On the set of I Walked with a Zombie, Curt Siodmak Remembers His Horror Movie Days
He lives in a small village called Three Rivers, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, at the foothills of the Sequoias. The house is situated on top of a hill and sheltered from encroachment of neighbors by fifty acres of grazing land, which is studded with trees. Through the huge glass windows of the redwood house, which was built by the famous architect Neutra. Snowcapped mountains stretch in a circle. Once a jeep came down the fire trail at night. Siodmak wanted to move. Too many people, he complained. In day time he feeds his cows, the horse, two ravens which knock at six at his window asking for food. At night a score of racoons show up punctually. There are bobcats, and also a talkative mountain lion, who walks back and forth at late hours, answering in his own language when talked to. This is a hermit’s life, and one wouldn’t be surprised to see the Frankenstein monster lumber down the mountainside.
There is something owlish in Siodmak’s appearance, in his large glasses and bald head, but also something authoritative since he is used to directing pictures or giving lectures at colleges and universities. His latest one was a course in Modern Science Fiction. The Window Into the Future for the University of Santa Cruz. Sitting in his book-lined office, one wall covered with paintings of the Dutch school, Siodmak faces a wall and not the mountain view when he is working at his typewriter. He doesn’t want to be distracted by the beauty around him.
You knew Val Lewton, the producer of The Cat People, Bedlam, I Walked With A Zombie, Isle Of The Dead, The Leopard Man, The Curse Of The Cat People, The Body Snatchers?
Yes. I met him in circumstances perfect for a horror picture. My agent made an appointment for me to see him at RKO studios. He sat on Stage 2, watching the shooting of Cat People. The stage was huge, cavernous, the biggest one in Hollywood. In a corner a living room set was built, the rest was dark. Lewton was a big man, an eternal pipe in his mouth. He sat on a chair too small for him. A commotion was going on the set, a noise which had the overtones of panic.
“Lolita got loose,” he said between two puffs from his pipe. Lolita was the black panther used in the film. Simone Simon, the French star, convincingly turned into that black cat and committed murder. Lewton seemed to get pleasure out of scaring me, knowing I didn’t appreciate a black panther roaming a dark set. He had a streak of sadism in him. He told me later that in school he cherished a game: you put your hand on a wooden desk and the boy next to you tries to stab your hand with a pocket knife. The trick was to withdraw the hand the very last moment possible. Once he nailed a friend’s hand on the desk top with dire consequences. I guess that that frame of mind helped him to become a famous horror motion picture producer. “Just sit quiet and Lolita won’t bother you,” he said. “But she might eat you.” I whispered. There, between his spread fat legs a dark cat’s head appeared. The round head turned upwards, the ears folded back, a huge mouth opened, and I looked into a red canyon framed by long white teeth. I heard a growl, deep and menacing. Lewton froze into a statue. I turned into a slab of marble. “She growls.” I managed to say. “She purrs'” he insisted, but his ruddy complexion had become white. He slowly lifted his hands over his head and signaled like a semaphore. Presently the trainer came along, waving a huge lollipop. The panther slid out from under Lewton’s chair. She took a last look at Lewton’s fat thighs, undecided if she should take a bite out of them or lick the lollipop. Her sweet tooth made the decision for her. The trainer gave her the lollipop, picked her up, and threw the two hundred pounds of cat over his shoulder. That’s how I met Val Lewton. In style!
You wrote I Walked With A Zombie for him.
Yes. We discussed that idea after I regained my composure. But in his office. I couldn’t concentrate on the dark set. After I told Lewton my approach to the film, he promised to leave me alone. I hate interference by producers. They pay me to put my ideas on paper, not theirs. I found out that he was a frustrated writer. He had ideas that didn’t fit my conception. But he had great taste and culture and intelligence, a fact that showed in his pictures. He created the intelligent Lewton horror films. He tried a novel approach to horror pictures, and succeeded. He put recognizable people into fantastic stories. Now, don’t confuse Science fiction with Science fantasy. I never wrote about people from other stars, wearing antennas, or having shapes unknown to us on earth. All I did in my science fiction novels is selecting an idea which I believe will happen in the near future. I project that idea on people of today. How would we react, if, as in my novel The Third Ear, people could read each other’s thoughts, or in Hauser’s Memory, if we could transfer memory from one person to another… a young man also having the memory of an old one, who has lived his life. Or in my latest novel City in the Sky which Putnam’s published in May, if we would build a huge satellite in space as big as a city. What kind of people would live there and how would they act? The astronauts didn’t change their attitude and returned unchanged, they were space mechanics when they left the earth for the moon, and our expectations that humanity would improve with that exploit didn’t happen.
Then you had freedom to do what you liked when you worked for Lewton?
