King of the Zombies (1941) review-possibly the worst Oscar contender of all time

To properly gauge the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ historic distain for the horror genre, one need only consider the curious case of Jean Yarbrough’s King of the Zombies (1941).

As it stands, this low-budget film is, according to IMDB, the only zombie-related property to ever be nominated for an Oscar, with Edward Kay getting the nod for Best Original Score for a Dramatic Picture.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with that scenario, the most obvious gripe being the fact that King of the Zombies actually bills itself as a comedy and features truly forgettable music.

But the bigger problem emerges once you realize how bad this 1941 shit-fest actually is in comparison to all the other great horror cinema that came along after it, only a small fraction of which got any attention from the Academy Awards.

The plot of King of the Zombies, if you can call it that, revolves around three travellers (a pilot, a passenger and his manservant) who crash land on a mysterious Caribbean island that’s inhabited by a mad scientist.

After a lot of haunted house hijinks transpire, the trio eventually discover that their host has enslaved the native population and turned them into mindless zombies, hoping to use their voodoo magic to extract military secrets from a captured US Admiral.

As zany and madcap as that plot recap sounds, it’s incredible how dull and devoid of life (pun intended) King of the Zombies actually is for most of its runtime.

Most scenes just involve the film’s principle characters standing in the middle a static shot and spouting off one-liners, like they are rehearsing for a high school play.

Even when zombies finally enter the picture, at least two out of three leads treat this situation way too casually and do a really poor job of conveying the fact that anything remotely supernatural is happening.

The filmmakers also put next to no effort into establishing a macabre or spooky atmosphere, as most of the props and sets seem like they were recycled from a patchwork of other, better movies.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned in the past, most of these cinematic shortcomings can be forgiven if a comedy manages to bring the laughs on a consistent basis.

Unfortunately, King of the Zombies only has one big comedic trump card in the form of Mantan Moreland, who plays the befuddled manservant Jeff.

On one hand, Moreland is the most endearing character in the movie, since he reacts appropriately to the existence of shambling corpses, as opposed to his fellow co-stars who might as well be replaced with cardboard cutouts.

The actor also manages to score some of the movie’s only genuine laughs through his natural comedic timing, something that he probably developed through years of performing vaudeville.

But it’s impossible to talk about Moreland’s performance without tackling the style of comedy that he employs, which is heavily influenced by southern minstrel shows.

Now, I don’t usually like to bash older movies for containing elements that [inset current year] audiences might find distasteful. But when it comes to King of the Zombies, the filmmakers’ over reliance on Moreland’s bugged-out eyes and dull-witted enunciation gets old quickly, especially when you realize that the movie has nothing else to offer in terms of comedy.

It also doesn’t help that Moreland’s Jeff is constantly put in a position to try and convince the other characters that they are in danger, even though his concerns are regularly swatted away like he is an over-imaginative child.

Racial stereotypes aside, the biggest acting sin on display in King of the Zombies actually belongs to Henry Victor, who plays the mad scientist Dr. Miklos Sangre.

Reportedly, Victor was a last-minute replacement for a role that was designed for two other actors and it really shows.

Outside of being of horribly miscast as a villain, Victor also can’t seem to remember his lines half the time, resulting in a bunch of awkward scenes that should have been relegated to a blooper reel.

Even though the film’s two remaining leads (Dick Purcell and John Archer) can at least deliver their dialogue confidently, the pair still have very little personality or charisma to speak of.

This leaves Moreland to carry the entire movie on his back almost single-handedly, even though its screenwriter (and broader society at the time) didn’t view him as anything more than a cheap comedy sidekick.

As a result, King of the Zombies’ biggest failing, outside of its piss-poor production values, is the fact that it doesn’t provide the audience with any emotional weight to anchor all of the supernatural shenanigans.

And it’s not like this is a tough formula to crack. Around that same time, actors like Bob Hope, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello found a lot of success mixing comedy and horror through projects like The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

But King of the Zombies probably didn’t have a hope of being good at its conception, since it was produced by Monogram Pictures.

Unlike Universal Studios or any other big-time operation in Hollywood, Monogram employed a “fast and dirty” approach to film production that emphasized speed over quality, resulting in movies that managed to turn a profit despite not getting a lot of attention from critics.

But even with this reputation, King of the Zombies still managed to snag a historic Oscar nomination in 1941, which is either the result of an insider bet gone wrong or someone working at Monogram knowing how to play the system.

