A Dreadful Emptiness

Just a pinpoint monsieur. In a flower. Or perhaps in a glass of wine.

– Murder Legendre

Murder Legendre is well named. Perhaps the most well-named character ever portrayed by the redoubtable Bela Lugosi. He is the Faustian influence at the heart of 1932’s White Zombie, the dark star around which the rest of the cast orbits. A figure of unholy potency, Legendre rests somewhere between Count Dracula’s predatory aristocracy and the proletarian grotesquery of Frankenstein’s unfortunate creation. A pragmatic man, he cheerfully draws up the dead and sets them to labour in service of the living – for a price. He damns his victims for spite, motivated by a petty malice that is both monstrous and all too human.

Filmed in under a fortnight, White Zombie nonetheless boasts impressive production values. Reusing sets from films such as Dracula (1931) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and employing inventive camera effects, director Victor Halperin creates a pervasive gothic atmosphere that allows Lugosi’s one note but iconic Legendre to dominate the short running time. Lugosi is firing on all cylinders here, and his eerie magnetism is plainly evident in his first appearance, stalking through a graveyard with a coterie of dead men in tow – not to mention the numerous, sinister closeups provided by cinematographer Arthur Martinelli.

It’s a stately film; timeless despite being ostensibly set in the year of its debut. There’s a fairy tale quality about it – a sort of whimsical diabolism that periodically intrudes on the viewer’s attentions, most notably in a scene in which a zombie worker topples soundlessly into a cane shredder as his heedless companions continue their labours. And Legendre himself is quick to inflict his sense of humour on others – his dialogue is filled with pointed asides and bleak jests; he contrasts the fallible living with the obedient dead and it is clear whose company he prefers.

Above, I made use of the term Faustian. There is something of a Faust about Legendre – a dreadful emptiness that can never be satisfied. Not by his magics or the money of his victims. He has a yawning tomb where his soul should be, and he seeks to fill it with a rapaciousness that would give even Dracula pause. Yet like Dracula, Legendre cannot be sated.

His hunger – for respect, for power – dominate his every waking moment and drive his every action. Every move he makes is one of grasping, greedy need. He is like a cold fire, raging across the island he rules in all but name, taking whatever he wishes but finding no satisfaction in the act. The more he takes, the more he needs. The more he needs, the more he is driven to take. He wants power, but it is not enough. He wants respect, but finds that it pales in comparison to love – so desires to claim that for himself as well. But he does not understand it, and so acquires only an unsatisfying parody of the thing.

Legendre is as much a slave as his servants but unlike them, he shows the occasional flicker of self-awareness – a wry smile as he contemplates the limits of his power, a look of annoyance with his self-pitying ally, the sugar-planter, Beaumont. You can see the wheels turning behind Lugosi’s devilish countenance as he realizes the trap he has set for himself. But this realization only feeds his pettiness. A refused handshake early in the film is enough to drive him to turning on his partner in crime at the climax, an event that leads to his own eventual undoing when his concentration is broken and he is hurled from the parapet of his own castle.

Fitting, in a way.

By his own hand was Legendre raised up, and it is by his own hand that he is dashed down into the roaring emptiness of the sea – consumed by a hunger even greater than his own.