For your Halloween pleasure this year, I offer the 1943 film I Walked With a Zombie. It’s from the famous horror unit at RKO headed by producer Val Lewton, and in this case directed by Jacques Torneur. Tourneur’s second effort in collaboration with Lewton achieves something like greatness despite a bit of mediocre writing and acting. The story concerns Betsy (played by Frances Dee), a nurse who is hired to go to a West Indies island and take care of a woman who has fallen into a mute, trance-like state after a fever. This woman is the wife of a dignified plantation owner named Paul (played by Tom Conway), with whom Betsy falls in love. As it turns out, Paul’s half-brother Wesley (James Ellison) was in love with the wife – and when the husband discovered the affair there was an angry scene, after which the wife fell into her strange condition. While Betsy, out of her love for Paul, tries to find ways to cure his wife, the men’s headstrong mother (Edith Barrett) takes her under her wing.
Lewton was saddled with the rather silly title (not of his choice), and some of the acting and dialogue is flat-footed. However, Frances Dee, who plays the point-of-view character, is quite good — conveying Betsy’s mixture of solicitude, determination and fear in a subtle and believable way. Surrounding this domestic melodrama is the culture of voodoo practiced by the island’s native inhabitants. Although the film occupies the European stance towards the black “other” that was always assumed in commercial films at that time, Tourneur is much more sensitive in this regard than one might expect. The movie avoids caricature in portraying the servants and natives — their speech is articulate and their emotions genuine. Mention is made more than once of the legacy of slavery, which helps establish the picture’s feeling of social and psychological imbalance.
There is much that is felt in this film without being spoken. The tension between white civilization and the culture of voodoo echoes a struggle between rationality and unconscious forces, just as the mystery of the zombie wife calls every character’s motivation into question. Tourneur has created a world of shadows, in which hints of the unseen and unspoken evoke hidden fears more powerfully than any explicit shock effects could ever do. The film’s central sequence, its highlight, has Betsy leading the somnambulist wife through the high reeds of the island on a moonlit night towards the village where the voodoo rites are being held. The camera’s placement and gliding movement, the lighting, editing, and discreet use of music, culminating in the hypnotic dancing (remarkably faithful to actual African forms) in the village — adds up to a brilliant tour de force: spooky, breathtaking, and unforgettably beautiful.
I Walked With a Zombie has a reputation that has continued to increase over the years. It is a film, not of terror, but of a strange and unsettling sense of dread. It’s available on DVD.