Tuesday, April 16, 2013

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE

Jacques Tourneur, 1943
Starring: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway

"The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living, dead, or possessed, is purely coincidental."

Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur’s second collaboration together is one of their finest and most haunting films, a meditation on guilt, despair, unattainable love, sexual longing, and death. Betsy, a young Canadian nurse, is hired to care for the wife of Caribbean plantation owner Paul Holland. Jessica, Holland’s lovely wife, is in a zombie-like, catatonic state where she is able to open her eyes, walk, eat, and follow basic orders, but is otherwise devoid of life. Paul and his half-brother Wesley explain that this is the result of an island fever, but Betsy comes to learn that there is more to the story and that the Hollands have a complicated family history. Betsy falls in love with Paul, despite his depressive nature, and recognizes a damaged person in need of help. Because she cannot act on her love, she is determined to cure Jessica. When medicine fails her, she turns to the local voodoo practices. When she takes Jessica to a voodoo ceremony in the middle of the night, things quickly begin unravelling at the plantation and a number of disturbing secrets come to light. 

I Walked With a Zombie is not a traditional horror film. None of the characters are really in any physical danger throughout the course of the film, yet there is a constant sense of dread, unease, and foreboding from the moment Betsy journeys to the island. Like Cat People, it doesn’t matter whether the cause of Jessica’s zombie-like state is rational or supernatural. Both are equally plausible, equally flawed, and equally dangerous. Lewton’s powerful ability to explore contradictory worlds is at the heart of this film: the irrational and the rational, European Christian beliefs and African voodoo, science and superstition, freedom and bondage. I Walk With a Zombie is ultimately about infidelity tearing apart a family and the results of a man being unable to control his wife’s sexuality. There is the implication that Jessica is easier to deal with in her comatose state and that, in some way, she deserves what happened to her. 

“Everything good dies here, even the stars.”

Paul - and a series of unsettling events - convinces Betsy that the beautiful island paradise is really a nightmare in disguise. The island is a place seeped in the miasma of death where former slaves weep at the birth of a child and celebrate funerals. Their patron saint (and the island’s namesake) is St. Sebastian, who is typically depicted as a beautiful, nearly naked young man tied to a tree and pierced with arrows. Jessica's flesh is pierced several times throughout the film, with needles, a knife, an arrow and she is essentially sacrificed to appease the other characters' feelings of guilt and sexual repression.  Death, as with many of Lewton’s other films, is the great escape, the only device able to liberate characters from the excruciating pain of living. The ambiguous, yet devastating ending culminates in a murder-suicide that leaves the family free of secrets, but permanently unable to resolve their complicated feelings. 

As with noir films, all the characters have a certain moral gray area. Though Betsy (a tepid though appropriate performance from Frances Dee) appears to be our moral center and for the most part is a good person, she has the bad taste to fall in love with Paul, her married boss. Her desperate need to cure Jessica is really an attempts to purge the guilt she feels at having illicit romantic (and sexual) feelings. The thoroughly unromantic Paul (Tom Conway, the psychiatrist from Cat People) is cruel, bitter, misanthropic. He is content to keep Jessica trapped in her comatose state of living death and does nothing to attempt to free her. His mother (Edith Barrett) has a double life and functions as the head of a local clinic and secretly, by night, as a voodoo priestess. Wesley (James Ellison), Paul’s brother, is one of the true victims of the film, though he passively and self-destructively embraces alcoholism. 

Lewton was forced by RKO to use the I Walked With a Zombie title, and though the story is allegedly based on Inez Wallace’s article on voodoo for American Weekly Magazine, it is really a re-telling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre with a generous helping of White Zombie (1932). The latter film, a Bela Lugosi vehicle, also deals with voodoo and a man turning a woman into a zombie because of his sexual desire for her. I Walked With a Zombie is a much more subtle, haunting version of the Lugosi story and benefits from the Gothic elements of Brontë’s celebrated novel. The script was penned by Curt Siodmak, responsible for a number of horror films from the period, including the almost equally melancholic The Wolf Man

Though I Walked With a Zombie is not strictly a horror film in terms of plot, there are some terrifying, poetic visuals that will surely interest fans of classic horror. As with Cat People, Tourneur has a very noir-like style, though we have moved away from the city and into the chaotic island wilderness. There are some frightening moments in an old silo and every nighttime shadow in the plantation manor holds a potential threat. The most famous scene is when Jessica and Betsy wander through the fields of sugar cane in the middle of the night towards the voodoo gathering. They come across bones, animal sacrifices, and a very tall, thin zombie man known as Carre-Four, who is terrifying simply by standing still, staring mindlessly into the night, and remaining silent. Jessica (Christine Gordon) is a ghostly figure, moving slowly and listlessly in a flowing white gown, permanently standing out against all the shadows and blackness, hovering between life and death. 

I Walked With a Zombie comes highly recommended, though it will not please everyone. Lewton's films are depressing, existential, thinking man's horror and do not offer cheap thrills or scares. Like his other works, this film refuses to answer questions, resolve issues, or offer any solutions and will frustrate some viewers. And as with his other works, the monsters in this movie are thoroughly unconventional and lack the fangs and fur populating the screen at this period. I Walked With a Zombie is available on a split disc with The Body Snatcher or as part of the excellent Val Lewton Horror Collection box set

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