Now That’s What I Call Kino #5 – The Effects of Imperialism in Golden Age Horror

With the popularity of independent horror peaking in recent years, it’s interesting to note what themes that seem to commonly occur in these movies. Filmmakers like Jordan Peele have done a lot to portray the black experience, more specifically what it means to be black in America. But as well as this, he has found the horror in his white characters that profit and utilise colonialism and imperialism. Whilst these themes weren’t often covered in horror of the Golden Age, instead preferring monsters and the mentally ill, there remains a few which have become cult classics – these being I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Island of Lost Souls (1932).

Both films take place on exotic Caribbean islands, with the main cast mostly featuring white actors and actresses. I Walked with a Zombie focuses on the wife of a sugar plantation owner who encounters voodoo and the walking dead while Island of Lost Souls is a H.G. Wells’ adaptation about a scientist conducting surgical experiments. The director of I Walked with a Zombie, Jacques Tourneur, had found commercial success with previous hits like Cat People (1942) that all differed from the usual horror competition. Tourneur instead focused on lighting and atmosphere to create a sense of unease rather than music and gruesome imagery. Similar to horror of today, this film would have long shot sequences to further engage you within the world – with the opening shot of two shadows sauntering on a beach setting the scene perfectly.

Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) smoking a cigarette in Island of Lost Souls.
Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

These films are directly critiquing imperialism, specifically the European empires of Britain, France, Spain etc. that had controlled the Americas throughout the last few centuries. I Walked with a Zombie highlights that evil is a direct descendant from human action and behaviour and that someone’s own corrosion affects the collective soul of those that benefit from this colonialism. Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray’s screenplay reinterprets the story of Jane Eyre to mix Haitian folklore as well as commentaries on slavery and exoticism. The voodoo scenes in the film have been properly researched and are shot in respectful long takes to signify the importance of the land of which these characters are on. The creators of this film are making distinct attempts to engage with the racial and economic implications of their subject matter and whilst not successful at the time of release, has gained an appreciated from recent visitors to this film.

Island of Lost Souls focuses on imperialists and profiteers looking to financially gain from the unknown of a remote island to which they can control. The main characters are rooted in the belief of Darwinism and share a distasteful fear of miscegenation. It’s a film about the uprising against those who crack the whip, the people who want to play god.

Both of these films, whilst clearly dated, hold similar values to the horror films we see today – of the everyday antagonists who have gained power in their ancestral empire and expansion. These classics recognise that horror is a staple of everyday life – and for some, this life is deeply affected by the aftermath of imperialism and colonialism.

Header Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.