Monday, July 2, 2007

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Much like the titular creature, this film starts off nearly dead, but is quickly resurrected. It’s a creepy, stylistic psychological thriller that plays out like a Greek tragedy. Director Jacques Tourneur meticulously crafts a visually stunning and hauntingly bizarre atmosphere that heroically saves this film from being merely the loosely based “Jane Eyre” skeleton frame of a plotline that it set out to be, which attempts in vain to hold the whole thing together.

Betsy (Frances Dee), recently graduated from nursing school, heads for an assignment on the fictional island of St. Sebastian, set in the West Indies, to care for the wife of a sugar cane plantation owner. The wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon), is in a non-stop sleepwalking state that renders her unresponsive and “zombie-like.” The husband, Paul Rand (Tom Conway), is desperately seeking care for his ill wife, all the while blaming himself for her current state, since she became ill upon arriving at the plantation. Also at the plantation is Paul’s alcoholic half-brother, Wesley (James Ellison), who also cares deeply for Jessica, and Mrs. Holland (Edith Barrett), who's the mother of the two men, and may have ulterior motives. A love story hangs in the background between Betsy and Paul, but this interesting idea needs to be fleshed out a lot more in order for it to earn any reaction it's attempting to induce.
Rumors swell around the island about the tribal people that coexist with the family and their bizarre practices. Believing she's out of options, Betsy is intrigued by this, and wants to take Jessica to their witch doctor. It’s here that the movie takes a considerable step up. Much has been praised (deservedly so) about the eerie, dream-like walk that Betsy and Jessica take on their way to the voodoo village. The soundtrack is replaced by a howling wind and native drums as the two silently make their way through the rustling sugar cane fields, encountering several eerie voodoo symbols, and a lanky and stoic "zombie" guard, in one of the most frightening reveals in horror film history. This walk is appropriately symbolic of the tone of the rest of the feature. It repeatedly plays with our psyche as we’re kept on edge and always left unsure as to what’s really going on. We wander though the story, much in the way the two girls wander through the field, all the while knowing that we’re approaching something that's so unknown that it’s shockingly halting. And once the village is revealed, we’re not rewarded with what we would expect (it actually looks not unlike the plantation), increasing the idea that something else must be going on… something that’s purposely left undefined, since it’s not the voodoo practitioners themselves who are frightening, but something in the atmosphere itself that’s causing the hair on the back of your neck to stand up. While in the village, the villagers discover that Jessica does not bleed. They now want her for their ceremonies, but Betsy carts her back to the plantation after discovering the seemingly “snake oil” cure that the village had to offer. Back at the plantation, we get the rest of the plot that seems underwritten, and ultimately left a little vague, as the screws begin to tighten around Paul and Wesley when it’s figured out that something underhanded was involved in Jessica’s illness. Another effective detail is when the voodoo guard begins to wander onto the plantation like a stray dog, in an attempt to capture Jessica. He shuffles his feet and stares vacantly, as his shadow floats menacingly along the walls of the plantation house. Ultimately, he fails, and the villagers attempt to get Jessica to come to them by using a voodoo doll they've fashioned in her likeness. Eventually, Wesley opens the plantation's gate and allows Jessica to mindlessly set off for the village, before changing his mind and stopping her. The rest of the story plays out tragically, and we’re still left a little unsure as to what was actually occurring on a mystical level.

It’s not your typical “zombie story”, and I liked that about it. It plays more on the mind than on typical knee-jerk, fright reactions. And when it actually uses visual scare tactics, it’s to great effect, since they're well earned and appropriate for the setting. There are definitely flaws, but when it gets it right, its unlike anything I've ever seen. The token plot seems intriguing, but ultimately has one foot in its grave. This gorgeous set-piece of a movie keeps the mood a haunting one, and provides the perfect backdrop for the psychological terror that runs through it. Voodoo and Caribbean culture has a unique depiction in this film, and offers something that flirts with realism and audaciousness by blending classic horror elements with urban legend devices. The general atmosphere has aged quite well, and still packs a punch, since it goes much deeper than its beautifully designed surface elements and strikes an almost subliminal chord.

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