I Walked with a Zombie

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 She finds herself fascinated by the reserved and withdrawn Holland, sympathetic to the hard-drinking Wesley, and simultaneously repelled and intrigued by the shattered beauty of the listless Jessica.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.

The Last Posse

Small films with big themes, that’s perhaps as good a summation of the successful B movie as any. Low budget films were always capable of using a superficially simple tale to disguise layers of depth and complexity, the smarter and more skillful efforts using standard cinematic techniques to do so. The Last Posse (1953) is all about the past, both the recent and distant forms, and how the events which occurred drive the actions of men in the present, and indeed have shaped how they and others view themselves.

A posse is usually a group of residents sworn in as temporary deputies, charged with upholding the law via the pursuit of criminals. The film opens with one such group, tired, dusty and disheveled, making their way home to a small New Mexico town. Among them is one man who is clearly in considerably worse shape than his fellow riders. John Frazier (Broderick Crawford) is the town sheriff, a man  of once mighty reputation who is now gut-shot and dying. The drawn faces of the men, the mortally wounded lawman, and the tension writ large on the countenances of the townsfolk leave no doubt that something went badly wrong out there in the desolation of the desert. As the remainder of the posse head off to clean up we can see by their furtive manner and whispered conversation that all may not be the way they’re telling it. Their story has it that the fugitives died after a shootout which also claimed the leader of the posse and, most tellingly, that the $105,000 of stolen money was nowhere to be found. While these leading citizens reappear freshly scrubbed and suitably spruced up there’s no hiding the fact that there are other stains, those on the conscience, which can be neither washed away nor wished away. So what did happen out there in the wilderness? It seems wholly appropriate that a film which concerns itself so much with the past should be told and find its ultimate resolution by means of three lengthy flashback sequences seen from three separate perspectives.

The Last Posse was directed by Alfred Werker, and it was the strong endorsement of both the filmmaker and this title by regular contributor John Knight which led me to view it. I was already familiar with a number of Werker’s other movies (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, He Walked by Night, Shock, Three Hours to Kill and At Gunpoint to name just a few) and I’m keen to see more, Repeat Performance in particular. He was a director capable of packing a good deal of atmosphere and tension into what were, for the most part, small productions. Here we get another fine piece of work, an hour and a quarter of sustained suspense delivered at a smart pace from a smooth script by Seymour Bennett, Connie Lee Bennett and Kenneth Gamet. In the best tradition of western filmmaking, the layers of hypocrisy and faux civilization are gradually stripped away to allow the truth to be revealed as the action moves away from the town, out into the desert and the rocks of Lone Pine. It’s here in this harsh and sparse landscape (beautifully shot by Burnett Guffey) that the illusions and cant are burned away by the merciless sun, and the deceit of the past collides with the brutal reality of the present.

Broderick Crawford is one of those actors I can take or leave, often depending on the kind of role he’s playing. He could have a loud, almost mechanical quality leading to some one-note performances. However, there was also something bruised and lived-in about him, I suppose you could call it the weariness of his years. Whenever he tapped into that, as he certainly does in The Last Posse, he had a lot more to offer. It could be argued that a few characters in the film are somewhat underwritten, more on that shortly, but Crawford doesn’t suffer in that respect. Frazier is a man who has been almost broken by life, propping himself up mainly with alcohol, and with little regard for the quality of men he now has to associate with. What comes across most powerfully is a sense of guilt and regret for a life badly lived, and a good deal of that seems connected to the relationship with Charles Bickford’s Sampson Drune character. The exact nature of the men’s hostility and enmity becomes slowly apparent the deeper they move into the desert but it also highlights one of the weaknesses in the script. Bickford always shone in villainous parts, those craggy features and penetrating eyes were ideal, and he’s suitably arrogant and cruel as Drune. The problem, as I see it though, is that the writing of his character allows for little else; it’s heavily alluded to that he’s also driven by fear and a kind of warped paternal instinct, but the script permits little if any of that to be actively shown. As a result, the vital backstory – the actual core of the movie – is of course ever-present yet lacks a little due to the presentation of the character.

John Derek is one of those actors whose contribution to the movies tends to be underrated or glossed over. I think I first saw him in his breakout role in Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door and I’m of the opinion he was a perfectly competent performer. He recently came to my attention again during the Republic blogathon when The Outcast was featured, a film I’ve since acquired for future viewing. Derek’s role in The Last Posse is an important one within the context of the picture but he’s overshadowed for much of the running time by both Crawford and Bickford. Much of the cast is made up of familiar character players: notably Henry Hull, Warner Anderson, Will Wright and, as one of the trio of fugitives, Skip Homeier. This is very much a film dominated by the men and the only female role of note goes to Wanda Hendrix, although it’s really a nothing part – I was actually more intrigued by the uncredited Hispanic girl, the one with her eye on Anderson’s blowhard editor, as her two brief appearances hinted at an altogether more fascinating relationship.

The Last Posse is available as a MOD disc from Sony in the US, it was a Columbia production, and looks good. The film has been given a nice clean transfer and the crisp black and white photography is very attractive. Overall, this is a solid, pacy little western with plenty of depth, even if all aspects of that aren’t explored as fully as they might have been. Definitely worth checking out if the opportunity arises.