A young Canadian nurse (Betsy) comes to the West Indies to care for Jessica, the wife of a plantation manager (Paul Holland). Jessica seems to be suffering from a kind of mental paralysis as a result of fever. When she falls in love with Paul, Betsy determines to cure Jessica even if she needs to use a voodoo ceremony, to give Paul what she thinks he wants.
James Ellison ... Wesley Rand
Frances Dee ... Betsy Connell
Tom Conway ... Paul Holland
Edith Barrett ... Mrs. Rand
James Bell ... Dr. Maxwell
Christine Gordon ... Jessica Holland
Theresa Harris ... Alma - Maid (as Teresa Harris)
Sir Lancelot ... Calypso Singer
Darby Jones ... Carrefour
Jeni Le Gon ... Dancer (as Jeni LeGon)
This was director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton's second horror/thriller collaboration (the first being Cat People (1942) and the third The Leopard Man (1943)). For many viewers, it is their favorite of the three. While I like the film, I don't like it quite that much--I prefer Cat People. But still, I Walked With A Zombie ends up with a 7 out of 10 from me.
The horror aspects of I Walked With A Zombie are really very minor. They're really present only as a kind of personification of the results of complicated romantic and familial relationships. Yes, there is an admirable "haunted house"-styled scene involving a spooky stairway and creepy, distant sounds, and yes, the trek to the voodoo "home fort" is well done, but this kind of material doesn't work as well for me here as it did in Cat People, because here it's not really the focus of the story. It's ancillary material with the function of helping to solve a very different kind of mystery. Also, much of the voodoo material (such as the actual ceremony) tends to be overrated in my opinion, although the final sequence related to the voodoo theme is appropriately eerie.
But what works best for me in I Walked With A Zombie are the many dialogue-heavy scenes where the three main characters--Connell, Holland and Wesley Rand (James Ellison)--gradually learn more about one another, and where the "mystery" is gradually uncovered. A scene where a local "minstrel" sings part of the backstory while Connell and Rand are having a drink is exquisite, for example. Yet, even with this positive aspect, I never felt that the backstory was sufficiently explained. The mystery remains, and the moralizing bookends of the film do not help, either.
Still, I Walked With A Zombie is definitely worth a watch, and based on the extravagant praise that many viewers utter towards the film, you might like it much better than I do.
Except for a single scream, no one speaks above a hard whisper. Wind rustles through sugar cane fields guarded by a pop-eyed, nearly skeletal zombie who stands as lifeless and stick-shouldered as a scarecrow. A dead rabbit hangs in a tree. Voodoo drums thrum the night air.
"I Walked with a Zombie" is a movie of such voluptuous atmosphere that if you surrender yourself to it, it almost seems as if you've been transported to another world. It's a horror movie of suggestion, inference, punctuated with the occasional visual just sharp enough to prick through the feeling of dread and send a chill up the spine.
All performances low-key and excellent (Frances Dee notably good), the dialog crisp, but it's the lighting, sets and camera work that make the movie what it is, a gorgeous vision of shadows that haunts the mind days later.
Eerie, poetic horror film--one of the great ones producer Val Lewton made for RKO on no budget. There are many creepy sequences--the crying and first meeting of Dee with her patient; the constant pounding of the voodoo drums in the distance at night; Dee being awakened by shadows outside her bedroom window; the walk through the sugar cane field to the voodoo ritual and the guard they must pass. There's also a man with a guitar who pops up from time to time acting as a Greek chorus--always commenting on the action. The script is very good and literate and the acting is actually not bad--except for Conway (who's lousy). But Ellison and Dee are good.
I almost gave this a 10--but one thing kept me from doing that. The silly love story between Conway and Dee. It's not needed and is a great distraction from the plot. Also Conway's acting is so bad that it makes the scenes play even worse. Those aside though, it's a truly great horror film. A must see.
Cute little trivia note: Look closely for the "Any characters and events depicted in this photoplay..." etc. etc. under the opening credits. Especially note this line: "Any similarity to actual persons living, dead, OR POSSESSED is purely coincidental." Cute joke...wonder how many people caught it.
