Sunday, December 16, 2007

I Walked With a Zombie

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.


Puccinio said...

I don't need to remind you that Daphne DuMaurier's decent novel, ''Rebecca'' was influenced by the Bronte sisters. ''Jane Eyre'' which is great and ''Wuthering Heights'' which is way greater are inescapable influences for anyone wanting to do a tortured Gothic romance. As much as Wagner's ''Tristan and Isolde'' would be.

Hitchcock's ''Rebecca'' which is weak only because of how much Selznick insisted on it's faithfulness to the text, is interesting less because of Larry Olivier(who by the way played Heathcliff in William Wyler's weak adaptation of the novel) but more because of the lesbian love triangle between Winter, the housekeeper played by Judith Anderson and the dead, unseen, unheard Rebecca.

''I Walked With A Zombie'' though as you said is this weird meditation on power relations. That is between the dominant and the submissive and the makers were able to include all of the various levels in which that takes place. The film that's most like it is probably Luis Bunuel's rare, forgotten English language masterpiece, ''The Young One''.

It's an unbelievable film...''...Zombie'' I mean.

Of the Lewton/Tourneur films I like ''Cat People'' best, conventional yes but that's my favourite. But actualy the best film of the Lewton productions isn't his work with Tourneur, it's ''The Seventh Victim'' directed by a journeyman guy called Mark Robson. This creepy film set in Greenwich Village is avant-garde degree zero.

The weakest are the ones with Robert Wise...otherwise known as he who SIDEd with the WEST to tell the STORY of the SOUND of MUSIC. Two of the worst musicals in Hollywood history, appropriately among the few to actually win Oscars, not that the others like Cukor's ''My Fair Lady'' or Minnelli's movies aren't deserving.

Cheshire Cat said...

This is a captivating movie, a minor classic. The exoticism of the context is used skillfully, but what I particularly remember is the excellence of the script. A movie like this, which succeeds on its own terms without feeling the need to ironically acknowledge its own absurdity, is rare...

Madhuri said...

What made you pick up a movie with such a ghastly name?!
I watched Rebecca recently, and found it to be a weak adaptation of the book. I think the dead Rebecca's presence was far more palpable in the text. In the movie it was rather washed out.

Alok said...

puccinio: It is true, they all belong to same gothic romance genre but the voiceover in the beginning of this film felt very similar to the one in Hitchcock's film. I haven't read Rebecca but I think they had to remove a few scenes and change the story a bit because of some trouble with the censors.

cat: yes, the screenplay is actually worth reading on its own. I love the scene and the dialogue I excerpted in the post.

madhuri: actually that's the only bad part of the film - rest everything is pitch-perfect. It is great romance though very strange and haunting one.

I haven't read Rebecca yet but I love Hitchcock's film a lot. It does become a somewhat conventional mystery in the second half but in the beginning it is quite evocative and manages to make the presence of the dead wife very palpable. But yet I am not surprised to know that the book is more successful in this regard.

puccinio said...

both madhuri's and your taste, Alok, appals me...''I Walked With A Zombie'' is one of the very best movie titles in cinema history. I say that without irony or satire.

Movie titles today just can't compare to the titles of old.

''The Ice Storm'', ''A Beautiful Mind''...what kind of crap titles are that. ''I Walked With A Zombie'', ''I Shot Jesse James'', ''I Married A Communist''(in the case of the last, leaving aside questions of quality of the actual films) are titles of wit, charm and complete lack of pretention.

Digressing a little bit...which director(leave aside questions of quality for a second) you think has the best movie titles. To me Luis Bunuel is the king with titles like ''Un Chien Andalou'', ''L'Age d'Or'', ''Los Olvidados'', the immortal in more ways than one - ''The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz'' and of course ''The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie'' and it's superior prequel ''The Exterminating Angel''.

Alok said...

"The Discreet Charm..." certainly qualifies for the wittiest titles ever. One of my all-time personal favourites as well.

"I Married a Communist" is a great title as well. I was thinking as to why they didn't title it "I Married a Commie" instead but then it wouldn't have worked. I have been looking for this one. Will see if I can find it somewhere.

I was reading about the Italian horror movies (giallo) and they come up with some really gory and witty titles... good mixture of pretention and sensationalism. I haven't seen any of these yet but sample these:

Seven Blood Stained Orchids
Don't Torture a Duckling
Seven Notes in Black
What Have you Done to Solange? (Have seen this one and is very good)
Lizard in a Woman's Skin
Strip Nude for your killer
Blood and Black Lace

Cheshire Cat said...

A personal list of best titles (there are a couple I haven't watched):

1. Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!
2. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
3. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
4. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
5. They call her Cleopatra Wong
6. Kind Hearts and Coronets
7. WR: Mysteries of the Organism
8. Ill Met by Moonlight
9. O Brother, where art thou?
10. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Alok said...

lol! Specially the first one. Never heard of it before. And Yeah, Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! is a classic. Haven't seen it either.

puccinio said...

''Hallelujah, I'm A Bum'' is a classic musical as well. but it's obscure, speaking of can't talk about classic titles without mentioning,
''Hellzapoppin'' one of the most underrated anti-auteurist masterpieces of all time.

Hitchcock always had great titles, the very best being, ''North by Northwest'', a place that does not exist on any compass on earth.

Getting back to the discussion of ''Rebecca'', the difference between the book and the film is largely one of class. DuMaurier wanted to convey the uselessness of the gentry in that time...while Hitchcock who grew up in a working class family in Covent Garden didn't care two hoots that those people were going away. To him, that world was one of repression and anger and waste.

The main difference plotwise,(SPOILERS) is that Laurence Olivier actually did kill Rebecca in the book instead of saying it's an accident as he does in the film.

Of course, since Hitch doesn't use a flashback you can argue that he's lying and whatnot. But Hitchcock wasn't interested in the murder in this film as much as he is with the sexual politics between a dead woman, her housekeeper and her replacement, which is why as Hitchcock remarked in surprise to Truffaut, the film held up over the years.