I Walked With A Zombie (1943) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

If it’s a month with 31 days in it, you can be sure that Jules will be firing out the horror movie reviews.

So, following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American  Horror” in August, Jules is once travelling across the pond this October with… you guessed it… 31 MORE Days of American Horror!

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Starring:  James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway

Despite its lurid title, I Walked With A Zombie is a subtle affair, even by Lewton/Tourneur standards.

For a large part of the film, it’s debatable whether it’s even a horror film, given most of its first half is straight up melodrama, focusing on family politics, romance and the dark colonial past of the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian.

It’s still fascinating stuff though and shot absolutely beautifully, so by the time the actual voodoo finally kicks in proper it’s nothing short of dazzling.

Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is a Canadian nurse who is hired to care for Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) by her husband Paul (Tom Conway), a sugar plantation owner on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian.

The woman is suffering from a strange malady where she is awake and capable of moving, but completely without willpower to communicate or do anything for herself, which according to her physician Dr Maxwell (James Bell) was caused by parts of her spinal cord being burnt out by a rare tropical disease.

Paul’s mother Mrs Rand (Edith Barrett) has a different theory, though. One that involves her other son, the resentful Wesley, a hidden family secret and the strange voodoo rituals still practiced by the descendants of the slaves her ancestors brought to the island…

Of all the films Lewton and Tourneur made together, I Walked With A Zombie is most definitely where they really hit their zenith point with their “less is more” ethos. Films like Cat People and The Leopard Man might not show much, but they set out to chill almost from the off, while this one is content to set the scene and focus purely on the characters and their relationships for a good chunk of the running time.

It’s strange at first as you’re expecting some kind of horror, but instead it’s part romance and part family drama, with any atmosphere of dread coming from the regular reminders of the island’s grim colonial past and the part this family played in it. Even Ti-Misery, the statue outside their home was once the figurehead of a slave ship.

The spectre of slavery is never far away in fact, from how the coach driver makes sure it’s the first thing Betsy hears about when she arrives to the forelock tugging of the calypso singer (Sir Lancelot) to Wesley when he realises he has heard his Greek chorus-style song about his affair with Jessica. It might be a Caribbean island, but it’s a long way from being a paradise.

It’s once the voodoo plot kicks in that so Walked With A Zombie seems to shift up several gears, though. Up until then it was just a wonderfully lit melodrama, but almost instantly the lush tropical setting becomes nightmarish.

Betsy and Jessica’s walk through the high sugar cane field to find the voodoo temple is all the more effective coming as if does after 30 minutes of the real world, reinforcing the alien nature of the situation. The suddenly howling wind is immediately oppressive, as are the shrines of dead animals and human bones, but it’s the presence of another zombie, the huge-eyed Carre-Four (Darby Jones) that really disturbs.

Unlike Jessica, he looks truly possessed and fills the screen with an unsettling, otherworldly presence, a zombie in the oldest traditional sense, a slave to his voodoo master, as much as (if not more) than his ancestors were to the Hollands.

Tourneur really goes to town in the later stages of the film, not just in the brilliantly vivid scenes that bring the voodoo rituals to life, but in every shot from then on in. It almost feels like as soon as Betsy becomes aware of the presence of the supernatural, the entire world around her becomes darker, more dangerous and more claustrophobic, where even the shadows of a wrought iron fence can be intimidating and fill a room, reinforcing the idea that, for some, there is no escape from San Sebastián.

One of the first things we’re told about the place is that “there’s no beauty here, only death and decay.” It’s gatekeeping at its finest, but it does sum up the overriding feeling of sadness that permeates I Walked With A Zombie. There’s no actual monsters here, just people trapped by circumstance, family, duty or history.

Melodrama aside, it’s most definitely a horror film, but it’s also a tragedy, one that is beautifully realised in every way, making its final, bleak denouement all the more powerful. Another classic.

Rating: 4.5/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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