Watched: December 11 2016
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Starring: Frances Dee, James Ellison, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Christine Gordon, Theresa Harris
Runtime: 1h 9min
The second Lewton/Tourneur collaboration on the list after Cat People, and every bit as good as its predecessor. I Walked with a Zombie follows Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Dee) who takes a job nursing Jessica (Gordon), the wife of Paul Holland (Conway), a plantation owner on Saint Sebastian in the Caribbean. Jessica never recovered from a fever and spends her days in a daze, unable to say anything or do anything of her own free will.
Betsy’s patient lives on the plantation with her husband and his slightly alcoholic half brother Wesley Rand (Ellison), as well as several black people who are descendents of the slaves Holland’s forefathers brought to the island. Betsy soon learns, through song format no less – the best way to learn anything, that Jessica had an affair with Wesley before she fell ill, and that the two of them even planned on running away together.
After talks with the local doctor (Bell), Holland’s mother (Barrett), and maid Alma (Harris), Betsy starts to suspect that perhaps Jessica’s illness isn’t natural at all, but that Voodoo may be at the heart of the problem, especially after the good doctor introduces her to the term “zombie.” She also finds that she has fallen in love with Paul (for some reason) and she finds that the best way to make him happy is to restore Jessica to him. How selfless. The nurse gets instruction from Alma on how to get to the houmfort (where they do all the voodoo-stuff for those not familiar with the term) and decides to give it a try.
Like Cat People, the resolution to I Walked with a Zombie is ambiguous. The audience cannot be certain whether Jessica is really a zombie or not, and that’s part of what makes the film work so well. However, it’s not the only thing by far. The atmosphere is utterly creepy throughout, helped by the drums and chanting often heard in the background. Jessica’s introduction (and pretty much all subsequent appearances) is chilling and there’s a sinister vibe to Betsy’s entire experience, from the boat trip to the end.
The island’s history of slavery is an important plot point as well, as is Betsy’s complete lack of understanding of the problems brought on by this (her reply to her driver’s story of how his people was brought to the island is “well, they were brought to a beautiful place”).
There’s beautiful use of light and shadow for those of you who are visual fanatics. As well as wonderful costumes for those of you who are more fashion oriented. And creepy voodoo rituals and sort of incestuous undertones for the more horror minded. In short, there’s something here for everyone!
What we learned: if a vital question in your job interview is whether or not you believe in witchcraft, consider the position carefully.
Next time: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)