Thursday, May 24, 2007

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, based on an original
story by Inez Wallace
Produced by: Val Lewton
Starring: Frances Dee, James Ellison, Tom Conway
Black & White, 69 minutes

Grade: B

In the late 1930's, Val Lewton made a name for himself working as a story editor for produce David O. Selznick. Lewton was on the front lines of such productions as Gone With the Wind and Hitchcock's Rebecca. Remember the famous crane shot in Wind that pulls back to show Scarlett walking through hundreds of wounded soldiers? That was Lewton's idea, which he meant as a joke. A few years later, growing tired of Selznick's megalomania, Lewton left to become head of RKO's B-horror unit. RKO was on the verge of ruin, due to the financial failure of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and desperately needed to quickly churn out a few inexpensive hits. Lewton was given a handful of titles to choose from and told to turn them into screenplays. He was given free reign over the films, and when choosing his first director, he turned to old pal Jacques Tourneur. Their first film together(Cat People) was a huge hit, and RKO wanted more.

For their next collaboration they chose an "original" story by Inez Wallace. Now, to be fair, Wallace's story may be completely original, but the screenplay, cooked up by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man), borrows more than a few elements from Jane Eyre, not to mention a voice-over from Rebecca, and mixes in a bit of voodoo for good measure. Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is a nurse that's still a little wet behind the ears, and more than a bit naive. She is offered a position taking care of Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), a catatonic woman, referred to as a "zombie," who resides on a sugar plantation in St. Sebastian, an island in the West Indies. Betsy is promised "palm trees, sunbathing, and swimming," but the island holds darker, more terrifying secrets (they always do). In trying to find a cure for Jessica's illness, Betsy falls in love with Paul (Tom Conway), her patients husband. The problem comes in the fact that Paul may or may not have caused Jessica's illness when he found out about the affair she was having with his half-brother Wesley. This all happens in the first ten minutes. After that we get a visit to a voodoo encampment, a creepy looking, bug eyed dude that does nothing but stare, various shots of skulls and hollowed out gourds, and a couple of interesting twists in the third act.

If you can't tell already, this is probably the most plot heavy horror film ever made, and amazingly it lasts just over an hour. The performances are as serviceable as usual for this type of low budget chiller, but it is in the production values that the film excels and Lewton shows his genius. Tourneur, who went on to make Out of the Past, knows how to stage a suspenseful scene, and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt plays with shadow so effectively that he betrays his low budget roots. Roy Webb's music does exactly what a horror film score should, it maintains an eerie atmosphere without ever pointing out the shocks on screen.

The film has an authentic local flavor, those voodoo chants in particular, that seemed to me to be a sort of precursor to Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer's The Wicker Man. The overall gothic atmosphere of the proceedings also reminded me of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Yet, in the end, I would rather watch The Wicker Man again, or reread Beloved before I give this film another spin. I admire what Lewton and his accomplice were able to accomplish under such restrictions, but regardless of their intelligence and quality, the films are quite dated. What was creepy and effective sixty years ago has unfortunately been squandered away thanks to all the ultra-violent excuses for horror films that we have seen throughout the years (I'm talking about you Hostel). This is more of an admission of my own ignorance than anything. It's certainly not the fault of Lewton or his films, there's no way that he could have possibly had the foresight to know how desensitized we would all become.

All in all, I Walked with a Zombie is not a waste of time in any way. It's a smart film that's competently made, and it's certainly better than anyone could have anticipated at the time, and it's actually much better than it has any justifiable right to be. It's always nice to look back and see what scared the audiences of former generations, but throughout Zombie's 70 minute running time, I couldn't help but wonder what my grandchildren will think of the violence in the films of my generation. Scary thought, no? Certainly scarier than anything in this movie.


H. Stewart said...

I wonder if people were even scared of this stuff back in '43, the same way most people don't actually seem "scared" by today's horror movies, just entertained.

You know what's scary, though? That guy who plays Renfield in Tod Browning's Dracula. (According to IMdB his name is Dwight Frye.) Yikes!

Clayton L. White said...

Yeah that Renfield guy is spooky, but for some reason I've always preferred Tom Waits in Coppola's version. Brilliant casting!