Saturday, October 21, 2017

Stubs - I Walked With a Zombie

I Walked With a Zombie (1943) Starring: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Screenplay by Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray. Produced by Val Lewton. Run Time: 69 minutes. USA Black and White. Horror.

Horror, like any genre, has its variants. We tend to think of the classic horror films as monster movies, Universal’s Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941) come to mind, as well The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and The Golem (1915) before that. But there are other kinds, too.

While modern horror tends to go in more for gore, there are other films that are more psychological in nature and even more environmental. I Walked With a Zombie falls into these latter categories.

With the coming of Halloween, the name Val Lewton comes up more and more in film history circles. Lewton, born in 1904 in Yalta, then part of Imperial Russia, now Ukraine, as Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon, would become best known for his work in horror films produced at RKO. After immigrating from Russia in 1909 with his mother, they would settle in suburban Port Chester, NY and change their name to Lewton.

A writer by trade, Lewton attended journalism school at Columbia University and would work for a time in MGM’s publicity office in New York City. He quit that position with the success of his 1932 novel No Bed of Her Own, which later that year would be made into No Man of Her Own (1932) with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. But after his next three novels were not as successful, he ended up working on a screen treatment for Taras Bulba for producer David O. Selznick at MGM and later when Selznick went independent.

Even though that film was never made, Lewton continued to work with Selznick for the next decade. It was Lewton that originally warned Selznick against making Gone With the Wind (1939), feeling that Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel was unfilmable. He would later work, uncredited, on the screenplay and even be credited with the scene where the camera pulls back to reveal hundreds of wounded soldiers at the Atlanta depot, one of that film's most famous scenes.

After ten years, Lewton wanted to break out on his own and took a job at RKO studios heading a unit that was assigned to make low-budget horror films for the studio based on titles supplied by his supervisors. The first film from this unit was Cat People (1942), which on a budget of $134,000 would make $535,000 in domestic box office and a $183,000 profit, so it was considered a success. 

That film was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a Frenchman Lewton had met on the set of A Tale of Two Cities (1935), a Selznick produced film for MGM. Tourneur was a second unit director, and he and Lewton both receive credit for their work on the Revolutionary War sequence of that film.

Tourneur, who had begun his career as an editor in his native France, had come to Hollywood in 1934 under contract to MGM. He would later make his directorial debut with They All Come Out (1939), but would be dropped by the studio in 1941. He would direct Doctors Don’t Tell (1941) at RKO before reteaming with Lewton.

Following the success of Cat People, RKO executives had another title in mind, I Walked With a Zombie. Officially, the film was to be based on an article written by Inez Wallace for American Weekly Magazine, but Lewton encouraged his writers to use Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre to give the story a narrative structure and to do research on Haitian voodoo practices.

The screenwriters included Curt Siodmak, who two years before had written the screenplay for The Wolf Man, and Ardel Wray, who had come through RKO's Young Writers' Project. I Walked with a Zombie would be Wray’s first screenplay. While she would continue to write for Lewton’s group, she would leave Hollywood in 1945 when she gave birth to her daughter.

British actress Anna Lee was originally cast in the film as female lead Betsy. Lee, who had previously appeared in such films as Seven Sinners (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Flying Tigers (1942), had to pull out due to a previous commitment.

In her place, Frances Dee was cast. Dee had been acting in films since Playboy of Paris (1930), a musical opposite Maurice Chevalier. She would also appear in An American Tragedy (1931) as well as Of Human Bondage (1934) to name a few. The wife of actor Joel McCrea, Dee’s last film was Mister Scoutmaster (1953).

I Walked With a Zombie went into production on October 26, 1942, and would complete filming November 19, 1943. One note about Zombies. Zombies had been in films since Victor Halperin's White Zombie (1932). The term Zombie means the undead recreated through the re-animation of a human corpse. The word comes from Haitian folklore, which may explain the Caribbean setting for many zombie films like I Walked with a Zombie.

A difference should be drawn between Haitian zombies and the ones that have permeated fiction since George A. Romero's seminal film Night of the Living Dead (1968). Romero turned zombies into living monsters who crave human flesh and even eating human brains.

The film opens with narration by Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), who recounts that she once "walked with a zombie". In the distance we see her walking with a rather tall person, whom we assume is the zombie in question.

The film opens with a long shot of Betsy (Frances Dee) walking with a zombie.

A Canadian nurse, Betsy is hired to be the personal nurse to Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) by her husband Paul Holland (Tom Conway), the owner of a sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. It is winter in Canada and the thought of beaches and palm trees sweetens the prospects.

