I Walked with a Zombie

(USA - 1943)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Frances Dee, Tom Conway, James Ellison, Edith Barrett, Christine Gordon
Genre: Horror/Mystery
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Curt Siodmak & Ardel Wray based on a story by Inez Wallace and Charlotte Bronte's novel Jayne Eyre
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Composer: Roy Webb
Runtime: 69 minutes

"You'll find superstition is a contagious thing. Some people let it get the better of them" - Paul Holland

Producer is one important position I've rarely paid that much attention to. I can quickly come up with a few I really dislike. There are the meddling ones that do release some good movies, but still leave a bad taste in your mouth because for the most part they aren't what they could have been, or even what they were. You have guys like Harvey Weinstein, who thinks he knows more about film than Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, basically every great filmmaker he's ever worked with and sicks Cropsy on their work, or his earlier incarnation David O. Selznick, who was sabotaging directors like Michael Powell and King Vidor. Then there's the guys like Luc Besson, who are kind of their brother except they never intend to make anything good (in what seems like a previous lifetime, Besson did direct a few good movies), they just want to make as many products as possible so they hire stooges to execute their instructions and then reshoot what supposedly doesn't work themselves. Then there are bozos like Jerry Bruckweiser, whose films might seem "entertaining" if you are drunk enough. They make supposedly slick by the numbers stuff that's so unbelievably dumb it's stupefying, with big name cutouts that execute the mechanisms of their totally formulaic plots. Most of the producers I like are more by association. Serge Silberman, for instance, is good because he put together the later Luis Bunuel films like Diary of a Chambermaid & That Obscure Object of Desire, though of course it helps a lot that his few other films include Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur, Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva, Jacques Becker's Le Trou, & Akira Kurosawa's Ran.

One of the few producers who was good for the style of his films was Val Lewton. He was named head of RKO's new horror unit the "Snake Pit" in 1942, making sub 80 minute B pictures. With his three proteges - director Jacques Tourneur and two editors he gave the reigns to when Tourneur became too expensive, Robert Wise and Mark Robson - he made just 11 films there through 1946 (his final three films were bigger budget non horrors for other studios then he died in 1951 at the age of 46). Quite a brief career, but his influence is still present today.

Outside of a few German expressionist carryovers like Vampyr and a few of Tod Browning's films such as Freaks but certainly not the grossly overrated Dracula, the horror movies of the 1930's were generally awful. They were stagnant, a bunch of poorly illustrated text with cheap shock effects. Lewton's psychological horrors brought intelligence, poetry, movement, and mystery to (or at least back to) the screen.

Myths and legends were put to great use the plots of Lewton. Cults, witchdoctors, ancient curses, even the vorvolaka were potential explanations for the mysterious occurrences in his films. He replaced the tangible with the intangible, playing on a cerebral level with the clash between the believable and unbelievable the material created inside you. This also created the kind of anticipation and suspense that's never maintained once you see the evil. No matter how good the evil might look the mystery is always more powerful, you could always imagine worse if you were allowed to. Lewton gave you that freedom, keeping the menace on the corners of the screen if not off it entirely.

"He aimed at more than mere exploitable crook shows, and wanted their impact to result from legitimate psychological conflicts. Lewton's pictures were cheaply made, but not cheap," said protégé Wise. Not only didn't his films rely on guys in silly disguises, they didn't play the scenes up like horrors usually do. There isn't a bunch of overacting, a ton of annoying wailing from the girls or cheap tactics used for effect. Speaking of effect, Lewton refused to use any costly effects or really even show violence (Boris Karloff did have a few fights in The Body Snatcher since that didn't have a monster). There were a few deaths, but we basically didn't see them, just the result. His films were often about the clash between scientific and spiritual. Thus, by never quite showing what happened, he wasn't trying to prove or disprove one, leaving the debate hotter when the film ended.

Lewton's best director by far was Tourneur, and together they supplied the template for good low-budget horror. The understood what you suggested was the most important thing. The plots were more mysteries with the horror created from the mood and the atmosphere, and from things that exist but take on a creepy otherworldly meaning if your mindset is "right". In I Walked With a Zombie, the wind and the incessant rhythmic beating of the native (voodoo?) drums take on a life of their own, creating a supernatural presence and eliciting a fear in the rich whites on the island of those whose religious practices are quite different. Using this evocative method, they were able to make the films at an extremely low cost. Their first film and masterpiece Cat People (1942) was made for just $134,000. It was yet another example of the idea you have to make conventional crap to make money being more bunk to justify a universally lousy studio output, as it shocked audiences with it's intelligence and originality but also grossed $4 million worldwide and saved RKO from bankruptcy.

Suggestion wasn't the only thing gained by the creation of an unseen menace. The real importance of their style is it put the ball in the viewer's court. You got to decide what was true, what was possible, what was really going on. The typical mistake is to say that Lewton's work was based on the supernatural, but it was more about the fear that derives from knowing the myths. Tourneur's works took this a step farther, as he was able to lose the supernatural aspects while maintaining the world ruled by terror, thus allowing him to apply the same principles to whatever genre he worked in.

