I Walked With a Zombie (1943): Tourneur’s Masterful Horror, Produced by Val Lewton

Jacques Tourneur directed I Walked with a Zombie, a horror film starring James Ellison, Frances Dee, and Tom Conway.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

I Walked with a Zombie
I Walked With a Zombie (1943 poster).jpeg

Theatrical release poster

The plot follows a nurse who travels to care for the ailing wife of a sugar plantation owner in the Caribbean, where she encounters voodoo and the walking dead.

The screenplay is based on an article of the same name by Inez Wallace, and partly reinterprets the 1847 novel “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë.

Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray’s original draft dealt with the wife of a plantation owner who is made into a zombie to prevent her from leaving to Paris, but the screenplay underwent significant revisions by Wray and Lewton.

It was the second, though-provoking horror film from producer Val Lewton at RKO Pictures; the first was the superb Cat People.

The text begins with a voice-over narration: Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), a white Canadian nurse, relates how she once “walked with a zombie.”

Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a rich sugar plantation owner on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian, hires nurse Betsy to care for his catatonic wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon).

The island is inhabited by a small white community and many more descendants of African slaves.

On the way to the plantation, the black driver tells Betsy that Hollands had brought slaves to the island, and that the statue of “Ti-Misery” (Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows) is the figurehead from a slave ship.

At dinner, Betsy meets Paul’s half-brother and employee, Wesley Rand (James Ellison), who resents his sibling and is secretly in love with his wife.

One night, Betsy hears crying, which turns out to be from a woman in a white robe walking towards her. Betsy screams, waking everyone. Paul takes charge of Jessica Holland, the woman Betsy was hired to care for.

The next morning, Dr. Maxwell tells Betsy that Jessica’s spinal cord was damaged by a serious illness, leaving her totally without any will power.

Spoiler Alert

In the end, Wesley opens the gate, letting Jessica out. As the Sabreur stabs the doll with a pin, Wesley thrusts an arrow into Jessica. He then carries her body into the sea, pursued slowly by Carre-Four.

Later, the natives discover the bodies of Jessica and Wesley floating in the surf.

Using basic elements of Jane Eyre’s gothic romance, now reset in the West Indies, director Tourneur creates palpable tension and terror of the living dead. What makes the film memorable is that the supernatural horror is mostly suggested, implied, and internalized, standing in sharp contrast to Universal “monster” movies, which were more graphic and explicit.

While the plot is rather weak, the movie (which is only 69 minutes) is impressive with its exotic setting and evocative atmosphere. The lighting, shadows, and music contribute to an ambience of disturbing unease, which is sustained through the end.

Some sequences stand out in their lyrical impact.  Consider the scene in which Betsy takes Jessica to the voodoo ceremony through the sugar cane fields. Played without music, the scene benefits from the floating movements of Jessica’s white dress and sugar cane in the wind.

Frances Dee as Betsy Connell
Tom Conway as Paul Holland
James Ellison as Wesley Rand
Edith Barrett as Mrs. Rand
James Bell as Dr. Maxwell
Christine Gordon as Jessica Holland
Theresa Harris as Alma
Sir Lancelot as Calypso Singer
Darby Jones as Carrefour
Jeni Le Gon as Dancer

Val Lewton

Between 1942 and 1946, Lewton produced 11 films (nine of which were in the horror genre), turning those meager studio resources into momentous works of psychological terror that infused the horror genre with a new intelligence and literary luster.

Lewton created his great legacy by emphasizing the fear of the unseen instead of focusing on special effects. Additionally he hired young filmmakers who had yet to prove their worth, but were amazingly talented — Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson.