I haven’t seen a lot of horror movies from the 40s or 50s. Sure, I’ve seen Frankenstein and Dracula and a few others here and there, but there are lots and lots I haven’t seen. On the list of classic oversights are the films of Val Lewton a producer I just discovered recently who worked for RKO back in the 40s. There’s a nine movie DVD set out that collects his horror flicks which, from what I’ve seen and read, went more for atmosphere than all-out terror. I moved one of those DVDs to the top of my queue and it made the perfect double feature, starting with I Walked With A Zombie.
Now, even though I checked off the “Zombies” category box, this isn’t your average brain-craving zombie. Instead, it’s the more traditional, voodoo-inspired, walking dead kind of a thing with an island plantation owner’s wife afflicted with the “disease” and a young, imported Canadian nurse taking care of her.
I wound up really liking this film. The different take on the zombie concept was fun and super creepy, especially with the nurse taking the woman to the voodoo jamboree. There was even some melodrama as the nurse started to fall for the plantation owner, but that got interrupted by a local singer singing a folk song about the owner, his wife, his previous wife and all the strange things that had been going on with those women. I can’t quite say how it was all connected or what explanation they gave for the wife’s condition, but I absolutely loved that they used a singer to convey a lot of that knowledge, especially later when he comes out of nowhere singing just to the woman on an abandoned street.
I like these movies because they’re short and sweet and get to the point without bothering with too much nonsense and yet still have a lot going on. Good stuff.
Like I said above, I’ve seen Frankenstein and Dracula and every horror fan worth his salt knows about Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. However, I didn’t know that both men were in The Body Snatcher, which is actually based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story and has nothing to do with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This one’s a period piece set in Scotland though curiously devoid of the trademark Scottish brogue we all know and love. A doctor uses Karloff to get him bodies so he can learn how the human body really works. The doctor has an assistant played by Lugosi and a young medical student who wants to help cure a little girl.
I mentioned Pollyanna in my review of Murderer’s Row because of Karl Malden’s involvement in that film. Well, The Body Snatcher feels like a horror sequel to that movie, which is really funny because not only did this movie pre-date that one (it came out in 1960), but the RLS short story (1884) came out well before the Pollyanna book (1913). Pollyanna ends with the titular character crippled and heading off for treatment while this one starts with a girl who can’t walk and a couple of doctors operating on her. This time around, though, it’s a white horse that draws her attention instead of a doll, but the similarities are there. There’s even musical cues that reminded me of Pollyanna.
Anyway, this story has been retold over and over both officially and unofficially and played out pretty much how you would expect it to with the corpse-finder vaguely threatening the doctor, the student finding out, the doctor confronting the corpse-man, etc. SPOILER ALERTS FOR A 70 YEAR OLD MOVIE (can’t say I’m not careful). Towards the end, the doctor kills the corpse man (after he kills Lugosi, that’s right, Frankenstein’s monster aced Dracula with his bare hands!). For some reason I don’t recall, he and the student go and dig up a woman of their own, but the guilt of killing someone gets to the doctor on the rainy night that they’re returning to their office. He starts hearing Karloff’s voice repeating something over and over and over and over. Then, the student gets out and the horses take off with Karloff’s body (somehow switched with the woman’s!) sits exposed and half naked, leaning on the doctor seemingly reaching out for him. Then the horse breaks away and the carriage tumbles off a cliff (I almost expected it to blow up thanks to too many movies). The student climbs down to examine the scene only to discover that the body really was the woman and the doctor had just lost his mind! It’s a great sequence that ranks up there in my all time brainbank of closing horror movies scenes.
While neither of these movies will take over for any of my previous all-time favorites, they were both good flicks that I’m glad I watched. Makes me want to go through the rest of that set and move onward from there.