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UCLA Festival of Preservation

White Zombie / The Crime of Doctor Crespi

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Friday 1/22
7:00 pm
$9 General Public
$7 Students & Seniors
FREE IHP Members & Residents

FOR FILMS AND EVENTS PRESENTED BY IHP, Tickets ARE Also Available From the IHP Box Office, which is normally open Tue-Sat from noon-8pm (or, for events outside of those times, from one hour before until one hour after the scheduled starting time).  
call 215.895.6590. 

This evening's screening IS taking place as scheduled. However, please note that snow emergency routes will go into effect at 9pm, after which cars parked on Chestnut Street will need to be moved. (The screening will not let out until approximately 9:30pm.) See our Directions & Parking page for other parking options nearby.

White Zombie
dir. Van Halperin, USA, 1932, 35mm, 68 min. b/w

In a foreboding mountaintop castle an evil necromancer, attended by an avian familiar, holds a virgin princess spellbound.  Guided by a wise elder, her lover storms the aerie, overcomes the hideous creatures that guard it, destroys the sorcerer and rouses his beloved from her enchantment.  Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Sleeping Beauty (1959)?  No, the Halperin Brothers’ White Zombie.  The most famous horror movie from Poverty Row is nothing but a fairy tale in mufti, pegged to a jazz age voodoo vogue popularized by William Seabrook’s occult writings.

Quickly produced on the cheap to exploit the post-Dracula horror film cycle, White Zombie was sneered at for decades before its rehabilitation in the 1960s by scholars like William Everson, Carlos Clarens and Arthur Lennig.  An incredibly two-brained film,White Zombie’s reach far exceeds its grasp.  Within five minutes its ostensible setting in contemporary Haiti is discounted as the story reels backward into realms of mythological romanticism.  Performances and line readings worthy of bad regional dinner theater abruptly segue into camera moves and Cocteau-like imagery that are the definition of cinema, underscored by fruity library music of overwhelming panache.  At the center of it all is Bela Lugosi, giving a signature performance of Mephistophelean malevolence that, after 80 years, still rings down the corridors of time.

A crazy, ineffable critical mass was reached in White Zombie making it an unequivocal pop culture signpost whose influence has left an imprint on everything from Disney family values to Rob Zombie’s metronymic heavy metal band.  It codified the Lugosi chick magnet persona in ways that even Dracula (1931) never could (to wit the televangelical White Zombie fever dream shared by Johnny Depp and Martin Landau in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, 1994).  The film’s back-of-the-head magic is perhaps best not explicated but simply appreciated.  As quizzically declared by Madge Bellamy’s doe-eyed, kewpie doll heroine upon waking from her reverie, “I dreamed!”  —Scott MacQueen

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by The Packard Humanities Institute

Restored from an incomplete 35mm composite nitrate print, an original 35mm acetate 1952 reissue print, an original 1952 16mm print, 35mm acetate dupe negative reels and two 35mm acetate dupe negative reissue prints.  Laboratory services by The Stanford Theatre Film Laboratory, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, Simon Daniel Sound.  Special thanks to: the Library of Congress; Greg Luce—Sinister Cinema; Samuel M. Sherman—Independent-International Pictures Corp.

Followed by:
The Crime of Doctor Crespi
dir. John H. Auer, USA, 1935, 35mm, 63 min. b/w

As a travesty of Edgar Allan Poe, The Crime of Doctor Crespi occupies a certain niche between Universal’s earlier literary deviancies (The Black Cat, 1934; The Raven, 1935) and American International’s abundant market-driven liberties in the 1960s (House of Usher, 1960; The Conqueror Worm, 1968 et al). Summarily dismissed by Winfield Sheehan while directing Walking Down Broadway at Fox in 1933, Erich von Stroheim was forced to subsist by cadging pennies on Poverty Row in thankless roles for Monogram and Invincible.  Hungarian émigré John H. Auer summoned him to New York for The Crime of Doctor Crespi, a ragtag riff on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” filmed on a shoestring in the Bronx.  It’s plot shares sexual peccadilloes with two superior horror pictures released in July, ahead of Crespi’s October bow.  Eschewing the heady romanticism of Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Vollin in The Raven and the Krafft-Ebing aspect of Peter Lorre’s Dr. Gogol in Mad Love (1935), von Stroheim’s equally ruthless mad doctor appears superficially more practical.  Likewise motivated by sexual desire, Crespi removes obstacles to his carnal objectives with brutal determination, savoring the sadistic destruction of his rival while offering sly solace to the conquered wife.

Independently produced by director Auer, it was the first film to be released under the Republic Pictures brand and Auer would remain with Republic right up to the company’s demise in the 1950s. With von Stroheim’s megalomaniacal surgeon indulging his audience persona as “The Man You Love to Hate,” Crespi also accommodates homage high and low.  It rekindles the grotesqueries of The Wedding March (1928) and nods to Carl Th. Dreyer and Universal monster movies with a Vampyr-inspired cemetery trek and the casting of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) sidekick Dwight Frye as an unorthodox hero.  An unprepossessing actress named Jeanne Kelly has a forgettable bit role as the desk nurse; who would guess that, rechristened Jean Brooks, she would make an indelible impression as Jacqueline, the doomed devil-worshipper of Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943)?  —Scott MacQueen

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by The Packard Humanities Institute

Restored from the incomplete original nitrate picture and track negatives, reels of a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, reels of a 35mm acetate fine grain master and an original 16mm reduction print.  Laboratory services by The Stanford Theatre Film Laboratory, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, Simon Daniel Sound.  Special thanks to: David Shepard—Film Preservation Associates, Inc.; Academy Film Archive; Greg Luce—Sinister Cinema.