Thursday 26 May 2016

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

I had seen I Walked With a Zombie before, and even reviewed it, but that was the best part of a decade ago so I think I can be forgiven for revisiting what is after all considered to be one of the great horror classics.

This 1943 release was a product of the celebrated Val Lewton B-movie unit at RKO and was directed by Jacques Tourneur, the best of the directors who worked for Lewton.

Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) has been employed as a nurse to care for the wife of sugar planter Paul Holland (Tom Conway) on an island in the West Indies. Holland’s wife Jessica  has been in a state of near-catatonia for several years. She can walk but she cannot communicate and appears to have no mental connection with the world at all.

This partly accounts for the slightly brooding atmosphere at the plantation but there is more to it than that. There was apparently a romantic triangle involving Mrs Holland and the two brothers and shortly before she was stricken by her illness there had been a particularly unpleasant scene.

Betsy is in something of a quandary. She realises immediately that she is falling in love with Paul Holland. She is convinced that he still loves his wife and Betsy is driven by a combination of guilt and compassion to conceive the idea that perhaps Jessica Holland can somehow be restored to normality. Dr Maxwell (James Bell) has been willing to do all he can but nothing has had any effect. Betsy is informed that there are in fact better doctors who can cure Mrs Holland - voodoo doctors. We would imagine Betsy as the kind of person with little time for such notions but her zeal (or her guilt) overwhelms her judgment and she decides to give the voodoo doctors their chance. Of course she does not inform Paul Holland of her decision.

As the audience will have already gathered most of the characters have very conflicted emotions. They are not always entirely honest about their emotions and in some cases they may well be willfully deceiving themselves. Whatever the immediate outcome of Betsy’s visit to the voodoo priests might be the longer term consequences for herself, for Paul and for his brother are likely to be unpredictable.

This is certainly a horror movie that is more character-driven than most and the relationships between the characters are crucial. The motivations of the characters are also quite complex. Betsy’s guilt is not entirely unwarranted. She knew from the start that Paul was a married man and she made no attempts to discourage his interest in her, and he is a very wealthy man while she’s a more or less penniless nurse. It’s understandable she might feel that her behaviour could be interpreted as conniving. In fact it may even be conniving, perhaps without ever admitting it to herself.

Tom Conway was always somewhat overshadowed by his more famous brother George Sanders. To be honest Conway was the less talented of the brothers but he was a competent actor in the right role and he did some of his very best work in the Lewton pictures. His performance in this one can’t really be faulted. Paul Holland is a man who is repressing some very strong emotions and Conway conveys this effectively. James Ellison is quite adequate as Paul’s half-brother. Frances Dee is a satisfactory heroine, a confident self-assured woman who discovers she doesn’t know quite as much about life as she thought she did.

This movie breaks most of the rules for horror films. There’s very little overt horror, and until fairly close to the end there’s none at all. Tourneur knows what he’s doing however. The sense of unease and subtle menace builds gradually but inexorably. 

As a cinematographer J. Roy Hunt does not have the glittering reputation of Nicholas Musuraca for photographed Cat People for Tourneur but based on his work on this film perhaps he should. There are shadows. Lots of shadows! In fact some of the best use of shadows you’ll ever see. This is a movie that is heavily reliant on atmosphere and the visuals serve the purpose admirably. Since it’s so similar in visual style to other Tourneur movies one can’t help assuming that Tourneur’s influence was very much the dominant one although Hunt deserves credit for giving Tourneur the look he was after.

The sets are quite impressive also, especially by B-movie standards. The island setting is surprisingly convincing.

This movie was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and if made today would doubtless be titled Jane Eyre with Zombies. Given that Jane Eyre is one of the masterpieces of gothic fiction the idea of turning it into a horror movie actually is not outrageous at all. The movie preserves at least a fair proportion of the spirit of Brontë’s novel.

One thing I found interesting was the way voodoo was portrayed. It wasn’t demonised in the way you’d expect in a 1943 movie, not was it depicted as being merely ridiculous. 

The Warner Home Video DVD release pairs I Walked With a Zombie with another Lewton movie, The Body Snatcher. I Walked With a Zombie gets a good transfer plus a very worthwhile audio commentary from Kim Newman and Steve Jones.

There are those who say this is the best of all the Lewton RKO films, but personally I think this one, Cat People and The Seventh Victim are all so good I wouldn’t like to even try to pick a favourite.  And they have aged very well indeed. This is magnificent subtle horror. Very highly recommended.

Friday 20 May 2016

Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939)

There are those who claim that Zorro’s Fighting Legion is the best of all movie adventure serials. I don’t agree but this 1939 Republic serial is still worth a watch.