The thought of palm trees and beaches seals the deal for Betsy

Soon, Betsy is on board a ship from Antigua, where she is thinking about how beautiful everything looks when Paul interrupts her thoughts and introduces himself. He tells her that everything is not beautiful, but rather full of death and decay.

Paul Holland (Tom Conway) tells Betsy that everything she knows is wrong when it comes to the Caribbean.

Betsy is taken from the boat to the Holland home, referred to by the locals as Fort Holland by carriage. The coachman (Clinton Rosemond) educates Betsy telling her that Saint Sebastian is populated by the descendants of black Africans brought to the island aboard slave ships to work the sugar plantations by early descendants of the Hollands. He refers to a statue in the Holland’s courtyard as “T-Misery”; the statue is actually the masthead of the first slave ship to arrive on the island. The island residents are still somewhat bitter about the circumstances that brought them there, though many are still employed at the Sugar plantation.

On the ride to the plantation, Betsy gets a brief history lesson from the coachman (Clinton Rosemond).
Despite the misery around her, Betsy is still excited about her new surroundings. That night at dinner, Betsy is joined by Wesley Rand (James Ellison), Paul’s half-brother. Unlike Paul, who has a British accent, Wesley is more American, having been schooled there. Wesley explains that the boys share the same mother, who runs the village dispensary. Paul, though, is the son of a Holland and therefore the owner of the plantation, while Wesley is merely an employee. It is clear from the way he talks about Paul that Wesley resents him. Towards the end of their dinner, Paul arrives and Wesley retreats to the mill where he is needed. Paul is taking medicine to Jessica and even though Betsy is anxious to meet her, Paul tells her that she can start work the next day.

At dinner, Betsy is entertained by Paul's half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison).

After dinner, Betsy is already in bed when the sounds of a woman sobbing wake her. She follows the sounds, which are coming from across the courtyard in a stone tower.

The sound of a woman sobbing wakes Betsy.

Still following the sobbing, Betsy ascends the stairs, where she is cornered by the cataleptic figure in white, who turns out to be Jessica.

Betsy follows the sobbing up a dark windy stairway.

She has not yet met her patient and is frightened when Jessica does not respond. Betsy’s screams for help are responded to by Paul and several of the servants. Paul is disappointed in Betsy and takes Jessica back to bed.

Betsy is frightened when Jessica (Christine Gordon) does not respond.

After they’re gone, we learn that the sobs were coming from Alma (Theresa Harris, miscredited as Teresa Harris). As part of a tradition, Alma is sobbing because of the birth of a friend's child. Because of the misery of their lives, a new birth is greeted with crying by the natives.

Turns out it was Alma (Theresa Harris) who was sobbing.

The next morning, Betsy is awoken by Alma, who has brought her breakfast in bed. Alma has been taking care of Jessica and wants to take care of Betsy, too, and work with her.

Paul is upset with Betsy for what he sees as her childish behavior and warns her not to get involved with the island’s superstitions.

Betsy meets with Jessica's physician, Dr. Maxwell (James Bell), who explains that his patient's zombie-like condition was caused by an incurable tropical fever. There is no hope of ever bringing her back to normal, which Betsy doesn’t like.

Dr. Maxwell (James Bell) tells Betsy there is nothing that can be done for Jessica.

On Betsy's day off, she encounters Wesley, who offers to give her a tour of the village. That tour seems to start and end at a local café, where Wesley drinks himself into a stupor. A calypso singer (Sir Lancelot) sings a song that is about Paul and Wesley's rivalry for Jessica's love. Hearing the song upsets Wesley and the singer, who had been unaware of his presence, apologizes to Wesley.

A calypso singer (Sir Lancelot) is upset that no one has told him Wesley was in the cafe.

But later, after Wesley has passed out, the singer plays the song almost as a dare. Betsy tries to rouse Wesley, but can’t wake him. Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett) appears out of the shadows and comes to Betsy’s aid. She arranges to have Wesley put on his horse and then walks Betsy back to Fort Holland, deciding to stay the night.

Later, with Wesley passed out, the calypso singer repeats his song about the
Holland family rivalry. Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), in the background, arrives to help.

Over dinner, while Paul and Wesley exchange harsh words, in the distance, drums of the voodoo ritual play.

Later, Betsy is drawn to Paul’s piano playing. Alone, he apologizes to her for bringing her to the island to take care of his wife. After their encounter, Betsy realizes that she’s in love with Paul and wants to make him happy by bringing his wife back to him.

Betsy realizes she's in love with Paul after hearing him play the piano.

She approaches Dr. Maxwell about an experimental treatment using insulin shock to cure Jessica. Everyone agrees to give it a try, but it fails.

Betsy takes Jessica to Home Fort for a voodoo ceremony.

