by Sam Juliano
Ah, woe/Woe is me/Shame and sorrow for the family.
It has been argued in scholarly cinematic circles that “there are two Lewton masterworks: I Walked With A Zombie (visually the more eloquent and elegant) and The Seventh Victim (the more poetic and profound).” It has furthermore been argued that “Neither film employs a conventional narrative structure although the subjects, voodoo and devil worship, are the stuff of traditional horror movies.” For both films Lewton formulated a mosaic-like structure that doesn’t so much as present a full story than suggest it’s “possibilities.” Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar would be an example of this practice, as it eschews conventional narrative for possibilities that the audience is expected to connect on.
The same theme seems to prevail in Lewton’s films: the power of reason vs. the power of obscurity. The concerns are given the same attention, but Lewton, a studied man with a literary slant, is in essence a measured artist whose greatest gift was always reveling in the humanity of his characters, a gift that once won effusive praise from the great critic James Agee. Hence it is assumed that the powers of darkness will in the end be negated by rational thinking. Perhaps the most startling element in I Walked With A Zombie, the second in his famous low-budget horror series, is that diabolical forces emerged victorious at the film’s conclusion.
This twisting of reality would assuredly be more difficult to process had it not been for the fact that Lewton’s gifts have always been in cinematic atmospherics, in visual poetry. Lewton in neither a romantic nor a strait interpreter of literature. He is literary, yet his taste here manifests itself in how to visualize these elements rather than to attempt to replicate them.
I Walked With A Zombie is a sketchy transcription of Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre, set in the West Indies. Deliberately, producer Lewton (along with the extraordinarily gifted director Jacques Tourneur) set up relationships that are inexplicably unconsumated and disjointed leading to a situation where it’s unearthly elements begin to achieve some narrative believability. For example, it is impossible to tell if Paul Holland’s wife Jessica (who is turned into a zombie) was censurable or innocent. Jessica was unfaithful to the “Byronic” Paul, who evinced a cheerless personality, and wound up (prior to the events of the film) in the arms of the free-spirited, alcoholic brother Wesley, causing the mother of the two men, Mrs. Rand, who ironically is a devout Christian and an adherent of science, to evoke the spell. The most straightforward and uncomplicated of the characters is the central one, the nurse Betsy, the “Jane Eyre” character, yet even she dabbles in the occult, by risking her own life to erase the debilitating spell on Jessica. In the dearth of motivations that may dictate the actions of the characters, it is natural that paranormal forces are at play that may be constricting the motivations of the characters. Of course, from the beginning of the film, when Paul confronts Betsy on the ship that are crossing to reach his home on the island, this film’s oppressively dark tone is conveyed in Paul’s reading of Betsy’s mind:
Paul: It’s not beautiful
Betsy: You read my thoughts Mr. Holland.
Paul: It’s easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. Everything seems beautiful because you don’t understand. Those flying fish…they’re not leaping for joy…they’re jumping in terror…bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water…It takes its gleam from millions of dead bodies. (plankton) There’s only death and decay here….
Betsy: You can’t believe that.
Paul: Everything good dies here….even the stars…
These images, spoken in even monotone and definitive tone, set the entire mood of the film, which is drenched in sorrow and melancholia.
There is a central transitional image in I Walked With A Zombie, and it is the figurehead of St. Sebastian, which was transported to the island via a slave ship, and now stands in the Holland garden. St. Sebastian is also a transitional figure of sorts, falling between the ebbing of paganism, and the advent of Christianity, hence in this film with its clashing of love and hatred and reason and superstition, it is a perfect deity.
While exhaustive attention was paid to the elegant look of the film by Lewton, Tourneur and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt as well as Lewton alumni like art directors Albert D’Agostino and Walter Keller, comparable attentiveness was lavished on the film’s soundtrack, which was scored by regular Roy Webb, but more evocatively fueled by the songs of Sir Lancelot. These songs, purportedly the first examples of Calypso music ever used in an American film, serve as a Greek chorus, with lyrics that lay bear the troubled family, by way of ominous lyrics that issue proper condemnations. The use of these lyrics were most pronounced in the restaurant scene where they infuriate Wesley, as the sordid lyrics acknowledge both the marital infidelity of Jessica and the horrors that will follow (“pain and sorrow in the family”). Lancelot, an unassuming flesh and blood figure, takes on a spiritual connotation in the film.
Of course it would be impossible to imagine I Walked With A Zombie even being half as effective as it is without the guidance of director Tourneur. He is the only Lewton director of the absolute top-rank, and it is his talent and inspiration that no doubt contributed to the film’s incomparable wordless sequences. Paramount of these is the centerpiece sequence when Betsy and Jessica walk together to the Homfort, a voodoo outpost thought to be a refuge for those seeking cures. A highly synchronized and lyrical passage follows as the women pass through the reeds and the sugar cane. Tracking shots follow the women in their flowing white and black robes that have a dreamlike and hyptonizing effect, which is accentuated by the sound of gentle wind and shuffling reeds. In typical Lewton fashion, again the use of figures (and metaphors) are used to superb effect as the women float past the decorated skull of a horse, a harp, a human skull and the imposing giant zombie known as Carre-Four. As the entire sequence like the others in the film was shot on a set, it is astonishing how definitive the shoot is, and how perfectly the intended effect is conveyed. The torchlight sequence at the end of the film further illustrates Tourneur’s remarkable gifts; previously in Cat People (1942), and in the 50’s with his non-Lewton horror film, Curse of the Demon, Tourneur exhibited similar talent. But with Lewton, it was surely a match made in heaven..
The erstwhile set designers of course were up to the task of realizing Lewton’s vision with provocative interior rooms, like Jessica Holland’s bedroom, which is layered in shadows, evoking taste, elegence and loneliness, and is adorned with culture: a harp, glass curtains, and a painting that research reveals is titled “The Isle of the Dead” (the title of a later Lewton film in this series).
The finest cast ever assembled for a Lewton film delivered the best emsemble acting, easily. Tom Conway, Frances Dee, Edith Barrett and Christine Gordon all lent cultural distinction and humanity to this mysterious brood, (regardless of motivational inconclusiveness), while Sir Lancelot and Darby Jones gave the film symbolic depth with intense performances.
It is altogether fitting that Lewton should try to distance himself from the film’s awful title, forced on him by the studio, who could care less about his delicate artistic sensibilities and intelligence, but were only concerned about box office receipts, by having Betsy speaking off-screen on the soundtrack: “I walked with a zombie…it does seem like an odd thing to say…” As the statement has nothing to do with anything that happens in the story after this point, it doesn’t work at all, and comes off as nonsense, but in retrospect it’s a far better thing to reject artistic blasphemy than it is to fail trying to do it.
I Walked With A Zombie, a defining moment of film poetry, is Lewton’s masterpiece and one of the most perfectly rendered works of the 1940’s in American cinema.