Shouldn't the title read I Shuffled with a Zombie, wonders Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees?
Our review of The Val Lewton Horror Collection, published October 24th, 2005, is also available.
Zombies and cadavers bring horror to life!
The advent of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's small masterpiece I Walked with a Zombie on DVD promises a stellar Halloween for movie lovers. To further sweeten the deal, Warner Bros. has coupled it with The Body Snatcher, also produced by Lewton, featuring famed director Robert Wise and horror greats Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Both films demonstrate why Lewton made such a name for himself as producer of these low-budget genre flicks, with their visual artistry, their persuasive re-creation of distinctive settings—and their timeless power to disturb.
The Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian is a place of beauty, with its lush palm trees and unspoiled beaches. But there is a darker side to this tropical paradise. In the night one can hear the weeping of the descendants of slaves, and the rhythms of voodoo drums from the houmfort. It's a strange place indeed to find young Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee, Little Women ), and her post is even stranger: caring for the zombielike wife of brooding plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway, The Seventh Victim). Holland's embittered half-brother, Wesley Rand (James Ellison), maintains that Paul drove his wife mad, but Betsy—who is falling in love with Paul—refuses to believe that he is to blame. She resolves to restore his wife to health…even if it means venturing into the forbidden houmfort and experimenting with the power of voodoo.
Elegance is not a quality that zombie movies are known for, but it describes I Walked with a Zombie, which holds a place of distinction as one of Lewton's finest works and one of the most effective horror films of the 1930s. Made directly after Cat People by the same director, Jacques Tourneur, it employs much of the dreamlike power of its predecessor. Despite its lurid title—which was assigned by the studio, as with Lewton's other RKO films—it is an ethereal, even poetic film that relies largely on atmosphere and artistry for its horror effects. Its purported subject matter may be zombies, but it uses them to tell a story about the intersections between passion, corruption, and redemption.
The gothic novel Jane Eyre is often cited as having influenced the story of I Walked with a Zombie, so it's not surprising that these themes unite the two works. The screenplay—based on a series of nonfiction articles on voodoo practices but heavily rewritten by Lewton—makes use of Jane Eyre's gothic template to involve us in the story, giving us an innocent viewpoint character who ventures into a sinister new environment to encounter danger, love, and the supernatural. And, as in Jane Eyre, the movie's monstrous female—catatonic Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), replacing Bronte's vampiric Bertha Mason—seems culpable for her own downfall because of her inherent immorality.
But is Jessica's condition in fact a symbolic punishment, or simply the aftereffect of a severe illness? One of Zombie's most powerful devices is its refusal to limit itself to definite answers or present us with the reason behind every event. We never learn, for example, why the Sabreur, the sword-wielding voodoo priest, wants to kill Jessica. But this lithe, charismatic figure, who never even speaks, is much more powerful as an enigma than as a logically motivated character—much like the zombies themselves, in fact. In other scenes we are also left in the dark as to characters' motivations, or whether they are even acting under their own volition. All these mysteries make the film compelling; we truly can't ever anticipate or predict what will happen, and even the disjointed quality of the latter part of the film just strengthens the feeling that, as in a dream, events are following some internal logic to which we aren't privy.
The restraint that makes the story haunting has the same effect in the use of sound. This is a very quiet movie, with very little underscoring, and the silence is all the more unsettling when underscored by the mournful song of black sailors, the sighing of wind through fields of sugar cane, or the throbbing of drums. The deliberate pacing of certain scenes also enhances the suspense. At scarcely over an hour, the movie doesn't waste a minute, but Tourneur knows when it will be more frightening by taking its time. The slow, deliberate motion of both the wraithlike Jessica and the gaunt zombie guard Carrefour (Darby Jones) unsettles the viewer far more than today's fast-moving flesh eaters. All these elements come together in what is for me the most memorable scene: a hypnotically eerie night sequence in which Betsy leads the unresisting Jessica through the cane fields to the houmfort. That one sequence alone, ominous and lonely, is enough to make I Walked with a Zombie a horror classic. It's also noteworthy that the black characters in the film are presented respectfully, and voodoo is not demonized. Particularly for a film of this vintage, the absence of racist stereotyping is remarkable, and that makes this film far more palatable to modern viewers than many others of its era.
The print used for the DVD looks to have been taken from the same master as the print I have seen broadcast on cable, since it shows damage in the same places. However, despite the presence of this damage, as well as speckling and grain, the picture is agreeably crisp and features clear whites, deep blacks, and beautiful depth of grays—a particular virtue in the many scenes that make use of shadow and darkness for dramatic effect. Overall the picture shows marked improvement over the broadcast print. Audio, likewise, is far cleaner and more distinct than I have previously known it to be for this film; all the dialogue was actually comprehensible, which was a first, and the drumbeats resonate powerfully. Altogether, despite its flaws, this is a markedly better audiovisual experience of I Walked with a Zombie than I have heretofore known.
