Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenwriters: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray, Val Lewton (uncredited)
By Roderick Heath
The success of Cat People (1942) took many by surprise. The film’s producer was Val Lewton, a sometime journalist and novelist, and nephew to the once-exalted screen idol Alla Nazimova. Lewton had gained a reputation in Hollywood working as assistant to David Selznick. When the time came for Lewton to break out on his own, he was offered a niche at RKO Pictures. The studio wanted to create a unit devoted to horror films, hoping to make some quick money-spinners after the studio’s engagement with wunderkind Orson Welles resulted in several projects abandoned or dumped at great cost, at a time when Universal Films were still making a tidy mint with their horror brand. Lewton, hired for $250 a week, was given control over his product if he obeyed two basic precepts: the movies he made had to cost under $150,000, and he had to use titles given to him by studio executives. The first project was to be called Cat People, probably in response to George Waggner’s The Wolf Man from the previous year. Lewton determined to use this chance to make something that might fulfil his studio mandate but also meet his own expectations of what a film sporting his name as producer could be. Lewton put together a team of like-minded collaborators, including screenwriters DeWitt Bodeen and Ardel Wray, editor Mark Robson, and director Jacques Tourneur, a talent Lewton had met several years earlier when both worked on Selznick’s production of A Tale of Two Cities (1936).
Lewton laid out a formula he later summarised as, “A love story, three scenes of suggested horror, and one of actual violence,” and always worked scripts over himself without credit, working in carefully interpolated details and knitting a unified sensibility. Cat People proved a forlornly romantic tale of psychic distress, alienation, and fear of crumbling sanity and aberrant sexuality, possibly presenting a highly coded commentary on Nazimova. Such fretfully implied notions struck a chord with wartime audiences, along with the ingeniously orchestrated suspense sequences that exploited fear of the unseen. Rumours that Cat People saved RKO from bankruptcy might have been exaggerated, and RKO brass hardly felt like celebrating what seemed a disreputable success. But the film’s impact was real, and Lewton and Tourneur were quickly asked to make a follow-up, this time handed the title I Walked With a Zombie, taken from a magazine article written by Inez Wallace. With characteristic litterateur impulse, Lewton decided he could fit that title to a variation on Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, an idea that might have seemed interminably pretentious at first airing.
Tourneur was the son of French master silent filmmaker Maurice Tourneur. Young Jacques had travelled to Hollywood with his father, who made films there including The Last of the Mohicans (1920) and The Mysterious Island (1925), but soon the family returned to France. Jacques made his directorial debut with Toto (1933) before returning to America and working for a time as an assistant director, before graduating to helming B-movies like Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939) and Phantom Raiders (1940). Tourneur and Lewton’s shared experience as émigrés with respected relatives and cultured backgrounds now fending for themselves in a tough racket seems to have been a crucial aspect of their accord, as well as Tourneur’s gift, inherited from his father, for creating cinema with careful visual textures based in intricate lighting and set dressing. Lewton was a rationalist interested in psychology and sociological insights, whilst Tourneur was credulous of the supernatural, a divide that might have resulted in clashing visions but which proved entirely appropriate as the two men laboured to carefully smudge perceptions of just what their movies were about, and deploy a then-radically minimalist and suggestive sense of menace. I Walked With a Zombie saw input from another émigré, Curt Siodmak, who had started his career in the German film industry and was becoming one of Hollywood’s familiar creators of fantastic cinema, penning the same year’s Son of Dracula over at Universal for his director brother Robert.
Not as dense with references and ideas as The Leopard Man or The Seventh Victim (both 1943) after it, nor as compressed as a nightmarish metaphor as Isle of the Dead (1945) or penetrating as a tale of the rational and irrational at war as The Body Snatcher (1945), I Walked With a Zombie is nonetheless the height of Lewton’s creed, a lushly composed, sinister-hued tone-poem. Where Cat People had been notable for creating a contemporary, urban style of horror movie, I Walked With a Zombie might have nudged Lewton and Tourneur into more familiar territory, voyaging off to a sequestered isle where the rules of life and death feel more mutable. The esoteric world of the voodoo creed was often sensationalised and caricatured as a crude amalgam of mainstream religion and bloodthirsty cult practiced by primitives, but fascination in the topic had been fed by works like William Seabrook’s The Magic Island and Wallace’s journalistic report. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) was one of the first real screen zombie movies. Halperin introduced an explicit consideration of zombie-making as a logical extension of slavery and business exploitation of a workforce as well as a device of interpersonal domination, presaging the modern tendency to use zombies as a metaphor for, well, anything you care to think of. But the notion of separating the zombie from this background would have to wait until Night of the Living Dead (1968) many years later.
