Sunday, October 26, 2008

Halloween Week 2008: I Walked With a Zombie

While watching Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie I couldn't help but think of a different a film, a completely different film in both genre and context. The film that kept popping up in my head was the Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful. The film stars Kurt Douglas as a ruthless producer in the vein of David O. Selznick; however there is one scene where Douglas' character reminds me more of producer Val Lewton, producer of I Walked With a Zombie. The scene I am speaking of is where Douglas and his friend, a director, are working on their first film, a cheap B-level horror film called Curse of the Cat People. They are stuck with cheap looking cat suits that don't fit a lot of the actors who are supposed to be wearing them. When they ask themselves the question: "what do you have when you have a bunch of actors in cat suits....a bunch of actors who look like they're in cat costumes.", they come to the realization that showing the cats is a mistake, and then they ask a better question that hints at the success to these kinds of horror pictures: "what are people most afraid of? The dark! Let's say the audience never sees the cats....". I can't help but think that this is similar to the types of conversation that producer Lewton and director Tourneur had on their sets for similar B-level horror pictures. This moment from a completely unrelated film is key to understanding the success of Tourneur and Lewton's horror pictures, especially I Walked With a Zombie.

Tourneur and Lewton are successful in taking a non-horror book for its source material (Bronte's Jane Eyre) and turning it into an atmospheric spook-fest. There is nothing that is overtly scary or even nerve-jarring about I Walked With a Zombie, but there are many unsettling moments that rely on what we don't see; a formula for success found in later horror films like The Blair Witch Project.

Shadows are always in play in these kinds of films, and in I Walked With a Zombie some of the best moments come from creepy imagery silhouetted or mysterious figures lurking in the shadows. The story is your basic voodoo horror plot where a naive Canadian nurse goes to the West Indies where mysterious voodoo medicine is practiced. Betsy has been contracted out by a wealthy man to try and figure out what ails his wife (he's tried everything of course....but there's always something more), and early on she tries not to let her optimism and naivete get the best of her, but she presses on, sure that she can save her employers wife, which leads to some odd encounters as she dabbles in the locals medicinal philosophies.

Despite the films title, the plot of the story has little to do with "gotcha" moments, and more to do with uncertainty; the old stand by of a "stranger in a strange place" horror formula. A lot of it works, especially the creepy scene where Betsy takes the woman she is caring for through a maze-like field marked with various voodoo emblems. The lack of cheesy, foreboding music or easy scares are what make this scene so memorable. All you hear is the wind and the gasps of Betsy; like her we too are making this uncertain journey through the voodoo maze. The scene has an eeriness and unsettling nature rarely found in today's horror films. Tourneur did the same thing in his other horror films, most famously Cat People and Night of the Demon, and by only showing certain amounts of what was around the corner, and by using shadows and eerie sound without cheesy music, he was able to create a unique horror film that relied more on your senses than the usual monster type film that was popular at the time.

It's not the kind of horror film for everybody; there's no blood or scary monsters or jump-out-of-your-seat moments, but there is a tremendous amount of style in how Tourneur and Lewton get the audience to believe something bad is going to happen when really, nothing is happening on screen. These two thought that the sound of shuffling feet waking you up in the middle of the night was a lot scarier than zombies trying to eat you in your cottage, and you know what, if you watch this film you'll understand why the sound of feet shuffling across pavement is more unsettling than seeing someone getting their guts ripped out by rabid zombies. A truly unique and clever B-level horror film, and a pleasant change of pace from the Saw movies, or the usual Halloween fodder found on video store shelves.

I Walked With a Zombie showing on Turner Classic Movies Thursday October, 30 at 9:00 AM


  1. I've got my Tivo set to record this (and the other Lewton/Tournier movies as well).

    I watched two other Lewton films that TCM has on -- Ghost Ship and The Seventh Victim. I was just impressed at what Lewton was able to do with b-list actors and left-over sets. He does an incredible job creating atmosphere in both films.