The commentary by critic and novelist Kim Newman (author of the vampire novel Anno Dracula) and critic-editor Steven Jones is a lively, energetic dialogue. These two enthusiastic commentators discuss such topics as literary influences on the plot (citing not only Jane Eyre but The Turn of the Screw and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca) and the ways the finished film differs from the shooting script, as well as filling in some background on the actors and offering interesting morsels of trivia. Initially I was disappointed that they don't clarify the areas of the story that are left unexplained, but on reflection I was happier that they had not diminished the film's mystery. Their commentary manages to enhance our knowledge of the film and the filming process without lessening its otherworldly power.
In contrast to the dreamlike Zombie, the horror of The Body Snatcher is concrete, with an emphasis on fleshly horror: body parts, dissections, hands-on murders. We also have a change of directors, from Jacques Tourneur to Robert Wise, who would go on to helm one of the greatest of all horror films—The Haunting (1963). Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson story of the same name, The Body Snatcher takes us to 1831 Edinburgh, just three years after the notorious grave robbers and murderers Burke and Hare were brought to justice. Even though the people of Edinburgh have taken to setting guards over the graves of their loved ones to thwart the resurrectionists, the sinister Gray (Boris Karloff) still goes about his grisly work of disinterring the dead for profit. His customer is distinguished but arrogant Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), who needs cadavers with which to teach his anatomy students. When naïve medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) takes an interest in the case of a pretty young widow with a crippled daughter, he is soon plunged into the sordid process of procuring dead bodies for medical use—and discovers the ominous power that Gray wields over MacFarlane.
Although we see almost nothing of the actual specimens, the subject matter itself was shocking in its day; even now, the suggestiveness of scenes in which Gray brings a shovel down brutally on an off-screen dog, or tracks a hapless balladeer into the darkness and cuts her song short, is highly effective. The final scene, which is taken from Stevenson's story, plays out with grotesque power. Unfortunately, though, the film as a whole doesn't have the impact of some of these isolated sequences. The crucial character of Fettes is the most glaring defect. At first this idealistic young medical student, who is initially shocked and sickened by Gray's activities, seems to be the audience surrogate and the moral compass of the film. Yet he is capable of changing his attitudes entirely (and back again) without any inner struggle or sense of conflict. He emerges as a weathervane bereft of any self-reflective instincts, and his actions throughout the film don't seem to follow any consistent logic. I think Russell Wade's performance is to blame rather than the screenplay; a more skilled actor could have given us the sense of a good man struggling to find his way out from under the powerful influence of a moral corruptor. Instead, he simply comes across as a patsy.
The two other most important performances, however—Daniell's and Karloff's—are solid. Karloff's Gray is authentically creepy, with his malicious smile and sadistic delight in pulling MacFarlane's strings. He is entirely without conscience; I shivered at the moment when, having just committed murder, he crouches over the fresh corpse and strokes his pet cat. It's a meaty role, probably one of the most substantial of Karloff's horror career, and he relishes every moment of it. Similarly, Daniell here gets to stretch in a role that is much bigger than his usual fare. Daniell's gift for chilly, snide villainy is evident in his work in such films as Camille and Jane Eyre, but here he gets to play a more complex heavy, and he rises to the occasion with a strong performance. The other big name in the cast, Bela Lugosi, plays a small, tangential role—little more than a celebrity cameo—and the audio commentary points out that his being involved at all was the studio's idea, not Lewton's.
This commentary is a worthy supplement to the film. The late Robert Wise speaks for about the first 50 minutes, discussing how he came to work with Lewton before getting around to specifics on the movie at hand. Among the inside information he provides is the tantalizing revelation that he and Lewton had planned to do a film adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's classic story "Carmilla" (the basis for the subgenre of lesbian vampire films). What a gem that would have been if it had come to fruition! After Wise is finished speaking, film historian Steve Haberman picks up the commentary with a slew of background information on the Stevenson story, the casting, and the response of critics of the time. His credibility diminishes when he makes a major error about the plot of Stevenson's story, but his enthusiasm for the movie is enjoyable, even though his praise strikes me as over-lavish. The other extra for this film is the trailer, a prime example of misleading advertising in that it plays up the "partnership" of Karloff and Lugosi, whose interaction in the film is brief and decidedly not a partnership.
A more cohesive double feature would have paired I Walked with a Zombie with Lewton's The Seventh Victim, since both make use of a story structure in which innocent heroines venture into an often frightening unknown world and find danger and romance—and it would have been nice to have two strong performances by the suave, underrated Tom Conway on one disc. Nevertheless, this disc provides an interesting study in contrasts and allows viewers to compare Lewton's collaborations with two different directors. For the many viewers who will seek this release out merely for the excellent I Walked with a Zombie, the presence of another, if less memorable, Lewton film will simply be the garnish on the sundae—or should I say the flowers on the grave?
All parties are declared not guilty—except for the grave robbers, who will face their reckoning far away from this courtroom on a lonely country road…
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Scales of Justice, I Walked With A Zombie
Perp Profile, I Walked With A Zombie
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, I Walked With A Zombie
• Commentary by Film Critics Kim Newman and Steven Jones
Scales of Justice, The Body Snatcher
Perp Profile, The Body Snatcher
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Body Snatcher
• Commentary with Director Robert Wise and Film Historian Steve Haberman
Review content copyright © 2005 Amanda DeWees; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.