Way back when, in the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system, even their cheapies seemed classier. At least, you'd think so checking out Val Lewton produced double-header I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher. Part of the 5 disc/10 movie Lewton retrospective released by Turner Entertainment, this two-for-one disc is a prime specimen of the top notch, classy, gothic film Lewton produced during his brilliant, but brief, four-year run as head of RKO's horror unit: a run that produced at least one certifiable horror classic a year and exploited the talents of several then-minor but soon to be famous directors.
A little backstory on Lewton before we hop into the two flicks. Born Vladimir Leventon, the future director came to America with his family when he was five. Though it doesn't seem to have done him much good, he was the nephew of the scandal-ridden silent screen vamp Alla Nazimova. Lewton spent most of his early career as a freelance writer. He cranked out copy for newspapers (he was booted from one paper for fabricating a story about a mass kosher chicken die-off during a New York heat wave), weekly magazines, the pulps, and even wrote a bit of pornographic erotica. Anything to pay the bills. The name Val Lewton was originally a nom de plume. Vlad used it on the cover of a few of his novels before picking it up semi-permanently for the movie biz.
In 1933, Lewton got a job work for David O. Selznick. He acted mainly as a story editor, but the job morphed into something more like a behind-the-scenes jack-of-all-trades. During this time, he famously contributed several scenes to Gone with the Wind - most notably the long crane shot of what seems to be endless rows of Confederate wounded, suffering and expiring under a waving Confederate flag. For nearly a decade he ran around the RKO lots, doing random chores and picking up the movie biz through osmosis. In 1942, he was appointed the head of RKO's horror unit. He was to crank out crowd pleasing theater fillers, in a hurry and on the cheap.
Funny thing happened, though. Lewton turned a steady profit and filled the theater seats with fare that was definitely down market – he once said, "You shouldn't get mad at New York reviewers. It is actually very hard for a reviewer to give something called I Walked with a Zombie a good review" – but, in hindsight, it is clear he also made some very good films. Lewton's horror flicks are literate, well shot, thoughtful, and steeped in a classic gothic sensibility. His movies were so much better than they needed to be that, even now, they can take the viewer by surprise. You settle down, expect some good old-school horror cheese, and, instead, you're pulled into the work of a man film critic James Agee claimed was one the three most creative figures in Hollywood.
I Walked with a Zombie is often considered Lewton's finest outing. Based on a series of "scientific" articles about the practice of voodoo in Haiti, Lewton decided the original story was weak on narrative drive and wed the zombie and voodoo trappings to a rough re-working of the plot of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. In Lewton's hybrid, a young nurse is hired by a wealthy sugar plantation owner to care for his wife, in a coma like state since suffering a rare tropical disease. There she is pulled in the gothic family politics of the plantation and the hidden world of voodoo thriving outside the walls of the estate. Despite its European-gothic-by-way-of-voodoo-magic exploitation angle, the semi-anthropological thrust of the original articles was not lost on Lewton and the finely realized details of the film make it one of the few Hollywood horror films in any era to treat voodoo and the Caribbean culture that created with a modicum of sincere respect. Many of the most effective moments of the film deal not only with the horrors of voodoo magic, but with the enduring legacy of slavery and colonialism.
The film also benefits from the pairing of Lewton and one of his most accomplished regular directors: Jacques Tourneur, director of the horror classic The Cat People and the noir landmark Out of the Past. Tourneur's use of lighting and set and his smooth, polished professionalism, all conspire to give I Walked with a Zombie a classic look and feel that completely transcends its poverty row origins. You feel like your watching some strange, surreal A-picture.
In the second feature, The Body Snatcher, Lewton again benefits from an excellent director. This time the director seat holds up the talented ass of Robert Wise, who would later go on to direct The Day the Earth Stood Still, Run Silent, Run Deep, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, and, one of my favorite horror flicks, The Haunting. (He also did the first Star Trek film, which isn't my cup of tea, but regular reader Screamin' Dave might get a kick out of the mention.)
The Body Snatcher, loosely based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, follows the misadventures of two 19th century doctors who find themselves blackmailed by the murderous grave robber who supplies their medical school with cadavers. Wise's film is somewhat hampered by a too-chatty script, but it does boast something Tourneur's film lacks: a wonderful performance by Boris Karloff as the Gray, the sadistic body snatcher. It also features Bela Lugosi in a minor, but effective role.
Neither of these films is truly frightening by modern horror standards. Instead, it is probably better to think of them as gothic dramas, maybe even horror melodramas. Still both films are classics of the genre and well worth your time. Using the Lifetime Achievements of William Withering Movie Rating System, official movie rating system of the European Union, I give I Walked with a Zombie a superb "invention of digitalis" rating and The Body Snatcher a somewhat lesser, but still fine "first English-language botany text to use Linnaean taxonomy." A solid two-film package.