Monday, July 8, 2013

I Walked with a Zombie




I Walked with a Zombie
1943
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Starring: Frances Dee, Tom Conway, James Ellison

I mentioned before that I have a thing for Shakespeare.  If I get the merest whiff of a film being a Shakespeare adaptation, however transposed, strained, or incomplete, I am automatically predisposed to liking said movie.  The same goes for many classic novels.  I am fascinated by how stories that have been around for hundreds of years can be made new and relevant by putting the story in a different time or place.  And what’s one of my all time favorite classic novels?  Why, it’s Jane Eyre!  I love Jane’s fierce independence and moral code, and I really love brooding, angry, sexy Mr. Rochester.  And here, in I Walked with a Zombie, we have an odd mash-up of Caribbean voodoo culture, zombie ideology, and, of all things, Jane Eyre.  When you throw in the fact that this was directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, what results is a decidedly B-picture in overall quality, but one that drips with atmosphere and, despite its shortcomings, really works for me.

 Canadian nurse Betsy (Dee) is sent on assignment to the West Indies to care for Jessica Holland, the pretty but catatonic wife of bitter, brooding Mr. Holland (Conway).  It seems that although Jessica can breathe and walk and follow simple commands, she is completely unresponsive.  A bit of snooping and prying and Betsy learns of a family tussle involving Jessica and Mr. Holland’s brother, Wesley Rand (Ellison), who had hoped to run away with the seductive Jessica, leaving Mr. Holland in the lurch.  Finding herself falling for her employer, Betsy becomes determined to awaken Jessica from her state and even turns to the island natives and their voodoo culture in the hopes of bringing Jessica around.  But is Jessica really still alive?

 
There are two fundamental plot lines running through I Walked with a Zombie, that of Betsy and Mr. Holland’s attraction and the sadness and pain surrounding it, and the exploration of voodoo culture.  The former takes up the focus of the first half of the brief film and is clearly ripped directly from Jane Eyre (apparently by Val Lewton to spice up the source material for the film), and the voodoo scenes are the focus of the second half.  Although there are certainly deviations from the novel, and some pretty big ones too, I rather love that Lewton managed to put Jane and Mr. Rochester in such a foreign, disparate environment and still have some semblance of the spark that courses through the original story.  Mr. Holland is angry from the get-go, speaking of how this apparently beautiful island is made of nothing but death.  Betsy has several exchanges with Mr. Holland that are almost one-to-one with conversations from Jane Eyre.  And when Mr. Holland and Betsy realize they’ve fallen in love with one another and yet are both stymied by the existence, however brain dead, of Jessica Holland, I fall in love with I Walked with a Zombie.  Yes, that’s really all I need.  Does that make me shallow?  No, I think not, but definitely idiosyncratic.  When I think of Mr. Rochester as possibly the most swoon-worthy character in all of fiction, I will latch on like a limpet to any iteration of him I can find, even if he’s played somewhat woodenly with a George Sanders-esque delivery in a movie with “Zombie” in the title.  


It is in the second half of the film where focus shifts to the native island religion of voodoo is where Tourneur really gets to show off his love of dark and shadows and atmosphere.  Tourneur’s camerawork is downright stunning in places, showing fantastic shot composition and emphasizing long shots over close ups, making you very aware of the dangerous and dark surroundings.  While hardly frightening by today’s standards, and I’ll add right here right now that I Walked with a Zombie shouldn’t scare you in the slightest, it has scenes that are hypnotic and darkly beautiful.  The nighttime walk through the sugar cane fields by Betsy and Jessica is easily a highpoint of the film, and where the memorable zombie Carrefour is introduced.  Full of tension with little payoff (which only manages to heighten the mood), Tourneur fills the screen with shadows and your ears with the percussive beats of the native drums, all of which leads up to a voodoo ceremony that feels distinctly un-Hollywood for 1943.  This hypnotic dance at the aforementioned ceremony was oddly compelling.  Dare I say it, Tourneur seems to treat voodoo culture with a modicum of respect.  By the end of the film, it is the white family that seems to be foolish, not the locals.  Do I buy into the culture that Tourneur is showing me?  No, not at all, but what he’s constructed here works to fill the story with a sort of nonthreatening dread, and one that feels oddly believable, especially for the time the film was made.  

OK, that is a pretty, pretty shot.

Where I Walked with a Zombie works least for me is in the actors’ performances.  Everyone here seems straight from the bottom of the second or third tier barrel, with not one lead actor managing to deliver their lines in anything resembling a naturalistic way.  Rand and Holland’s mother was played by an actress who was the same age as actors Conway and Ellison, and her makeup and wig is hardly convincing.  Although he doesn’t help things along with his performance, I did like how the character of Wesley Rand managed to be less an out-and-out villain and more a sympathetic character.  The two most haunting performances were by the two zombies of the film, Carrefour, played with silent menace by Darby Jones, and Jessica, played by Christine Gordon.  Although it’s true Gordon doesn’t have much to do in the film, she manages to make catatonic into something disconcerting.  Those empty eyes, that strange compulsion, her unnatural thinness… yes, it’s not a challenging part, but Jessica is haunting.

  
Look, I Walked with a Zombie is hardly Citizen Kane.  But it doesn’t pretend to be, and I respect that.  It’s hardly aspiring to be more than an atmospheric voodoo love story, and you know what?  It works for me on both those levels.  I love Jane Eyre, and I love the sensibilities of filmmaking in the 1930s and 40s.  I Walked with a Zombie doesn’t make you, as a viewer, do much work, but I need that every now and then, and it’s a perfectly acceptable and rather fun way to pass the time.

Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10

17 comments:

  1. I got a whiff of Jane Eyre from it, too. Unfortunately, I've never read the book, and the one movie adaptation that I've seen of it didn't work that well for me. Overall, I Walked with a Zombie didn't quite make the cut with me. The cinematography is all it really had going for it, for me.

    By the way, this is one of the older zombie movies and I just saw the newest - World War Z. It really, really wants to be 28 Days Later, but it ends up being much more 28 Weeks Later. If you've seen those films you'll know what I mean. If not, it means that it tries really hard, but doesn't succeed.

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    1. I'm not a huge fan of zombie films (or horror films for that matter), so I haven't seen either of the "28 [blank] Later" films, and I shall definitely take a pass on World War Z. Actually, it's not really zombies in particular, but more the post-apocalyptic theme I don't really like, and I don't really like it because it really, REALLY freaks me out. So I wind up steering clear of most films that deal with that theme.

      ANYWAY, what version of Jane Eyre did you see? Because the William Hurt one is kinda garbage, and although I enjoyed the Fassbender version, it's definitely the most reserved and strait-laced, almost puritanical incarnation I've seen.

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    2. I felt the Jane Eyre vibe too. I enjoyed the book so much that none of the film adaptations measure up. I'm glad you said that about World War Z, so I really don't want to watch it. There's no way it could be 28 Days Later because that film just set the bar so high nothing can reach it.

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    3. There are definitely some Jane Eyre adaptations that work better than others, but I love it so much I'll give them all a fair try. I Walked with a Zombie definitely has more of a JE VIBE, as you say, rather than being an out and out adaptation.

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    4. I saw the Fassbender version. I just didn't feel a connection between the two, then it's as if they realized they were more than halfway through the movie so they threw them together real quick so they could then get to the rest of the story.

      I didn't think it was horrible; just not that compelling.

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    5. No no, I agree, I actually very much like the Fassbender version, I think it's very good. But it's a difficult film if it's your first Jane Eyre and you don't know the story. I consider it a good, solid version for people who are already fans of the story and know it well, but I doubt its ability to convert the unconverted.

      If you want a more fun and definitely more passionate version, I HEARTILY recommend the Toby Stephens/Ruth Wilson BBC miniseries from 2007. Of course, it's a miniseries, so it's four hours long (I believe), and it's definitely, um, aimed at women. Plenty of bodice heaving. Yeah, it's long, but it's very romantic. Also quite good is the Ciaran Hinds BBC version from 1998 (I believe that's the year, I can't be certain). It's shorter, but also very passionate. Hinds might possibly be my favorite Mr. Rochester of the lot I've seen; he's positively volcanic in the role.

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    6. It's when the bodices heave completely off that you will start bringing in the men to watch it. :-)

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    7. Let's see, nudity in period romance classic literary films... the only one that immediately springs to mind from the Jane Austen/Jane Eyre corner of the world is 1999's Mansfield Park with Jonny Lee Miller. Sadly, it is not Jonny Lee Miller who shows us his stuff.

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  2. I enjoy this film quite a bit because of the atmosphere. What I really like is that the film is extremely respectful of Voodoo as a belief. It would be typical for it to be treated as some crazy local belief, but it's instead treated with a sort of reverence or at least legitimate respect.

    You should really see 28 Days Later, post-apocalyptic or not. It's truly amazing. Skip the sequel.

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    1. The respect for voodoo is so surprising to find in a Hollywood movie from the forties, it's practically unimaginable.

      I know I should see 28 Days Later. I've heard nothing but good things. It's just that post apocalyptic stuff really, REALLY freaks me out. One of these days I'll work up the courage to see it, I'm sure.

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  3. Funny how the label Zombie has come to mean something else entirely. I much prefer this older incarnation. While I am not familiar with Jane Eyre (okay, I am an ignorant) I totally agree with you on the voodoo part. The mood is everything in this film and the clash of not just two cultures but of two realities.

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    1. It's definitely interesting looking at the interpretation of Zombie here and what it has become in modern day films. Hey, don't feel too bad about not knowing JE, you don't have to know it to enjoy this movie. And yes, the mood is so strong because the voodoo is never marginalized, that's key.

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  4. You and I both mentioned Shakespeare in our reviews of I Walked With a Zombie, despite only the most tangential of connections. Great minds strike again! I think we need to lobby for Forbidden Planet (aka The Tempest ... IN SPACE!) to be covered by the 1001 Movie Blog Club soon.

    I dumped on I Walked With a Zombie pretty hard, but I appreciate you pointing out some of its more redeeming qualities. Always interesting to hear how the personal experiences and context of previous exposure to other works affects the way a given work is received. Everything's subjective!

    - Sunny D

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    1. Ha ha, yes indeed! That's funny, given that the Bard has absolutely nothing to do with this particular film.

      Seriously. Forbidden Planet. Posthaste. SO MUCH FUN. I've actually already posted my review of it on my blog. I will never get over the fact that it's Leslie Nielsen in a "serious" role.

      The Jane Eyre parallel goes a long way to making this film go down easy for me. I'm a little odd that way, I recognize that, but I think it's fascinating how Lewton took a classic gothic romance and tacked on a West Indies setting and voodoo culture and then made a forties B movie. It's some sort of acid-trip adaptation, but it works for me!

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  5. Once again our ratings are the same. The Jane Eyre angle is very interesting. The commentary on the DVD also compares the story to Rebecca. Mysterious wife is held up by naive girl as paragon but was far from it.

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    1. Yes, that's an interesting point, one I hadn't considered. There are definitely allusions to Rebecca as well!

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