Saturday, June 9, 2012

#134: I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)

I Walked with a Zombie. I don't even know where to start. There is so much here, so much worth visiting and revisiting. It's an instantly hypnotic, magnetic film containing great mystery and formal beauty, and its portrayal of female and black characters is still years ahead of current Hollywood. The film somehow manages to combine such disparate elements as Jane Eyre, Tennessee Williams (probably inadvertent, he hadn't written his most famous work yet), German expressionism, Gothic horror, Caribbean calypso and voodoo culture, subtle political critiques of American and British colonialism and imperialism, a strong personal story about family, and doomed romance into a unified, efficient whole that builds to a beautifully earned conclusion in less than seventy minutes. Just another one of Jacques Tourneur's masterpieces, and a whole lot more. All that, and the movie inspired a great Roky Erickson song.
I Walked with a Zombie appeared during the middle stretch of that exciting run of RKO atmospheric horror films guided by artist-friendly producer Val Lewton. Tourneur was probably his strongest collaborator. I've already written about Tourneur's career in a previous post so I'll just recommend you check out his work  because it's fucking great. He was one of those filmmakers who made each frame personal, poetic, and of immediate visceral interest to the eyeballs of any attentive audience member. He didn't generically shoot a screenplay or try to dazzle the audience with a lot of flash. He was a genuine filmmaker.
Our story begins with a young Canadian nurse hired to care for the ill wife of a small, wealthy American/British family on their plantation in the West Indies. The island is populated by the black descendants of slaves brought over by the British, and the film constantly reminds the viewer in both subtle and overt ways that the island's beauty is married to tragedy and death. The nurse, Betsy, arrives to find the four-member family inextricably connected yet isolated from each other. Much of Betsy's interactions with the family take place separately, and all four primarily live apart from each other. The mother, Mrs. Rand, is an American woman who married a British man, the father of her oldest son Paul. The British man died young and Mrs. Rand married an American, now also deceased, and gave birth to her second son Wesley. The boys attended private schools in their respective home countries and have a troubled relationship, complicated by their shared interest in Paul's wife. Wesley is a depressed alcoholic trying to masquerade as a sardonic, fun-loving man of leisure. Paul is just depressed, prone to brooding and lacking the energy to pretend he's happy. He's also a kind man, and he develops a mutual but not acted upon attraction toward Betsy. Mrs. Rand, a manager of the local hospital, is better adjusted than her sons but has some dark secrets of her own, including a secret attraction to the indigenous religion that she tries to hide with a colonial Christian veneer. Paul's wife, Jessica, is a "mental case," locked in her own mind, a pale expressionless beauty, wandering mute around the grounds of the plantation, lying motionless in her bed, and isolated in a tower separate from the main house. She doesn't utter a word the entire film, but you can't stop looking at her when she's onscreen.
Into this hotbox of brooding, post-colonial decadence comes our sweet Canadian nurse. Of all the characters in the film, she is the single character who captures the most audience sympathy. Tourneur likes her, too, but he also recognizes her limitations. In an early scene, a black coach driver gives her a brief history of the island population and its origins in the slave trade. Betsy replies, "Well, it was a beautiful place they brought your people to." The camera gives the driver the larger part of the frame and shows his half-smile. His reply: "If you say so, miss." Tourneur has great sympathy and respect for every person in the film, no matter how small the role, and though Betsy gets the most camera time, the film has a way of turning our perspective from her to the island's black population as a whole. Calypso singer Sir Lancelot has a small but pointedly important role, and the island's people, religious customs, and music are given a real respect far from condescending liberal platitudes and fetishization or conservative fear of the other. The film is pretty complex on the colonialist side of the fence, too. Tourneur is sharp enough to see good people conditioned by privilege and culture rather than cardboard heroes and villains.
Okay, I'm getting pretty serious here, but the film also works as a creepy, atmospheric horror story. I'm a whore for expressive uses of light and shadow, and Tourneur had a great eye and a knack for picking some of the best cinematographers in the business. Christine Gordon is perfect at capturing the haunted look of the ill-fated Jessica. The film also features one of the best depictions of unarticulated dread in the medium. I'm probably throwing around too many superlatives here, but I consider this one of the best films of the 1940s and probably the whole damn century, so it's hard not to get flowery. Every character is complex, the setting is a complicated character of its own, the film has room for multiple voices and perspectives, and the damn thing just looks great. Some idiots are remaking it for release next year, adding all kinds of ridiculous subplots about ancient curses and other bullshit. See the original now before an inferior product marginalizes another old classic in the teenage marketplace of cheap amnesia.

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