Undoubtedly the most atmospheric of the Lawton/Tourneur film collaborations "I Walked with a Zombie" is completely told in flashback by nurse Betsy Connell, Frances Dee. Who was sent from the cold weather of Ottawa Canada's Memorial Hospital to the warm Caribbean tropical breezes of the Island of St. Sebastian in the West Indies to care for Paul Holland's, Tom Conway, comatose wife Jessica.
A rehash of the Charlotte Bronte classic "Jean Eyre" the movie is also about the supernatural and unknown in the form of the Island's natives strange belief in Voodoo. Were also shown in the movie how it can effect a person thats put under it's spell by making them become a walking dead, a Zombie.
Betsy with the help of Dr. Maxwell, James Bell, can find no reason for Jessica's abnormal condition and thinks that she's the victim of some unknown tropical disease with no cure for it. But as the story goes on Betsy Paul and Dr. Maxwell as well as Paul's step-brother Wesley, James Ellison, begin to realize that what struck Jessica is something beyond the understanding of modern science or medicine. We learn the truth about Jessica, and what struck her and who was responsible for it, from non other then Mrs. Rand, Edith Barrett, Paul and Wesley's mother. Who's also a doctor, mostly for the natives, on the Island of St. Sebastian.
The movie has what's become a trademark in Lawton/Tourneur movies with it's use by director Tourneur of light and sound as well as the audience imagination to build up the tension. The tension reaches a point where it almost becomes unbearable to those watching without having a stiff drink to settle them down. The scene with Betsy and Jessica walking through the dark sugar cane field is a good example of how Tourneur can scare the hell out of you without any special effects like the way it's done in horror movies by todays movie makers.
In the quite and eerie moonlight the two women walk through the dark and spooky cane fields running into a host of bloodcurdling Voodoo artifacts. Then when reaching the outskirts of Islands Homefort where Betsy want to get Jessica help from the local Voodoo priestess, guess who she is, and runs into seven-foot tall Carre-Four, Darby Jones, standing guard. The sight of the creepy and giant Carre-Four scares the living hell out of Betsy as well as those of us in the audience watching. But that's as far as he's made to go by the movies director just to stand there, but the effect is absolutely heart-stopping.
Betsy falls in love with Paul but at the same time wants to restore Paul's wife Jessica back to health and thus lose him. Paul who also fell in love with Betsy want's her to leave the Island to prevent that from happening. But at the end of the movie it becomes evident that Jessica is not alive but a Zombie and it was Mrs. Rand who hid this from everyone to keep the truth from coming out. Mrs. Rand in a way held herself responsible for Jessica's illness since she was deeply involved with the Island natives who's spell put Jessica in that condition.
Were also told that Jessica was not exactly the sweet and kind person that Nurse Betsy was told that she was by Paul. I was Jessica that wanted to destroy the Holland family, as well as their sugar company on the Island, by having an affair with Paul's step-brother Wesley. This all lead to the casting of a deadly Voodoo spell on her by the local natives which turned her into a card carrying member of the walking dead.
Tragically in the end Wesley, who realized that his affair with Jessica lead to all this, together with the doomed and already dead Jessica end up under the waves of the Caribbean Sea. The movie does such a good job of exploring and explaining Voodoo and Zombies that it almost makes you believe, like it does Paul Wesley Betsy Dr. Maxwell and Mrs. Rand, in it.
Don't expect "I Waked with a Zombie" to be a horror movie. It's a far more gripping and perceptive film about the unknown that's all around us that were just too blind to see and believe. Until it's jolting effects hits us, like it did to those in the movie, right between the eyes.
* Val Lewton did not like the article "I Walked With A Zombie" by Inez Wallace that had been optioned so he adapted the story to fit the novel "Jane Eyre" because he felt the article's plot was too clichéd.
* Edith Barrett, who played the mother, was only 3 years older than James Ellison, who played her younger son, Wesley. She actually was 2 years younger than Tom Conway, who played her older son, Paul.
* The role played by Frances Dee was originally filled by Anna Lee.
* In the script, the fictitious island is very explicitly identified as being owned by the United States. None of these items (such as a prominent American flag flying at the harbor) made it into the film, and items like the Island's association with British Columbia (where Betsy is from) suggest that it might instead be a current or former British colony.
* The two figures seen walking along the beach during the opening credits are Frances Dee and Darby Jones.