It’s a double dose of Bela Lugosi (triple, if you count the preshow chapter of the serial The Phantom Creeps) this week at the Thursday Horror Picture Show. The evening kicks off with Erle C. Kenton’s famous (but rarely seen these days) Island of Lost Souls (1933), one of the grimmest and most overtly horrific of all 1930s horror movies. The real star is a campy Charles Laughton as the utterly depraved Dr. Moreau, but Lugosi’s supporting turn as the Sayer of the Law is unforgettable. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) will follow, with Lugosi as zombie-maker Murder Legendre. It’s the granddaddy of all zombie movies and was one of its star’s personal favorites.
Even for a movie made before the production code of 1934, Island of Lost Souls is pretty strong stuff. It was strong enough, in fact, that it was banned outright in Great Britain until 1958 for being “against nature.” (One suspects this had more to do with Moreau’s plan to “mate” his most successful creation with a human being than with the outright horror elements.) The banning of the film delighted H.G. Wells, on whose novel The Island of Dr. Moreau the film was based—because he hated the film version. Horror fans have always tended to disagree with Mr. Wells on this point. (And if Wells ever saw the subsequent films made from the book, he might have changed his mind.)
Laughton claimed to have based his Moreau on his dentist. Maybe, but it’s also the most outlandishly gay performance of his career—and that’s saying something if you’ve seen his Nero in DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932). His Moreau preens, smirks and generally camps it up—and it somehow makes the character even more horrific. The fact that he finds his incredibly cruel experiments (turning animals into something like humans without anesthetic) childishly amusing is more unsettling than any kind of lip-smacking villainy could ever be. When he giggles after saying, “Oh, it takes a long time and infinite patience to make them talk. Some day I’ll make a woman and it’ll be easier,” it’s both funny and chilling.
Lugosi’s Sayer of the Law is one of his more successful works—a kind of werewolf creature—but that success will come to have its price, since the creature’s reasoning ability will not play out in Moreau’s best interests. His most successful is Lota the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke, who won Paramount’s “Panther Woman of America” contest)—yes, he’s already made a woman—and she’s also the most complex and sympathetic of them.
What is truly remarkable about the film is the way in which it doesn’t shy away from its horror content. Its grotesqueries are as grotesque as the studio makeup artists could contrive. Some of the scenes—the camera panning down the pig-man to reveal one human foot and one cloven hoof—are still disconcerting. The ending of the film, for that matter, may not actually show very much, but it hasn’t lost its power to shock and appall. This must be attributable to director Erle C. Kenton, who has never been given much credit. That may be due to the fact that he cribbed wildly from Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), but if you’re going to steal, it makes sense to steal from the best. Regardless, it’s a simple matter to appropriate techniques. It’s something else again to make the techniques work—and Kenton makes them all work.
Victor Halperin’s White Zombie is a different proposition—a film outside the realm of normal filmmaking. Most independent productions of that era are pretty terrible. This one verges on the amazing and sometimes crosses that line. It’s also something of a shameful picture in that its star, Bela Lugosi, received the sum of $500 (a few sources say $800) for his services. (Lugosi was a bad businessman and had an even worse agent.) And the film is not only unthinkable without him, there’s a certain amount of evidence—based on things said by Lugosi’s friend Clarene Muse, who played the coachman at the beginning of the movie—that Lugosi may have directed parts of it. The fact that nothing else Halperin directed—apart from fleeting moments in Supernatural (1933)—is even remotely on par with White Zombie certainly suggests other input was involved.
This is an odd movie. It was odd in 1932 with reviewers at odds over whether it was some kind of art film or a horror film—and in both cases either loving it or absolutely hating it. At the time, the plot was a novelty. The whole idea of voodoo and zombies was new—almost unknown. Its concept of a zombie as a living person trapped through drugs into a zombie state and controlled by another is nothing like later notions. Beyond that, however, the film plays like a weird fairy tale or a bad dream. It isn’t fast-paced, but it isn’t especially slow. It has much in common with late silent movies in that it’s heavily visual. The compositions are always striking—sometimes to the point of feeling downright fussy.
At the same time, it is very much a sound film and it uses sound very effectively. It’s also one of the earliest horror pictures to have a background score—and even that is rather peculiar. It’s mostly cobbled together by Abe Meyer, who amassed a large library of music for the purpose of scoring films—originally (as in this case) with a small orchestra, later with recordings. But there’s an eerie—and just plain peculiar—scene late in the film that’s scored with a black spiritual called “Listen to the Lambs.” Just exactly how and why this came to be in the film is hard to say, but it undeniably gives the picture yet another unusual flavor.
In the end, though, it’s Lugosi’s zombie master that pulls it altogether and makes it work. The character is one of his least sympathetic yet fascinating creations. Using his full range of expressions and his uncanny ability to phrase dialogue with a unique and otherworldly use of pauses, he turns Legendre into an astonishing mixture of sophisticated evil and slightly absurd arrogance. Lugosi never did anything quite like it before and never would again. It isn’t a performance that one warms to in an instant. It’s too bizarre and deliberately stilted—as if he’s coming from another universe altogether and operating outside the film. But he slowly integrates it into the film so that it becomes part of the very fabric of it.
Also at this week’s Thursday Horror Picture Show, see “Death Stalks the Highways,” the second chapter of the 1939 Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps—which offered more action and more prime Bela in its first chapter than we got out of the whole of The Return of Chandu (1934). And that’s not even mentioning the coolest robot ever (so what if it doesn’t do much?). Let’s hope for similar excitement this round. The movies start at 8 p.m., but the serial kicks things off at 7:40 p.m. Be early.