Either way, this movie remains an interesting footnote in the Academy Awards’ storied history, serving as a small exception to the organization’s traditional disdain for horror filmmaking.

It’s just a shame that such a historically significant film is the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry.  

Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

Twizzlers (because you deserve to enjoy something tasty while watching this dreck)

Fun facts:

-Release date: May 14, 1941

King of the Zombies ultimately did not take home the Oscar for Best Original Score for a Dramatic Picture at the 1942 Academy Awards. That honour went to Bernard Herrmann for his work on All That Money Can Buy.

-Both Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre were considered for the role of the film’s mad scientist, but a deal could not be reached in time for either actor.

-While horror movies routinely get snubbed at the Academy Awards, some films have managed to break through that barrier and actually bring home a gold statue. These movies include: Rosemary’s Baby (Best Supporting Actress-Ruth Gordon), The Exorcist (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound), The Omen (Best Original Music), Misery (Best Actress-Kathy Bates), Black Swan (Best Actress-Natalie Portman), Get Out (Best Original Screenplay) and Silence of the Lambs (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor-Anthony Hopkins and Best Actress-Jodie Foster).

-Monogram Pictures operated in Hollywood from 1931 to 1953 before transitioning to the name Allied Artists Pictures Corporation. Monogram/Allied ultimately filed for bankruptcy and dissolved in 1979.

– Mantan Moreland reprised his role as Jeff in the film’s sequel Revenge of the Zombies, which was released in 1943.

King of the Zombies is currently in the public domain and can be watched in its entirety on YouTube.

You Light Up My Life (1977) review- Why you should give this film (and the song) a second chance

Movies don’t always stick into the popular consciousness the way their directors would like them to. Some films, for example, are only remembered for one particular thing, whether it’s a standout scene or a single iconic performance.

You Light Up My Life is an obvious victim of this phenomenon, since many people forget that it was even a movie in the first place.

Instead, most people associate this film with its title track, which was one of the biggest hit songs of 1977, staying at the #1 position in the Billboard charts for an unprecedented, at the time, 10 consecutive weeks.

Not only did this single’s popularity make Debby Boone a star, but the following year it also netted director/composer Joseph Brooks an Oscar for Best Original Song, giving him a lot of credibility in the eyes of Hollywood elites (albeit temporarily).

Meanwhile, the original 1977 film that spawned this track is definitely not remembered as a classic, judging by its low rating on sites like Rotten Tomatoes (20%) and IMDB (4.6).

And even though the song initially fared well in the eyes of the public, its stock has severely diminished with time. In fact, if you Google “You Light Up My Life” right now you’ll find a bunch of modern culture critics writing about how it is one of the worst songs of the 1970s.

This overwhelmingly negative critical consensus on both fronts definitely came as a big surprise to me, since I found this film to be a charming romantic drama and the song to be an absolute show stealer.

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The story proper follows Laurie Robinson (Didi Conn), a working artist in Los Angeles who bounces around different commercial auditions and comedy acting gigs at the behest of her overbearing showbiz father (Joe Silver). However, her true passion lies with composing music and she even gets the opportunity to showcase this talent when she meets an established director (Michael Zaslow) by chance.

Laurie’s personal life is also put in jeopardy when she starts to develop feelings for this director, which complicates her impending marriage to another man.

Now, I’ll admit, there’s a lot of melodrama packed into this movie, especially when the run time is a slim 90 minutes. But Conn’s lead performance as Laurie really holds everything together, since she carries this entire movie on her back almost single-handedly.

It’s hard to put into words how endearing and likable she is on screen, as her character goes from audition to audition, facing rejection and failure at almost every turn. Conn’s optimistic personality and lack of cynicism really makes her a captivating underdog to watch, someone who also isn’t afraid to show cracks in that sunny demeanor when things get really rough.

Her relationship with Joe Silver is also a pivotal part of the movie’s appeal.

While Silver’s showbiz dad is totally ignorant of his daughter’s real interests, he isn’t trying to be malicious or exploit his only child for financial gain. Instead, he pushes her in a certain direction out of a genuine belief that stand-up comedy is her real passion, even though that’s mostly projection on his part.

The warm back-and-forth between Conn and Silver comes across as being very authentic and makes you believe that the actors would carry out these same conversations once the cameras stopped rolling.

In fact, most of the characters and dialogue in the movie comes across as very naturalistic, to the point where I almost thought I was watching a slice-of-life drama in the same vein as a Richard Linklater or Cameron Crowe film.

