Sunday, September 28, 2008

White Zombie (Victor Halpern, 1932)

Bela Lugosi was very busy in the early 1930s. Here, in 1932, the year after his masterfully arch Dracula, he plays “Murder” Legendre, master of zombies in the creepy plantations of Haiti. The film's depiction of Haiti is troubling—all drums and cringing, frightened black men. In fact, practically the only black actor is the terrified coach-driver, and his friendly advisor-witch doctor is a white actor in blackface.

Anyway, Legendre has drawn the members of his troupe of zombies from his old enemies, including a witch doctor whose magical secrets he has stolen. Lugosi is wonderfully arch, with a fine sardonic look—everything ordinary people do amuses him—and a fine now-I-will-
control-your-brain look, magnetically focusing way up close on scary eyes.

The plot is creaky and utterly predictable: there is a triangle consisting of a clean-cut handsome man and his pretty bride-to-be and a desperate best-man-to-be in love with the girl. He contracts with Legendre to transform the girl to keep her from marrying, and she seems to die. Soon she’s whisked away from her tomb to—get this—a huge semi-ruined stone castle beetling over an immense precipice above the angry sea. In Haiti--go figure. Inside, the castle is not so much ruined as peculiar. There seems to be water flowing in the upper stories, since people cross a sort of indoor torrent and then walk down a grand staircase into the great room of the castle, a room maybe 80 feet high, with pillars and tall stained-glass windows and all the best gothic decor money can buy. There Legendre and the bad young man wear evening clothes and the girl plays Chopin on the piano, without any expression on her kewpie-doll face. Somebody has to stop this!

And the handsome groom-to- be appears just in time, assisted by a jovial preacher who appears on the scene from somewhere. But evil is very strong here. Utter ruin is about to consume every one of them, until at last the bad friend has a change of heart and saves his handsome friend and his bride-to-be. Of course he must purge himself of the wickedness of plotting against them, so he dies in the attempt, thereby redeeming himself.

Not a pretty picture, all told. It should have remained among the dead.

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