Horror

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

When Besty Connell (Frances Dee) agreed to take a nursing job in the Caribbean, little did she know she would soon find herself caring for the living dead.  When she finds out Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a sugar plantation owner in Saint Sebastian, needs a nurse for his wife Jessica, she is eager to trade Canada for the Caribbean and takes the job.  When she arrives, she lives on the plantation with Paul, his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), their mother Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), and Jessica.  During her first night at the plantation, Betsy hears some mysterious crying, and when she goes to investigate, she finds herself backed into a corner by a sleepwalking Jessica.  Not realizing who Jessica was, she screams and wakes up the whole house.  The next day, she talks to Jessica’s doctor who explains that Jessica suffered from a severe fever that caused permanent damage and there is no cure.

After spending some time in the Caribbean, Betsy begins to fall in love with Paul and becomes determined to get Jessica to walk again to make him happy.  After insulin shock treatments don’t work to bring Jessica back, Betsy decides to bring Jessica to see a local Voodoo priest.  When they arrive at the houmfort, Betsy is shocked to discover that the Voodoo priest is none other than Mrs. Rand!  Mrs. Rand (who is also a doctor) explains that she’s using Voodoo as a way to make typical medicine more accepted among the natives.  Meanwhile, the natives begin to suspect Jessica is a zombie.  After Betsy takes Jessica home again, the natives become quite insistent that Jessica be returned so they can determine whether or not she’s a zombie.  Tensions rise to the point that an official investigation into Jessica’s condition was started.  When Mrs. Rand finds out about this, she claims that Jessica really is a zombie after all.  She says that when she found out Jessica had fallen in love with Wesley and was planning to leave Paul, she put a curse on Jessica to turn her into a zombie.  Wesley suddenly becomes determined to get Jessica out of her perpetual zombie state any way he can.

What fascinates me about I Walked with a Zombie is that for a horror movie, there’s very little violence, blood, or even screaming involved.  The one really violent act takes place off-screen, you never actually see any blood, and there’s only one scream in the whole movie.  And even though it’s a movie about zombies, this zombie isn’t like anything you see in Night of the Living Dead.  But it still manages to be quite eerie.  Jacques Tourneur worked the scenery, cinematography, and the music for all their worth.  Even though I typically only watch this one around Halloween, I always kind of feel like I should be watching it in the summer because the atmosphere is created so well that I can almost feel the warm breeze when I watch it.  The character Carrefour also adds a lot of creepiness, especially when he shows up at the house to get Jessica.  I Walked with a Zombie truly is a testament to Val Lewton’s ability to turn out outstanding low-budget movies.  Nothing about this movie looks low-budget or like it was made in only a few weeks.  Overall, it’s a very solid horror film, very worthy of being a classic Halloween flick.  And best of all, it’s only 70 minutes long!  I always love a movie that manages to get so much wonderful stuff into such a short timeframe!  With such a short runtime, there’s no reason to not give it a chance.

I Saw What You Did (1965)

When Libby Mannering’s parents go out-of-town for the night, she does what any typical teenager would do and invites her friend Kit to come over.  Libby, Kit, and Libby’s little sister Tess decide to spend the evening making prank phone calls.  It’s all innocent enough until they decide to call Steve Marak (John Ireland) and say, “I saw what you did and I know who you are.”  Steve has just murdered his wife and had just gotten home from hiding the body when they talk to him.  Of course, Steve gets paranoid and wants to know who’s calling him.  But then his neighbor and girlfriend Amy (Joan Crawford) gets wind of Steve getting phone calls from strange women at night and becomes incredibly jealous.  Meanwhile, Libby and Kit are curious about what Steve looks like, so they decide to drive by his house to try to get a glimpse of him.  Unfortunately, the only person Libby ends up seeing is Amy, who reams her out for trying to steal her man.  Before Libby can leave, Amy swipes the registration from her mother’s car, then gives it to Steve and tries to blackmail him into marrying her.  But she, too, meets her demise at the hands of Steve Marak and Steve heads out to make Libby his next victim.