Lewton is one of the few producers whose films were personal. Usually the director adds these kind of touches, but Lewton expressed some of his own fears in films like Cat People and The Seventh Victim. He used autobiographical details like the lost party invitations in Curse of the Cat People. He'd also work in his interests like folk songs, exotic dishes, and references to Shakespeare and poet John Donne.

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Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre was the basis for I Walked with a Zombie's plot. This was another of Lewton's tricks to keep the budget down. He didn't have enough money to purchase an original story from a writer, so he used a public domain work, and hired writers to alter it. This should make the film a predictable rip off, but one of the tricks we see in Lewton & Tourneur's work is starting out making us think something is familiar only to manipulate it so it isn't, then maybe it is. The familiarity helped them to established the characters, but then they'd move to building the menace until they'd shock you with scenes where you weren't quite sure what happened, often climaxing with a scene that lends itself to multiple readings.

The biggest difference between the plots of I Walked with a Zombie and Jane Eyre is there is no child to care for, instead it's the insane wife. Setting the film in St. Sebastian in the West Indies made all the difference though. Even before we arrive at the exotic setting, there are regular but not heavy-handed reminders that things might not be as they seem. The most effective is when the nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is travelling to the island with her new employer Paul Holland (Tom Conway) and she gets lost in the sights as the rowers do their rendition of "O Merry Congo." Paul tells Betsy, "Everything seems beautiful because you don't understand. Those flying fish - they're not leaping for joy they're jumping in terror, bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water - it takes its gleam from millions of dead bodies, the glitter of putrescence. There's no beauty here, only death and decay. Everything good dies here, even the stars."

The best scenes happen at night. The mystery and terror is in the dark itself and the sound effects, which are all natural but take on a life of their own at night in an unusual setting when you are in the right mood. These nocturnal scenes do allow for some expert lighting, with interesting patterns but light sources that were plausible. The scene where Betsy first sees the zombie Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) has a shot where she enters a building and all that's illuminated is the doorway behind her and the side of a long winding staircase.

"These people are primitive. Things that are natural to them might shock and horrify you" warns Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett). That's really the trick of this film. The best and scariest scene has Betsy taking Jessica at night through the West Indies version of a cornfield, complete with their scarecrows to see the witchdoctor. What they see isn't really scary because of what it is, and they don't try to manipulate creeps per say through the soundtrack, instead relying only on effects that could exist in that setting like the rustling of the sugar cane and the howling wind. It's simply scary because it's dark and they are seeing things they aren't used to or haven't seen before. There's a classic shot where we follow the light of Betsy's flashlight across the ground until we see a bare foot. Then, as Lewton & Tourneur liked to do, the screen just goes black for a second. The next thing we see is the face of Carrefour (Darby Jones), an empty bulging eyed apparently statuesque voodoo mon who was scary enough Lewton & Tourneur were able to avoid having to put unrealistic creatures on the screen.

Lewton & Tourneur didn't always get their way. There were often clashes with the traditional by the numbers studio heads over showing the monster. Lewton & Tourneur would fight for doubt, while the heads would fight for some cheap shocks. In Cat People, they lost, but Tourneur filmed a shadow puppet of the panther and had the attack so underlit you could barely make out anything. Tourneur's Night of the Demon might have been his best horror though if he wasn't forced to show the demon 10 minutes into the movie, which totally undermined what was otherwise a great clash between a skeptical doctor that refuses to believe in demons (played by the seriously underrated Dana Andrews) and a doctor that is seemingly the head of the demon cult (Niall MacGinnis).

It's funny how things have changed. I Walked with a Zombie was such a provocative lowbrow attention getting title that people had a hard time respecting the film. Lewton, who was forced by RKO production chief Charles Koerner to use the title, actually wrote a letter to his sister telling her not to get mad at the New York reviewers because it was hard to give something with such a name a good review. Now you have the unoriginal idealess works of Steven Fodderbergh - Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Full Frontal - using these kind of titles to pose as some kind of highbrow art.

I Walked with a Zombie isn't the type of film that's going to win any awards. Genre films are always shafted in favor of so called serious films, which are often more about our own nobility and the way we are supposed to feel for certain people than the actual reality of their problems, just compare the Oscar mongering drama A Beautiful Mind to the totally ignored "thriller" Spider. Neither Lewton nor Tourneur were ever nominated for an award, anywhere. Lack of respect for their type of material is certainly a big issue, but another crucial one is there's no category for effect. There probably isn't a single aspect about I Walked with a Zombie that is great. There are even some obvious weaknesses like the bit players being more memorable than the leads and the love story not quite working on its own. It's all very simple, but there for a purpose and achieving an effect that mounts. It's actually rather easy to see where the story is going, but you don't know what you'll see when you get there, or if you'll believe it. What happens starts spiraling things out of control, even though it's generally explainable if you want to you are swept away. The film is extremely tight with everything being there for a reason, and when you add it all up you get a whole that is great because it's magnificently effective at achieving a certain goal.


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