Thursday, October 14, 2010

REVIEW: I Walked With A Zombie

I Walked With A Zombie
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Year 1943

I Walked With A Zombie is a classically enthralling venture into how to create a beautifully poetic horror film. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, the two provide a perfect combination of artistic professionalism that brings to life a story of life, death, love, and voodoo to the silver screen. The film in my mind goes down in history as a gem that was far ahead of its time, striking a visual chord that wasn't yet seen in a horror film and wouldn't be again until seventeen years later when Mario Bava would bring into the world his greatest work, Black Sunday. Tourneur's I Walked With A Zombie, is a zombie film that begs to be seen.

Betsy waits anxiously for her chance to get inside Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

The story for I Walked With A Zombie is a simple one, but it is executed to perfection. A young Canadian nurse named Betsy, played by a stunningly graceful Frances Dee, accepts a job in the West Indies to look after a plantation owners wife. Betsy's new patient seems to be suffering from some sort of hypnotic trance or mental paralysis that has come about after she was struck by a sudden fever. Now secluded within the hauntingly empty plantation grounds, Betsy must care for this strange inflicted woman while at the same time coming to grips with the local voodoo that inhabits the islands culture. The set up is there from the very first ten minutes and from that point forward, Tourneur and company rely on the quality of the visuals and the sense of dread to move the narration along into haunting territories. 

Oh Betsy, you little pervert.

I'm ashamed to say that I'm a little behind on my Tourneur filmography, seeing that I've only seen a couple of his previous works before viewing I Walked With A Zombie. One of his best films is the exceptional satanic romp, Night of the Demon, where I was given a first hand look at the kind of imagery and atmosphere that Tourneur produced during his time as a director. Needless to say, my anticipation for viewing his voodoo piece was peeked and happily I wasn't disappointed when sitting down to see what else he had to offer. His use of strong contrasts and overlaying lines of shadow, injects a fierce tonal ambience that sets you right among the cast of characters as they trudge knee deep through the rhythmic tribal drum filled jungles.


Tourneur's visual cues are stemmed from his past work where he dabbled in a slew of genres from Crime Dramas to Film Noirs, and everything in between. Another similar film that sits nicely next to I Walked With A Zombie, is his film Cat People, which he made right before lensing his voodoo outing. The same striking imagery can be seen in both Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie, both showing that horror films can be both brooding and beautiful.

His introduction with Cat People to the horror genre enabled him to garner a better grasp on the elements that drive the core of those kinds of films, allowing for Tourneur to produce some of the finest composed shots ever seen in the business. His technique of using his locations to their fullest is masterfully presented in the scenes where the character of Betsy paces in her room at night, surrounded by the wooden slat filled windows that encompass her Caribbean style abode. Playing with the lighting and shadows, Tourneur magically transposes these normally cumbersome shadow casted shapes and sharp lines, and overlays them right across the main actress as she peers off into the night. The scene is a quite and contemplative moment, but one that projects a sense of dread, foreshadowing things to come.

 You really think your something with that fancy new jacket.

The film also has some surprising moments within the story line that are rather unconventional to the horror genre. Betsy's character begins to have feelings for her employer, yet you're not going to get a traditional love story from this film. Instead, the filmmakers present a tragic romance that is never able to be fully realized because of the extenuating circumstances that our characters are in. Paul Holland her employer, played by a jaded Tom Conway, loves his sick wife and remains loyal to her, so Betsy is forced to do the only thing that she deems right and that's cure Holland's wife of her mental paralysis in any way, shape, or form that she can. It's an interesting turn of events and one that caught me off guard a little.

I specifically told you to bring me my morning cup cakes in bed. Do you see a bed here?

It is through this unconventional narrative mechanism that Betsy is thrust into a world that she does not understand. Her love for Holland and the unrelenting instinct to help him save his wife is the main driving force that flings Betsy into braving the wilds of the West Indies harsh environment in search of the voodoo tribe that could possibly cure Mrs. Holland. It's an interesting and bitter sweet flip on the old love story yarn and one that makes I Walked With A Zombie that much more interesting from the rest of the pack. I respect Tourneur for choosing this route and not going the cliched and narrow path followed by so many other films. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good love story now and then, but to see a film shake up the formula a bit is a breath of fresh air.

I think I saw one of those damn Samsquanches!

Now, I know what you're saying. Where the hell are the zombies? Well I haven't forgotten and neither have Tourneur and company. Even though there is actually only one zombie in this film, the director has gone to great lengths to make you feel the overwhelming presence of the voodoo zombie horde. He does this through the simple technique of placing some ambient moments throughout the film. Early in the film we are presented with the first knowledgeable bits that the island has a steep history of dealings with voodoo, by the unsettling rhythmic drums that can be heard far off in the untamed jungles surrounding the plantation. The first occurrence of hearing these strange chants comes when Betsy has her first meal with the plantation owner and his brother. It's a great moment that makes the audience feel that not everything is as it should be in this tropical setting and that danger is soon to come calling for our innocent Betsy.

Nothing like hanging out in the middle of nowhere to pass the time.

The atmosphere is perfect for this film and its heavy presence makes up for the lack of large moving packs of zombies. The one zombie that they do have in this film though is just creepy as all hell, with his long lanky figure and glazed over bulging eyes, the man was made to give people the willies. Darby Jones plays Carrefour the silent monster in all of its seven feet of glory, as it guards the pathway through the sugar cane fields. One of the most impressive moments of the film is when we are presented with his tall imposing figure as he looks down upon Betsy among the darkened wind rustled fields. The scene is almost poetic as it unfolds and the general feel is that of watching a poem laid out upon the screen. It's delicately paced and gracefully edited, almost as if you're watching some sort of passive nightmare where Betsy cautiously traverses across an unknown dreamscape. These moments are plenty and Tourneur shows that he really has an eye for occasions like this.

 Could you be.... the most saddest zombie in the world?

Not only does Darby Jones have the physical presence that is needed for a role like this, but he also brings a sadness to his role as Carrefour. The filmmakers and Jones' own carefully plodded out movements, really do an impressive job in giving the audience an almost sympathetic notion to his plight. He is not under his own control and is used simply as a tool in other peoples schemes. His blank face and obedient nature only adds to the great feeling of despair for his character. I enjoyed this unorthodox view compared to what we have now become familiar with in zombie lore and one could imagine that this was the precursor to George Romero's take on Bub in his 1985 film Day of the Dead.

 Peek a boo you fucks you.

The music in this film is also a great contributor in bringing about the feel of the world and making it wholly believable and tangible.  Roy Webb provides the simplistic soundtrack that really goes for the minimalist approach to the musical compositions. The understated, but not under-appreciated soundtrack,  works wonders with the quite sounds of the wind as it gently pushes its way through the empty expanses of the sugar cane fields. The accompaniment between the soundscapes and Webb's score is breathtaking in only going as far and in-depth as it needs to be without taking anything away from the already stupendous visuals that Tourneur provides. The soundtrack is basically as elegant as you can get.

Even zombies can enjoy a good ocean view.

I Walked With A Zombie is a true work of art that lifts the film up from its humble horror elements and brings a bit of class to the proceedings. The film relies on its tremendous depth and heavy atmosphere to capture a stirring story about a women in a strange land who is lost without love, yet at the same time lost because she has found a piece of that love, though unobtainable. The voodoo portions of this film and the intriguing island setting makes the visuals of this film extremely enjoyable to view. Tourneur proves that horror doesn't necessarily have to be gritty and messy. It can also be poetic and thought provoking, like lyrics from a long lost poem. The film captures the aspirations of the directors vision and makes for one hell of a great and original horror film. I highly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys a classically made horror film and for those who have a special place in their heart for zombies of all kinds.

5 out of 5 stars      A Classic and Beautiful Zombie Film

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