Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Movie Review: I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Frances Dee, Tom Conway

In spite of its cheesy popcorn title, this film captures so many moods and ideas within its brief 69 minutes. The battle between superstition and science. The longing and regret for what you cannot have and might never even understand. The confusion of being in a foreign place with ideas so different from your own. If the Stephen King model of horror is to show you the terror lurking behind the ordinary and familiar, then the Val Lewton model is to tease you with possibilities and keep you in situations that are always unsettling but rarely terrifying. His films are self-contained worlds that sometimes seems to run on dream-logic, with characters pulling you aside to speak poetic words of warning.

I wonder if the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies knew that decades earlier, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur had already made a movie that could rightfully be called Jane Eyre and Zombies. Instead of a gloomy English manor, we're taken to the fictional island of Saint Sebastian. Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is a young Canadian nurse who takes a position as the caretaker of sugar planter Paul Holland's (Tom Conway) ailing wife. She finds herself drawn to the bitter, gloomy man and begins to believe that the only way to make him happy is to cure his wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon). Except that Jessica is no ordinary patient. She exists in a catatonic state, like a sleepwalker with no mind or will, except to obey simple commands. Some of the islanders believe that she may truly be a zombie...

Complicating the story is Paul's alcoholic half-brother Wesley Rand, a man who can match Paul for bitterness. The brothers despise each other and it doesn't take long for Betsy to discover the reason. In one of the film's most memorable sequences, she and Wesley are surprised to hear a calypso singer (Sir Lancelot) tell of the Fort Holland Scandal: how Holland's wife stole the heart of his younger brother and brought on the trouble. Sir Lancelot breaks off his song at the realization that Wesley and Betsy are listening but after Wesley has drank himself into unconsciousness, the singer returns to menace Betsy with his song:

"The wife and the brother, they want to go
But the Holland man, he tell them no
The wife fall down and the evil came
And it burnt her mind in the fever flame.
Ah woe, ah me
Shame and sorrow for the family"

Did Jessica simply become sick from brain fever, as her doctor suggests? Or is she a true zombie, punished for her adultery, as the natives believe? Was she the victim of Paul's mental cruelty, as Wesley tells Betsy? As Betsy slowly begins to believe in the potential of a voodoo cure for Jessica, spurred on by her own guilty love for Paul, we are also left to wonder if she is falling under the superstitious suggestion of the tropical atmosphere. Lewton and Tourneur spin the same wheel that they do in Cat People, sometimes offering rational if pat explanations but keeping us too unnerved to really trust them.

The zombie Jessica is nothing like the usual movie zombie and that's what makes her so effective. She's only a blonde woman shuffling around in a white dress but her slow, steady walk and blank stare are enough to send a shiver down your spine. In one scene, the maid Alma (Theresa Harris) cheerfully says that dressing her is "just like dressing a great big doll." Watching this movie, I was reminded why dolls so often become the objects of horror films. You never know what's really going on behind those empty eyes. Of course, the really frightening image in the film is not Jessica but the zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones), who provides the visual punchline to the film's most famous scene, the walk through whispering sugar cane fields to the houmfort.

"These people are primitive. Things that seem natural to them would shock and horrify you." So says Paul and Wesley's matter-of-fact mother, Dr. Rand (Edith Barrett). You don't expect a 1940s film about voodoo priests and superstitious Afro-Caribbeans to be enlightened but this film is a pleasant surprise. Lewton researched voodoo traditions pretty thoroughly for this film and the scenes at the houmfort sometimes seem close to the style of a documentary, as the camera lingers on the transported faces of the people at the houmfort. The film also touches on the very real cultural divide underneath all the songs and rituals. In one crucial scene, Paul tells Betsy that the centuries of slavery and misery are so ingrained in the island's population that they "weep when a child is born and make merry at burial." The San Sebastian people may still be the exotic unknowable but the portrayal is a far cry from the sentimentalized Mammies and childlike Africans that infect so many classic Hollywood movies.

The black islanders we meet are for the most part, a self-assured and intelligent group of people. When Sir Lancelot makes his apologies to Wesley for his song, he is cool and dignified. And then there is Alma the maid, who is clever, sassy, and sweet. In her first appearance, Paul chastises her for frightening Betsy, who has just had a nightmarish encounter with Jessica in the dark. "Well," shrugs Alma. "She didn't soothe me none either, hollering around in that tower." Later, she and Betsy begin to be friends and Theresa Harris's performance is so well-tuned that she can say lines about how she wants to tend to Betsy's needs without sounding servile or insincere.

Before this movie, I'd only seen Frances Dee in a rather horrible audition tape for the role of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind. George Cukor apparently wanted her for the role of Melanie but according to an interview with her son Peter McCrea, "both he and David Selznick thought she was too pretty, that she and Vivien Leigh were both beautiful and they needed just a little more contrast." That's pretty high appreciation for an actress that has slipped so far out of sight, despite being both beautiful and married to Joel McCrea for 57 years.

Feminine beauty is a crucial element in I Walked with a Zombie. The story implies that Jessica's loveliness is to blame for the family ruin and the dissent between the two brothers. Paul has a pointed conversation with Betsy. "Tell me, Miss Connell, do you consider yourself pretty...and charming?" Flustered, she says that she "never gave the matter much thought." Paul sinks back into his usual state of Gothic-husband abstraction. "Don't. You'll save yourself a great deal of trouble and other people a great deal of unhappiness." Unlike Cat People, which gives us the image of poor Simone Simon tormented by her self-imposed frigidity, this film walks in the pure Gothic tradition of a dead or incapacitated wife who somehow or other, brought it on herself through her promiscuity and attractiveness.

Not that I Walked with a Zombie is unkind to its female characters. Betsy, Alma, and Dr. Rand are all strong, resourceful women and they drive the story's action while Paul and Wesley do little except glare at each other. The women also outclass the men in terms of acting, for my money, with Frances Dee and Theresa Harris as standouts. Tom Conway, on the other hand, contends with the least interesting of his Val Lewton roles and James Ellison falls prey to the same lockjaw acting that afflicted Kent Smith in Cat People. They're not bad, but their accents (Conway sounding like his brother, George Sanders, and Ellison sounding eerily like Robert Stack in moments) are more memorable than anything else in their performances.

Favorite Quote:

"It's easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. 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 tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay."

Favorite Scene:

It's a tough choice, but I have to go for Betsy's first, heavily Jane-Eyre-inspired trip up the tower. Tourneur uses the shadows so well that the film's low budget starts to seem like an advantage, the simplicity of the sets adding to the dreamlike feel. Alma's crying, Betsy's voice echoing and the slow white shape of Jessica. The film closes in on the terrified Betsy as Jessica draws closer and closer. We don't know just what it is she sees in Jessica's face that makes her scream. And then, as Betsy moves away and Jessica once again begins to walk toward her, we see Betsy grow calmer, if still unnerved and we know, without being told, that Jessica is not an ordinary movie monster but a creature that frightens because she is so blank, so unknowable, so far beyond.

Final Six Words:

Atmospheric, elegant, most unorthodox zombie film

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