I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur [Other horror films: Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man (1943), Night of the Demon (1957), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), War-Gods of the Deep (1965)]

I have a bit of a mixed record with films related to both Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. I enjoyed The Leopard Man immensely, but found both Isle of the Dead and Cat People lacking. Luckily, this atmospheric little movie is better than those I found lacking, and perhaps even better than The Leopard Man, and I Walked with a Zombie ended up being quite a solid film.

Not to over-stress this, but a big part of that would be the setting, being a mansion that is surrounded by the encroaching jungle. The open porches which are just yards away from the jungle and it’s wildlife, not to mention the hot jungle air blowing over the grounds – what I can I say, I find it enchanting (the same way I find houses surrounded by swamps enchanting – look no further than The Alligator People for that).

White Zombie might be a better demonstration of the outright horror of zombies and voodoo, and I certainly agree that White Zombie might have more memorable scenes overall, but this is a lot more polished and character-driven, with a large part of the film dealing with the drama between two brothers, their mother, and a zombie wife. And in the middle of it all, a nurse entirely new to the island.

The two brothers are great with their distinctive personalities – James Ellison (of The Undying Monster) as the witty, charming brother and Tom Conway (Cat People and The Seventh Victim) as the oft-somber one. Throw into a mix a brain-dead wife of Conway’s (played by Christine Gordon) that was in a relationship with Ellison, and you have some quality drama that’s actually both intriguing and tragic. Frances Dee playing the main character (with some classy voice-overs, which I appreciated) did a great job too, and her walk – but more on that shortly.

It’s been shortly, so let’s talk about that walk, brahs.

The titular walk with a zombie is one of the best sequences in the movie. It doesn’t last long, but it’s packed with a walk through the jungle, through the sugarcane farm, past a giant black zombie-like homeboi (Darby Jones) – it’s a fantastic time with Dee dragging Gordon along to a voodoo ceremony, with the animals all chirping and hooting. My words can only do so much (and probably not as much as I think), but it’s a great scene, and definitely a high-light of the film.

Not that the rest of I Walked with a Zombie is dull. Despite a lot of the focus being on the family drama as opposed to the voodoo and the zombies, it’s a pretty fun movie, and it’s helped by the fact that it’s also a pretty short film (under an hour-and-ten-minutes). For the atmosphere alone, though, this is well-worth seeing, and the finale too is pretty solid (though an argument could be made it’s somewhat anticlimactic).

8.5/10

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Directed by Mark Robson [Other horror films: Isle of the Dead (1945), Bedlam (1946)]

This is an odd little film that more feels like a cult-based thriller than it does a horror. It’s not a bad movie, and the mystery is a bit interesting, but boy, even as far as 1940’s horror goes, The Seventh Victim probably only just squeezes in, at least in my opinion.

What works really well about this movie is the dense atmosphere. Tracking a missing person through a city, following multiple leads, hearing different stories, and eventually leading to a Satanic cult makes for a somewhat fun film, and certainly engaging at times.

I just didn’t think that too much of it was that memorable. In the moment, sure, you have some creepy vibes and a somewhat engrossing (if not a bit involved) story, but once the credits come up, I don’t think it takes that long for much of the material to fall out of memory.

The performances here were all fine, though honestly, as competent as they were (Tom Conway, Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks being among the best), no one here blows me away at all. Perhaps it’s just that the story, despite being only 70 minutes, felt a bit overlong, or maybe the cult wasn’t entirely convincing, but it just didn’t wow me.

The Seventh Victim had the atmosphere that was commendable, but it definitely felt more like a mystery/thriller than it did a horror, and that may have caused this to drag a bit more than you might expect from the off-set. It’s a 40’s movie that’s probably still worth giving a view, but there are plenty of other films from the decade (such as Bedlam, The Body Snatcher, The Leopard Man, You’ll Find Out) that I’d go to first.

6/10

Dead Men Walk (1943)

Directed by Sam Newfield [Other horror films: The Mad Monster (1942), The Monster Maker (1944), The Flying Serpent (1946)]

I have little to say about this one, because ultimately, Dead Men Walk is extraordinarily forgettable.

A big problem, though, isn’t with the film itself, but the commonly-available copy. It’s audio tends to be muffled and garbled, making it pretty hard at times to make out some dialogue. I got a lot of it, but there are times when whole lines go over my head, and that certainly can’t be blamed on the movie itself.

What can be blamed, though, is the generic and uninspired story. Despite being just over an hour, it’s also pretty dull. At best, you have Dwight Frye (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Vampire Bat) and George Zucco (The Mad Monster, The Mad Ghoul, Fog Island, and The Flying Serpent), but neither one makes up for a lucklaster plot, which Dead Men Walk definitely boasts.

I’ve thought for a long while that the 1940’s was probably the weakest decade in terms of horror output, and this goes a long way to showcase my point. This movie easily could have been made ten years earlier and not feel an ounce out of place, and it still would have been uninspired, which is a shame.

Dead Men Walk isn’t a movie I’d recommend watching once, and I’ve seen it twice, which is probably the most I’ll ever see it. It’s just pointless and meandering, even for the time, making this just a disappointing film, and only for those who deeply love lower-level 40’s films.

4/10

Revenge of the Zombies (1943)

Directed by Steve Sekely [Other horror films: The Day of the Triffids (1963)]

There’s not really that much interesting going on in this early 1940’s zombie flick. Sure, there are some okay performances (most notably John Carradine, sporting a mustache), and a few humorous lines, courtesy of Mantan Moreland, but otherwise, I can’t think of a reason to really give this film much time.

