Saturday, December 8, 2012

I Walked with a Zombie

It's striking how brief this 1943 Val Lewton-produced film is, considering how much content it contains. In 68 minutes, it manages to establish a sense of place, flesh out several characters, and evoke moods of dread and mystery. Somehow it also manages to clip along smartly as it does all this, yet the movie feels as if it moves languidly, like a dream that morphs into a nightmare.

Betsy, a Canadian nurse hired to tend to Mrs. Holland, wife of a wealthy sugar plantation owner, arrives on the Caribbean island of San Sebastian. She is quickly drawn into a strange tale of a love triangle involving Paul Holland, the plantation owner, his half-brother, Wesley Rand, and Holland's wife, Jessica. When Wesley and Jessica attempted to be together, Paul stood in their way. Soon after, Jessica was struck down by a fever that left her in a catatonic state, able to move and respond to simple directions, but unspeaking and, perhaps, unfeeling. As Betsy learns more about the family strife, she also meets the mother of Paul and Wesley, a surprisingly hale, but unsurprisingly intelligent woman who helps tend to the health of the islanders. Betsy finds herself falling for Paul, and decides to help him by bringing his wife back to her senses. This eventually leads her to seek out the services of the island's houngan, or voodoo priest. There, the houngan and the houngan's followers recognize Jessica for what she is - a zombie. From then on, the love triangle is brought to a head, with powerful forces vying for Jessica. On one side is the ancient voodoo religion, on the other modern medicine, but perhaps more powerful is the other force in play: love, between Betsy and Paul, between Wesley and Jessica, and the mother of Paul and Wesley for her sons, manifesting in hatred and a need for revenge.

The film surprises with its direct and, for its time, unflinching look at a culture descended from slaves. When Betsy listens to the story of how slaves were brought to the island, she awkwardly answers that at least they were brought to a beautiful place. The buggy-driver who has also been a de facto tour guide simply agrees, the history of oppression sitting silently between them.

I was also surprised to find, when I listened to a bit of commentary about the film, that San Sebastian is not a real place. The movie creates this place and gives it a life and culture of its own. It's a believable setting, and I'm amazed how strongly established it is in such a short film.

The film has an air of fate and destiny about it, as all of Val Lewton's films do. The voodoo scenes reinforce this, especially as they are shown with seriousness and respect, giving the religion its due as a deeply held faith. I can't claim to know much about voodoo, but the scenes in this film seem to show evidence of the filmmakers making an effort to bring some authenticity to the subject.

Besides Jessica, there is another zombie in the film. Darby Jones should be noted for his looming presence as Carre-Four. His protruding eyes are unblinking and lifeless. Silent, emotionless, and moving with a slow relentlessness, this performance seems to be a forerunner of George Romero's zombies in Night of the Living Dead. But is Carre-Four a true zombie, in the sense that we know the term? Is he, in fact, undead?

That is one of the most intriguing things about Val Lewton's films, the possibility that the supernatural is at work...or not. The supernatural is strongly implied, but is not necessary for the events depicted. This is addressed directly in this film, when Paul and Wesley's mother is revealed to have feet in both the world of voodoo and in the world of science. Do these forces of magic work due to a power beyond our ken, or do they work because we believe they do? Lewton leaves the question open.

 This is a solid, mysterious film. One can see its influence on films that came after, with expressionistic lighting and understated performances. Most of the characters seem lifeless, in a sense, with strong emotions expressed quietly. Most of the characters, too, seem to move in an almost trance-like state, whether arguing or lost in the throes of religious ecstasy. I Walked with a Zombie is a title that is far more exploitative than the film it is hung on, but it now seems integral to it. It is fascinating and unsettling, and is one of the best of Val Lewton's efforts.

1 comment:

  1. I've always loved this film. The scene on the boat as she's arriving in the island, the wind-swept walk to the zombie ritual, the plantation house itself... so atmospheric and mesmerizing.