I Walked with a Zombie
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