I Walked With a Zombierecommended viewing

Beautiful and creepy
★★★★★
Released: 
1943
Director: 
Jacques Tourneur
Starring: 
James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway
The Setup: 
A young nurse is sent to care for the wife of a plantation owner in the West Indies.
Discussion: 

This is in my top five favorite films of all time. It’s just so beautiful, evocative and rich, with gorgeous photography and several showstopper sequences—as well as Val Lewton’s patented disturbing sexual subtext—that everything about it is right up my alley. And it packs its potent punch in a swift 70 minutes!

This is not a zombie movie in the Dawn of the Dead mode, but in the more native voodoo forms explored in White Zombie and The Serpent and the Rainbow. That is, the zombies are essentially sleepwalkers who cannot wake, not the relentless, bloodthirsty flesh-eating machines we’ve all come to love.

Here’s the story: Seeing the success of Universal’s horror films, RKO wanted their own line, and hired Russian-American Val Lewton to produce them. This film is the second by Jacques Tourneur, after Cat People [also produced by Lewton], and features the same fantastic noir-ish B&W cinematography, complete with very strong and carefully-placed shadow lines, and a dreamlike atmosphere suffused with sexuality and dread. Incidentally, the filmmakers were handed the titles by the studio, and then had to write and create a story to go with it, so you shouldn’t be put off by the ludid pulpiness of the title, the film is a beautifully measured, sophisticated piece of gorgeous, evocative and spooky beauty.

Nurse Betsy is hired to go to a sugar plantation in the Caribbean to care for the ill wife of a Paul Holland. She meets the gruff Paul on the ship, and is drawn to him. The island she arrives at is peopled by the descendants of slaves brought over by the Hollands to work their plantation. At the plantation she also meets Wesley, Paul’s half-brother, who is bitter and drinks a bit too much.

That night, she hears crying and goes out to investigate, where she soon encounters an emotionless woman in white. The woman comes closer, and closer—until Betsy screams! This sequence is the first taste you get of this film’s subtle sense of scares and use of film technique to provide chills, as the woman is merely walking toward her, but it becomes quietly terrifying!

This, it turns out is Jessica—Paul’s wife, and the woman she is charged to care for. She is beautiful, and completely catatonic. We soon find out that Wesley was also in love with her, and there is some tension in the air that maybe Paul turned her into a zombie in order to keep her from Wesley. There is also an unspoken undercurrent that Paul might have done this in order to turn his wife into a beautiful, helpless sex toy. It’s no surprise when Betsy starts to fall in love with Paul, and then you realize that this film is a gloss on Jane Eyre, with a housekeeper falling in love with the master who is keeping his wife captive. And it’s no surprise that we have to wonder if Paul will do the same thing to young Betsy, a threat underscored in a wonderful sequence in which Betsy goes into town, only to have a local musician sing a threatening song obviously about the Hammond family, with the explicit warning that it could happen to her, too. Now, that’s a lot of unnerving, luridly suggestive thematic undertones, no? Welcome to the strange, alluring magic of the Val Lewton horror film.

Betsy decides, rather illogically [but we go with it], that she will show her love for Paul by bringing his wife back to life, so he can be happy with her. To do this, she is told to bring her to the houmfort, where the locals have their voodoo ceremonies. This leads to the most electrifying, haunting and wonderful sequence of the film, which is a total, unforgettable showstopper! First, you have Betsy, in a dark jacket, leading Jessica, blond and dressed in flowing white, through sugar cane fields, under a studio-painted cloudy sky, all in deliciously creamy black and white, leading to some gorgeous images. Then they pass among a bunch of creepy bones and animal corpses hanging from trees, until they come up to a tall statue of a man, who doesn’t react when they shine a light in his eyes. To all of this, only the accompaniment of the whooshing wind through the cornfields, and the growing drums of the distant ceremony. They turn and continue toward the houmfort, and the “statue” steps down and follows them! They continue until they come to the ceremony, which is refreshingly basic and straightforward to our modern eyes, and our contemporary environment that is hesitant to show natives acting stereotypically “native.” There are more delights in store here, but I’ll leave them for you to discover.

There is another wonderful, and photographically gorgeous, sequence in which the tall zombie we thought was a statue earlier invades the Hammond plantation. Eventually, we get an “explanation” of what happened, but it isn’t adequate, and doesn’t need to be. The potent intoxicators of the Val Lewton film is that they are suffused with a bunch of unnerving sexual subtexts, which aren’t necessarily resolved, but remain powerful just for being raised and hanging in the air. This is his genius, for sneaking a bunch of subversive subtext into B-movies released in 1943!

Now, I mentioned that in this film you have natives acting in a way that seems very true-to-life, but we aren’t comfortable seeing today. This includes the very potent use of distant native drumming. But the picture isn’t insensitive to the racial politics of the slaves and the white plantation owners, and finishes on a note in which the a symbol of the slaves’ suffering is precisely what brings about justice in the end, making it actually very contemporary and progressive.

One other thing about this movie versus more contemporary thrillers is that NOTHING jumps out or makes a sudden loud noise. As you read about modern thrillers whose scares consist of nothing BUT sudden loud noises, a film that can generate suspense, horror and mystery without having to resort to that stands out as more artistically realized. On the other hand, this approach also requires that the audience have an attention span, which is something the contemporary filmmaker obviously can’t count on. With Val Lewton films, you have to slow down and pay attention to the point where you can realize how shocking and terrifying certain subtle little touches can be. Luckily, the film makes that very easy, but it is recommended to leave your smartphone on vibrate, in the other room.

