Directed By: Jacques Tourneur
“Frankly, it was something of a shock to see my patient that way for the first time. Nobody had told me Mrs. Holland was a… mental case.”
Sometimes these things are good to fill in the gaps in my knowledge and to spend a dreary Saturday* watching something that I wouldn’t normally watch. This one feels more like a Sunday movie, which I can’t really explain other than to say there are some things good for a Saturday night and some things that are good for a Sunday afternoon. Make sense? Good.
*Currently storm Brian is raging outside. Brian is the least threatening name for anything, ever.
Betsy, a Canadian nurse, is tasked with working on a Caribbean island to tend to woman with a bizarre condition. While there she meets the woman’s husband and his half-brother, who have a tumultuous relationship. The woman seems harmless enough, except at night when she takes to moving around the house in a trance-like state.
I Walked With A Zombie is a slow burn and really is more of a melodrama than a horror. Given a title and a newspaper article, producer Val Lewton tasked his writers with stealing from Jane Eyre instead. That melodrama is of course the least interesting and least convincing part of the movie. Betsy decides to find a cure for her ward because she decides, in what seems like a matter of hours, that she’s in love with the woman’s husband.
Where the movie does work is the ambiguity of the wife’s condition. Is she just ill, as Bella is led to believe, or is there something more sinister at play, possibly linked to the use of voodoo on the island. This was made in the 40s, so there’s no getting around the exoticism on display here. There was a tendency to mine other cultures and their beliefs for ‘horror’ (This was the same period that saw the rise of the Yellow Peril with stuff like Fu Manchu) although to this movie’s credit it attempts to link the history of slavery on the island to something deeper, as though that sin has infected the land they live on.
It is strange to link the zombies of this and White Zombie to where they are now. There is almost nothing of the current trend of face eaters in these early depictions. It seems they never really went out of vogue, just became reinvented over time.
As for this one, none of it would really work without Jacques Tourneur. The director had made Cat People the year before and brought the same use of light and shadow as he did there to create some striking imagery that lingers long after the movie has finished.