Zorro was created by pulp writer Johnston McCulley and made his debut in print in the novel The Curse of Capistrano, serialised in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919. It was published in book form under the title The Mark of Zorro after the immense success of  the 1920 feature film with that title starring Douglas Fairbanks. McCulley went on to write another sixty or so Zorro stories.

The serial makes several quite significant changes to McCulley’s original creation, most of these changes being (in my opinion) ill-advised. One of the most refreshing and original  things about the Zorro stories is their setting - California in the 1820s during the period when it was a territory under Mexican rule. The serial is set, less interestingly, in Mexico itself. Zorro is in reality nobleman Don Diego Vega. Don Diego pretends to be a rather ridiculous figure - excessively bookish, extremely foppish and thoroughly indolent. He is such an absurd figure that no-one takes him seriously, which is of course his intention. In reality he is a master swordsman, a fine shot with a pistol and a magnificent horseman. As depicted in the serial Don Diego is still rather foppish but at times he comes across as being a bit too sensible and serious - he’s not quite ridiculous enough to convince us that no-one would see through his deception.

The other major change is that the Indians are on the side of the bad guys in the serial (although arguably they’re being manipulated by the real bad guys and so are not actual bad guys) whereas in McCulley’s stories Zorro is very sympathetic indeed to the Indians. In fact Zorro is very much the champion of the poor and the oppressed, regardless of race. This crucial aspect of the Zorro character is much weakened in Zorro’s Fighting Legion - Zorro is certainly portrayed as being a good guy but he is fighting for the Mexican government rather than directly for the oppressed.

These changes dilute the unique flavour of Zorro and turn the serial into more of a straightforward western. 

Having said all this there’s still a great deal to enjoy here.

William Witney and John English directed and the appearance of their names on the credits of a Republic serial was always a good sign. You knew the action scenes would be plentiful, imaginative and skillfully executed and that the cliffhanger endings would be top-notch and the hero’s narrow escapes at least reasonably plausible. All these virtues are very much in evidence here.

The story is reasonably interesting. A faction is plotting to overthrow the Mexican government and part of their strategy is to disrupt the shipment of gold from the mines in San Bendolito province, shipments on which the government is absolutely dependent. To further this nefarious scheme the conspirators are making use of the Yaqui Indians, convincing them that the legendary Don Del Oro, a kind of god/superman, will lead them to victory and freedom.

The oddest element in the story is that Zorro is no longer a solitary masked crusader - he is now the leader of the Legion, a large band of loyal well-armed followers.

Production values are adequate by serial standards. One gets the impression that most of the money was spent on making the action sequences convincing. This was certainly a sensible approach - any serial stands or falls on the quality of its action scenes.

Don Del Oro himself is fun, being a man inside a kind of golden suit of armour and looking rather robotic.

Reed Hadley’s performance as Zorro/Don Diego is a highlight. Even if he doesn’t always quite manage to make Don Diego sufficiently indolent and foolish he is certainly entertaining and he does have the charisma to make him an excellent Zorro.

This serial has had quite a few DVD releases. Unfortunately, as is the case with most serials, no-one has ever thought it worth the expense of doing a proper restoration so picture quality tends to be a little dubious. My copy is the Alpha Video release and picture quality is most definitely dubious although admittedly that’s compensated for to some extent by the very low price. 

Zorro’s Fighting Legion is not quite up to the standards of the very best Republic serials like Spy Smasher but it is consistently entertaining and exciting. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

Dr Cyclops (1940)

Dr Cyclops is yet another mad scientist movie. Which is fine by me - I happen to love mad scientist movies. This 1940 Paramount release is a fairly worthy example of the breed and it looks better than most.

Dr Thorkel (Albert Dekker) has been conducting some very secretive research deep in the jungles of the Amazon. Now he has asked a number of fellow scientists to join him in his jungle laboratory to assist him in his experiments. Dr Bullfinch (Charles Halton), Dr Mary Robinson (Janice Logan) and mineralogist Bill Stockton set out for the Amazon. Along the way they are joined by mining engineer Steve Baker (Victor Kilian) who has more or less invited himself along - they need to hire his mules and where his mules go he goes.

Dr Thorkel has long had a reputation for being irascible and temperamental. His new colleagues soon come to the conclusion that he is now quite mad. Perhaps he is, but he has certainly achieved something startling. It turns out he only wanted his new collaborators for a few minutes’ work after which he intends to pack them back off to civilisation. They are however reluctant to leave, having figured out some of what Thorkel has been doing, and having figured out that there might be money and fame in it. They might have been wiser to have simply left.