Jacques Tourneur first directed the even more well-known Cat People, then went on to make the wonderful film noir Out of the Past and the excellent Night of the Demon. Pretty much every Val Lewton film is worth watching, but I am partial to the Robert Wise-directed sequel Curse of the Cat People, which is the rare sequel that features the same characters as the original, but takes up an entirely new, quite different story—that I like much better than the original.

If you like old-time scary movies that have stunningly gorgeous photography, rich stories and unforgettable sequences, you owe it to yourself to seek this out! It’s the rare horror film about a man transforming his wife into a beautiful but mindless sex doll that’s safe for viewers of all ages.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s absolutely wonderful.

Comments

What are the other four movies in your Top Five?

I don't really have a top five list, but being able to say something is "in the top five" keeps me from having to pick and rank and make lists. As I think about it, it's easier to pick top five directors [De Palma, Tarkovsky, Val Lewton (producer, I know), Hitchcock...]

But four others [based on personal preference, and a gestalt of indefinable factors, not necessarily just "quality"] might include:
The Honeymoon Killers
Carrie
The Lover
Messiah of Evil

And yours?

But thank you for indulging me. I guess mine would be Chinatown, Psycho, Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Revanche, and Singin' in the Rain.

Nice list!
I love that you like B&tB [makes me weep every time] and Singin' in the Rain!
I have never heard of Revance, but have to get it now, based on the strength of your other selections!
Have you ever done a back-to-back comparison of the Hitchcock and Van Sant Psychos? It's an extremely interesting exercise, if you love Psycho... it is hard to pick just one fave Hitchcock...

The one problem with B&tB is the flagrant lachrymosity it evokes in me, even long before the truly stirring climax. I've read and enjoyed your Psycho comparison; Van Sant's version almost felt like a high school play to me. As for Revanche...well...um...you did review that on the old site (on my recommendation). But I can see that the terse ambiguity of the title, the fact that no one ever talks about it (because they haven't seen it), and all the other movies you watch would push it to the far reaches of memory.

This topic of lists reminds me of being accused of being a Movie Snob by one of my co-workers. Naturally, I balked at that; how could someone who likes Larry Cohen's movies be a snob? But when he told me that one of his favorite movies was the dimwitted western McLintock, I could see what he meant, because I was embarrassed for him.

Well, it took me reading the wiki synopsis of Revanche and also looking at screenshots to remember which one it was, but now I do! And I recall quite liking it! What jogged my memory was the image of the ripples from the gun sinking in the lake. In that vein, you might be intrigued by the current film Phoenix, about a woman disfigured in the concentration camps, who receives plastic surgery and returns, unrecognized, to the husband who turned her in [none of which is a spoiler].

Yeah, one just has to live with being considered a snob by some... Your story reminds me of a tangentially-related story from a female friend of mine... she was a smart, snotty girl, and in school there was a dim-bulb boy with a crush on her. She told him she couldn't go out with him, in part because he never read books. So he went out and read a book, just for her... unfortunately, it was The Celestine Prophecy, which she promptly dismissed as "A STUPID book!" when he asked her out again. Sad for the poor boy, but kind of funny in a mean way, hehehe.

That does sound like an intriguing movie.
I would never suggest that you sacrifice yourself so nobly, but if you ever watched McLintock I'll bet the resulting review would be hilarious. It's just as well that you don't, because I don't want to get a hernia.

I'm not quite an enthusiast of Westerns, but I could try it...

PS: Another inducement about Phoenix is that the husband is quite a smoldering looker in the Ernest Hemingway vein...

Considering your revulsion with The Quiet Man, it may just turn you off utterly, unless you dearly love slapstick.

I HATE slapstick so, SO much. Okay--it's off the list!

I've always been fascinated by the voodoo priest, the black-clad guy that seems to be controlling the zombie. (And of course it's only ever "seems" with a Val Lewton movie -- one of the best things about his films is that you can never be sure if anything supernatural is actually happening). There's just something about him that draws the eye whenever you see him. I think I tried to find out more about the actor a while back but never really got anywhere with it.

(My top five, by the way -- The Third Man, (original) Hara-kiri, Jaws, In the Mood for Love, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

Agreed re: Lewton!
He's back on my radar because I'm going to show a friend unfamiliar with these films I Walked With a Zombie...

Nice list! Kudos for including original Hara-Kiri! I kind of want to see a modern criminal underworld update of that with Samuel Jackson in the dad role...
I only saw Third Man once, but need to watch it again. I just watched The Lady from Shanghai and was realllllllly into it...

I was surprised how interesting it was. There was something really creepy that hung over the whole movie and it was not abashed about tying it to slavery (unusual for the time). It's just so clear that everyone HATES all the white people, even the "kindly" mother, who, by the way, was played by Edith Barrett, a theater actress three years younger in real life than her supposed son, Paul Holland. Paul Holland was played by Tom Conway, who sounded really familiar to me. Turns out he was the brother of George Sanders. And the ingénue, Frances Dee, was the wife of one of my big faves, Joel McCrea and I guess they were married for 57 years until Joel died in 1990. I was transfixed by this movie up until the end, then it got really confusing. So the younger brother kills his brother's catatonic wife and commits suicide while doing it. I think they should of burned everything down instead. Love Sir Lancelot's song -- which I guess was a minor hit. Strange, strange movie. I'll have to watch Cat People and it's sequel. I've never seen it. I only saw the remake, which was pretty bad.

I think part of the brilliance of these movies is that they let all the disturbing overtones hang in the air and then things are purposely confusing/unresolved but have unnerving suggestions... Remember, it's 1943!

At the end Wesley kills the wife WITH the arrow from the figurehead of suffering from the ship that brought over the slaves... so it is the slaves getting symbolic revenge on the white planatation owners.

I don't love Cat People [better concept than execution, but it does have amazing scenes], but it's necessary to set up the WONDERFUL sequel, which I love almost as much as this movie.