Friday, July 05, 2019

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

USA, 69 minutes
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writers: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray, Inez Wallace, Charlotte Bronte, Val Lewton
Photography: J. Roy Hunt
Music: Roy Webb
Editor: Mark Robson
Cast: Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Darby Jones, James Ellison, Christine Gordon, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Sir Lancelot, Theresa Harris, Jieno Moxzer

When RKO Pictures hired producer Val Lewton to make what turned out to be a famous series of mild horror pictures in the '40s, the studio had three requirements for him: the movies had to be cheap (under $150,000), short (under 75 minutes), and use the evocative titles they gave him ("Cat People," "Bedlam," "The Seventh Victim"), as if they were creative writing instructors dispensing cues. Yet the results are undeniable, strange and quiet, straining against rules, expertly made, bruised moody and beautiful, though often undercutting their own effects by so resolutely looking away from things they suggest. Too expensive to shoot, no doubt. The Curse of the Cat People, a sequel to Cat People, is barely related to the first movie. In fact, it's barely horror—much closer to fairy tale fantasy, with a unique sympathy for lonely children. And one of the best Lewton made.

Speaking of best, director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, Curse / Night of the Demon, Canyon Passage) was probably the best director Lewton had. He directed Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, as well as the somewhat less effective Leopard Man. I Walked With a Zombie is based on a magazine article about workers in Haiti controlled through drug dosing, but Lewton gave it some literary torque by picking up one of the main plot threads from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and injecting it into his Haitian mood. This Zombie is a movie more about voodoo than George Romero's reimagining of zombies as some horrific virus that reanimates corpses. See also an RKO picture with Bela Lugosi from more than 10 years earlier, the 1932 White Zombie, working much the same idea. Voodoo and a tinge of racism lurking in the back are what give I Walked With a Zombie most of its juice, of which it has plenty.

As with many Lewton films, the performances can be underplayed to the point of wooden, always choosing to err on the side of the quiet. But there's actually quite a bit going on in this busy story of a nurse, Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), hired from Canada to come care for an ailing woman on a plantation in the West Indies. The screenshot above perfectly illustrates the title Lewton was given to work with. That's Betsy on the left, the "I" of this movie, who patches gaps in the story with voiceover narration as needed. On the right is Mrs. Holland (Christine Gordon), the woman Betsy has been hired to care for. She is the zombie. They are walking together to a very important place. Mrs. Holland's doctor, a rational man of science, prefers to think of the condition as a kind of sleepwalking sickness, a type of coma. He denies that voodoo has anything to do with it.

Another source of tension is ongoing antagonism between two half-brothers, Mrs. Holland's husband Paul (Tom Conway), who operates the plantation, and Wesley Rand (James Ellison), who has some gnawing animus against Paul. Rand drinks constantly, sneers, and picks fights with Paul every time he sees him. It plays like a biblical Cain and Abel bolt, unexplained for most of the movie. Their mother is on hand too, actually the linchpin of the whole story, though she makes a late appearance and then spends much of her screen time showing up in the weirdest places and obviously hiding something. Betsy, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Paul, and decided the best way to show it is to restore Mrs. Holland to health. When Western medicine can't do it she decides to give voodoo a try.

I would call I Walked With a Zombie the most effective horror movie Val Lewton made, but much of that in turn relies on the uneasiness engendered by voodoo, playing explicitly to stereotypes. Most of the images associated with the picture's promotion show Darby Jones as Carrefour, a mysterious figure in the voodoo world of this movie. He might be a god but he's probably a zombie, so it's not exactly misleading to show his picture. But to be clear, "I" doesn't walk with him. The shock cuts of Carrefour lurching around, or even just focused on close-ups of his placid vacant uniquely cheekboned face, have a lot to do with the mood here. But is he scary because he's black and other? He's certainly presented as a kind of looming African monster. Much the same is true of Jieno Moxzer as Sabreur, a key figure in the voodoo ceremonies. As important as they are to this picture and its promotion, Jones is ranked second-lowest in the credits and Moxzer is not credited at all.

I Walked With a Zombie is actually best the closer it gets to the voodoo ceremonies and African cast. One of its most effective elements is the drumming that can be heard sounding across the plantation. It starts and then it stops and then it starts again, with no obvious reason, profound rolling rhythms like heartbeat, breath, footsteps. The drumming is politely ignored or mildly derided by the white people indoors but it worries them and it worries us too. Miracle of miracles, I Walked With a Zombie ties all its threads up—the voodoo, the science, the Jane Eyre, the Cain and Abel—into a neat little bow. It's almost too tidy. Holding the reins on both voodoo and high literature at once, blending them and making it all work together, is a pretty good trick. It's like standing on two horses at once with a foot on each saddle—quietly.

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