I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
A young Canadian nurse (Betsy) comes to the West Indies to care for Jessica, the wife of a plantation manager (Paul Holland). Jessica seems to be suffering from a kind of mental paralysis as a result of fever. When she falls in love with Paul, Betsy determines to cure Jessica even if she needs to use a voodoo ceremony, to give Paul what she thinks he wants.
When producer Val Lewton was hired for RKO Pictures, the studio decided to start a line of Horror films. Beginning with the mysterious Cat People starring Simone Simon brilliantly directed by Jacques Tourneur, its success encouraged Lewton to reemploy the director for two other films. The second movie is I Walked with a Zombie, titled in a very weird way, the producer-director team almost surpassed its first collaboration.
Betsy (Frances Dee), a young nurse, is hired to take care of the wife (Christine Gordon) of a sugar plantation owner (Tom Conway) on the island of San Sebastian. In fact, she is brought into a particular family where many secrets are hidden by Wesley (James Ellison) the brother of Paul and their mother Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett). Vaguely explained by the singing of famous calypso singer Sir Lancelot, the mystery around the permanent sleep of the wife Jessica is never really said or shown.
The strength of the film resides in the atmosphere of the superb contrasts of lighting and shadows. The constant blow of the wind that becomes almost a presence in every scene and the eerie looks of the settings. Jacques Tourneur’s mise en scène gets to its best part when Betsy takes Jessica in the night to use voodoo to try to get her out of her almost coma-like state. This trek in the sugar plantation is done without a word and filled with many voodoo elements like human skulls and the omnipresence of the drums.
In an interview Tourneur once said that he never turned down a script, one of the main reasons why he touched to many genres and managed to make a lot of films. With his entries in the Film Noir, it is easy to advance that he had the right touch to make moody Horror films. I Walked with a Zombie has superb aesthetics and the camera movements around Betsy are very engulfing.
So in this film got in my viewing list because of my October Horror event and the main reason was that it was on the TSPDT 1000 greatest films. It wouldn’t have been something I would have reached for if it wasn’t on the list. I’m very glad I did watch it because it’s not a Top 100 film but at least a Top 500.