I had no idea I’d be doing two Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton productions so close together but oh well, they’re worth comparing. I saw I Walked With a Zombie before I saw Cat People and on first viewing I loved it, especially considering it’s take on Jane Eyre. Recently rewatching Cat People though colored my rewatching of this film as I found Cat People to be superior in story and actual horror. It’s not that I Walked With a Zombie isn’t worth watching, I just wouldn’t watch it during Halloween.
Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) goes to work for the mysterious Paul Holland (Tom Conway) on the small island of St. Sebastian. Paul’s wife Jessica (Christine Gordon) has been in a catatonic state for several years with the local inhabitants fearing she’s a zombie. As Betsy and Paul grow closer the young nurse desires to cure Jessica, which might not in her best interest.
Not only do we see a Tourneur/Lewton reunion but we also get another Tom Conway film! I will say he’s a different character than the lecherous Dr. Judd from Cat People but he’s still given a character whose known to have a deceitful nature with words. He’s our Mr. Rochester of the film and one can’t ignore how close to Jane Eyre this film is from the shy nurse down to the bizarre wife. Obviously the voodoo take on it is original but if you know any part of the Charlotte Bronte story you should know where the film is going.
The strongest element to the film is the zombie story and it’s not quite the zombie tale audiences are accustomed to. It’s never proven whether Jessica is a zombie but really the definition of zombie within the film’s story is someone who can respond to simple commands and little else. Jessica walks when led and responds to her name but little else. We also see that same type of control in the bizarre Carrefour (Darby Jones). One could say that the idea of being a zombie, as the film states, is being easily manipulated or controllable. One should take into consideration the “zombies” we see are an African-American and a woman, two of the largest minorities for 1943. The film takes an ambiguous route in telling the story as you’re never truly sure whether Jessica is truly a zombie or if the film holds any supernatural elements. The obvious conflicting ideologies between Western medicine and voodoo make the argument for either side. It’s quite unlike Cat People where it was a somewhat overt that Irena was a cat person.
I think the ambiguous tone is to the film’s detriment. The film opens with the interplay of light and shadow, spooky staircases, and the idea that maybe Paul is not quite as charming as you’d believe, but that’s all pushed aside once Betsy becomes interested in the voodoo element to cure Jessica. The film’s short hour and fourteen minute runtime doesn’t work like it did in Cat People because there appears to be too much story as we briefly hear about Jessica’s affair with Paul’s half-brother Wesley (James Ellison). In Cat People you follow the couple in the moment but here the exposition needed to convey the past needs to be developed better than the runtime can give it credit for.
The actors are all good, especially Conway who I’ve already praised above. Frances Dee is good as the shy Betsy, even if her love story with Paul appears a bit contrived. Edith Barrett as Mrs. Rand is another interesting character especially in the scene where she discusses how voodoo helped her to inspire the people of St. Sebastian to practice proper hygiene. Ultimately, aside from the title there’s nothing scary, especially for a film that concerns voodoo. Cat People had strong jump scenes and here, aside from one scene of Betsy running into Carrefour it’s a talky drama. It’s good but not on the level of Cat People.
Type of Horror: Atmospheric, Voodoo
Fright Meter: 1
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.