No. Val changed part of the story and some dialogue, working closely with another writer. But when an idea is good it cannot be completely destroyed. The original idea will always shine through, despite the efforts of the producers and directors to put their stamp on it. My novel Donovan’s Brain was made three times into a motion picture. Every time the producers and writers improved on it and every time the film fell apart. John Huston is for me the most intelligent film maker. He understands stories and has appreciation for them. He took The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, broke it down in camera angles, telescoping it, since a motion picture is never a full sized novel but an extended short story. Why tamper with a book that is a classic? We writers are craftsmen. When we finish, come the geniuses, producers, directors and actors. They think they can do better in a week of rewrite than the original author who might have spent a couple of years on the book.
You seem to be bitter.
No. I know the game and it doesn’t faze me. I had an imaginary altar in my office at the studios and when things became annoying, I just went there in my mind and prayed.
I prayed to Pegasus and said “my weekly check. My weekly check.” That brought me down to earth. After all I was working for money.
Then you are a cynic.
Maybe I am. But I am not enamored with my work. As soon us I am through with it, I think of the next one. When I sold Donovan’s Brain to Republic Studios for very little money since I was flat broke, Herbert Yates, the studio head, called me in. He said. “Siodmak, you’re crazy. A scientist like Dr. Cory in your novel doesn’t live in a little house in the desert. He lives in castle! And there and there is a great part for Vera.” She was the girl, an ice skater from Czechoslovakia, whom he later married. “And the title is The Lady and the Monster. That’s there I quit. Then Allan Dowling bought the rights from Republic. I was assigned to write and direct. They didn’t like my screenplay which was the novel just broken down. They wrote a new one, in a week! In it God destroys the brain with a thunderbolt. That’s where I left the projection room. A third time the story was done in England. It was called The Brain. In it an actress stripped and they infused a cancer cure. You know, I still have to see one of those versions completely. I never sat through one of them.
You contradict yourself. You said you don’t care what happens to your stories when you finish them and still you are up-tight about them.
Of course one cares. A writer is always on the defense. And that’s for a valid reason. Writers are often alcoholics. Hemmingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O’Neill. You name them. They suffer that the words which they need to express an emotion, often do not exist. An idea can be expressed only approximately, since the number of words in any language is limited. There is only one example of infinity for me, that is color-there is an infinity of shading of red, or blue, – of any color. The trouble is to mix them as the eye of the mind sees them. The painters also suffer from the inability to put on canvas what their inner eyes see. The same happens to writers, only worse. They have a limited vocabulary to choose from, no more words than there are in a dictionary. Writers like Vladimir Nabokov invent words—you can’t find them in the Webster. I guess he stays sober.
I see 35 of your screenplays registered by the Academy of Arts and Sciences.
That’s about half of the pictures I wrote. Some I also directed. I worked in Europe a great part of my life in Germany. France, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, even behind the Iron Curtain, in Czechoslovakia, during the golden time of their picture making until the Communists stopped it.
A horror story?
No. A ski film: you can’t show horror pictures in those countries. They don’t accept them. They are thin skinned about blood on the screen. Like the Nazis were.
Why should that be?
Bad conscience, I guess. I put, with the help of a song writer and musician Frankenstein into music. A musical for Broadway. It is called The Song of Frankenstein.
That’s amusing. What happened to it?
We never finished. Michael Butler, the producer of Hair, came out with a jazz version of Frankenstein. Since he was riding high at that time, we lost faith. Also it is almost impossible to get the million together which such a show would cost. But it had an excellent idea.
Can you tell me the idea?
Sure. Human beings are monsters. But why is the monster called a monster? It is only a couple of days old. Nobody has hurt it. Why should it be mean and vicious? The monster was the only human thing in your play.
That makes sense. Have you given up the idea of finishing the show?
No. I want to go back to it. I hate unfinished things in my life. I don’t think I ever abandoned a project. It would haunt me to know that a book has not been completed. Or a story has been left unfinished. I don’t care so much if I find a publisher. But my projects have to be complete.
Did you know Boris Karloff?
Of course. I wrote many pictures for him. He was a very tall man and very soft spoken and gentle. His pleasure was reading stories to children, gentle stories. He was highly intelligent and not conceited. I once wrote a screenplay for him at Universal Studios called Black Friday. He thought he wasn’t a good enough actor for the lead and took a secondary part, suggesting Stanley Ridges, a very good stage actor to play the part. Lon Chaney, Jr., was a friend of mine. I never met senior. Lon was a very patient man and a pro, who suffered from having such a famous father. You know it took almost six hours to put the Wolfman’s mask on his face, the claws, the hair, and two hours to take it all off. He could eat only liquid food through a straw when he wore that mask. Jack Pierce, the famous make-up man, devised the Wolfman’s mask. He also designed the Monster in Frankenstein.
