The Apocalypse Will Be Subtle: I Walked With A Zombie
Horror as a film genre has become noted for blood and gore. If it bleeds it definitely leads with scary movies. Stupidity also plays a major role in these pictures. We all know horror movie characters will make ridiculous moves for no apparent reason. What if a horror story could rely on interesting characters in unique situations instead? Allow me to introduce you to the world of Val Lewton.
A Russian immigrant, Lewton had already worked as a reporter (fired for making up a story) and written a novel when he went to work as a studio publicist, first in New York and then in Los Angeles. He also worked as a story editor and an (uncredited) screenwriter. Despite the fact that he told David O. Selznick that he would be making “the mistake of his life” if he made “Gone With the Wind,” he was hired to run RKO‘s horror unit in 1942.
Rather than a promotion, Lewton’s new job was almost a punishment. His salary was only $250 a week. Far from the big budgets of a studio like MGM, RKO (which had produced King Kong, which used cutting-edge special effects for 1933) was fading and would go out of business in the late 1950s. Due to a lack of money, Lewton had to make each film for less than $150,000 budget. Also, each was to run under 75 minutes and the studio executives would give Lewton film titles which he had to use.
Despite these strict limits, he succeeded magnificently at RKO. Seemingly taking these limitations as a challenge, he made atmospheric pictures that look and feel like no other horror ever made. His first film was the 1942 classic Cat People. He followed that with The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. Lewton’s four years at RKO mark an achievement in horror almost as impressive as the great Universal cycle then going on.
Of all the films, I Walked With A Zombie stands out as Lewton’s most imaginative. Released in 1943, the movie does not show a zombie apocalypse. This story is a creative literary adaptation; you will not find it in the credits but the movie is based on Charlotte Bronte‘s Jane Eyre.
Instead of an English estate, the story takes place on a Caribbean island called Saint Sebastian (based on Haiti). The film opens with the narration of Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), who says that she once “walked with a zombie.” She has been hired to care for the wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a local sugar planter. His family brought African slaves to the island and the two races live in uncomfortable proximity. His wife is trapped in a catatonic state. Betsy finds herself falling in love with Paul. This will not be easy, especially when the current Mrs. Holland wanders the island at night, saying nothing. Betsy commits herself to curing her patient as a way to win Paul’s love.
Like most of Lewton’s films, this one feels like black and white was a creative choice. The shadows seem an omen, threatening to take the soul of all the characters. The audience can never be sure whether the voodoo practiced here is a threat or just a superstition. This story also benefits from the direction of Jacques Tourneur, a Frenchman who would soon become known as one of the greatest directors of Film Noir. His ability to do a lot with a little meshed well with his boss.
A rule of horror is that for something to be creepy it has to creep. I Walked With A Zombie pulls off that feat to perfection. To see it is to remember that a great imagination like that of Val Lewton can overcome any budgetary limitations. Watch it for a most unique Halloween scare.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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