From the DVD case: Literary classics become screen horror classics when given the Lewton touch. Take the gothic romance of Jane Eyre, reset it in the West Indies, add the direction of Jacques Tourneur (Cat People) and the overriding terror of the living dead and you have I Walked with a Zombie. Frances Dee plays the nurse who witnesses the strange power of voodoo. (1943, b&w)
Mark says: Poor Val Lewton. First RKO sticks him with an appalling pre-tested film title like Cat People. When he reinvents the horror genre with an intelligent, engrossing, and successful film, they stick him with another lurid title: I Walked with a Zombie.
For a sensitive and serious producer, Lewton must have cringed at his new assignment. Luckily, he was able to recruit director Jacques Tourneur (Curse of the Demon), a man of similar sensibilities, for the project. Tourneur and Lewton had worked together on Cat People, and would later share the same producer/director relationship on 1943’s The Leopard Man.
Like his first RKO production, I Walked with a Zombie far out-classed it’s title. The film is subtle and atmospheric (the latter adjective has become cliche in describing Lewton’s films, but it fits so well). This is a quiet movie, except for one good scream, the characters barely achieve normal speaking tones. The setting is ethereal, filled with ominous shadows and eerie relics. Voodoo drums are heard in the distance and the wind rustles through the sugar cane fields at night. And, depending on your particular viewpoint, there may or may not be a few zombies about.
Frances Dee plays Betsy Connell, a young nurse hired to care for a plantation owner’s “mentally ill” wife on an island in the West Indies. The husband, Paul Holland, is played by Tom Conway (The Atomic Submarine, The She-Creature). Natives of the island believe Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) is not mentally ill, but a zombie, a concept scoffed at by the grim Mr. Holland.
James Ellison (The Undying Monster) portrays Wesley Rand, Holland’s half-brother. The story of the brothers is told through a Calypso singer, played by Sir Lancelot (The Curse of the Cat People). We learn that Wesley and Mrs. Holland had fallen in love and were about to run off together when Jessica fell ill and then withdrew into a sort of sleepwalking catatonia. Wesley believes his half-brother intentionally drove his wife mad, an accusation Mr. Holland can’t deny with any sort of confidence.
Val Lewton loosely (my wife insists, very loosely) bases his story around the dark romance featured in the novel, Jane Eyre. Mrs. Holland represents Bronte’s Bertha Mason, a woman brought to ruin through her own immorality, and like the novel, the story is told through an innocent (Betsy) who finds danger in a strange and foreboding new world. Fittingly, Edith Barrett, who plays the mother of Wesley and Mr. Holland, went on to play Mrs. Fairfax in the 1944 version of Jane Eyre.
Holland and Betsy eventually fall in love, but as Holland consistently pushes her away, Betsy decides the best way to express her love is to restore his wife to the living beauty he once knew her as. When standard medicine fails, Betsy escorts Jessica to the voodoo houmfort in hopes of curing her through supernatural means.
This sojourn to the houmfort is easily the most poetic and eerie sequence of the movie. During their trek through rustling sugar cane fields, the pair encounter Carrefour (Darby Jones), the most obvious “zombie” of the story, and ranking as one of the best film zombies I have ever seen (that’s him in the poster above).
Like other Lewton films, I Walked with a Zombie has an ambiguity to it that leaves much of the story up for interpretation. How much is actual voodoo magic, and how much is just coincidence is left up to the viewer. However, in my eyes, the evidence seems to tip more favorably in one direction. More than that, I will not say. It’s best that you experience this gem for yourself.
Scene to watch for: Besides the classic walk through the cane field, watch for Betsy’s frightening initial encounter with Mrs. Holland in the tower.
Line to listen for: “Everything dies here, even the stars”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ½ out of 5.