I Walked With A Zombie (1943)
October 31, 2014 6:45 AM - Subscribe

Young and lovely Canadian nurse Betsy takes a job tending to the wife of the owner of a sugar plantation on an unnamed Caribbean island. She soon finds that what is wrong with her charge is outside her medical expertise. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton.

The night Betsy arrives, she is threatened by the wife, Jessica, who is otherwise without speech, will, or expression, "like a big white doll" as one character puts it. The plantation owner, Paul Holland, is in a cold war with his alcoholic half-brother, while their mother works at the local dispensary tending to the health of the impoverished descendants of the plantation slaves.

The maid, Alma, is a comic and sympathetic presence, but she can get a little creepy when she hints at spooky forces at work on the island. The shadow of past slavery and brutality hangs over all concerned in the form of a figurehead of Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows, that stands in the plantation home's garden.

Betsy makes it her mission to cure Jessica by any means she can find, despite Paul's mother's stern warning that there is no cure.

The film came out in 1943, when most white American audiences knew next to nothing about voodoo, and Jim Crow (of the 20th century variety) was still alive and well in the South. So at times the film's handling of the lives of its black characters feels a bit retrograde. That being said, there is a scene of a (lightly choreographed) voodoo ceremony which manages to be both creepy and at times realistic. Also, merely to hear slavery described as a historical tragedy that affects people today was unusual for the time in an American film.

Lewton, a producer of "B" pictures throughout the 40's, has been a major influence on A-list directors from Hitchcock to Scorsese and beyond. A dominant theme in his films is the belittling or denial of psychological forces that suggest (or in fact create) a realm seemingly beyond the real; you'll see it in this film, "Cat People," "Curse of the Cat People," and "Isle of the Dead".

As compelling as the themes are, it is the atmosphere of languor, enchantment, and dread that keeps some of us coming back for more. These films are early noirs, full of shadows, fog, mysterious winds. The sound design is brilliant and makes you wish the soundtracks had been recorded in stereo. Tourneur's contribution here is invaluable but Lewton was the majordomo.

It's been said that Lewton brought the modern psychological horror film into being. I think there are examples from the silent era that predate Lewton's efforts, but Lewton's shadow looms large over many great films since the 40's.

A nice double bill: "I Walked With A Zombie" and Victor Erice's 1973 film "Spirit of the Beehive." Try that one on for Halloween - you'll be glad you did.
posted by Sheydem-tants (4 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Someone on a commentary track claimed that the studio would just give Lewton a movie title and a budget, leaving him to fill in all other details. And there was supposed to be a big list of titles that someone had brainstormed, that might look good on a marquee.

Lewton was free to pretty make complete garbage, and given a title like "I Walked with a Zombie", I think that would be almost anyone's tendency. So, it's amazing to me that he (a) still tried to make a decent movie, and (b) succeeded.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 9:43 AM on October 31, 2014

Man, I love Val Lewton. He could do so much with so little.

IWWAZ also features probably the best and most high-profile film appearance of Edith Barrett, AKA the first Mrs. Vincent Price. Her stage success never translated onto film.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:03 PM on November 4, 2014

Hmm, I don't know if anyone will be looking back at an entry from 2014, but I just have to add at least a few notes on what I hold is as fine a movie as any to ever come out of Hollywood.

For me, the best way to think of the movie is as a palimpsest, where the main narrative, that of Betsy and Jessica is layered over another equally important story that shows through the main narrative throughout the course of the film, which is that of the legacy of slavery on the island.

This "double narrative" shows itself repeatedly throughout the film in both its visual construction, that is its production design, editing, and directorial choices, as well as in its script through dialogue and echoing of certain ideas or terms applicable to the main narrative in one sense, but which also hold a secondary potential meaning which references the underlying history that informs the events.

Not having the ability to post screenshots, (something any film discussion site should allow I would add) makes providing examples of some of the visual techniques difficult, but I'll start off by just mentioning that other than main characters of Betsy, Paul, Wesley, Mrs. Rand, and the doctor, almost the entire cast of characters we see on Saint Sebastian are black, with only one shot being an exception, at the outdoor cafe where we can see two whites who appear to be overseers from the plantation sitting at a table in the background. While it may not be something one pays attention to at first glance, the cast of extras milling around in the background of many shots in quite large, suggesting the Holland/Rand family are the outliers on the island, the exceptions, not the norm, yet they have control and the main narrative we'll follow belongs to them.

