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Criticwire Classic of the Week: ‘I Walked With a Zombie”

Criticwire Classic of the Week: 'I Walked With a Zombie"

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“I Walked With a Zombie”
Dir: Jacques Tourneur
Criticwire Average: A

When Russian-born producer Val Lewton was hired by RKO Pictures to be the head of their horror unit in 1942, he was required to follow three simple rules. First, each film has to come in under budget of $150,000; second, each film had to run under 75 minutes; and finally, third, Lewton’s supervisors would supply the titles to each film. After the commercial failures of “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” plus the aborted documentary “It’s All True,” RKO’s collaboration with Orson Welles left the studio in a troubled state by 1942. However, when studio president George J. Schaefer retired and Charles Koerner took over, he announced a new corporate motto: “Showmanship in Place of Genius,” referring to Schaefer’s “artistic” ambitions. What Koerner had in mind were B-movies like the ones he hired Lewton to make. Little did he know that Lewton’s commitment to that motto would produce a film like “I Walked With a Zombie.”

The film follows Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse who travels to a sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian to care for Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), the wife of the plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway), who’s struck with a mysterious fever. Once she’s there, she discovers among other things that the Hollands brought slaves to the island, that Paul’s alcoholic half-brother Wesley (James Ellison) works on the plantation and at one point was going to run away with Jessica before she became sick, and that an entire Voodoo culture secretly exists on the island. When Betsy falls in love with Paul, she’s determined to make him happy by curing Jessica, but when no treatment works, she turns to Voodoo and travels through the cane fields to the Houmfort for treatment. Soon, she’s caught up in Jessica mysterious condition, and whether or not she exists in the liminal space between life and death.

Though “I Walked With a Zombie” is technically a horror film, the horror itself derives from the film’s lighting and atmospherics rather than traditional scares or vibrant gore. It’s mainly a mood piece that establishes an uncanny eeriness early in the film which lingers until its very last moments. Director Jacques Tourneur brings out the buried complexities of the film’s “Jane Eyre”-inspired script, courtesy of Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, to life through noir shadows and suggestive camera movements, capturing an ugly haunting colonial history without putting too fine a point on it. Though “I Walked With a Zombie” certainly trades in some uncomfortable exoticism, the majority of the “horror” doesn’t come from the natives themselves (in fact, the Voodoo ritual scenes are clearly researched and shot with respectful long takes), but rather the land that both they and the white plantation owners walk upon. It’s a cursed island because its existence is built upon racial entrapment and ownership, and its that “curse” that infects everyone from Jessica through the Holland’s matriarch, Mrs. Brand (Edith Barrett).

But what’s especially effective in “I Walked With a Zombie” is the prevailing ambiguity of the supernatural at all. When the natives stab Jessica with a sabre, she doesn’t bleed, but is that because she’s a zombie possessed by a Voodoo God, or is it because she has no lifeblood at all after being complicit in such a devastating racial history? Tourneur presents the Evil in the film as a direct descendant from human action and behavior, with the “supernatural” being the natural consequence of rational horrors we chalk up to being “business as usual.” Every character dismisses the other-worldly explanations for Jessica’s condition, chalking it up to a tropical fever, but the rational observers of such irrational events never look within themselves for the answers, blaming external sources for deeply internal problems. When Betsy takes Jessica through the sugar cane fields to the Houmfort, we witness alongside her some disturbing imagery, like a dead animal hanging from a tree, but it’s the bug-eyed Carre-Four (Darby Jones), a Voodoo guardian, that leaves the biggest impression. It’s not his visage that unsettles, but rather the history beneath his face. It’s no wonder that neither the Hollands nor Betsy can hardly bare to stare at him; he reflects the corrosion of their collective soul. 

More thoughts from the web:

Rob Humanick, The Projection Booth

When Val Lewton was made head of RKO’s horror unit in 1942, his newfound and artistically encouraging presence allowed for a breed in striking contrast the popular films of the day. Although quite often excellent in their own right, Universal’s output had long since become it’s own name brand complete with predictably filled expectations and built-in mass appeal, and one that was on the tipping point between the methodical and the self-parodying. Lewton’s emphasis on mood and context was more suggestively menacing than outrightly terrifying, and his work with the similarly daring Jacques Tourneur made for some of the most memorable (and, despite their relative uniqueness, lucrative) films of the decade. “I Walked with a Zombie” may be their most prolific work together, a miniature masterpiece of contorted human emotions and uneasy personal broodings emphasized by a gothic melange of sight and sound. The film was marketed not unlike “The Wolf Man” but its sense of horror is rarely of the visually recognizable kind; the creature alluded to in its title is not terrifying in a physical sense but for its implications on the human soul. Read more.