The opening credits pull off the trick of turning the hype title into a poetic missive, as two figures walk along a beach under a dappled dawn sky, iconographic versions of the film’s heroine Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) and the hulking menace of the night, the zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones), strolling along in placid amity, perched between earth and sea, night and day, black and white, states of being in life and death. “I walked with a zombie…It does seem an odd thing to say…” Betsy accepts a job offered to her by an agent (Alan Edmiston) on the Caribbean island of St Sebastian, one that means good pay and a chance to escape a bitter Toronto winter: the promise of palm trees beckon to her with the voice of paradise in a snow-smothered city. On the last leg of the journey, Betsy voyages on a sailing ship across a black sea, crew members carved into a Gustav Dore etching by lantern light. “Byronic character” Paul Holland (Tom Conway) stands on the stern, gazing out to sea with a stark and silent affect.
Paul takes unseemly pleasure in shooting down Betsy’s delight in the beauty: the glow in the water is the “glitter of putrescence,” the flying fish jumping because “bigger fish want to eat them.” The coachman (Clinton Rosemond) who takes her to Holland’s home chuckles indulgently at the notion they live in a beautiful place and says, “If you say so, miss.” The island is named for a statue of the saint that stands in the compound of the Holland family, a figurehead carving that once festooned the bow of the slave ship that brought the modern-day islanders to it, depicting the Catholic martyr executed by arrows. The same figurehead now offers cruelly piquant decoration and spiritual symbol of human suffering imposed on both self and others as well as the perpetual need for redemption: the descendants of the slaves call the figure “Ti-Misery”.
Cat People had commenced with a title card sporting a fake quote from a work supposedly written by the psychiatrist Louis Judd, a character in the film, declaring that “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low place, the depressions in the world consciousness.” This could also be the thesis statement for I Walked With a Zombie, although the prior film’s evocations onerous social mythology guarding the gates to transgressive sexuality here gives way to a more overt concept for the insidious grip of the past. St Sebastian doesn’t seem to have quite entered the twentieth century yet. Paul Holland and his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) are men produced by the polarised shores of modern western civilisation’s best seats of learning, as one was schooled in the US and the other in England. They’re blessed with social status and advantage as they manage the sugar plantation that is their inheritance along with all the guilty self-knowledge of being the descendants of slave masters. The brothers span old world and new uneasily, lacking even the strange kind of certainty the Voodoo faith offers those who practice it. Paul maintains a hard and morose attitude, whilst Wes is slowly declining into alcoholism in trying to throttle his lingering anger and heartbreak. Their mother Mrs Rand (Edith Barrett) is the nominal voice of rationality, offering calm maternal advice with good sense, taking up the practice of voodoo itself with the hope of encouraging safe behaviour from islanders.
The Holland compound is first envisioned without a human presence, instead offered with Betsy’s narrated emotional associations for its various spaces and rooms heard on sound as Tourneur’s camera explores its environs. A homestead built around the ruins of an old military installation, the compound is at once fairy-tale castle fitting for discovering knowledge of self and love as well as confessions of madness, a cradle for bad dreams and septic memory as well as delicate fantasias. The Saint Sebastian figurehead abides, metal arrows jutting from his carved ribs, with a fountain’s water trickling down his form, in place of blood, tears, and lapping seawater. An old watchtower rises at the heart of the compound, gothic interpolation in a colonial landscape, haunted by echoes tears and white-draped somnambulists. The tower is the scene of Betsy’s rude introduction to her charge, Paul’s wife Jessica (Christine Gordon), whose apparently mindless, perpetually somnambulant wanderings scare Betsy after she’s awoken in the night by the sound of crying. The tears were those of servant Alma (Theresa Harris), celebrating in the inverted rituals of birth and burial seen on the island, mourning for the child being cursed with life and joy for all dispatched to peace. Betsy meets the sight of the blindly wandering Jessica, advancing on her up the watchtower interior, with the film’s single scream that brings others to gently lead away Jessica.