This is drawn out by other details of the setting, with the prominence of the figurehead of St. Sebastian being the most notable. On even a surface level, the icon of the martyr is a powerful visual to capture the history of the island and set the tone for the story, but if one thinks about it a little more deeply, then the figurehead from the ship that brought the blacks to the island becomes even more troubling as the island itself is named after the martyr represented by the figurehead from the slave ship suggesting strongly that the island of Saint Sebastian is a continuing manifestation of the ship, where a representation of the ship gave the island its name. No wonder then that there is crying at the births and joy and funerals among those on the island.

The dialogue also reinforces this theme, where there is frequent use of terms to describe the family in ways that echo the slave trade. Wesley, for example, when pointing out the seating arrangements names Paul's chair as that of the master, and then repeats it for emphasis. Jessica is described in ways which might also be ways for masters to describe slaves, as the doctor explains how she is mindless but able to follow simple commands, or how she is referred to as a doll. There is the echo of the vodou gathering being a called a houmfort, while the Holland/Rand family live in their own home/fort, Fort Holland. This all sets up a kind of analogy between jessica and the blacks on the island, in particular Carre-Four the tall thin man who seems to be a zombie himself. That carrefour means crossroads makes this figure the personification of the borderlines the characters in the film are treading, not just life and death I think, but between white and black and past and present. (The figure of Carre-Four also has a function within vodou rites as well, so his presence here maintains some of the ethnographic detail as well.)

Using Jessica as an analog for the history of slavery on the island opens the film to both suggest that a woman's place holds some similarities and allows the movie to refer to slavery from a remove, something necessary in the '40s and that provides a more intimate connection to the family in their role as the source of the problems on the island. It, for example, gives opportunity for Paul to speak of actions and attitudes he's held rather than simply actions from the long past. His treatment of Jessica, by his own description, was terrible and it, again, has echoes with treatment of slaves, with ownership and control over personal freedom figuring in strongly.

Paul sets forth some of the main themes of the film early on, themes of the surface being misleading, where what seems pleasant may have dark undertones, in his speech about the fish not leaping in joy, but in terror of bigger fish and the luminous water gleaming from millions of dead bodies, the glitter of putrescence. This theme is followed through by the descriptions of life on the island and in some incidental metaphor, such as the puff pastry that seems so big but collapsed when touched. It's these sorts of suggestions of double layers that in part lead me to think of the film as a palimpsest, where the surface of the story regarding Jessica covers up some darker implications. (The construction of the film too suggests a palimpsest with its beautiful use of editing dissolves, but those would require gifs or screengrabs to explain.)

Betsy, while hearing these things, seems mostly oblivious to their deeper implications. Most notably one might point to her exchange with the carriage driver that references slave traders bringing his people to the island, to which her only response is over the beauty of the place.

Our main characters then, while seeming to fit the some standard Hollywood concept of protagonists, are not quite that at all. Aside from Betsy, who may be oblivious, but not unkind, the family could be thought of as the antagonists of the story, the reason for the problems, but directly and indirectly. Mrs. Rand comes across as the nicest person we see, but she also is deeply conflicted in the salvation she promises and may be the one who caused Jessica's illness and thus, by extension, Jessica and Wesley's deaths depending on how one views vodou and Christianity in the movie. One subtle example of Mrs Rand's inner conflict is where she is administering aid to the young boy in the clinic when she notices a voudo charm along with his crucifix and comments he'll have a hard time getting into heaven with one foot in the houmfort and one in the church, something we'll see speaks more clearly to her own circumstance than it does to his. Paul, Wesley, and Mrs. Rand are caught between the beliefs they espouse and those they enact.

I have to leave it there for now since I'm out of time. There is a lot more that can be said about the movie, but I've probably gone on long enough for an old thread.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:54 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

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