I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

I’ve suspected for a long time that this was the best of the Val Lewton horrors, and though I’m obviously going to have to rewatch the lot to confirm that suspicion, I still think I might be right. Watching it again this evening served to remind me that it actually is terrific; whatever reservations I had about Cat People and Curse, I had none about this one. DVD commentary (Steve Jones & Kim Newman) notes that production started on this not only before Cat People was released but before post-production thereon was even finished, so it wasn’t really a response to the success of that film… RKO must’ve had some faith in Lewton; notable that 1943 would be his busiest year for releases too… At any rate, if it wasn’t his best production, it was surely the most garishly-titled one, and he seems to have responded to it by coming up with something far more subtle (Jane Eyre is usually held up as the source from which he copped his ideas for the film’s plot). Remarkably complex too; for a film that clocks in just under 69 minutes, there’s a remarkable amount of stuff in it without it ever feeling like it’s trying to do too many things, and the difficulty of the central characters’ relationships—the comatose (zombified?) wife, her self-blaming husband, his brother who the wife was having an affair with, their mother who blames herself for the wife’s situation (though Jones and Newman observe the film is, in its way, vague about apportioning the real blame—was it voodoo, was it tropical illness, did Jessica deserve it either way) and the nurse brought to the island who tries to put things right—is carefully handled. As, indeed, is the film’s other main relationship, i.e. the whites vs the blacks; remarkable how seriously the film treats its black characters, and how voodoo is not painted as inherently evil (Betsy wants to use it as a force for good, indeed). Very interesting too how it’s the mother, the widow of a Christian missionary who uses the islanders’ belief in voodoo for her own purposes (shades of Lord Summerisle’s ancestor in The Wicker Man, I thought)… Handsomely produced, well acted, and though Jones and Newman do highlight a couple of things they don’t think worked, I don’t think those things do anything to detract from the film’s overall quality. Excellent stuff.


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