with references throughout to previous examples of doctors joining forces with vampires.

Vampyr holds with many of the traditional vampire myths, for example being unable to be in sunlight and the presence in one scene of a shadowy bat. However, it plays much more on the relationship between vampire and victim, the hold that the supernatural being has over the victim, compelling them to commit suicide, but also the addictive nature of the victim’s blood and the vampires need for it.

Vampyr was the first sound film created and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath) and as such relies heavily on the use of title cards used in silent films. Based loosely on In a Glass Darkly, a collection of short stories from the nineteenth century by Sheridan Le Fanu, Vampyr is more a series of scenes connected only by the fact Allan Grey is viewing than a fully-fledged storyline. The unconnected feeling however adds to the dreamlike and ethereal quality of the film but also makes it hard to follow. The disembodied shadows and random shots of skeletons seem unrelated to the rest of the film and the ending providing more questions than answers.

Fun Fact: Vampyr was originally filmed in three languages, German, French and English and released in both French and German. Only damaged copies of the film survived and it was restored from both the French and the German in the 1990s.

Rating: 2/5

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