Thursday, July 12, 2012

Microreview [film]: I Walked with a Zombie

My favorite vintage horror movie poster

Val Lewton was in charge of the "horror unit" at RKO Studios in the early 1940s. He produced nearly a dozen genre-defining movies, saving the studio from financial collapse, launching the careers of several directors, and resurrecting (pun intended) the career of Boris Karloff in the process.

The Meat

The second low-budget horror movie Val Lewton produced for RKO, like Cat People directed by the masterful Jacques Tourneur, I Walked with a Zombie is generally regarded as the best of the Lewton horror movies. Probably this is because people like to make out that, in liking it, they display their refined, old-world tastes, since the movie is most famous these days as being a voodoo-infused adaptation of Jane Eyre. As far as who'd-a-thunk-it? movie adaptations go, it's probably less faithful than Forbidden Planet's take on The Tempest, but more faithful than The Man From Laramie is to King Lear. What I Walked with a Zombie owes in debt to Charlotte Bronte, though, is less about any famous literary romance than a pervading atmosphere of Victorian sensibilities that clashes in really engaging ways with the voodoo underpinning of the movie's Caribbean setting.

The movie itself follows Betsy, a nurse hired to care for Jessica Holland, the invalid wife of plantation owner Paul Holland. Betsy relocates to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian for the job, and soon begins questioning Jessica's medical diagnosis (spinal cord injury), fearing that the woman may actually be a "zombie," murdered and brought back to life as the meat puppet of a voodoo priest or priestess. Part of the film's appeal is that it never makes an explicit statement of "rightness" -- neither upholding the self-congratulatory scientific surety of Western medicine (because let's face it, how'd the whole practice of bloodletting work out?) and condemning voodoo as the mindless superstition of savages, nor the reverse, by pulling a "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" moment and subverting medicine in favor of magic. It suggests that things are more complicated than that, which, in reality, they surely are. The result is a lyrical and poetic meditation on the occult that remains evocative, if no longer as shocking as it probably was in 1943.

The Math

Objective Quality: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for being a spiritual forebear to later voodoo-themed horror movies like the Vincent Price English-colonial-guilt vehicle The Oblong Box and Wes Craven's still-way-creepy The Serpent and the Rainbow; +1 for beating Seth Grahame-Smith to the punch by 70 years.

Penalties: -1 because even at only 70 minutes, the pacing would have benefited from a bit of a jolt. The methodical forward momentum lessens the visceral impact you'd expect from a horror movie (and which Cat People delivers).

Cult Movie Coefficient: 8/10, well worth your time and attention.

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]