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.
Yes, it’s absolutely wonderful.