I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
, produced by Val Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur.
A nurse from wintry Canada accepts a job on the West Indies island of Saint Sebastian, in a plot designed to be Jane Eyre
on a Voodoo Island. She falls in love with her employer while caring for his eerie, catatonic wife. As we learn more, we can't help wondering: is the wife still living, or has she become one of the undead?
This is one of the most admired horror films of the 1940s, and Lewton's favorite. Well, admired since; the contemporary New York Times review called it "a dull, disgusting exaggeration of an unhealthy, abnormal concept of life".
The most famous sequence is the nighttime journey to the hounfour
, with the wind whistling through the dry sugarcane, and the imposing zombie Carre-Four guarding the way:
All shot on a sound-stage and beautifully evocative.
Remarkably, the whole film is only 68 minutes long. Just as Lewton and Tourneur hint with shadows rather than reveal explicitly, so the secrets of the plot are merely sketched. There is no time for dramatic revelations, but the story leaves hidden workings in the mind of the viewer.
The wife had a fever and lapsed into unconsciousness. The two half-brothers who love her have caught her fever, intimations of sexual disease. Their love triangle is a scandal on the island.
Like the nurse we are new arrivals and can only glimpse the deep, tragic history of the island. The wooden statue in the mansion's courtyard is Saint Sebastian, pierced with arrows. It had been the figurehead of a ship with slaves chained in the hold, bringing them to work on the sugar plantation. The white owners of the mill say "we" when referring to the former slaves; the sorrow of their history has absorbed them all.
Watching this unfold, we are for a time disoriented, waiting for the villain to appear. There isn't one. No villain, no monster. Not even the weird, imposing Carre-Four, with his mute yearning desire that we associate with the undead. He needs to fetch the zombie wife away, back to where she belongs.
As scary as they seem to an outsider, the voodoo ceremonies are meant to be portrayed authentically and in what seems to me to be a kindly fashion. It works for the blacks who believe in it. It works on the whites who pretend that they don't.
Lewton had a reputation for using minority actors sympathetically, as real people, and this is certainly his most ambitious effort in that regard.
I'm not sure how this got past the censors: the nurse is asked about euthanasia and we have an actual mercy killing and suicide. The Code didn't allow that.
The film was inspired by a non-fiction magazine series.
Available on DVD with a happy, rapid fire commentary track by two film authorities from the UK who have a wealth of knowledge about Lewton, his movies and the genre.