Betsy arrives at the Holland compound to do a job but she quickly also finds herself slotted into various roles required by the household. Alma is happy to have a lady to care for, and Paul and Wesley are both pleased in their different ways to have an attractive young lady for company, much as neither can escape Jessica. Alma’s presentation of a brioche to Betsy for breakfast makes for a gentle gag as Betsy is initially intimidated by the prolixity of food only to find it collapses – a joke that presages the darkness and menace Betsy confronts, which likewise proves mostly illusion and a small amount of consequence. Betsy soon finds herself drafted into the family quarrels when she encounters Mrs Rand, who asks her to get Paul to leave aside the whiskey decanter that usually decorates the dining table. But this simply peels the scab off a festering wound, a fraternal hatred that cannot heal, just as Jessica cannot live nor properly die, played out in spasms of liquor-loosed rage and tense decorum held together by a well-ironed dinner jacket. Betsy finds herself transfixed by “love, deep through the heart” for Paul, and, knowing it’s an impossible ardour, resolves instead to cure Jessica, talking family doctor Maxwell (James Bell) into trying a dangerous cure through insulin shock, and then listening to Alma’s suggestion she try the “better doctors” at the houmfort, the centre of voodoo worship on the island.
I Walked With a Zombie doesn’t simply transplant Jane Eyre, but revises and inverts many of its inferences and basic concepts, getting the jump on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea by a couple of decades as a work considering classic literature’s relationship to the modern world’s viewpoints. Bronte’s portrayal of madness and repression was partly rooted in diseased transplantation and racial paranoia, as embodied in the figure of Rochester’s creole wife, who then infests an annex of the English country mansion to occasionally escape and offer feral threat. Betsy, avatar of Jane, travels from a cold climate into the sweat-stoking environs of the tropics, where the cycle of life and death is fast and blatant. Here the placidity of zombified Jessica strikes a radically different posture, identifying Jessica in her way as the perfect version of a certain ideal of femininity – blank, pretty, “a great big doll” as Alma calls her. The tormenting visage that set brother against brother, has been literally objectivised, reduced to perfect, empty, decorative existence. Tourneur’s depiction of the air of studious repression that subsists in the Holland household diagnoses people urgently trying to keep up facades in spite of knowing full well the futility of such efforts; Jessica is the only person who can perfectly play her part because she has been emptied of all inner life. Such a fate has been imposed on Jessica by her mother-in-law, an act of spasmodic anger from a rational and decent yet momentarily vengeful woman. Or, at least, so Mrs Rand thinks, holding herself responsible for evil thoughts that seem to have become manifest in the real world. All these people might count themselves masters of their nut shells if not for bad dreams.
The power of the mind to create its own reality is one of the obsessive refrains of Lewton’s films, their overseeing creator’s way of mediating the irrationalism of his genre turf with his convictions about life. His series was mostly made during World War II, and whilst never overtly paid heed to it, still they often betray a searching concern for a basic, humane sensibility in the face of an age demanding everyone turn themselves into parts for an engine of warfare, betraying a pedagogic edge on occasions in the urgent plea to retain finer feelings and instincts. The portrayals of characters who give themselves up to dark and compulsive, eventually maniacal worldviews – Irena in Cat People, Galbraith in The Leopard Man, Captain Stone in The Ghost Ship (1943), General Pharides in Isle of the Dead, and Master Sims in Bedlam (1946), all diagnose a problem of morbid obsession that in several cases shades into definite cases of megalomania, to, as Judd describes it in Cat People, give in to a temptation to release evil into the world. In this mould, Mrs Rand’s attempts to safeguard her family and the people she’s made her responsibility have the best intentions but also have made her vitally susceptible to temptations of misusing power. The beguiling Harris had appeared in Cat People where she played a waitress who diagnosed character by the desserts they ordered, and Lewton began a habit of using black actors in ways that were for the time all but radical in their normality and fresh, everyday demeanour. Here Harris is a very ordinary, worldly person – “She didn’t impress me none, hollerin’ around in a towel,” she quips after being chided for upsetting Betsy with her ritualised tears. But she’s also a figure who initiates Betsy into a nocturnal world where magic is a possibility and existence is charged with unseen forces: “Better doctors,” she whispers with the strange light of promise in her eyes and hints of things marvellous at bay.
