Halloween Havoc!: I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (RKO 1943)

Val Lewton’s  I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is, despite the exploitative title, one of the most moody and atmospheric horror films of the 40’s. This was Lewton’s follow up to the highly successful CAT PEOPLE (1942), with Jacques Tourneur again in the director’s chair. Though screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray based their script on a story by Inez Wallace, producer Lewton had them add elements of Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE, making this a  Gothic zombie movie!

Nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is summoned to the West Indies isle of St. Sebastian to look after Paul Holland’s (Tom Conway ) catatonic wife Jessica. The cynical Holland has an air of melancholy about him (“There’s no beauty here”, he states on the sea trip to the island, “only decay and death”). Upon arrival, Betsy meets Holland’s stepbrother Wesley Reed (James Ellison), a jovial sort until he gets in the presence of Holland. Reed runs the family sugar mill, from which eminate the almost constant “mysterious, eerie” beat of the islander’s jungle drums.

That night Betsy hearing weeping and moaning, and follows the sound to Fort Holland’s tower, where she observes Jessica, dressed in a flowing white shroud, looking like the Angel of Death herself, walking, silent, as if impelled by a force beyond her control. Servant Alma (Theresa Harris ) explains Jessica’s condition: “She was very sick, and then she went mindless”. Jessica’s doctor (James Bell) ascribes her condition to a spinal cord injury that left her with no will of her own. But the island natives have another word for Jessica… zombie!

There’s much more to the story, but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen this classic horror tale. Tourneur keeps the pace deliberately slow, layering the film with a sense of dread rather than shock after shock. The use of sound and silence, a familiar element in Lewton’s horrors, plays a large part in establishing the mood, especially during the scene with Betsy and Jessica walking through the cane fields in the eerie moonlight. DP Roy Hunt works wonders with shadows and light, Roy Webb’s score hits all the right notes, and Mark Robson’s superb editing helped him earn his spot in the director’s chair a year later with THE SEVENTH VICTIM .

The cast is a cut above your typical 40’s ‘B’ horror players. Frances Dee was a star at Paramount during the 30’s who was seriously curtailing her career at the time to raise her sons with husband Joel McCrea. Tom Conway, like his brother George Sanders, always projected a melancholy, cynical figure onscreen (and off). James Ellison never quite cracked the A-list, but  was always a dependable actor. Theresa Harris shined in every role afforded to her, from BABY FACE to OUT OF THE PAST. Edith Barrett plays the pivotal part of Mrs. Rand, mother to both Conway and Ellison. Calypso singer Sir Lancelot brings his talents to the table, and Darby Jones makes a terrifying zombie.

Lancelot and Jones reprised their roles when RKO returned to Saint Sebastian for ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY , a sort-of sequel/spoof starring Bela Lugosi and the comedy team of Brown & Carney. But forget about that piece of nonsense, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is the film you want to see this Halloween season, the perfect Lewton “quiet horror” tor satisfy your taste for the macabre.

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt. 5: Fabulous 40s Sleuths

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It’s time again for me to make room on the DVR! This edition features five Fabulous 40’s films of mystery and suspense, with super sleuths like Dick Tracy and Sherlock Holmes in the mix for good measure. Here’s five capsule reviews of some crime flicks from the 1940s:

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WHISTLING IN THE DARK (MGM 1941, D: S. Sylvan Simon): The first of three movies starring comedian Red Skelton as Wally Benton, aka radio detective ‘The Fox’. Skelton is kidnapped by a phony spiritual cult led by Conrad Veidt to devise “the perfect murder”. Ann Rutherford and Virginia Grey play rivals for Red’s affections, while Eve Arden is her usual wisecracking self as Red’s manager. Some of the jokes and gags are pretty dated, but Red’s genial personality makes the whole thing tolerable. Fun Fact: Rags Ragland (Sylvester) was once the Burlesque comedy partner of Phil Silvers.

Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)
Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (Universal 1942, D: Roy William Neill): Basil Rathbone IS Sherlock Holmes in this fourth entry in the series. All the gang from 221B Baker Street are along for the ride (Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, Mary Gordon) as Holmes tries to foil a plot to steal a new bomb sight (for the war effort, don’t you know) by his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty. A secret code holds all the answers. That Grand Old Villain Lionel Atwill plays “The Napoleon of Crime”, and it’s terrific to watch screen vets Rathbone and Atwill engage in a battle of wits. In fact, it’s my favorite Universal Holmes movie because of the pairing of the two. Fun Fact #1: Rathbone and Atwill also costarred in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Fun Fact #2: Kaaren Verne (Charlotte) was the second wife of another screen villain, Peter Lorre!

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TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (RKO 1945, D: Anthony Mann): Ann Rutherford’s back as a female cab driver who helps an amnesia victim (Tom Conway) piece things together in this early effort from director Anthony Mann. Unlike Mann’s later films, the tone’s light and breezy here. There’s lots of plot twists to keep you guessing, and Conway and Rutherford have good onscreen chemistry. Cracked Rear Viewers will recognize supporting players Lester Matthews (The Raven), Jean Brooks (The Seventh Victim), and Jane Greer (Out of the Past). Hollywood’s favorite drunk Jack Norton does his schtick in a bar scene (where else?). Fun Fact: Actor Dick Lane (reporter Haley) later became a TV sports commentator in the 50’s, announcing pro wrestling and Roller Derby matches!

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DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (RKO 1947, D: John Rawlins): Chester Gould’s stalwart comic-strip cop (personified by Ralph Byrd) goes up against gangster Gruesome, who uses a paralyzing gas to commit bank robberies. Boris Karloff is Gruesome (of course he is!), and adds his special brand of menace to the proceedings. (At one point, Dick’s aide Pat exclaims, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff!”) Gould’s trademark quirky character names like L.E. Thal and Dr. A. Tomic are all in good fun, and the Familiar Face Brigade includes Anne Gwynne, Milton Parsons, Skelton Knaggs, and Robert Clarke, among others. Fast moving and fun, especially for Karloff fans. Fun Fact: Boris played many gangsters early in his career, including a role in the 1932 Howard Hawks classic SCARFACE.

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THE THREAT (RKO 1949, D: Felix Feist): Convict Red Kluger (Charles McGraw) busts out of Folsom Prison and kidnaps the cop who sent him away (Michael O’Shea), the DA (Frank Conroy), and his former partner’s moll (Virginia Grey again). The police go on a manhunt to capture Kluger and save the others in this taut, suspenseful ‘B’ crime noir.  Quite brutal and violent for it time, with McGraw outstanding as the vicious killer on the loose. A very underrated and overlooked film that deserves some attention. Highly recommended! Fun Fact: Inspector Murphy is played by Robert Shayne, better known as Inspector Henderson on TV’s SUPERMAN.

Enjoy others in the series:

sound + vision: THE SEVENTH VICTIM (RKO 1943)

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Producer Val Lewton revitalized the horror film during his tenure at RKO Studios in the 1940s. Working with a miniscule budget, Lewton used the power of suggestion rather than monsters to create a body of work that’s still influential on filmmakers today. Studio execs came up with the sensationalistic titles (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and gave the producer free rein to tell the stories. Using shadows, light, and sound, Lewton’s quiet, intelligent approach to terror was miles ahead of the juvenile (but fun) stuff cranked out at Universal and Monogram.

THE SEVENTH VICTIM could be considered lesser Lewton. It’s  not seen as often some of his other classics, and that’s a pity, because it’s superior to many of the better known horror movies of the era. This quiet psychological thriller with its civilized satanic cult was a rarity for its time. Only Edgar G Ulmer’s 1934 THE BLACK CAT dared to tackle this kind of material before. In fact, I’m surprised the Production Code didn’t cut this one to shreds, with its devil worshippers and barely concealed lesbian subplot.

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