Tuesday, February 23, 2016

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Fear has a powerful influence on the human psyche, and of all things that create fear in one’s mind it is the fear of the uncontrollable unknown that appears to stir up the most terror. Val Lewton’s horror production I Walked with a Zombie delves into the mysterious practices of voodoo and its seemingly mystical powers over man. As a picture initiated simply by title alone, this low budget horror feature found reasonable favor in the eyes of cinematic historians.

I Walked with a Zombie is a horror picture about a nurse hired to within a Caribbean sugar plantation, and her discovery of voodoo practices of the cane fields workers and its possible impact on the plantation’s operators. When a nurse, Betsy (Frances Dee), is assigned to care for wife of a sugar plantation owner in the West Indies she dreams of a land of beauty and romance, but finds herself in land of far greater mystery. What Betsy discovers on the island is a world mixed with the mysticism of voodoo by local natives and the ugly untrustworthy “civilized” people that run the plantation, together which send Betsy reeling, questioning what is truth in this strange land. With a patient, Jessica (Christine Gordon), that medically suffers from a sort of mental paralysis, which the natives claim is because she is a member of the walking dead that must be killed, Betsy is troubled of by how she shall manage the situation. Falling further down the rabbit hole we discover the tale of a forbidden love triangle between half-brothers Paul (Tom Conway) and Wes (James Ellison) and Jessica which may have led to Jessica’s zombie-like state.
Furthermore there is Wes’ caring mother Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett) whose position as the island’s doctor manipulates the natives to practice modern conventional medicine by masking it as voodoo practices. However Mrs. Rand fears this practice of hers may have opened the door to something far more sinister possibly afflicting poor Jessica with something supernatural. Amide the dread of the possibility of voodoo Wes mercifully slays his beloved Jessica to free her from her living dead state, followed by the taking of his own life in protecting her body from the natives to the horrors of Paul and Betsy. This leaves the picture with a melancholy ending that never completely reveals if voodoo was the true case of Jessica’s zombie like state.

Despite the low production value of this horror picture the film contains on air of sophistication as one delves beyond the surface of B-level status. I Walked with a Zombie was the follow up to RKO producer Val Lewton’s surprising successful horror feature Cat People of 1942 which brought in rather high profit margins. The feature consists of a series of complicated relationships and well-meaning people that lead down a road that marries with the frightening supernatural. Those of the “civilized” people working on the island go to desperate lengths to do what they think are right even when they do not understand what they are getting themselves into. All this culminates in a deeply complicated story for a rather short 68 minute motion picture. When one really dissects the feature on a whole it makes for a rather impressive and intellectual film in its meek package..

As the studio’s resident B-picture horror producer, Val Lewton was given usually very little to start with on his films. Here Lewton was given the short story “I Walked with a Zombie” by Inez Wallace which was featured in American Weekly Magazine as the starting point. Lewton hated the story, but was forced to work forward with the name as imposed on him by RKO. With the respectfully high profits for his previous picture Cat People Lewton saw very little interference from the studio when it came to assembling this feature, in hope that this film too would continue the high profit trend he reach previously while during this tough financial period in Hollywood. What the producer would do is have his writers was study Haitian mystical history and concoct a complicated romance that delved into the mysterious practices of voodoo to bring in the supernatural horror to the tale.

Returning to work for Lewton on this picture is director Jacques Tourneur whose ability to make low budget productions look on par with the more lavish pictures helped bring this B-level picture up in quality. Constructing sets from pieces of more expensive RKO features, lighting them in a manner that mimics a higher class of film, and coupling it with dramatic cinematography and editing makes this B-picture appear much more respectable than the usual B-films of any studio.

The film features the talents of Frances Dee, James Ellison, and Tom Conway as the primary three stars. Dee, the wife of Paramount star Joel McCrea, had seen many larger roles in her past with appearances in such features as Little Women, Of Human Bondage, and Becky Sharp, however her appearances of late had been more sporadic. Here she delivers a melodramatic performance which may manifest the reason why she was not seeing too much work of late. As for film lab technician turned actor Ellison and Russian born British performer Conway, these two men tended to be relegated to the B movie status as their performances come off as dull, or two dimensional. It would be the overall plot and the writing that would save the heart of this movie.

Lewton’s toeing of the line of supernatural ambiguity with this motion picture would make for an intriguing feature. However, critics of the time would find I Walked with a Zombie overall bizarre and dull in nature. It would be years later that critics would find favor in what Lewton was doing in this feature, especially when studying the producer on the total body of his work. Film historians in time thought the feature to be intelligent and sophisticated beyond its B-movie boarders. It may not a feature for many casual film lovers as the cracks in the cinematic armor of the picture still manifest a feature lesser production quality, but one can allow themselves to look beyond these small imperfections and enjoy the film.

As supernatural pictures would grow in popularity many decades later I Walked with a Zombie would gain a new line of respect. At a time when “zombie pictures” were nowhere near a popular genre this film remained a strong feature in its class that still receives respect after the genre grew and evolved into a slasher type of motion picture decades later. When horror films could be more about psychological ideas as the frightening subject this simple zombie picture could very well be one of the early hidden gems that some classic film lovers may love to discover.

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