Since medicine has failed her, Betsy listens to Alma, who suggests trying voodoo. Betsy seeks out Mrs. Rand for advice and she tries hard to dissuade her from taking that approach. However, Betsy decides to give it a try and with Alma’s help, she takes Jessica to the “Home Fort” where voodoo is practiced. Alma draws her a map and gives her patches to wear that will let them get past Carre Four (Darby Jones), the tall zombie-like figure that guards the roads to Home Fort.

Carre Four (Darby Jones) guards the way to Home Fort.

They watch the ritualistic dancing before Betsy approaches the shack where the voodoo priest resides. She is taken inside, where she learns that the priest is none other than Mrs. Rand. Mrs. Rand explains that she has been using the natives’ belief in voodoo to get them to accept modern medical practices. She tells Betsy that Jessica can never be cured.

The voodoo ceremony features ritualistic dancing.

But Jessica’s presence at Home Fort has inflamed the natives and they intensify their ritual's intent on bringing Jessica back. Hearing the drums, Paul tells Betsy that he doesn’t want to demean and abuse her the way he had Jessica and begs her to return to Canada, but Betsy refuses.

That night, though, Betsy is awakened by the formidable presence of Carre Four, who has entered the house. Fearful, she runs to Paul’s room for help and Mrs. Rand orders Carre Four away from the Holland complex and he obeys.

The next day, Maxwell informs the family that the native unrest has caused an inquest to be opened into Jessica’s mysterious illness. Mrs. Rand admits to everyone that Jessica is not sick, but a zombie put into that state by Mrs. Rand. The curse was the only way she could think of to prevent Jessica from leaving Paul for Wesley.

Mrs. Rand confesses that she put a curse on Jessica, resulting in her zombie-like state.

However, Maxwell refuses to accept that explanation, insisting Jessica is a victim of a tropical fever. He says that since Jessica never died, there is no way she could be a zombie. He leaves without knowing that at one time, Jessica had fallen into a coma, allowing her to become one of the undead.
Later that night, the beating drums call Jessica out of the house and to the front gates. Wesley notices and opens the gates for her, taking an arrow from the statue of T-Misery before following after her.

T-Misery, the statue in the courtyard of Fort Holland, is the masthead from a slave ship.

At Home Fort, the voodoo ritual is calling her towards them, using a doll on a string to symbolize her. And then the worshippers stab the doll with a pin.

The voodoo ceremony calls Jessica to them in the form of the doll.

Mimicking the ritual, Wesley thrusts the arrow into Jessica. Followed by Carre Four, Wesley carries her body into the sea, where he drowns.

After killing her, Wesley takes Jessica's body out into the sea, where he drowns.

Later, while spearfishing at night, the natives discover their dead bodies floating in the surf and carry them back to Fort Holland.

Carre Four carries Jessica's lifeless body back to Fort Holland.

I Walked With a Zombie is more atmospheric than terrifying, so in some ways it barely qualifies as a horror film. At the time of its release, April 30, 1943, it was even referred to as “dull” in a review in the New York Times, which is never a good thing. Over time, however, its reputation has done nothing but increase. In 2007, what was considered dull in 1943 was named the fifth best zombie film of all time by Stylus magazine, an online music and film magazine.

None of the leads really distinguish themselves. James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway and Edith Barrett are good, but not great in their roles. I’m not sure if I really buy Betsy falling in love with Paul and her motivation then to bring Jessica out of her comatose state. Edith Barrett is good, but her part has a little more to it than the others; a proponent of modern medicine who uses voodoo to get her viewpoint across to the natives.

Two supporting actors, Christine Gordon as Jessica Holland and Darby Jones as Carre Four, say nothing throughout the film and pretty much just stare forward with blank expressionless faces. This is Gordon’s first and perhaps best-known performance, which may tell you something about her acting chops. Gordon was out of films by 1946, her last appearance being in the remake Of Human Bondage (1946). Darby Jones was pretty much stereotyped by Hollywood. Given the era in which he worked, the 1930s through the 50s, meant that he played a lot of African natives, slaves, and zombies, many times not receiving credit.

Jacques Tourneur would continue to work for Lewton, directing The Leopard Man (1943) for the same RKO unit. When he was eventually elevated by the studio to direct A-films, he would helm one of the best film noirs ever made, Out of the Past (1947), and then Berlin Express (1948), shot against the backdrop of war-torn Allied-occupied Germany.

If you’re looking for a really scary horror film for Halloween, then you should look elsewhere. I’m not even sure that real fans of zombie flicks would get much out of it either, since, as stated before, this is not your modern zombie film. No brains are eaten or even drooled over here.

Be sure to check out other Horror films in our Horror Films Review Hub.

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