Last couple of weeks I have been watching the horror films produced by Val Lewton for the RKO studios. I have now seen all nine of them and I loved each one of them though probably I liked I Walked With a Zombie more than others. I don't know but this certainly qualifies for the greatest film ever made with the worst possible title! It is said to be a reworking of Jane Eyre, and indeed basic plot is very similar but watching it I was reminded more of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (which Lewton had also worked on when he was the editorial assistant to David O. Selznick). The strange and oneiric quality of the images and the story is much more sustained here than it is in Rebecca.
The story is centered around Betsy, a nurse who has come to a Carribean Island named St. Sebastian to tend to the catatonic wife of a local plantation owner Mr. Holland. She soon finds herself falling for the Byronic charms of her employer, and in the process uncovers dark and troubled secrets of the family involving Holland's half-brother Wesley and their mother. The film leaves the cause of the wife's condition ambiguous - it both invites us to believe in voodoo and at the same time dispels any such notion or attempt to do the same. The film also has a rich subtext about slavery and racism in the Carribean Islands and seems to draw parallels between the oppression of women in the patriarchal culture and parallel victimization and exploitation of blacks in the plantations.
The central set-piece of the film in which Betsy takes Jessica to the voodoo temple at night through the sugar-cane fields in the night is deservedly famous. As you watch the sequence on screen you feel like screaming bravo and encore. It is just so beautifully shot. Along with perhaps other Jacques Tourneur films for Val Lewton, this must be the best ever example of high-contrast night-time chiaroscuro cinematography. (Other possible contenders would probably be Robert Krasker in The Third Man or Stanley Cortez's work in The Night of the Hunter.) It is very appropriate that one of the books on Tourneur is title The Cinema of Nightfall (authored by Chris Fujiwara). Watching these films it feels like Lewton and Tourneur are trying to tell the entire story just through the patterns of shadows on the wall and character's faces.
There is a lot available on the internet about these films. I will just link to this nice collection of screenplays of all these films. The following dialogue is from one of the opening scenes of I Walked With a Zombie:
I smelled the spicy smells coming from the islands -- I looked at those great glowing stars -- and I felt the warm wind on my cheeks and I breathed deep and every bit of me inside myself said, "How beautiful --"
The CAMERA DRAWS BACK to SHOW a tall, masculine figure leaning against the foremast, behind Betsy. This is Paul Holland. As we see him, we hear his voice.
It is not beautiful.
(surprised but smiling)
You read my thoughts, Mr. Holland.
It's easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. Everything seems beautiful because you don't understand. Those flying fish -- they are not leaping for joy. They're jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water -- it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. It's the glitter of putrescence. There's no beauty here -- it's death and decay.