I Walked With A Zombie


Rating 4

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Written by Ardel Wray and Curt Siodmak, based on a story by Inez Wallace

Starring Frances Dee, Tom Conway, James Ellison, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Theresa (Teresa) Harris and Christine Gordon

Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), a young Canadian nurse, is hired to care for Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), the catatonic wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway), the owner of a sugar plantation in the Caribbean. Once there, she discovers that Paul has a strained relationship with his heavy drinking half-brother, Wesley Rand (James Ellison), who blames him for Jessica’s condition. The events that follow are set against a backdrop of voodoo worship by the local people.

Val Lewton produced a sequence of nine atmospheric low-budget b-movie horrors for RKO Radio Pictures between 1942 and 1946, each one made for a budget lower than $150,000 and with a running time of no more than 75 minutes. They were directed variously by Jacques Tourneur, Mark Ronson and Robert Wise (who went on to the direct the 1951 sci-fi classic ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ and after that the hugely successful musical films ‘West Side Story’ and ‘The Sound Of Music’). Tourneur remains, probably, the director most closely associated with the work of Val Lewton, directing the first three films, including the classic ‘Cat People’.

‘I Walked With A Zombie’ was the second film in the sequence, first released in 1943. It eschews shocks and effects, instead creating a claustrophobic atmosphere through the subtle use of camera angles and shadows. The story itself, which was allegedly inspired by the Charlotte Brontë novel ‘Jane Eyre’, is complete hokum, but this just adds to the almost quaint charm. The film is a product of its time and would be unlikely to appeal to many younger horror genre viewers these days, but it remains quite brilliant and is without doubt my favourite zombie film.

Edith Barrett, who plays the mother of Paul and Wesley, was just 36 years old at the time, although one imagines her character would have been at least twenty years older. Frances Dee was married to the actor Joel McCrae from 1933 until his death in 1990.

Review posted 2 January 2009


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