I love this movie!  When I wrote about the book Bette Davis: Larger Than Life, I said that sometimes books and documentaries tend to skip over certain films in a star’s career.  In the case of Joan Crawford’s career, I Saw What You Did seems to be the one that nobody ever acknowledges and I really don’t understand why.  I know it’s not like this was ever meant to win any Oscars, but it’s certainly better than some of her other campy era movies like The Caretakers or Berserk.  The movie is definitely campy, it is a William Castle movie after all, but that’s why I love it so much.  It’s absolutely hilarious!  Of course, everything about Joan Crawford in this movie was completely over the top: the acting, the hair, the jewelry.

And then there are the girls.  All of the girls’ performances were certainly worthy of the old Batman TV series, but I love the way they delivered their cheesy lines.  Sharyl Locke as Tess especially cracked me up.  But the real icing on the cake is the soundtrack.  Throughout the movie, they keep playing this song that sounds like it was leftover from Beach Blanket Bingo.  To get an idea of what I’m talking about, watch this clip of the beginning of the movie:

I really wish this movie were more available.  It was released on DVD, but now it’s out of print so it’s really expensive to buy.  Even the VHS is ridiculously expensive!  It rarely even turns up on TV.  I got TCM to play it once last year after I requested it, but that’s the only time I’ve seen it on TV.  It’s just a fun bit of camp that I love watching every Halloween.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

I’m pretty sure everyone has a general idea of what Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is all about: a doctor invents a concoction that turns him into an evil creature.  But if you’d like to be more specific, Fredric March plays Dr. Jekyll, a kind and respected scientist who believes that all people have good and evil sides to them.  So Dr. Jekyll comes up with a potion which he believes will bring out the evil side of the person who drinks it.  Sure enough, the potion works and when Dr. Jekyll takes it, he becomes the hideous beast, Mr. Hyde.  As Mr. Hyde, he pays a visit to Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins), a barmaid and prostitute Dr. Jekyll had helped out earlier.  Mr. Hyde tries to come onto Ivy, and even though Ivy is terrified of Mr. Hyde, she can’t refuse his offer to take care of her.  When Dr. Jekyll realizes what he’s done to her as Mr. Hyde, he sends Ivy some money.  Ivy then visits Dr. Jekyll to personally thank him and begs him to protect her from Mr. Hyde.  Dr. Jekyll agrees to help her, but unfortunately, he soon begins turning into Mr. Hyde without even taking the potion.  As Mr. Hyde, he goes to see Ivy again and strangles her to death.  When he goes back to being Dr. Jekyll again, he vows to never make the potion again and decides to give up his fiancée Muriel (Rose Hobart) to punish himself.  But when he goes to call off his engagement to Muriel, he turns back into Mr. Hyde and attacks Muriel.  Muriel is saved, but Mr. Hyde runs back to Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory, where he is cornered by police.

The Academy Awards have always been a bit snobby when it comes to horror films, but I’m glad to see they were able to set that aside for once and give Fredric March the Best Actor Oscar because he really deserved it.  He played both roles superbly.  Well, actually that year was considered a tie between him and Wallace Beery in The Champ, even though  Fredric had one more vote than Beery.  The Academy just figured it was close enough to be a tie.  I also loved Miriam Hopkins’ performance, it’s really too bad she couldn’t be nominated for an Oscar for it.  A lot of her performance had to be cut out when it was released because of censorship, but I thought the scenes of her being terrorized by Mr. Hyde were outstanding.  She managed to get just the right mix of vulnerable and terrified.  Although one of her scenes is one of the most unmistakably pre-code scenes of all time:

This version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as a whole, is simply remarkable.  Not only for Fredric March’s and Miriam Hopkins’ acting performances, but the direction by Rouben Mamoulian, the cinematography, and the special effects.  It truly is a high note in horror films.