BFI Gothic Season – White Zombie (1932) & I Walked With A Zombie (1943)
It was a gloriously eerie Sunday afternoon as the wispy tendrils of the NFI’s Gothic season continued on London’s South Bank, as I nervously navigated the fog choked streets of ye ole London town to catch a ghoulish double bill of old-school undead. One thing I can’t fault the BFI for is value for money, as when scheduling a double bill of these two ghoulish classics they only charged for a single ticket, so this was a nice opportunity to up the ante on my murky coverage especially since I’ve long waited to see the second film of the schedule on the big screen for reasons I’ll touch upon below. As I’ve mentioned before prior to 1968 the idea of a screen zombie was a very different beast from the shambling brain ravenous hordes of recent decades, as the mythological concept of the zombie was originally founded within the religious practices of indigenous African and Haitian cultures, adorned with somnambulist slaves and glazed-eyed automatons under the puppet master instruction of some voodoo sorcerer for his own nefarious plots. On screen these elements are infused with a pungent ‘fear of the other’ related to immigration and racial suspicions, a tangent which you’d think would still be still ripe for a contemporary plunder given the pathetic prejudices of certain ignorant quarters of the population whipped into frenzy by the right-wing press. Yet we still seem to frame the zombie as our ultimate metaphor for mindless consumerism, a symbol of our spiritual malaise caused by the ubiquitous importance of reckless corporate domination in the physical sphere, our souls and incorporeal searching smothered by the omnipotent pulse of capitalism. it’s either that or a symbol of the braying, mindless, violent mob, a political metaphor of our ferocious partisan political divides and tabloid beguiling, as it can be no mistake that the only way to overcome our differences and win the social argument is to shoot your opponent in the head / intellect. Since the zombie trope is still exhausted in popular culture infecting as it has mainstream TV series, numerous films lurching into direct to DVD coffins year after year after year, computer games (Dead Rising 3 looks tasty) and comic books (not to mention world-wide flash-mobs and genre affectionate gatherings) it was pleasing to return to the polluted source, to divine the origin of this horrific successful virus of movie monster archetypes, and perform a grim autopsy of its sweltering and sweaty Caribbean genesis.
Well, actually this won’t be a detailed excavation as I don’t have a huge amount to say about these films, what was most instructive of the session was a chance to see how film grammar evolves over time, to analyse how movies are constructed from a pacing and performance position and how a tale is presented to an audience through a similarly brisk expiration period – both films run an approximate 70 minute run-time – or to put that in a slightly more succinct way one film was made in 1932, the other in 1943, so lets compare and contrast. White Zombie was a very clunky piece of work which I had seen before, as a horror completest any Karloff picture is an immediate must-see, but while his hilarious performance is worth the price of admission the story around it is less than compelling. The movies were still in the final birth pangs of the transition to sound in the early 1930’s so like Dracula and the early Universal films they have that exaggerated acting style more attuned to theatrical playing to the gods, the main heroine does nothing but hurl her hand wrist up to her mouth, take a major step back and gaze to the heavens every time some bad news is inflicted upon her precious psyche, and the intonation and stilted movements around the enclosed sets is teeth grindingly thudding in places. The plot is straightforward – a newly engaged couple travel to the West Indies be wed under the wing of their mentor, but he is under the spell of the wicked wizard (Karloff) who has some weird plans which are never fully explained – so it moves sluggishly through its paces with only a few early genre machinations to really make its mark. There are some innovations unusual for the period, particularly the use of split screen to denote a time-aligned plot being driven across parraell actions, and it also retains the silent movie motif of moody double exposures, Karloff eyes superimposed over the fey heroine to signal his malevolent hold over the unfortunate creature, it’s a great old movie mode of communication without dialogue, the collusion of images making meaning, essentially what separates cinema from the other art forms. For genre fans what a treat Karloff is, no-one manages such…..elongated…….and……..ponderously………….pregnant……line deliveries, its camper than a John Waters XXX loyalty card but he’s just so much darn fun, despite chomping through the scenes in a fashion which is positively ludicrous. The final set-piece is quite hilarious to digest when compared to contemporary explosive antics, this is the 1932 equivalent of Ahnoldt facing off against a silver morphing cyber-assassin with state-of the art special effects;
In contrast I Walked With A Zombie is now considered something of a classic, and simply from some of its stitched on enhancements – character development moments, a dreamy voice-over contextual apparatus, a circular narrative structure which returns to its inception by way of an eeriely crafted promenade across a spooky West Indies – a grimm fairy tale with adulteress flirting of the dead. Why I really wanted to see this at the flicks was to immerse myself in its greatest and most pungent quality, as what this film has in spades is atmosphere, that evocative quality so lacking in todays abyss of remakes, re-imaginings and hollow updates, almost every frame of this film is drenched with a melancholic dread and uncertainty of those infinite spaces between the stars.
Director Jacques Tourneur was a master of craft (see also Cat People) through the careful deployment of sound effects and score (an ominous rhythmic distant drumming perforates the film) and slanting lighting patterns which cast the film as moody shadow-play, the madness and lunacy of this old slaving family now cursed with its past sins haunting the present. This atmosphere is enhanced by the ambiguity of the uncanny, there is no definite villain as such operating the events from behind the scenes, so the supernatural elements are distorted and transparent, and perhaps more tangible than any spiritual slumber from beyond the grave. The film and the lineage bleeds through to the Hammer cycle and the Italians emphasis on mood and picture, sound and severity, so in its quiet way it’s as influential as chillers such as The Uninvited or The Innocents before events turned more visceral in the late 1960’s. So this was an instructive double bill and another genre classic is finally ticked off the list, before next week when I have an investigation up in Scotland with some pagan miscreants….
Let’s solemnly pad this out with some comments on the full top 30 list of Sight & Sounds films of the year, alas it’s not on-line but here’s a reminder of the top ten. Unsurprisingly some of the highly acclaimed art-house auteur angles such as Norte, The End Of History, The Great Beauty and Lawrence Anyways naturally made the cut, as usual I was aware of these and would have caught them at TiFF or the LFF but the opportunity didn’t quite gel with my other priorities. We UK critics can be a parochial bunch as electing Wheatley’s A Field In England seems a little too partisan – it was an interesting film but hardly the best of the year – and in the critic specific breakdown (always a cinephile highlight to trawl through) the highly amusing super-troll Armond White managed to offend everyone by not just championing Man Of Steel but also Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, what a bait-click seeking maverick eh? I’m mostly furious with myself as despite making close to a hundred visits to the cinema this year I still missed Basterds, A Touch Of Sin and Stray Dogs which are perhaps more in my wheel house than four-hour long Proustian fables, and I guess I have to see Blue Jasmine now as part of the inevitable Oscar nomination crush come January. So lets close with another fine montage of the years alleged best from David Ehrlich, and his top 25 film countdown of 2013;