Monthly Archives: January 2014

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

I Walked With A Zombie

What characterises I Walked with a Zombie, right from its opening scene of two distant silhouettes walking along an unnamed beach, is its air of mystery. Set on the fictitious Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian, its story feeds on the speculation of its characters and audience, ultimately leaving them both with more questions than when they arrived.

Frances Dee plays nurse Betsy Connell, who, having been sent to the West Indies to care for the ailing wife of a plantation owner, finds herself at the center of an obscure scandal. Jessica, her patient, is a mute and unresponsive “mental case” (the characters’ words, not my own), and Betsy is told repeatedly that there is no hope of her recovery. Paul Holland, Jessica’s husband, seems distant and suspicious, and we soon find out that his half-brother, Wesley, was in love with his sister-in-law and had planned to run away with her before she fell ill. The finger is therefore pointed at Paul from the beginning: how far would he have gone to keep Jessica on the island, and away from Wesley? Mrs Rand, the brothers’ mother, also seems to keep her fair share of secrets. Who, then, is responsible for Jessica’s deterioration? Is she the victim of a Voodoo curse, or of a mental illness?

Similarly to 1932’s White Zombie, this RKO Picture from producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur is interested in a highly sexualized woman as the victim of zombification, except that here the cause of her “condition” is unclear. There is no Bela Lugosi with staring eyes and a “zombie grip” to be a melodramatic source of evil voodoo magic (as much as the poster would have you think otherwise). Instead, there is a torn up family with mixed motives and ambiguous passions, whose unwillingness to be open and honest about the past causes confusion. No answer is ever given as to why Jessica is in her current state, and this final uncertainty subtly mocks a typically western obsession with securing scientific explanations for every open ended question. The entire film is shrouded in shadows, and this impenetrable darkness represents the void which the audience faces as they realise that there are no final revelations at the end of this story.

As is to be expected, the film’s treatment of Voodoo is naive, and the fact that Mrs Rand is able to so easily fool the island’s inhabitants into believing that she is the voice of a Voodoo priest is bordering on insulting. However, it is I Walked with a Zombie‘s steadfast refusal to rationalize, and therefore neutralize, its walking dead, which raises it above the level of mindless zombie-fare.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

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White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie

The first feature length zombie movie to hit the big screen, White Zombie is less about the Haitian voodoo myths that captivated the west in the 1930s following the publication of books such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island, and more about the total possession of the white, female body. Hollywood’s zombie would never have been born if it weren’t for the carrying over of stories from Haiti to America by writers such as Seabrook, whose overblown and lurid accounts of “exotic” mysticism had turned the nightmare of the living, walking corpse into a recognisable “monster”. And yet, despite taking Haiti as its backdrop, this 1932 film is far more concerned with the fight for ownership of its leading lady, Madeline, who spends most of the time walking around in a comatose state, whilst the men of the cast battle for ultimate power over her.

The men in question are Neil Parker, her American husband, Charles Beaumont, a dandyish man obsessively in love with her, and Murder Legendre (played by Bela Lugosi), an evil “voodoo master” who provides Beaumont with the means to make Madeline his own. Under the influence of a mysterious powder, she seemingly dies, and is then resurrected as the “white zombie” of the title, mute and willing to perform her master’s every desire. Beaumont begins to have second thoughts, however, once he realises that Madeline’s “ti bon ange” has been removed. She has no personality, no soul, and this drives her admirer mad as he desires more than just her body. “I thought that beauty alone would satisfy. But the soul is gone. I can’t bear those empty, staring eyes” he bemoans, only to find Legendre unsympathetic, and more than willing to take Madeline’s body for his own. “I have other plans for Mademoiselle” he sickeningly taunts, the film revealing its main preoccupation: the desire of the male to contain and control the female’s sexuality. The story cannot conclude until the woman is safely back in the arms of the good, American man. Her final lines, “Neil, I-I dreamed”, whilst staring into his eyes, prove that she was always his, despite being physically removed from him. He is her protector, but also her final captor, as she and her sexuality are now safely in the hands of a trusty male companion.

The story of White Zombie‘s production says a lot about the lowly position of the zombie movie throughout most of cinematic history. An assemblage of rooms and props from other horror movies, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein, and The Cat and the Canary, its sets were not its own, but were pieced together hand-me-downs, sourced by Ralph Berger due to budget constraints. Following the film’s release, it was critically slated, labelled both a bore and a confusing mess. Little to no major studios were interested in pursuing the zombie any further, and the slow-moving monster was inherited by Hollywood’s poverty row studios. However, despite being ripped to shreds by the film critics, White Zombie did fantastically at the box office, grossing $8 million, far more than the Halperins had ever expected. So why the lack of enthusiasm?

