Val Lewton produced a slew of Low-budget, highly effective horror thrillers
for RKO during the 1940’s. Last night I took an hour and twenty minutes to
watch his 1943 production of I Walked with a Zombie, directed by Jaques
Tourneur, better known for the Robert Mitchum vehicle Out of the Past.
While Out of the Past has been held as a high watermark for a particularly
desperate and convoluted strain of noir, I Walked With a Zombie has an
equally sterling reputation as a film that lies somewhere on the outskirts
of true horror. I say the outskirts because, despite all of the voodoo
high-jinx, it’s never made explicit whether the events we are witnessing
have a true supernatural bent to them or are just the products of conflict,
coincidence and perhaps mild hysteria. The result is something more akin to
Henry James’ Turn of the Screw that the more sensationalistic horror
features that were being pumped out by B studios at the time.
The story concerns a Canadian nurse hired to care for the ill wife of a
sugar plantation owner on the haiti-like small Caribbean island of Saint
Sebastian. Of course when she arrives on the island nothing is as she
imagined it would be. The wife’s illness may or may not be avoodoo zombie
trance/curse. and the feuding brothers who rule the plantation appear
locked in a battle of secrets and lies that only make the cause and true
nature of each plot beat more ambiguous.
From the moment our heroin steps onto the boat, the film lives in a dark,
sweltering dream. People’s faces (and by extension motivations) are lost in
in a thick jungle world of chiaroscuro cinematography courtesy of J. Roy
Hunt. The voodoo ritual sequences in particular remain chillingly alien
non-native eyes. The drums that echo out from the jungle that surrounds
these characters becoming more ominous with each passing scene.
The film as a whole is a very tense, perhaps even sophisticated affair.
After I Walked with Zombie, Lewton would go on to produce several other
Horror flicks for RKO including classics such as The Leopard Man and the
Seventh Victim among others. But the level of ambiguity and quiet dread
found in this film was never quite equalled.