Sunday, June 23, 2013

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) **

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Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur made three low-budget ‘horror’ films together for RKO: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943).  For me, they are slightly amusing looks at the supernatural with a heavy dose of eerie cheese on the side.  The acting is always less than stellar and the set productions are minimal, but the stories are always oddly entertaining and told in a highly unusual way.  Still, with far superior films left off the 1001 List, I find it a tad galling that two out of their three films together made the cut.

I Walked with a Zombie is a tale of voodoo and love. Nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is dispatched to Saint Sebastian in the Caribbean to care for Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), a catatonic woman who walks around l1342aike a zombie (hence the film’s title). Jessica’s husband, Paul (Tom Conway), is a morose sugar plantation owner who tells anyone who will listen that everything good dies on St. Sebastian.  I suppose he had a reason to be bitter, as before his wife fell ill she planned to run away with his half-brother, Wesley Rand (James Ellison). Anyway, Jessica’s a zombie, Paul is a bore and Wesley is a drunk—oh, and their mother (Edith Barrett) is a pretend voodoo priestess to the superstitious locals.  Obviously attracted to the bizarre, Betsy soon falls in love with Paul and does all she can do to heal Jessica—even going so far as to take Jessica to the voodoo priest (although at the time she wasn’t aware that Jessica’s mother-in-law could have just been called to the house).

iwalkedwithazombieOkay, so what can I say good about I Walked with a Zombie?  Betsy and Jessica’s perilous jaunt into the sugar cane fields to reach the houmfort (it’s where the voodooers gather) is creepy.  Jungle drums fill the air and the wind is swirling, oh, and there’s a beyond frightening gatekeeper (Darby Jones) who they must pass to gain entry to the houmfort. Once there, they encounter possessed looking people gyrating about and a devilish-looking fellow wielding a saber for some ceremony.  While it is interesting that Tourneur and Lewton take a stab at calypso culture, I don’t know how realistic a depiction it was—personally, I hope they let their imaginations get a bit carried away.

Nothing good can really be said about the acting, although Frances7526-9171 Dee does a passable job.  She was pretty much a B-actress her entire career, but this was one of her better performances.  If anyone deserves any kudos it would have to be Theresa Harris as Alma, the house servant who tells Betsy how to find the houmfort.  Perhaps if there hadn’t been such a color barrier in Hollywood she could have found more meaningful roles. 

Yet, the bad acting is not the thing that most troubles me about I Walked with a Zombie. For the life of me I can’t figure out when, why or how Betsy fell in love with Paul. One minute he’s saying the world is full of doom and playing the piano rather poorly, and the next Betsy is declaring her iwalkedzombie2undying love for him—what? Oh, and how didn’t Mrs. Rand’s sons know their mother played voodoo priestess in her free time when they seemed to know everything else that went on on the island?  There are just too many plot holes that go left unexplained. I suppose this was budget related, but still…

Overall, I Walked with a Zombie takes an amusing and unusual look at the world of voodoo. It is one of the better B-films to come out of Hollywood in the 1940s, but it surely isn’t one of the movies I had to see before my death. 

10 comments:

  1. I enjoy this film because of the atmosphere. I also rather appreciate that a film made in this time period was quite a bit more friendly to the beliefs of the natives than most films of the time. The characters in the film have (I thought) a real respect for Voodoo, which is pretty refreshing.

    And I love the song..."Shame and sorrow for the family..."

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    1. Good point about the song, it is a catchy. And, you're right, there is a non-stereotypical view of voodoo here. Still, you have to admit, the acting is bad. LOL

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  2. Too funny, Kim. I've found several of the Lewton movies are more interesting to think about than to actually watch, but I do enjoy this one, thanks to the mood, as your previous responder said. I've read that Lewton saw the film as Jane Eyre in the Caribbean. I'm not that familiar with Jane Eyre to make the comparison.

    I do like Tom Conway though, in anything, and like him here. I do wish the DVD copy was better, it's one of the worst transfers I've ever seen. Many, many years ago a film collector friend of my dad's had a gorgeous 16mm print of the film he showed us and it positively glistened, a quality one cannot say about the DVD.

    All in all, though, an interesting, if flawed film. Can't wait until you take the plunge to review the semi-sequel "Zombies on Broadway" (1945).

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    1. I think the film would have looked a lot better had it been shot in color. Lower budget films transferred to DVD always seem to be less than appealing.

      Oh, and you won't catch a review of Zombies on Broadway here, but at some time I will take on Cat People. LOL

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  3. Kim, I must admit that I like Val Lewton's films. In my opinion, he put together atmospheric films with decent production value considering the limited budget he had. This film played the voodoo angle better than most films of the time that tended to play voodoo over the top. I think Frances Dee brought some credibility to the film by not overplaying her role. In addition, Tom Conway is a favorite of mine because he (like his brother) played morally ambiguous characters quite well. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but I do think it is a crossover genre film (as it is horror, drama, romance, and somewhat noir) worth viewing.

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    1. His films are atmospheric and pretty original. Dee does a nice job of not playing a hysterical damsel in distress, too.

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  4. A haunting, suspenseful, cheesy thriller. Which is a good thing... If you've never seen this film, I walked With a Zombie, I think you are in for a special treat!

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    1. Obviously you're a fan of Lewton's films.

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  5. Yes, well, you are right. The acting will never win any prices and the plotholes are gaping wounds. I just felt this film more than studied it. It has so much atmosphere. Perhaps a second watch would kill it for me so I leave it at that.
    Good point about the mother. Her relation to voodoo is really confusing and the sons must have had an inkling of what was going on.

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    1. There is atmosphere, but not enough for me to get past everything else.

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