Perhaps the reason for the absence of major interest in the zombie legend at the time, was its lack of western literary history. Doomed to forever haunt the space between fact and fiction, the knowable and the unknowable, the zombie at this time stood for a culture that was at once intriguing, yet ultimately foreign. Haitian voodoo was to suffer another three decades of being twisted and exploited, before George A. Romero was to finally drag the zombie right to the forefront of the American conscience, as a symbol not of distant mysticism, but of a very western consumerism and hollowness. ‘Here is your zombie’, he was to say to his audience, with his groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead, ‘it is not voodoo that you can separate yourself from and observe with scientific interest, it is you, and me, and everyone you know’.

Despite its flaws, this film cannot be ignored as the starting point of a canon of films that were to continually develop, and delve into the human psyche in a variety of shocking and absorbing ways. Often beautiful to look at, certain scenes, such as the one with Neil going mad in the bar as large silhouettes of couples dance on the wall behind him, make this a worthwhile watch. The story brings into question issues of female autonomy which are still relevant to this day, and which were to be explored further (and arguably better) in films such as 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie. The female has often stood as a symbol of mystery and danger, and so it is no surprise that films such as these were zombifying them left, right and center. It is for this very reason that White Zombie is an important if problematic horror, as through it we can explore the anxiety related to feminine sexuality. A must for any zombie aficionado, the film is arguably most interesting as a point of reference for just how much the zombie genre has morphed and evolved over the years (compare this to Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, and it is strange to think that the two films are cut from the same cloth). Continually able to shape shift into a number of different cultural and historical anxieties, the zombie remains a cinematic monster rich in meaning, despite its apparent emptiness.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

Place Beyond the Pines

In The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance’s third feature film (his first, Brother Tied, is allegedly still sat in his father’s basement, as yet undistributed), relationships between fathers and their sons, and what it means to be a “man”, take center stage, in a manner reminiscent of The Godfather trilogy. Except, in this film, three stories are rolled in to one as the audience is treated (or subjected, depending on who you ask) to over a decade’s worth of complex family ties. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper play the the focal fathers, and it is their actions early on in the film which breed a deep rooted anxiety in the younger generations introduced much later.

In 2010’s Blue Valentine, Cianfrance crafted an intimate study of a relationship, from youthful beginning to bitter end. In a way, The Place Beyond the Pines can be seen as both an answer to and an extension of its predecessor, reaching far beyond the privacy of lovers and examining the broader consequences of a parent’s actions on their children. The first third of the film sees Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes, as Luke and Romina, locked in a desperate desire for each other, despite the latter’s misgivings. And then in one shocking swoop, the film completely abandons its interest in romance. Pulled out of the dizzying world of motorcycles and tattoos, the audience is dumped right into the center of an arguably typical cop drama, with Bradley Cooper, as Avery Cross, battling against corrupt goings-on within his police department. Dealing with uncomfortable guilt and shady morals, this middle section begins with the harsh and irritating light of a hospital, flickering over Avery’s body lying still. Compare this with the fantastic opening shot of the entire film, where Luke dresses and strides confidently among the colourful and magical lights of the fairground, each flickering and turning with the blink of an eye, and you have your two opposing cinematic tones: one naive yet allegorical; the other cold and business-like. To go from one to the other so suddenly is understandably alarming, and the film does ask a lot of its audience: to remain invested in the story despite the ring leader of the circus having been removed.

And yet Cianfrance goes even further, by then continuing his narrative to encompass new life, and with it the inheritance of regret and loss. In a manner almost similar to Terrence Malick’s obsession with the overwhelming immensity of life, Cianfrance has no qualms with shifting his focus from person to person, telling parts of their stories, years apart, in an effort to demonstrate that the lives we lead are not just our own. Despite not being present for over half of it, Luke haunts the entirety of the film, his face being recalled through lines and visual echoes. The red car light that shines over Avery’s face as he stares at Peter in the woods, recalls the red of the traffic light that shines on Luke as he stares at the bank. Both characters in these scenes are looking at danger, but only one meets it head on. And in the last third of the film, Jason, played by a gangly Dane DeHaan, mirrors his father’s actions by both obsessively riding a bicycle (he once uses it as a getaway vehicle after robbing a pharmacy), and frequently wearing a rucksack.