Of course, it’s not really horrible, by any means, just rather generic and derivative, even for the time. I enjoyed a few of the twists (regarding Bob Steele’s character), but the story ultimately wasn’t too different from an earlier zombie comedy, King of the Zombies (interesting note: this film is sometimes considered a sequel to King of the Zombies, but aside from Moreland’s character, there seems to be little connection, and in fact, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, who also appears in both, is a different character here).

John Carradine does well for himself here, though his performance isn’t going to win any awards. Gale Storm was okay, though not overly relevant to the story. The aforementioned Madame Sul-Te-Wan was a bit over-the-top, but still worked well with James Baskett. Of course, Moreland is both humorous and unfortunately not helpful to racial stereotypes. A solid performance, but marred in that he didn’t get any different a storyline than from King of the Zombies. Robert Lowery, Barry Macollum, and Mauritz Hugo all do fine, but none of the three will be overly memorable once the movie’s done.

Ultimately, Revenge of the Zombies isn’t a great zombie film, nor a great horror film, nor a great film of any kind. It’s not even necessarily worth a watch – it certainly wouldn’t hurt, but I don’t see any reason for it, unless it’s due to being a large fan of Carradine. Really, while some of the settings are cool, such as the swamp, and a few aspects of the story are decent, in that war-time, mistaken identity, the bad-guys-are-Nazis-type-of-way, but I’ve seen this twice now, and I can about guarantee I’ll not be seeing it a third time. It’s just not worth it.

5.5/10

The Mysterious Doctor (1943)

Directed by Benjamin Stoloff [Other horror films: Night of Terror (1933), The Hidden Hand (1942)]

This short quickie (hovers around 57 minutes in total) is a delightful little film with a pretty fun premise (headless ghost haunts a tin mine, while a mysterious doctor arrive in town and arouses suspicions of the townsfolk), and while certainly a lower-budget film, I thought it was appropriately atmospheric.

Most of the performances hovered around average, with not many individuals standing out. Matt Willis did a pretty decent job with his sympathetic character, whereas Lester Matthews and John Loder (both some of the main actors) felt pretty cookie-cutter. I did appreciate Elanor Parker’s strong female character, which wasn’t necessarily common for the time period.

For some reason or another, though, I can’t think of too much to say for this one. I loved both the atmosphere and much of the setting (the ground mist over the moors was always a fun look to me), and the headless ghost, while obviously fake, had charm to the design.

The whole movie, despite it’s lower budget, had a lot of charm, in fact. It’s a shame that The Mysterious Doctor isn’t more widely available, because while it’s not a great movie, I do think that it’s a minor classic for the time period, and I will admit to really enjoying the entirely anticipated conclusion. I’ve seen this before, but it’s been so long, much of it felt new to me, so the ending had the punch I was hoping for. It’s nothing amazing, guys, but it may well be worth a look.

7.5/10

The Leopard Man (1943)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur [Other horror films: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Night of the Demon (1957), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), War-Gods of the Deep (1965)]

Often moody and rather atmospheric, this early 40’s film has a lot to offer fans of classic horror. There’s a plot that keeps you guessing, some characters who actually feel human, and great suspenseful sequences throughout.

While I suspect nothing about the film would shock fans of the genre today, the plot overall is pretty fun, and also a bit unique, what with the main characters (Dennis O’Keefe and Jean Brooks) feeling guilty about the escape of a leopard in their possession, subsequently causing the death of a teenage girl. It gives the film a pretty somber tone, which pretty much lasts the whole of the film, including the conclusion.

Speaking of which, the conclusion was damn fun, especially the scene during the procession of monks, which including chanting and pretty intimidating men in hoods. Pretty much everything about the ending was a lot of fun, though I sort of wish there was a bit more oompf.

The suspense was great in this one, and we even got what’s now the ordinary shot of a person yelling, banging on a door, then seconds later, blood pouring from the bottom of the door. It definitely wasn’t shocking by today’s standards, but for 1943, that struck me as surprisingly racy.

I saw this for the first time something like five years ago, perhaps as many as seven or eight, and it always stuck with me, because it certainly seems like a movie ahead of it’s time. Very little around this same time period had the same feel as this one, so The Leopard Man is definitely a memorable film.

Aside from O’Keefe (who also starred in You’ll Find Out, from 1940, which I saw just a few days before this writing) and Brooks, the only other performance to really stand out here was James Bell, who played a somewhat interesting character. From the face alone, Bell isn’t an actor I know that well, though he did appear in another horror classic, I Walked with a Zombie, which is a film I’ve not actually seen up to this point [edit: though I have now]. Abner Biberman was decent, as was Margaret Landry in her short sequence, but ultimately, O’Keefe, Brooks, and Bell are the only three who really made a difference.

The only downside of The Leopard Man was that some of the padding (which itself is somewhat amusing, given the film’s just an hour and six minutes) struck me as a bit much. One of the final kills, while certainly welcomed, had a longer set-up than I was hoping for, and I felt just a bit bored during that sequence.

This said, otherwise The Leopard Man is a pretty enjoyable and forward-thinking film, and I think that from a modern-day perspective, this has a lot to offer horror fans. If this one has escaped your notice, I’d certainly recommend taking a look.

8/10