Friday, July 8, 2016

Short Take: I Walked with a Zombie

Producer Val Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is nowhere as cheesy as it sounds. Despite the title, it's far more eerie than scary. The zombie of the title isn't even a monster. She's the young wife (Christine Holland) of a sugar plantation owner (Tom Conway) in the West Indies. A tropical disease has reduced her to a semi-vegetative state; she can walk, but her higher brain functions are otherwise gone. The plantation owner hires a nurse (Frances Dee) to care for her, and the nurse becomes intrigued with the possibility of the island's slave descendants being able to cure the wife through voodoo. The nurse's interest in the voodoo culture indirectly leads to the sordid dramas of the plantation owner, his brother (James Ellison), and their mother (Edith Barrett) being brought into the open. Director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt deliver gorgeously atmospheric visuals, and the film is beautifully paced. But the portrayal of voodoo and the slave descendants is quite objectionable. The picture uses voodoo to tease the viewer with the prospect of the uncanny. It's imaginatively handled in terms of storytelling technique, but it's also exploitive and racist. The slave descendants are portrayed as primitive others, and the voodoo religion is reduced to an exotic means of spicing up the proceedings. With its artful form and offensive content, the film combines some of the best and worst aspects of pulp material. The screenplay is credited to Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray. The official source material is a non-fiction article by Inez Wallace, but there are echoes throughout of Charlotte Brontë's great 1847 novel Jane Eyre.

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