Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

A lyrical, dreamlike Gothic horror classic, exquisitely directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced with real imagination by Val Lewton. A nurse comes to the island of St. Sebastian in the West Indies, to care for the catatonic wife of a wealthy plantation owner, but it soon becomes apparent that the situation between the owner, his wife, and his young half-brother is far more complicated than it first appears. As the nurse learns more about both the family's history, and the islanders' belief in zombies and voodoo practices, she comes to believe that such a ritual may be the only hope to rescue the wife from her state of living death.

Val Lewton's B-horror films, produced for RKO in the '40s, are famous for their minimalism and their ability to conjure up real horror and suspense using the barest of elements in highly creative fashion. This may be the most effective film of the group, both for its literate screenplay (loosely based on the premise of "Jane Eyre") and for its poetic, ethereal style, evoking a dream experience that moves lucidly and mysteriously. The sequence in which the nurse and the owner's wife make the trek across the island to attend a voodoo ritual is an especially masterful exercise in atmospheric horror, with the symbols of the skulls, hollow gourd and hanging goat, the sound of the wailing wind and rustling leaves, and the contrast between light and darkness creating an unshakable sense of dread.

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