I Walked With a Zombie is a panoply of the carefully crafted and deployed landmarks of physical and dramatic detail which accumulate into a small, isolated universe at once tangible and dreamlike, something the Lewton’s brand is justly famous for, and perhaps at its height here. The arrows jutting from the statue of Ti-Misery, one of which will be repurposed into a weapon of relief. The ruined tower, exterior crawling with vines, interior with its stark, blank, shadow-drenched walls and gleaming, spiralling steps, haunted by the dead-eyed, white-draped “beautiful zombie.” The drums that announce midnight arts of sugar syrup-pouring and the blown conch horn that calls the faithful to worship at the houmfort, economic and spiritual life-bloods. The gently hummed song of the sailors and the oracular songs of Sir Lancelot. The dappled leaves of the Holland compound and softly lit interiors with gently waving curtains and mosquito nets and a copy of Bocklin’s “Isle of the Dead” on the wall, announcing future Lewton adventures. The precisely-charted way-stations on the path to the houmfort. A sword thrust through an arm that does not bleed. A store-bought doll that becomes the avatar of a woman. A droning voice through a door that promises the beatification of a strange god. The visuals are decorated by the elegant curlicues of Wray and Siodmak’s dialogue, rendered in a style consistent with the rest of Lewton’s films in refusing mere naturalism, sometimes tending towards elegant curlicues of romanticism reminiscent of Hemingway (“Since knowing you I’ve learned how sweet and fine things can be between a man and a woman,” Paul tells Betsy, via the incomparable instrument of Conway’s rum-rich voice) and resolving in outright elegy in the final voice-over.
All Lewton’s films weave in fragments of folk culture, usually in songs. It’s a way of communicating the flavour of any locale but also offering subtler orientation, of mental and social reflex, exposing the underlying cultural lexicon and habits of thought in any place. I Walked With a Zombie depends even more crucially upon such flourishes, as culture as a mode of retention and transmission is part of its deep meaning. St Sebastian’s culture is defined by terrible schisms of experience and the way such motifs join, mix, blend, become something new and strange, to itself as well as the outside world. Paul pointedly refuses to offer any separation of them and us in his accounts of the island’s history, indicating all are marked by old crimes and deep sorrows and blighted lives, and, possibly, racial mixing that’s invisible but conscious. The folk-culture reflex is embodied most obviously by the Trinidad-born troubadour Sir Lancelot, who plays a chorus-like street singer. His warbling in the streets of the island’s large town alerts Betsy to the true nature of the triangle between Paul and Wes and Jessica, much to Wes’s embarrassment, as the duo converse at a café table. This seems a moment of pure happenstance, as the singer insists it is, offering apologies with gentlemanly forthrightness: “I’ll creep in just like a little fox and warm myself in his heart.”
The singer however returns as day has become night, Wes has drunk himself into a stupor, and the moonlit surf washes the shore, to offer grim warning to Betsy that she will be woven into this story (“The brothers are lonely and the nurse is young – and now you must see that my song is sung.”) to play out its last act. The feeling of an unseen conspiracy evinced in this scene constantly nudges the surface of things throughout I Walked With a Zombie but never properly resolves. The influence of the Voodoo practitioners seems to have potency, but of a kind that’s impossible to deduce entirely, perhaps really guiding events and creating monsters or perhaps merely feeding susceptible minds with solutions when life feel terribly random otherwise. Only Tourneur’s director-as-god actions knit a conspicuous chain of events, as when he cuts between the rituals of the voodoo practitioners and the people they’re supposed to be influencing. Similarly, the script refuses to entirely discount any point of view; Wesley’s vision of Paul as a cold and vicious creep is analysed and found to be, in part, the result of Paul’s being married to an unfaithful narcissist, but also reflects truth about Paul himself, a general cynicism given exquisite permission.
The following year, Lewton would contort a dictated sequel to Cat People into Curse of the Cat People (1944), into a wistful evocation of troubled childhood, but there’s a quality of the childlike to all of Lewton’s films, unfolding as they do like a child’s nocturnal adventure, overactive imagination conjuring monsters in dim places and imagining threats in every corner. Betsy’s moment of fear in the tower upon first seeing Jessica occasions the film’s only scream, wrung from her in anxiety for the unknown and the foreboding rather than real threat. “I used to be afraid of the dark when I was a child, but I’m not afraid anymore,” Betsy tells Paul, unconvincingly. Betsy vehemently denies being what Paul calls her, “a frightened girl,” and yet everyone on St Sebastian seems on some level beset by childish instinct, a desire for certainties that never come, lost and locked in their dreamy states of solitude and faith. Eventually, Betsy will oblige herself to lead Jessica to the houmfort in search of a cure, an act in defiance of the dark and Betsy’s own, tremulous anxiety as well as self-abnegation. The trek to the houmfort is the central sequence of I Walked With a Zombie and one of the greatest moments in horror cinema, indeed, of cinema in general. Nothing overtly frightening or spectacular takes place; it is rather an exercise in pure mood that depicts and transmits the process of being walked through a succession of devices designed to inculcate credulity and susceptibility in the face of unknown forces.
Tourneur’s camera glides along with Betsy and Jessica, the silk threads of Jessica’s nightgown flickering in the breeze, waving sugar cane obscuring and crowding, turning the escape into the landscape into a claustrophobic experience whilst the call of the conch and the tattoo of drums offer elusive guidance. Totems of obscure meaning and disconcerting effect litter the path. A lamb carcass dangling from a tree, a ram’s skull on a pike, a human skull neatly set up on the dirt, a wind chime hung from a frame humming eerily. Guarding the way is the towering form of Carrefour, the supposed zombie guard set to fend off unwelcome visitors from the houmfort, who can only be passed by those wearing a special badge. He’s glimpsed at the very start of the sequence, backlit and menacing, and soon to be picked out in Betsy’s torch, staring-eyed, seemingly oblivious yet formidable. Alma has pinned a badge on both Betsy and Jessica, but Betsy’s is lost during the trek, so she has to shuffle carefully past gripping Jessica close. They move out of the sugar cane down through passages between twisting trees and vines, the whistling wind now riven with drums, drawing them on.
Tourneur exploits the studio-bound recreation of the tropical island setting here to create a zone that’s realer than reality, something straight out of dreams, a scene you can watch over and over again and still feel you’ve never quite grasped the essence of it. The houmfort itself proves a scene where the worshippers gather in a religious ceremony that has an aspect of parochial familiarity, like the male congregants in neat shirts and ties, and the incantatory, in the intense, ritualised dancing and thunderous drumming that builds a sense of frenzied anticipation. The sudden cessation of the drumming presages no momentous arrival but the muffled sound of a godly visitation emanating from the hut at the heart of the houmfort. Except, as Betsy finds when she makes her appeal to Dumbala, that the voice emanating in the dark is that of Mrs Rand. Betsy’s own attempt to work good instead provokes a new possibility of danger as the voodoo faithful recognise in Jessica something unnatural. A member of the congregation who dances with a sword, called the Sabreur (Jieno Moxzer), punctures Jessica’s arm with it: seeing that the wound seems not to bleed, the worshippers decide she really is a zombie, and begin a campaign to draw her back to the houmfort again presumably to destroy her in ritual fashion. They send out Carrefour for this first, resulting in a close encounter for Paul and Betsy forestalled by Mrs Rand’s barked commands for the guardian to go away. But the resulting stir, and Wesley’s angry insinuations, stir new police interest in Jessica’s illness, and the threat of possible arrests forces Mrs Rand to explain her conviction of her own guilt.
I Walked With a Zombie offered something of a challenge to Lewton, as zombie movies up until this one depended at least in part in a traditional, paranoid vision of black people as more credulous to superstition and engaging in primitive rites, often intending harm upon some milk-skinned woman. Some, like White Zombie and, later, Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) and Plague of the Zombies (1966), got around this by portraying white characters who have subsumed and perverted voodoo practices or totems. This is also true, after a fashion, of this film, where Mrs Rand has subsumed the role of priestess to further her agenda, but through not taking it seriously, leaves herself vulnerable to its temptations. As intimidated as they are by the sight of Carrefour lurching out of the shadows like the personification of the blighted past lurching out to torment the living, he’s actually an agent of good, for the rest of the voodoo congregation act not to harm but to initiate an act of healing and to remove the canker that blighting lives in their vicinity, as well as the shadow of black magic behind it. The white characters define their own rationalist creeds against an alternative faith, but they’re also, in the end, utterly enthralled by the notion of such powers.
The very end offers Mrs Rand’s aide as voodoo priest giving a eulogy to the eased pain of the living and the deliverance of the dead, good and bad as they were in life. That confirms that above all voodoo is another mode of religion, and that the zombie is a creation, if it’s anything, symbolises the refusal of the past to take its place as past. Wesley finally moves, obeying either his own fraying line of reasoning or the demands of the voodoo drums, to end Jessica’s pain and his own, allowing her to leave the Holland compound and then stabbing her through the heart with one of the arrows plucked from Ti-Misery’s chest. This is intercut with the Sabreur with his incantatory dance style, seeming to guide actions with a store-bought doll embodying Jessica, and plunging a pin through the simulacrum. Cause may be effect, but either way, Wesley walks out into the sea with Jessica’s body to drown and cheat Carrefour of his prize. Tourneur offers another of his most beautiful vignettes as the bodies of Wesley and Jessica are found lolling in shallow water by men fishing by torchlight, pluming flames and Jessica’s bloodless face both specks of brightness against the black sea and a horizon vanishing towards opaque eternity. The bodies are carried back home to the tears of Wesley’s mother and the solemn self-knowledge of Paul and Betsy, both grieving and delivered. Te-Misery abides still, but with one less barb in him.