I had seen I Walked With a Zombie before, and even reviewed it, but that was the best part of a decade ago so I think I can be forgiven for revisiting what is after all considered to be one of the great horror classics.
This 1943 release was a product of the celebrated Val Lewton B-movie unit at RKO and was directed by Jacques Tourneur, the best of the directors who worked for Lewton.
Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) has been employed as a nurse to care for the wife of sugar planter Paul Holland (Tom Conway) on an island in the West Indies. Holland’s wife Jessica has been in a state of near-catatonia for several years. She can walk but she cannot communicate and appears to have no mental connection with the world at all.
This partly accounts for the slightly brooding atmosphere at the plantation but there is more to it than that. There was apparently a romantic triangle involving Mrs Holland and the two brothers and shortly before she was stricken by her illness there had been a particularly unpleasant scene.
Betsy is in something of a quandary. She realises immediately that she is falling in love with Paul Holland. She is convinced that he still loves his wife and Betsy is driven by a combination of guilt and compassion to conceive the idea that perhaps Jessica Holland can somehow be restored to normality. Dr Maxwell (James Bell) has been willing to do all he can but nothing has had any effect. Betsy is informed that there are in fact better doctors who can cure Mrs Holland - voodoo doctors. We would imagine Betsy as the kind of person with little time for such notions but her zeal (or her guilt) overwhelms her judgment and she decides to give the voodoo doctors their chance. Of course she does not inform Paul Holland of her decision.
As the audience will have already gathered most of the characters have very conflicted emotions. They are not always entirely honest about their emotions and in some cases they may well be willfully deceiving themselves. Whatever the immediate outcome of Betsy’s visit to the voodoo priests might be the longer term consequences for herself, for Paul and for his brother are likely to be unpredictable.
This is certainly a horror movie that is more character-driven than most and the relationships between the characters are crucial. The motivations of the characters are also quite complex. Betsy’s guilt is not entirely unwarranted. She knew from the start that Paul was a married man and she made no attempts to discourage his interest in her, and he is a very wealthy man while she’s a more or less penniless nurse. It’s understandable she might feel that her behaviour could be interpreted as conniving. In fact it may even be conniving, perhaps without ever admitting it to herself.
Tom Conway was always somewhat overshadowed by his more famous brother George Sanders. To be honest Conway was the less talented of the brothers but he was a competent actor in the right role and he did some of his very best work in the Lewton pictures. His performance in this one can’t really be faulted. Paul Holland is a man who is repressing some very strong emotions and Conway conveys this effectively. James Ellison is quite adequate as Paul’s half-brother. Frances Dee is a satisfactory heroine, a confident self-assured woman who discovers she doesn’t know quite as much about life as she thought she did.
This movie breaks most of the rules for horror films. There’s very little overt horror, and until fairly close to the end there’s none at all. Tourneur knows what he’s doing however. The sense of unease and subtle menace builds gradually but inexorably.
As a cinematographer J. Roy Hunt does not have the glittering reputation of Nicholas Musuraca for photographed Cat People for Tourneur but based on his work on this film perhaps he should. There are shadows. Lots of shadows! In fact some of the best use of shadows you’ll ever see. This is a movie that is heavily reliant on atmosphere and the visuals serve the purpose admirably. Since it’s so similar in visual style to other Tourneur movies one can’t help assuming that Tourneur’s influence was very much the dominant one although Hunt deserves credit for giving Tourneur the look he was after.
The sets are quite impressive also, especially by B-movie standards. The island setting is surprisingly convincing.
This movie was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and if made today would doubtless be titled Jane Eyre with Zombies. Given that Jane Eyre is one of the masterpieces of gothic fiction the idea of turning it into a horror movie actually is not outrageous at all. The movie preserves at least a fair proportion of the spirit of Brontë’s novel.
One thing I found interesting was the way voodoo was portrayed. It wasn’t demonised in the way you’d expect in a 1943 movie, not was it depicted as being merely ridiculous.
The Warner Home Video DVD release pairs I Walked With a Zombie with another Lewton movie, The Body Snatcher. I Walked With a Zombie gets a good transfer plus a very worthwhile audio commentary from Kim Newman and Steve Jones.
There are those who say this is the best of all the Lewton RKO films, but personally I think this one, Cat People and The Seventh Victim are all so good I wouldn’t like to even try to pick a favourite. And they have aged very well indeed. This is magnificent subtle horror. Very highly recommended.