The star of the show is definitely Emory Cohen as Avery’s son AJ, who, in the third act, struggles to know his distant and troubled father. Just like Jason, he feels he cannot become a man without the peace of mind that comes from knowing one’s history. Interestingly, the audience never see Avery holding his own son as a child (one of the only times he makes contact is when he is threatening him), but they do see him holding Jason, Luke’s son, and it is this cruel fact which cleverly highlights the reason for AJ’s bitterness: a lack of intimacy. Cohen plays his part with just the right amount of front to make you believe in his insecurity.

Many have found the ambition of The Place Beyond the Pines to be its downfall. How can so many stories be told, and so many characters introduced, in a way that supports the film as a whole? The answer is quite simple: by involving some straightforward themes which unite the disparate threads. Cianfrance seems to be asking, throughout his film, what it means to be a man. Luke covers himself in threatening tattoos, wears his leather jacket, dies his hair, rides his motorcycle fast, and carries his gun. He believes his reckless devotion to his son can save him and those he loves. Avery is obsessed with the justice system, chases glory and achievement, and believes that success and popularity in the eyes of others is all that can improve his character. They each pass on their faults to their children, who, I believe, in the end, are more “men” than their fathers. Through an understanding of their “sins”, staring their faults right in the face and accepting them wholeheartedly, they are the ones who can now move forward and reach a place, somewhere, beyond the one that has been handed down to them.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Before Sunrise (1995)

Before Sunrise

Back when I first joined social film site Letterboxd in September 2012, I logged this as one of my many films “seen”, and rated it four stars. I had some memory of having watched both this, and Before Sunset, when I was about 14 or 15, and based my judgement on some vague memory of casual but philosophical dialogue, and bittersweet romance. Yes, it had been entertaining, and had opened my eyes and mind to more quietly powerful films. Rewatching Before Sunrise now, about 7 or 8 years later, I feel that it has had a different effect on me. Whereas before, as a young teen, I admired its slow pacing and offbeat nature, I can now more appreciate its ability to portray young, confused, and unashamedly spirited love without appearing “gushy”. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are to be commended for having dealt with this script in such a way as to make the film as honest and unapologetic as could be. Not afraid to be sweet, loving and kind, and yet also eager to challenge, upset and second guess, Jesse and Celine embody both a romance and realism that saves them from ever being irritating. It is, of course, their youth which allows for such a brazen, whirlwind affair, and Richard Linklater plays on this by writing into his script suggestions of both early childhood and old age, which in turn highlight the awkward time and space these characters inhabit.

Even if I haven’t had nights exactly like this one, I have met and spoken with people who I have felt a deep connection with and then never seen again. And of course, I have been in love, I am in love. And at the same time I don’t know what love is, or where I’m going in life, or who I am. I have experienced the pain of separation, and of time apart, and know all too well what it feels like to want desperately to be able to enjoy your time with somebody, but not be able to run away from the thought that it’s soon coming to an end. This is why films like Before Sunrise, for me, capture perfectly the anxieties and joys of young love. Always doubting yourself, always wanting to know how to make the best of your time, and then wasting time, killing time, loosing time, these are the thoughts that plague the early adult mind, and Linklater knows exactly how to translate them to the screen without being obvious or monotonous.

Each scene can be read as a metaphor for some trouble or thought, and can work as an exploration of that subject. For example, the pinball scene is defensive, with both characters feeling the need to explain themselves and their actions with previous lovers, and this is why Linklater has them playing a game that involves keeping a ball out of a drop zone, batting it away with an aggression that suits such an awkward topic (hint: the ball always comes back). And the scene in the church is important for it features the coming together of two opposites, as Jesse admits that he feels like a 13 year old boy, and Celine reveals that she sometimes feels like a very old woman laying down about to die. Jesse relates a story about Quaker marriage, and Celine talks about loss, pain, guilt and death, and through this the film cleverly discloses its characters’ opposing reactions to the spiritual.

The end of Before Sunrise is, in my opinion, one of the most important parts of the film, for it shows life continuing after romance, and after intense moments have taken place. The daylight hits all of the areas in which the characters have spent time, at once cruelly and cathartically proving that life does go on despite any desire to hold back certain parts of it. Where do we go from here? Do we learn from what has happened, do we take anything from it? Do we change because of it? Or do we forget? Pretend? Regret? Return? The film spends most of its time musing, and leaves us with questions. But it also leaves us on smiles, unsentimental, genuine smiles, that may have no particular reason, but just happen, and exist. Much like many people, and many moments: all existing, all changing, all moving.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★