Saturday, October 6, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 6

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

32. I Walked with a Zombie (1943- dir. Jacques Tourneur)

Val Lewton’s disdain for the supernatural led him to produce a movie called Cat People that probably doesn’t have any cat people and a movie called I Walked with a Zombie that probably doesn’t have any zombies. Rather, the film is a very loose adaptation of Jane Eyre as a romantic familial mystery set on Saint Sebastian, where for a refreshing change, the well-adjusted black majority condescends to the white family falling to pieces on their old sugar plantation. Jessica Holland (the ethereal and dialogue-less Christine Gordon) is our possible zombie whose sole activity is the catatonic midnight strolls she takes out in the eerie cane fields. Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is the charming but naïve nurse hired to care for Jessica. When Betsy arrives on the island, she’s so clueless that when her black driver explains how his people were brought to the island in chains at the bottom of a ship, she responds, “But they came to a beautiful place, didn’t they?” Yeesh. She gradually becomes more empathetic to the locals, who invite her to get Jessica treated at one of their nightly voodoo rituals. We are invited along for the film’s most beguiling sequence, in which Tourneur takes full advantage of his mastery of shadow, light, sound, and setting. Although it has a strong reputation among more intellectual Horror fans, I Walked with a Zombie is at its best when enthralling the senses rather than the intellect. Sir Lancelot’s appearances as an ominous, calypso-singing, one-man Greek chorus are far more memorable than the film’s soggy romantic entanglements. Tom Conway as Paul Rand and James Ellison as his half-brother Wesley Rand fail to generate much electricity. Betsy’s interactions with housekeeper Alma, played by the marvelous Theresa Harris, are much more interesting. Some dull stretches undermine the film’s reputation, and in the scheme of Lewton’s classic “horror” films, it isn’t nearly as much of a horror film as Cat People or The Body Snatcher (though it is more of a horror film than Curse of the Cat People, which is the best of them all). Still, I Walk with a Zombie excels in grimness and pessimism, and isn’t that a lot more dread-worthy than mere supernatural horror?  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1940s here.
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