How did you get into the horror business?
I always wrote science fiction stories. There is a magazine, Amazing Stories, Volume 1, 1926, which already had one of my stories; when I was still in school in Germany my stories were already published over here. I still have a copy of “The Eggs From Tanganyika”, which was the title of that piece. That story was the pattern of my future work. The idea was simple: Explorers find giant eggs in the Gobi desert. They take them to New York. The eggs hatch and giant flies emerge from them. They fly in the stratosphere and swoop down to pick up a human to devour him. The conclusion is that since they are so immense, they propagate only in small numbers like elephants and not like flies.
Then your stories had a scientific basis?
Yes. My science fiction books have. Whenever I start a novel, I call the most outstanding scientist in that field, asking him to supervise the technical part of the novel. I’ve had no refusals so far.
Because you are well known?
I don’t think I’m that well known. But most scientists are as bored with their jobs as other professionals. They dread the repetitious lab work. To work with a writer is a welcome diversion. You know, I believe that every human being is a frustrated writer. When you have a pencil you believe you can write. People who own a violin wouldn’t think of playing it without taking lessons. Everybody thinks he has a novel hidden in himself. But he doesn’t bring it out.
Laziness. Boston University collects my manuscripts. They want papers of contemporary writers. I just sent the pages off which I messed up with my last novel City in the Sky. The package came to 35 pounds of paper! About 2,000 pages, cut down to 220 printed ones! That should scare everybody. Nobody works as hard as a writer. Do you get paid talking to me?
I have to make a living.
So do most of the people if you don’t marry rich or inherit wealth. But when you have a job like directing a picture or having an assignment in a studio, you have to be there on time. When a writer gets up in the morning, who asks him to work? His work, like that of a sculptor or printer, is speculative. It might be worth nothing in currency or it might make him rich. So-called creative artists need an immense self-discipline which few people have.
You still didn’t tell me how you got into the horror business.
Hollywood at the time, I mean the ’40s, didn’t only typecast the actors but also the writers. I wrote the story and screenplay of The Return of the Invisible Man for a young Vincent Price at Universal. The picture made money and I was in the groove. Of course Donovan’s Brain helped a little. From then on I wrote many horror pictures for U., but also musicals like Frisco Sal for Susan Forster, and Shady Lady for Ginnie Sims, but the horror made the money for the company.
But you originated the Wolf Man.
A producer, Jack Gross at Universal, wanted to do a werewolf story. I gave the Wolfman his character-a human being that wants to die since he knows that he will change into a wolf and kill when the moon is full.
Even a man who is kind at heart and says his prayers at night might become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon shines full and bright.
I made that ditty up. Now people believe it is part of European Folklore.
Those pictures scared me when I was a kid. I didn’t dare get out of bed in the dark, afraid of the monsters hiding in the room.
You see, I did a lot for the American family life. I scared the little kids so much that they stayed in bed and the parents could play bridge. But these stories also have a deep atavistic meaning. They appeal to our hidden basic instincts which we remember subconsciously since the time our forefathers lives in caves. Man wanted to identify himself with the strongest animal he feared. The wolf was the most dangerous animal in Europe at that time. So, there was the Tigerman in India, the Snakeman in the Pacific. The fairytales are in my opinion the fear of winter. Little Red Riding Hood is swallowed by the bad wolf-the winter-the young hunter, spring, frees her and kills the winter with its cold and hunger. Sleeping Beauty has the same theme: the bad witch-winter-poisons her. Spring, the young prince kills the witch, Sleeping Beauty coughs up the poisoned apple, comes back to life and the thorns start blooming with a million roses. Very poetic!
What is your next plan? Another book?
No. I want to go on a lecture tour, to meet young people and to get a new lease on life which a writer needs after having been under house arrest while writing a novel. Or work for magazines like Black Mask, which I like for its literary background and its appreciation for classical stories. But I don’t know. Maybe I am going to do a motion picture in Morocco. There is a chance that the Moroccan company likes my screenplay I treasure and which I wrote ten years ago. I had a deal with the Egyptians but the 1967 war broke out and the film didn’t materialize. I like to direct. It is fun working with people, and seeing on the screen what has been a written work. We live in a visual age. But films have a very limited life. How is your Latin?
My Latin? Why? Not so good.
Non lettera scritta sed lettera impressa manet. Not the written word remains, only the printed one. A film is like the written words. They die with the time—but a published book or a printed story might last forever. You collect for Black Mask classic stories or stories of known writers. If those stories were on film, the film would have aged. But the printed words don’t seem to die.
Authored by Keith Alan Deutsch.