Fernando F. Croce, CinePassion

Between Halperin’s “White Zombie” and Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” lies Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece, a single scream amid whispers and chants and foliage rustled in the wind. The zombie here is not a ghoul but the mysterious zone between spiritual states, the lost somnambulist who does not bleed when pierced by the voodoo priest’s saber, the towering guardian (Darby Jones) staring with blank eyes over a maze of sugarcane crops. Guilt and superstition, the penitence of sinners and the murmurs of gods, a wealth of tenebrous material woven most gracefully by Tourneur, who contemplates the native congregations with respectfully fascinated tracking shots and achieves a devastating effect with a cut from a pin pushed into a voodoo doll to an act of lethal sacrifice. The walking dead of Romero and Fulci, sure, but also the specters of Marguerite Duras’ “India Song” and the lithographic prints of Belkis Ayón, they’re all already in these inescapable, unknowable shadows. Read more.

Sam Adams, The A.V. Club

Tourneur’s “I Walked With a Zombie” sounds, no doubt deliberately, like a cheapo creature feature, but it’s really a melodrama in horror-movie disguise, more kin to “Wide Sargasso Sea” than “Night of the Living Dead.” Transported from the snowy climes of Ottawa to the hothouse swelter of the West Indies, nurse Frances Dee goes to work for a dapper plantation owner (Tom Conway) whose wife’s catatonic state turns out to be the result of a voodoo curse. The romance that’s meant to flourish between Dee and Conway is stilted and unconvincing, but it’s clear that Tourneur’s interests lie in the shadows. Even at 68 minutes, the movie is a slow burn, but once Dee walks into the sugar-cane fields on her way to a voodoo ceremony, the fluid play of black on black is mesmerizing to behold. Perhaps most startling is the way Tourneur, who was born in France and raised in the U.S., links the movie’s fears not to racist caricatures of native evil, but to the rot of slavery and colonialism. On her way to Conway’s manor, Dee is schooled by her driver on the estate’s courtyard statue of St. Sebastian, a former slave-ship figurehead the locals call “Ti-Misery.” That’s not to say “Zombie” is entirely free from exoticist anxiety, but the bug-eyed figure who incarnates Dee’s fear of the unknown is too otherworldly to be tied to a specific cause. He’s beyond human understanding but not our capacity to fear.

Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique Online

The sly joke of “I Walked With A Zombie” is that, despite the insistence of the title, there may not be any zombies in it at all; in short, this may be a monster movie without a conventional monster. There are, however, two potential candidates for zombies: Jessica Holland and Carrefour. Whether or not they are truly the living dead, neither of these “zombies” fully captures the true horror of “I Walked With A Zombie,” which is playing a game far more sophisticated than the traditional horror film. Typically, horror stories of the period were fashioned around skeptical characters who were forced to admit that “there are such things” as vampires, werewolves, zombies, and other monsters that go bump in the night. The Lewton horror productions played around with this formula, presenting rational characters confronting situations that could not be fixed by modern science, forcing them to look elsewhere for answers. The difference was that the protagonist’s conversion to belief was portrayed as a recidivist slip into superstition. Therein lies the true horror of many Val Lewton productions: not a monster on the outside but a belief in monsters driving one to madness. Read more.

Tim Brayton, Agony & Ecstasy

Instead of true horror, then, what the film has to offer is atmosphere by the bucketful: and sometimes that atmosphere gets to be awfully thick with ethereal, uncanny imagery, such as the simply magnificent sequence of Betsy smuggling Jessica to the voodoo meeting place, through a long lateral tracking shot across an unpleasantly wide and empty patio, across fields of sugar can with a dead animal hanging from a tree (the one outright horrifying image in the film). Or the shots of Darby Jones standing with really eerie make-up as the mute zombie Carrefour, lead henchman of the voodoo priest. Or the under-lit interior of the plantation, especially the stone staircase that feels wildly too Gothic to belong in the rest of the house (I imagine it was a leftover set, but I don’t want to know for sure what it came from – have to retain some movie magic, even we critics), with pleasantly disorienting results. Read more.

Thomas M. Pryor, The New York Times

Wit its voodoo rites and perambulating zombie, “I Walked With a Zombie” probably will please a lot of people. But to this spectator, at least, it proved to be a dull, disgusting exaggeration of an unhealthy, abnormal concept of life. If the Hays office feels it has a duty to protect the morals of movie-goers by protesting the use of such expressions as “hell” and “damn” in purposeful dramas like “In Which We Serve” and “We Are the Marines,” then how much more important is its duty to safeguard the youth of the land from the sort of stuff and nonsense that their minds will absorb from viewing “I Walked With a Zombie”? ? ? Read more.

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