Victor Halperin’s White Zombie is a 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 withWhite 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 (from a wide variety of sources) for the purpose of scoring films—originally (as in this case) with a small orchestra, later with recordings. (What people tend not to realize is that cue sheets accompanied most silent movies, detailing what amounted to a musical score. These compositions figured heavily in Meyer’s library. The use of Hugo Riesenfeld’s “Death of the Great Chief” from John Ford’s 1924 The Iron Horse is an example.) 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.
Going from the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous we have William Beaudine’s The Ape Man (1943), the sixth of Lugosi’s “Monogram Nine” — nine notoriously cheese-paring movies made by Lugosi for exploitation producer Sam Katzman at Monogram Pictures from 1941 to 1944. The Ape Man — possibly because it’s the one where Lugosi plays a “monster” (loosely defined) — is perhaps the most famous of the lot. It is easily the most notorious because of the potentially embarrassing things it required of its great star — things including, but not limited to, walking like an ape, suffering a ridiculous make-up job, and sleeping in a cage with a man (Emil Van Horn) in the movies’ cheesiest gorilla suit. (If you were serious about it and could afford it, you got Charlie Gemora and his gorilla suit — all these guys had their own suits. If you couldn’t afford him, you went with Ray “Crash” Corrigan and his suit. And then — at least for a few years — there was Emil Van Horn.) But if Lugosi was embarrassed, he shows no sign of it. In fact, he looks like he’s enjoying the nonsense.
Actually, The Ape Man was one of the first horror movies I ever saw. I was about eight at the time and saw it on a Saturday afternoon on “Terminus: The Theater of Science Fiction” (which almost never showed science fiction) on WFLA (channel 8 out of Tampa, Fla.). I thought it was wonderful. In fact, my friends and I took a brief spell of acting out what we remembered of it in the backyard (thank goodness, our parents were not home movie enthusiasts). I clung to that idea for years — becoming quite incensed when a monster magazine called it “grade C horror” — and even seeing it a few years later did not disabuse me of this belief. Of course, I eventually realized that it was not good in any normal or constructive sense — something that did nothing to make me love it any less. This is the thing that people cannot seem to understand about the confirmed Lugosiphile — if you love Bela, you also love bad Bela. And in some cases even more than the good stuff. I’ll resort to a quotation from either Thomas Aquinas or Jerry Lewis (I’ve seen it attributed to both great thinkers), “For those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, no explanation is possible.”
The idea of The Ape Man is that Dr. James Brewster (Lugosi) was experimenting with “ape fluid” (to what end is never addressed) and managed to turn himself into the title character — which is to say he walks around stooped over and swinging his arms, and has become profusely hairy in a vaguely simian manner — and hides from the world in his super-secret basement laboratory (which with typical Monogram logic has ground level windows anybody could peek in). This also seems to have affected his mental state, though apart from some dialogue about feeling himself going “back to de animal instinct,” this mostly seems to mean he’s taken to sleeping with his ape (and they look pretty cozy). As far as cure Brewster says, “I must have human spinal fluid injected into me. It’s de only to counteract de ape fluid injections.” All well and good, but according to the script’s interesting understanding of medicine, taking said fluid causes instant death in the donor. (Yes, well…) Unsurprisingly, volunteers are not lining up, and his scientific sidekick (Henry Hall) refuses to rush out and get him any. No doubt you can see where this is going.
Into this mix, the film adds wisecracking Wallace Ford as a wisecracking reporter hero (his third such role in a Lugosi film), Louise Currie (who always seems better than her surroundings) as Ford’s equally wisecracking photographer, and the great Minerva Urecal (just take my word on her greatness) as Lugosi’s sister. Ah, but this is not all. Suggesting that the people making The Ape Man knew this was a lot of bushwa, a character billed as Zippo (Ralph Littlefield in the biggest role of he career) is introduced into the proceedings. Who is he? Well, you have to wait till the film’s last line to find that out, but he pops up throughout the film, sometimes driving the plot, sometimes just observing the action (through that basement window even). Once he prevents a potential victim from encountering Messrs. Lugosi and Van Horn on a dark and deserted street. Of course, most streets in Monogramland are deserted so as not to pay extras. This movie is so cheap that East Side Kid (also a Katzman franchise) “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison gets dragged in to play an office boy at Ford’s newspaper. I trust this all gives you a vague idea of what we’re dealing with here? Good. But how anyone cannot love a movie with the newspaper headline, “Ape Man Runs Wild,” baffles me.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen White Zombie and The Ape Man Thursday, Aug. 7 at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.