Saturday, October 10, 2020

Stubs - White Zombie

White Zombie (1932) Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn Directed by Victor Halperin Screenplay by Garnett Weston Inspired by The Magic Island (1929 novel) by William Seabrook Produced by Edward Halperin Black and White Run Time: 68 minutes. USA Horror

Bela Lugosi had once been a matinee idol back in his native Hungary and later Broadway. He played the part of Dracula in a 1927 stage adaptation of Bram Stocker’s novel and his life would never be the same again. After playing Dracula in the Universal 1931 film of the same name, he would find himself typecast. He would appear in other films, but he is best remembered now for his horror film roles. Some films would be more memorable than others. One that he might have liked to forget was White Zombie.

An independent film, White Zombie was produced by Edward Halperin and directed by his brother Victor. The pair would produce a series of low-budget films in the 1930s. As an example, this film was made on a budget of $50,000 with an eleven-day shoot. Financed by the New York firm Amusement Securities Corp., it was filmed at RKO Pathé, Universal Studios, and Bronson Canyon.

Neil Parker (John Harron) and Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy),
on a stagecoach ride, witness a funeral.

The film opens with Neil Parker (John Harron) and Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy) arriving in Haiti to get married. It’s never explained why they’re getting married there, but you’re expected to just go with it. They are taking a stagecoach to the plantation of Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer) and, on the way, pass a funeral in which the body is being buried in the road. The hope is that many passersby will prevent the body from being exhumed and turned into a zombie.

"Murder" Legendre (Bela Lugosi).

The coach driver (Clarence Muse) stops to ask "Murder" Legendre (Bela Lugosi) if he knows the way to Beaumont’s home. But Murder says nothing and instead snatches Madeleine’s scarf when the coach driver hurries off at a fast gallop. When Neil asks him why, the driver explains that the people with Murder were zombies that are forced to work at the local sugar mill.

Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), a missionary preacher.

He leaves them alone in front of Beaumont’s home, where they are joined by Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), a missionary preacher who has been called to marry them.

Beaumont is in love with Madeleine and he goes to Murder for advice. However, Murder, who had looked deeply into Madeleine’s eyes that night on the road, knows that her love for Neil is deep and true. The only help he can offer is a potion that will transform her into a Zombie. Charles is horrified by the idea, but still takes the potion. As he leaves, Murder reminds him that this potion is his only hope to have her.

Madeleine collapses after her wedding from the poison
given to her by Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer).

During the wedding ceremony, as he is walking her down the aisle, Charles confesses to Madeleine his love and asks her to leave Neil, but to no avail. He puts some of the potion on a rose and gives it to her, which she smells. Shortly after the wedding, at their dinner, Neil suggests a romantic-sounding toast and hands his wine glass to Madeleine as a sort of kiss. He asks her what she sees in the glass and she answers “death.” Madeleine then appears to drop dead and is entombed. However, she is shortly thereafter disinterred by Murder and Charles and brought back to life as a zombie.

Madeleine is brought back to life by Murder and Charles Beaumont.

Neil, to his credit, doesn’t leave Haiti and, in a drunken state, sees apparitions of Madeleine. Thereafter, he goes to seek Dr. Bruner’s assistance. Bruner consults with Ledot (John Printz), a witch doctor who is the only man known to have left Murder's fortress alive. The doctor, however, refuses to become involved, so Neil and Bruner journey by themselves to Murder's castle.

While Neil rests, Bruner approaches the castle.

Neil suffers from a tropical fever and the two camp on the beach below the cliffs. While Neil rests, Bruner approaches the castle alone. Later, images of Madeleine awaken Neil and he, too, enters the castle.

Meanwhile, Charles regrets Madeleine's transformation and begs Murder to return her to life, but Murder has his own ideas for Madeleine, who is completely under his control, and refuses. Charles realizes too late that he, too, has been tainted by the potion and is slowly being transformed into a zombie.

Madeleine tries to kill Neil with a knife.

When Neil enters the fortress, Murder senses his presence and, after Neil collapses, Murder silently summons Madeleine and instructs her to kill him. Unaware of her own actions, Madeleine approaches Neil with a knife, but Bruner, who has also made it into the castle, grabs her hand from behind a curtain and forces her to drop the knife. Madeleine then walks away and goes outside.

Neil awakens and follows Madeleine out to the cliff. Murder commands his other zombies to kill Neil. Neil pulls out a gun, but bullets do not stop the undead. Bruner sneaks up from behind and knocks Murder out. Without his commands, the zombies topple off the cliff to their deaths.

Once Bruner and Murder are dead, Madeleine is released from her stupor.

Neil and Bruner try to revive Madeleine and, for a second or two, she seems to recognize Neil. However, Murder awakens and she reverts to her catatonic state. Murder then eludes Neil and Bruner until Charles, who has recovered some of his motor capabilities, pushes Murder off a cliff. Unable to maintain his own balance, Charles also falls off the cliff. Both men die.

With Murder dead, Madeleine is released from her stupor and she and Neil can be together. However, the last line belongs to Bruner, who interrupts their embrace to ask “Have you got a match?” to light his pipe. A little comic relief.

Madge Bellamy

Madge Bellamy may not be an actress you’ve heard much about, but at one time she was considered to be “The Most Beautiful Girl in America". She would appear in several silent films at Ince and would later sign with Fox Film Corporation, where she would star in two films for John Ford, his first major film, The Iron Horse (1924), and Lightin’ (1925). She had a chance to be a major star, but she wanted to appear in light comedies, rather than more serious films. As an example, she refused a role in the epic silent film Ben-Hur (1925). She was also cast but replaced by Janet Gaynor in 7th Heaven (1927), the film that helped establish Fox as a major studio.

While she was still popular on-screen, she made a lot of ill-advised choices in fits of anger (fan magazines of the day called Bellamy "Miss Firecracker" due to her temperament). In 1929, she walked out of her contract with Fox after refusing to star in the planned adaptation of The Trial of Mary Dugan, a 1927 hit Broadway play by Bayard Veiller that the studio bought especially for her.

She attempted a comeback working as a freelance actress, but didn’t get work until she started to appear in films by Poverty Row studios, which explains her appearance here. Make no mistake, Bellamy is still a beauty in the film, but her performance is rather wooden, given her role as a Zombie.

But if you’re going to watch White Zombie, it’s going to be because of Bela Lugosi’s appearance. He still has a presence even though the film may not be up to snuff. However, he does not really rise too much above the material.

There are some interesting moments in the film. I particularly thought the scene when Neil sees the apparition of Madeleine was very well done. However, for that scene, there are several others that don’t work as well, with the special effects being both heavy-handed and not well executed. The director also seems to have a propensity for transitional wipes. You get a real sense of all the ones that were available during the sequence when Neil and Dr. Bruner are approaching Murder’s cliffside castle.

There are also some extra characters that don’t really add anything to the film and you have to wonder about the need to include them. Madeleine has two handmaids played by Annette Stone and Velma Gresham, who don’t appear to have much to do. They are not zombies, but they are still trapped by Murder and cannot escape. Not really sure why we had to be introduced to them or why we’re supposed to care about them. You have to wonder how they would have gotten these jobs in the first place.

The film was a moderate success even though it got mixed reviews (Rob Zombie liked the film enough to appropriate the name for his band). I’ve heard that it has become a cult favorite, but I can’t really recommend it. However, if you insist on watching it, it won’t take much time with it’s sub-70-minute run time. So, it has that going for it at least.

No comments:

Post a Comment