Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Bela Lugosi, Frances Dee, James Ellison, Russell Wade
Directors: Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Commentary tracks, trailers
Length: 146 minutes
Release Date: October 4, 2005

"There's no beauty here, only death and decay."

Films ****

Horror film connoisseurs know the name Val Lewton well.  He is, in fact, revered as one of Hollywood's finest horror film producers.  Despite the fact that Lewton's studio-era horror films were low-budget assignments, most transcended their limitations, offering superior stories wrought with the kind of craftsmanship and attention to details that is sadly lacking in the genre today.  The Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man - these are but a few of the fine classics created by Lewton and his stable of extremely talented protégés, most notably Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise.

Lewton, a Russian émigré, was the nephew of Alla Nazimova, one of stage's most distinguished actresses of the early twentieth century.  Through her influence, the young Val Lewton was able to acquire a decent education in the United States and to develop his distinctive gift for writing.  Lewton's talents were soon recognized by none other than Hollywood's producer extraordinaire, David Selznick, for whom Lewton would serve as story editor for eight years.  Lewton was instrumental in persuading Selznick to bring Ingrid Bergman to Hollywood, and he also scripted several scenes for Gone with the Wind, including the unforgettable Atlanta depot sequence involving hundreds of injured soldiers.

In 1942, Lewton was presented with a golden opportunity from RKO studios.  At the time, RKO, having suffered so ignominiously through the troubled productions and commercial failures of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, had recently jettisoned its boy genius and was in search of a producer to head a new horror unit.  Being in financially dire straits, RKO simply wanted cheaply-made films that would bring in a sizable return.  The studio offered Lewton carte blanche to make any horror film he wished, so long as each film was budgeted under $150,000 and had a running length of no longer than 75 minutes (to facilitate double-billing).  Lewton accepted the challenge, despite the restrictions, and over the next six years would produce eleven films for RKO, nine of them horror films which have come to be regarded as minor classics.

RKO wanted to stress the sensationalist aspects of its horror films and thus burdened Lewton with some remarkably unwieldy titles for his films - I Walked with a Zombie, Curse of the Cat People, and Isle of the Dead, to name but a few.  A lesser producer might have churned out an instantly forgettable B film, whereas Lewton always strived to maintain his artistic integrity.  He penned or co-wrote many of his scripts, and he used RKO's cumbersome titles only as launching points from which to create truly remarkable films, some of the finest examples of 40's horror.  His first RKO film, Cat People, was an instant classic whose success was attributable more to its successful blend of suggestion, psychological thrills and atmospheric photography than to anything conjured up by the special effects department.  In fact, Lewton's films never featured anything resembling an on-screen "monster."  The horror was instead suggested by inspired direction, evocative lighting, and sound cues, often allowing the imagination of audiences to supply the remainder of the thrills.

Two Lewton classics, I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher, are included on this disc.  Read on below for a few words about these vintage films from Hollywood's horror producer extraordinaire!  

1) I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

"The woman was a wicked woman, and she was dead in her own life."

This was Val Lewton's second film for RKO, released after the success of Cat People.  I Walked with a Zombie was directed by Jacques Tourneur, son of the great silent filmmaker Maurice Tourneur.  From his father, Jacques Tourneur learned a great deal about expressionism, with its superb usage of light and dark, shadows and silhouettes.  Those lessons can be readily seen in many of his best films, including Out of the Past and I Walked with a Zombie (although Tourneur was personally most proud of The Leopard Man).

I Walked with a Zombie is a loose adaptation of Jane Eyre as transplanted into the mystical world of Haitian voodoo in the West Indies.  The film might reasonably be considered a drama, but at its core it describes an allegorical struggle between powers of reason and rationale versus powers of the unknown, represented by the occult, the arcane, or the mystical.  These themes ultimately provide I Walked with a Zombie with its "horror" element.

The main heroine is Betsy Connell, a young nurse who accepts a post in the West Indies to care for the invalid wife of a plantation owner.  The owner is one Paul Holland, a wealthy if conflicted man whose wife Jessica is a somnambulist.  She dwells in an empty limbo of life, her existence one of vacant stares and meandering, mindless walks at night.  Jessica is the "zombie" of the film's title, an animate object yet one not truly alive.  Also lingering about the plantation is Paul's brother Wesley, a jealous and bitter man taken to drink over an unspoken past between Paul, Jessica, and himself.

As Betsy slowly begins to unravel the complex interrelationships between her employee Paul and his family, she also begins to develop feelings for the plantation owner.  Paul is a lonely man, married yet essentially spouseless, surrounded by family yet more isolated than ever before.  Betsy's own feelings for Paul alternate between growing affections and sincere sympathy.  She is even willing to risk her own life (to cure Jessica Holland and to bring her back from her lifeless state), if only that would earn her Paul's gratitude or love in return.

Ultimately, I Walked with a Zombie is a tragic romance.  There is even a wandering minstrel in the film, the calypso singer Sir Lancelot, whose songs highlight key elements in the ongoing drama; Sir Lancelot's role might be likened to that of a Greek chorus in a tragedy.

The West Indies setting provides the "horrors" in the film.  The teakwood figurehead of Saint Sebastian watches over the plantation lands of Fort Holland, but elsewhere, the tall and emaciated zombie-like guard Carre-Four controls passage through the island.  Among nocturnal shadows, strange silhouettes move, and from afar, echoing incantations and eerie drum beats linger in the dark of night.  Somewhere on the island, deep within the fields, there is a Houmfort where rites of black magic are still practiced.  Here, the god of Christianity must yield to Shango, the voodoo god who holds sway over the lives of the Haitians.  I Walked with a Zombie must then be construed as a parable depicting the clash between Christianity and paganism, reason and supernatural, with the film's tragic conclusion attesting to triumph of "pagan" beliefs beyond the safe haven of Christianity in Europe.

2) The Body Snatcher (1945)

"I know you kill people to sell bodies!"

When making a horror film, what better actor to cast than Boris Karloff?  Despite the success of the Lewton films, RKO was somewhat wary of the producer's repeated attempts to circumvent the potentially gory qualities of his films' titles by offering them as thinly-disguised dramas.  With Karloff, RKO hoped to inspire Lewton into creating more conventional horror films replete with the prerequisite ghouls and creepy things going bump in the night.

The Body Snatcher was Karloff's first film with Lewton.  The film was loosely based on a Robert Louis Stevenson tale, itself derived from the real-life crimes of the West Port murderers of 1827-28, William Burke and William Hare.  The Body Snatcher was one of Lewton's final horror films, a period suspense set in Edinburgh circa 1831 about the illegal procurement of bodies for medical research.

The film's namesake is John Gray (Boris Karloff), a shady Edinburgh coachman who complements his otherwise lowly income through grave-digging...or worse.  Gray services Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), a learned and highly skilled physician nevertheless in severe want of better bedside manners.  For all his expertise, MacFarlane's coldness and arrogance ultimately prove to be his undoing.

Contrasting the senior physician's sang froid is Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), a promising young doctor-in-training under the mentorship of Dr. MacFarlane.  Fettes may not be as knowledgeable as MacFarlane, but patients respond more positively to his warmth and kindliness.  Medicine then is equal parts "art" and equal parts the accumulation of knowledge, and for those who can master both aspects of the practice, the possibility of a patient's recovery, both physically and mentally, is much improved.  Fettes' fatal flaw, however, is his unavailing ability to speak up or to protest enough against what he truly knows is wrong.  And so, MacFarlane's irremediable sins go unchecked, indeed abetted, by the reluctant Fettes.

Only when Dr. MacFarlane's manservant, Joseph (Bela Lugosi), uncovers the sinister truth behind how the supply of fresh, dead bodies is regularly replenished for MacFarlane's anatomy lessons do the wheels of change begin to spin.  Gray and Joseph face down in a deadly struggle, while Fettes finally exhumes the inner courage to openly confront MacFarlane.

The Body Snatcher features what is most assuredly Boris Karloff's most outstanding on-screen performance.  The role of John Gray allowed the capable actor to fully display his impressive stage thespian skills which hitherto had been routinely obscured on-film by heavy monster makeup or restrictive roles.  The Body Snatcher would be the first of three Lewton films starring the veteran actor Karloff, and it is probably the most effective one (the other two are Isle of the Dead and Bedlam).

Karloff's foil in The Body Snatcher, Henry Daniell, was no second-rate actor, either.  In fact, he was one of the premier character actor villains of the day, appearing as Baron de Varville in Greta Garbo's Camille, Lord Wolfingham in Errol Flynn's The Sea Hawke, and in several Sherlock Holmes thrillers, including The Woman in Green as Professor Moriarty.  Suffice it to say that having such a capable adversary only inspired Karloff to greater heights.

The Body Snatcher was directed by a young Robert Wise, a hold-over from the Orson Welles days at RKO.  In fact, Wise had performed the infamous editing on the final scenes in Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons and had taken over directorial duties on the wonderful Curse of the Cat People, an amazing treatise on child psychology (believe it or not).  The Body Snatcher was the first film to be wholly directed by Robert Wise, and while he lacked Jacques Tourneur's supremely visual style, Wise was certainly a capable director (as he would demonstrate aptly throughout the remainder of his long directorial career).

It should be noted that neither I Walked with a Zombie nor The Body Snatcher were typical horror films for the day.  Neither had bloodsucking undead creatures, shape-shifting monsters, or even special effects of any note.  By concealing atmospheric dramas and suspenseful tales in the guise of the "horror" film, Lewton was in fact creating a whole new sub-type to the genre - the psychological horror.

Today, Lewton's films remain obscure to the general viewing public but are highly treasured by classic horror film enthusiasts.  Hopefully, the new batch of Warner Brothers' Val Lewton DVDs, of which this is but one in five, will introduce whole new generations of film fans to the genius of Val Lewton!

Video **

These films show excellent contrast levels in a solid, detailed transfers without discernible black level breakups, important for films which are so dependent upon dark or shadowy scenes.  However, the prints used to make this DVD have seen better days.  There are instances of emulsion damage, occasional frame jumps, and dust specks everywhere.  In short, the films look their age.

Audio **

These films sound old, too.  There is soft but regular hiss and crackling in the background.  The monaural sound will not tax any home audio system.  On the other hand, this background noise, while naturally unacceptable for a newer film, does add a bit of character to the vintage horror stylizations of the Lewton films.

Features ** ˝

There are two commentaries.  The first is by Kim Newman and Steve Jones for I Walked with a Zombie.  The two film historians provide fast-paced and virtually non-stop banter about the film.  Clearly, they are quite enthused, although they tend to take many tangential leaps which sometimes abandon altogether any notion of analysis of the film.  The commentary is quite interesting albeit consequently a little hard to follow at times.

The commentary on The Body Snatcher is provided separately by Robert Wise and Steve Habernian.  For his part, Wise almost ignores the film altogether, instead offering a discussion of his early years working with Orson Welles and Val Lewton.  Wise describes his early responsibilities as editor and how from there he developed into a director.  Most of his comments are quite interesting but center around Curse of the Cat People, so much so that Wise's commentary probably belongs more with that film than with The Body Snatcher.  Listeners may be interested to know that Wise also directed parts of Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons!  Steve Habernian's comments do not appear until late in the film and focus more upon The Body Snatcher.

Lastly, vintage trailers are provided for both films.


I Walked with a Zombie / The Body Snatcher offers a fine introduction to Val Lewton's brand of classic 40's-style horror.  Anyone who has never seen these films is in for a real treat!  Highly recommended for fans of traditional Hollywood horror!

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