High Concept Criticism of Low Budget Filmmaking
The 1932 film White Zombie has been hailed by some as classic horror and derided by others as an incompetent mess. In fact, it is both. Clumsy acting and directing nestle cheek by jowl with fairy tale images which equal Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete. It may be not be a complete success, but it remains intriguing on many scores. Compared with other contemporaneous offerings—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Dr. X—it shows how flexible the horror film was before the rules became fixed by the 1940s. It’s also an object lesson in how under-funded producers could make their product look far more expensive if they took a modicum of care.
The key word, however, is “look,” since much of the acting is poor, the psychology naive and the continuity so clunky that White Zombie could never—then or now—be mistaken for a major studio product. Creators Edward and Victor Halperin—who spent nearly the entirety of their career securely on the fringes of Hollywood—rented space sets left over from the likes of Dracula, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and King of Kings, and made extensive use of set-extending opticals that belie the film’s low budget. Bela Lugosi offers a performance that is often overly theatrical (particularly by today’s standards), though it is likely that anything less overripe would have been ridiculously inappropriate; Robert Frazer offers a beautifully nuanced and subtle one. On the other hand, John Harron and Madge Bellamy barely provide performances at all, while Joseph Cawthorn gives an idea of what van Helsing might have been like if played by El Brendel. Aside from its visuals, the film’s chief technical asset is a use of sound miles more sophisticated than nearly anything else emanating from Hollywood at the time. Still, the film ultimately works better in the memory than while being viewed.
But is White Zombie worthy of an entire book—and one whose oversized pages number over 300? Well, in a word, yes, though it’s unlikely that all readers will find all parts equally fascinating, since Rhodes goes into exhaustive detail on every aspect of the film from its pre-production through its marketing. He examines the later careers of cast and crew, examples of books, plays and films dealing with voodoo before White Zombie was conceived (and the racist fear of Haiti’s black rule which shaped those depictions.) Possibly most valuable of all for film buffs, he provides the most extensive biography available of the Halperin brothers, Edward and Victor, who produced and directed the movie.
Yet, the biography raises as many questions as it answers, as does some of the rest of the book, because so much time has passed; despite Rhodes’ heroic effort at ferreting out a wealth of information, too much of the book feels unsatisfactorily incomplete. One finishes the chapter on filming starved for anecdotes and the chapter on the film’s search for distribution (with its suits and countersuits over monies owed) more than a little confused.
Rhodes cites box office proceeds for major cities and a wealth of other statistics, but as anyone who has suffered through an indifferently taught history class can attest, a collection of facts and figures doesn’t paint a terribly compelling picture or compensate for the dearth of anecdotes. That Rhodes was unable to ferret out more is a testament to how fragile even relatively recent history can be if insufficiently documented as it unfolds. Since the film was made independently, the few records that were kept are long gone, and what reminiscences might have been given in long ago interviews are filled with easily detected (but less easily corrected) inaccuracies.
Still, Rhodes’ examination of themes and visual solutions throughout Victor Halperin’s work—something no one else has bothered to do—is valuable, and the chapter on the film’s pre-production is a valuable glimpse into the world of independent filmmaking circa 1932 that is probably little change to this day, particularly regarding the precarious financing. Rhodes also points to White Zombie as the film that forever typecast Lugosi as a horror actor. Additionally, he makes a convincing case for the film establishing horror as a full-fledged genre instead of an occasional production, and influencing much later films such as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. And, best of all for a film book, it is lavishly illustrated.
Distressingly, Rhodes is a proponent of the kind of mind-boggling theoretical analysis that obfuscates rather than reveals. He devotes a long section to “the spectator as participant”—which seems to translate that Lugosi looks directly into the camera a lot; this is the most effective means of conveying the character’s hypnotic talents—much the same technique is used in Dracula, The Mummy and Svengali and for the same purpose—but Rhodes suggests here it is something much more. That Halperin used the technique more frequently is probably due to the fact he wasn’t terribly sophisticated—not because he was trying to infuse the film with some interactive concept.
It’s true that White Zombie could bear more examination than it generally gets, but Rhodes’ analysis seems absurdly out of keeping with a film that was slapped together quickly and cheaply by a director showing few intellectual preoccupations in his other films. Admittedly, it is never wise to dismiss any new way of looking at film since, arguably more than other media, it is capable of reinterpretation in light of changing times and mores. Who, in 1932, would have given a thought to the homophilic S&M implications of the relationship between Legendre and Beaumont? Criticism of this type may be purely in the eye of the beholder. However, that it reveals more about the critic than the film does not automatically make it less valid, since it also says a good deal about the social climate in which the criticism is written. There is a type of critical writing, having its basis in the world of abstract art, which uses impressive-sounding jargon to make the critic seem smart and the reader stupid. Ultimately, it expends a great many words that communicate nothing at all. Whenever Rhodes begins a section by citing another writer’s theory, the reader should prepare for a bout of head-scratching at something aimed at the academics who, as Rhodes admits in his forward, wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book titled White Zombie.
Yet, Rhodes’s willingness to examine the film so seriously is his greatest strength, and it is balanced with less opaque analysis. No work that is seriously offered—as White Zombie undoubtedly is—should be contemptuously dismissed out of hand. If Rhodes sometimes teeters on the edge of pretentiousness as he dredges the dust for diamonds that may not be there, it’s actually a preferable approach to the alternative.