White Zombie May 7, 2018
Robert W. Frazer
1 Hr., 5 Mins.
n 2014, the musical iconoclast FKA twigs told Interview that a steady diet of old Hollywood movies maintained throughout her childhood was particularly inspirational to her ghostly musical style. For the songstress, fellow musicians were never her premier guides growing up – ballet lessons and the greatest offerings of TCM reruns were. Vintage movies were especially appealing in part due to their inherent phantasmagoria. Noted twigs, “They kind of creepy, no?”
I’d say so. But when I think of dreamy, indistinct classic Hollywood milieu, I’m not necessarily thinking of the golden age’s output as a whole. I’m more likely
to think about the pre-Code era, which lasted from 1929 to 1934 and consisted of black-and-white movies in which showcasing loose morals were a major achievement. Not because everything offered was hair-raising in the way horror movies might be tonally – most popular then were melodramas and musicals – but because their look and feel is so unearthly. The sound, usually recorded with a vitaphone, is muffled and unnatural. The visuals, washed out as a result of the putrefaction that inevitably comes after sitting in a canister for almost a century, are glowy and spectral. The acting is presentational and possessed; the writing is ridden with big-screen artifice.
The decay and obvious agedness of a pre-Code feature, then, can act as an aesthetic enhancer, especially in the case of horror. The genre tends to be at its strongest when it’s at its most otherworldly and abstract à la 1922’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and 1977’s House, and the style of the pre-Code most often, if accidentally, indulged this idea.
While watching White Zombie, a 1932, living dead-centric horror show, I couldn’t help but think of twigs’ comments. Sure modern horror features are capable of inspiring disconcertion. But in a film such as White Zombie, which is so much comprised of impenetrable shadows, nefarious figures, and noticeably ominous and angular photography and design, only the adventitious “creepiness” of the era could suit it. It only could have been made nearly 90 years ago, when the Universal monsters boom was still bankable, and it only could have only starred someone like Dracula himself, Béla Lugosi.
Although it wasn’t positively reviewed or received upon release – much criticism was flung in the direction of its acting and writing – White Zombie has metamorphosed into something of an unintentional masterpiece. Modern viewers should consider themselves fortunate. Because most of us do not know what it was like to be a moviegoer in the 1930s, the offerings of old Hollywood have the capacity to seem unworldly. White Zombie benefits from this. Its undead mischief might be duff, but its aesthetics, so enervated and ghoulish simply because of the photographic provisions of 1932, turn it into a dizzying nightmare.
The story’s bizarre, but that needn’t matter in a macabre hallucination of a movie. In White Zombie, we are transported to Haiti, where the 20-something Madeleine (Madge Bellamy) and her fiancé, Neil (John Harron), intend to get married after a long engagement. This couple’s interest in the region has less to do with a shallow fetish for the exotic and more with the fact that a plantation owner there, Beaumont (Robert Frazer), has offered to host the ceremony at his home after recently befriending Madeleine.
That Madeleine and Neil don’t realize that something sinister is afoot is mind-numbing, but they’re also unabashed naifs, which is something which will certainly change by the time we get to the conclusion. In reality, Beaumont intends to marry Madeleine himself. He will offer Neil a job in New York and seduce the latter’s lady. This scheme, apparently, will be aided by Murder Legendre (Lugosi), a local voodoo master who says he’ll help sway Madeleine’s thinking through black magic. (Though he wouldn’t dare refer to the practice like that.)
Nothing, of course, unfolds as it should. The first mistake was ever trusting a Mephistophelean fiend who’s fashioned almost every patch of hair on his body into a Satanic, handlebar shape. But all the warped developments in the storyline are just part of the fun. Structurally, White Zombie is a descent into hell, becoming increasingly incomprehensible until we’re simplistically left with an assortment of gorgeous, wraithlike images that parallel the artistic grandeur of other ‘30s horror touchstones, like Vampyr (1932) and The Black Cat (1934). The ending, which is ghastly yet backed by triumphant music, is especially disturbing: it is as if evil were defeated even though we can still feel it more or less dancing around us. Some 86 years later, White Zombie’s menace sticks. This isn’t the kind of movie you can shower off. It buries itself under our skin, just like one of Legendre’s needles. And I like it that way. A