But I know what you’re asking: “What about the title song? Isn’t it awful and derail the entire movie?”

Actually, no. I would actually argue that the title track works on many levels and is one of the film’s biggest highlights.

 

From a filmmaking point of view, this uplifting number comes in at just the right point in the story, when Laurie desperately needs a win and finally gets the chance to showcase her singing and song writing ability in front of some Hollywood big wigs.

This exulted feeling is hammered home by the way the scene is shot, since it is all presented to the audience in a single take with fluid, sweeping camera movements.

And even though Conn obvious isn’t providing her own singing voice, she still acts the hell out of this moment, since her body language and facial expressions perfectly match the pipped in vocals.

(Plus, if Rami Malek can win an Oscar for lip syncing, why should I hold back praise for another quality pantomime performance?)

On a musical level, it’s important to point out that the movie version of “You Light Up My Life” is different than the Debby Boone rendition most people are familiar with.

The track was originally performed by classically trained opera singer Kasey Cisyk, whose powerful, uplifting voice effortlessly elevates the admittedly simple lyrics and makes them sound profound.

Boone’s performance is pretty bland and lifeless by comparison, which is part of the reason why, I imagine, this song has garnered such a bad reputation in the intervening 40 years.

I also feel like the instrumental accompaniment in the movie version of the song is alot stronger, especially the string section, but that could just be my imagination.

And even if you don’t like Cisyk’s version of the “You Light Up My Life,” the film is sprinkled with a handful of other catchy numbers, with “Do You Have a Piano” being another standout.

That’s not to suggest that every song is used appropriately.

The director has a bad habit of artificially squeezing his original music into scenes just to pad out the run time, like whenever Conn has to drive from one location to another.

Plus, not every track is a winner, with the dreary “California Daydreams” coming across as a bad Simon and Garfunkel rip-off.

In terms of filmmaking weaknesses, I would be remiss not to mention that You Light Up My Life occasionally veers off into the realm of a sappy soap opera, with some cheesy lines and plot contrivances that really strain the realm of believability.

But at its core, this movie still has a beating heart and the director is obviously very passionate about showcasing the struggle one must endure to make it in the entertainment industry.

The filmmakers in general do good job of blending the music with the overarching narrative, so movie-goers who have re-watched the recent A Star is Born remake for the 15th time might get a kick out of this story too.

I know that singing You Light Up My Life’s praises won’t win me any critic brownie points, since the movie has fallen into relative obscurity and the song has garnered a pretty unshakable reputation as being seven shades of uncool.

But every now and then I’m in the mood for some romantic fluff, especially if the lead performance is strong and the soundtrack adds an extra layer of intrigue.

For everyone else, just make sure you go in with an open mind and don’t buy into the anti-hype that’s built up around this song (and the movie that bears its name) for the last four decades.

Verdict:

8/10

Corner store companion:

White Wonder Bread (because it’s bland but emotionally satisfying)

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Fun facts:

-If you’re wondering why director Joseph Brooks didn’t use the Kasey Cisyk version of “You Light Up My Life” for radio play it’s because he is a giant piece of shit. According to Cisyk’s second husband Ed Rakowicz, Brooks made improper advances towards the young singer and became angry when she rejected him. The director went on to hire then newcomer Debby Boone to re-record the song and even instructed her to replicate Cisyk’s performance as closely as possible.

-Even though her rendition of “You Light Up My Life” is (arguably) inferior to Cisyk’s version, Boone’s career took off like a rocket after it hit the airwaves. Not only did the single earn her an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, but she also won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1977 and Song of the Year in 1978.

-Brooks’ monstrous behavior with Cisyk was only the tip of the iceberg. In June 2009 he was arrested for raping or sexually assaulting over 10 different women after his assistant lured them to his Manhattan apartment. Brooks committed suicide on May 22, 2011 before he could be tried for 91 counts of rape, sexual abuse, criminal sexual act, assault, and other charges.

Star Trek scholars cite Michael Zaslow, who plays the director Didi Conn falls for, as being the franchise’s first-ever “red shirt” or expendable crew member that perishes during a planetary expedition. During the Original Series’ first official episode titled “The Man Trap,” Zaslow’s character, crewmember Darnell, famously met his end after being seduced and killed by a shape-shifting alien.

-You can watch the entire movie on YouTube for free (with Spanish subtitles) here: