Everything seems beautiful because you don’t understand. Those flying fish, they’re not leaping for joy, they’re jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay.
From time to time I like to revisit the films of Val Lewton, those nine macabre tales he made as head of his own production unit at RKO and upon which his reputation rests. I can’t say it’s ever an especially arduous task, they all have brief running times and I rank them among my favorite works since I first made their acquaintance as a young boy, alternating between fascination and fear during those late night TV screenings. One of the first I saw was I Walked with a Zombie (1943), a title guaranteed to fire the imagination of any young viewer. As with all of Lewton’s pictures, it’s not so much a shock-filled horror film as a dreamy study of unease and dread, where suggestion and atmosphere creep up behind you and softly whisper “Boo” in your ear.
It all starts out bright and crisp, like the snow falling outside the window of the Ottawa office where Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) accepts the job of nursing an invalid woman on a West Indian island. It’s only when she’s aboard the ship that will transport across the sea to her new appointment that Betsy’s new employer Paul Holland (Tom Conway) makes that little speech which I used as an intro that darkness, along with its faithful companions doubt and suspicion, extends its shadowy fingers. Holland owns a sugar plantation and shares his home there with his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) and his wife Jessica (Christine Gordon), the zombie of the title. Jessica exists in a semi-catatonic state, awake but no longer aware of the world around her, apparently the result of a bad bout of fever. Holland is keen to impress on Betsy the melancholy history of the island, a place where the inhabitants, all descended from slaves, still live in thrall to the Voodoo religion. She finds herself fascinated by the reserved and withdrawn Holland, sympathetic to the hard-drinking Wesley, and simultaneously repelled and intrigued by the shattered beauty of the listless Jessica. As her attraction to her employer grows, the young nurse gradually learns more of the tragic history of this family residing on an island which itself is no stranger to suffering. In that contrary way that love often manifests itself, Betsy resolves to do all in her power to haul Jessica back to the living. That will involve putting her faith in the mysterious beliefs of the islanders and taking a nighttime walk through the cane fields that take on an eerie complexion in the twilight cast by a warm Caribbean moon. What she finds at the end of it will answer some of her questions but, paradoxically, raise as many more.
Producer Val Lewton was tasked with running a low budget horror unit at RKO and it’s often said that his low-key approach and reliance on atmosphere and the inherent creepiness of the unknown was fueled by the lack of funds and the subsequent desire to avoid being seen as a cut-price version of Universal with its gallery of monsters and freaks, the only concession being the pulpy and frequently lurid titles of the pictures. I’ve no doubt this played a significant part in the process but I’d also like to think that Lewton’s own artistic sensibility entered into the equation too. For there is a high level of artistry involved in these movies, which beguile and chill the viewer in equal measure. The horror movie can be a rather obvious genre, only rarely restraining itself from the temptation to provide instant gratification via visual shocks and, as time has gone on the audiences more jaded, an over-reliance on gore. But that wasn’t Lewton’s style; he worked with three fine directors over the course of his nine RKO horrors – Mark Robson, Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur. All those films are good, but I feel that it’s with the latter that the best work was done. As far as I’m concerned, this is no coincidence as Tourneur was a master of subtlety. He was fully aware of the power of his camera and his compositions and pacing have a smoothness that belongs only to the truly talented. In truth, there’s not a bad shot in the whole movie, but the highlight has to be the trek through the cane fields, the recreation of which is a tribute to the art department, with the sense of dread and foreboding ever present but always that crucial step short of overwhelming.
The cast is led by Frances Dee and her performance hits exactly the right tone, vulnerable enough to make the threatening atmosphere believable yet grounded by a practicality that befits one charged with the task of caring for an essentially helpless woman. The film and role calls for a degree of nobility, or perhaps selflessness is a better term, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off successfully; there’s always the risk of it appearing somehow insufferable and it takes a fair bit of skill to dance around that particular pitfall. In short, it’s a balancing act and one which I feel Ms Dee negotiated with aplomb. Similarly, Tom Conway (who had the distinction of appearing in three of Lewton’s very best productions) plays it cool and keeps away from the histrionics. Like his brother George Sanders, suave and debonair were second nature to Conway and I’ve always enjoyed seeing him work – The Falcon movies are among my absolute favorites when it comes to series detective fare. However, a love story, and this is certainly as much a romance as a horror film, needs some overt passion to be displayed. That is provided by James Ellison as the volatile half-brother, an unpleasant part in many ways but well performed all the same. The supporting players are rounded out by Edith Barrett, James Bell, Sir Lancelot, Theresa Harris and the wonderfully spooky Darby Jones as the sinister, bug-eyed Carrefour.
I Walked with a Zombie is pretty easy to see – I bought it years ago as part of the excellent Val Lewton box set released by Warner Brothers in the US, but there are a range of European editions on the market too. The US version has it paired on DVD with The Body Snatcher, and the transfer is reasonable. RKO titles can prove problematic and there are instances of print damage visible but I can’t honestly say I’ve been overly troubled by them – the film just kind of sweeps you along. The disc also includes a commentary track by Kim Newman and Steve Jones. Halloween is a good time of year to wheel out these kinds of movies but a classic tale like this is really timeless and works its magic regardless of the season – after all, I first saw it and fell in love with it on a July evening way back in 1981. Anyone wondering what to view as the witching hour draws ever closer could do worse than give this a spin, and those who have yet to experience the delightful art of Lewton and Tourneur should rectify that as soon as possible.