They should have had a clearer idea of what was going on when Dr Bullfinch discovered the bones of a native pig. A very small native pig. A very very small native pig!

Of course what Dr Thorkel has been working on is miniaturising animals. Since his now unwelcome guests refuse to leave he decides he might as well find out if his technique works on people. It turns out that being shrunk to twelve inches in height isn’t much fun when you’ve fallen into the clutches of an insane megalomaniac scientist. There’s one piece of information that might have made survival an easier proposition for our heroes but unfortunately that’s one item of information they don’t have.

Mad scientists are occasionally purely evil from the start but more often they start out as idealists who are then seduced by the lure of forbidden knowledge, and the power that such knowledge can bring. We get the impression that Dr Thorkel was probably somewhat unhinged right from the outset and that it was never going to take much to push him over the edge into full-blown mad scientist mode.

When one thinks of movie mad scientists of this era one thinks of Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill or George Zucco, or perhaps at a pinch Basil Rathbone. While Albert Dekker might not be so well known for such roles he does a pretty fair job. A Lionel Atwill might have gone further over the top but Dekker does the dangerous obsessive scientist blinded by ambition very effectively.

The supporting players are very much in Dekker’s shadow but they’re all more than adequate. Charles Halton is good as the kindly responsible but pompous scientist who is also susceptible to the lure of ambition. Janice Logan is mostly there because without her the movie would not have a beautiful glamorous female cast member although she is perfectly adequate. Thomas Coley might seem destined to play the conventional hero role, being young and good-looking (very important attributes in a hero), but he is at least a reasonably interesting character. He’s incurably lazy and selfish and is not the sort of fellow who has ever seriously considered doing anything noble or heroic.

In 1940 it was pretty unusual for a movie of this type, a movie that would normally have been regarded merely as another B-picture, to be made in Technicolor. Warner Brothers had made a couple of horror films using the two-strip Technicolor process in the early 1930s (Dr X and Mystery of the Wax Museum) but Dr Cyclops must surely be one of the earliest B-pictures to be made using the three-strip Technicolor process. Given that this is a cross between a science fiction and a jungle adventure movie it proves to be more than just a gimmick - this really is quite a visually arresting film. The special effects are mostly quite impressive and there’s some cool mad scientist gadgetry. The subject matter required the use of a lot of process shots and in 1939 when the movie was filmed using such techniques on a large scale in colour was still something fairly new. Some work extremely well while others suffer from the perennial problem associated with such techniques - the rear projected image looks much too flat. On the whole though the effects are bold and fairly successful.

The big problem is the tone. The early part of the movie builds up an effective atmosphere of menace and terror but then the film seems to switch gears and becomes whimsical fantasy. An even bigger problem is the music, which would have been perfect for a Disney cartoon but is much too bright and cheerful and playful. Scenes that should have been effectively scary are ruined by the music. It’s fairly obvious that Paramount had no clear idea of the kind of audience they were aiming for. Were they trying to make a kids fantasy movie or a science fiction/horror movie? 

Ernest B. Schoedsack’s main claim to fame as a director is King King, and he was therefore well qualified to helm a science fiction adventure movie with a jungle setting. Merrian C. Cooper, producer of King Kong, was also involved in this production. 

Universal have done a splendid job with the transfer - it’s quite stunning.

I’ve now seen all five movies in Universal’s Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection: Volume 2 DVD boxed set. The Cult of the Cobra is great fun, The Land Unknown is a terrific sci-fi adventure romp complete with dinosaurs and The Leech Woman is creepy in a camp sort of way. They're all well worth seeing. It has to be said that this has to be one of the best cult movie sets ever released, and it’s so cheap that it represents fabulous value for money. An absolute must-buy.

Dr Cyclops is a bit of an oddity. Being shot in Technicolor would of necessity have made it an A-picture rather than a B-picture but it was the sort of movie that was unlikely to attract a large enough audience to justify the expense. It has some nicely sinister moments early on (the opening sequences are wonderfully atmospheric) but then becomes a lightweight fantasy. It’s not a complete success but it’s not without interest. Recommended, with reservations.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Fall of the Roman Empire/Woman in Green

My review of Anthony Mann’s historical epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) might perhaps be of interest. It's a train wreck of a movie but it's so visually glorious it's still worth seeing. Here's the LINK to my review.

Also possibly of interest, my write-up on one of the later (and one of the better) Universal Sherlock Holmes B-movies, The Woman in Green (1945). Here's the LINK to my review of that movie.