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Posts Tagged ‘Frances Dee’

I expect there is not much of a family resemblance between myself and any of my great-grandparents, none of whom I could honestly tell you very much about. So it probably shouldn’t be very surprising that the archetypal modern zombie film, exponents of which have been lurching all over the pop-cultural landscape on a regular basis for nearly two decades now, should have very little in common with the first films to cover this same kind of material. The watershed moment in the history of zombie cinema came when George Romero saw Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies in 1966 or 1967 and pondered what would happen if the undead workforce in that film got out of control. (The result was, of course, Night of the Living Dead.) Prior to this point, zombie films were mostly steeped in the lore of the culture that created the legend – namely, that of the Caribbean and the voodoo religion practised by the plantation workers there.

The award for first ever zombie film is usually given to White Zombie, from 1932, which seems to have a mixed critical reputation, and was followed by a sequel, Revolt of the Zombies, which seems to be unanimously agreed to be awful. Still in the same milieu, but enjoying rather more acclaim, is Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, made in 1943 and another product of RKO’s horror film unit under the leadership of Val Lewton.

It almost goes without saying that this American movie, made in 1943, seems completely oblivious of the war gripping most of the world at the time it was made. Frances Dee plays Betsy Connell,  a nurse who as the film opens is resident in a chilly-looking Canada. However, a change is on the cards as she is hired to go and live on the remote Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. One of the plantation owners there, Paul Holland (Tom Conway), needs a nurse to care for his wife, who has been struck down by a strange affliction that has left her unable to speak and with no will of her own. Betsy is initially quite impressed by the beauty of her surroundings, but Paul is quick to disabuse her of any romantic thoughts she may be having – ‘There’s no beauty here, only death and decay… everything good dies here!’ he declares, which hardly constitutes making the new hire feel comfortable.

Betsy rapidly realises that there are tensions between Holland and his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), and possibly even between the men and their mother (Edith Barrett): Rand has a drink problem, for one thing, which Holland seems disinclined to do anything about. Clues to the reasons for this come when Frances overhears a local calypso singer (credited as ‘Sir Lancelot’) singing a scurrilous ditty about Holland’s wife having an affair with Rand. You would not have thought the calypso to be a musical style which particularly leant itself to the delivery of ominous exposition, but the effect here is striking, particularly when Lancelot bears gravely down on Dee, strumming and calypsoing all the while.

Things get a bit melodramatic as Betsy decides that, for no comprehensible reason whatsoever, she has fallen in love with Holland, and selflessly resolves to see if his wife can be cured (the wife is played by Christine Gordon, by the way, who gets no dialogue and just has to waft eerily about the place in a white dress). When modern medical science fails, Betsy looks further afield, having become somewhat fascinated by the local tales of voodoo and the ceaseless drumming that drifts through the island night…

As mentioned, this is about as unlike a modern zombie movie as you can get, stylistically at least: the film was apparently inspired by a factual magazine article written by one Inez Wallace (the mind does boggle somewhat). However, the initial script was heavily rewritten, not least by Val Lewton himself, and one of the changes was to base the story on (of all things) the plot of Jane Eyre. There you go: the role of the Bronte sisters in the evolution of modern horror laid bare (to say nothing of the fact that this film is a great deal better than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so eat your heart out, Jane Austen).

To be honest, the similarities between I Walked with a Zombie and Jane Eyre don’t extend much beyond the basic premise of the story – Betsy is obviously Jane, Holland is Rochester, and the mad woman in the attic is replaced by one of the living dead – but this remains a classy, thoughtful movie. The real strength is in the atmosphere of the piece, which is powerful and well-maintained throughout. There are many effective sequences, not the least of them the one in which Betsy leads Holland’s wife through the night to a voodoo gathering, encountering the disquieting figure of a man who may be an actual zombie along the way.

This is only the second product of Lewton’s tenure at the RKO horror unit (after Cat People) but already you can make out some themes developing: both films are essentially melodramas, built around an interesting female protagonist, and both couple rich atmospheres to a finely-judged sense of ambiguity. There is little in the way of explicit horror, no cack-handed make-up, and it always feels as if the possibility that there is no supernatural element to the events of the film remains on the table, so much is implied or left suggestive.

Is Mrs Holland indeed a genuine zombie, or simply the victim of an infection which has affected her nervous system? If she is one of the walking dead, how did she get that way? The questions slowly accumulate and while the film certainly seems to have its own ideas about what is happening, it doesn’t attempt to impose them on the viewer, except perhaps at the very end. The defining characteristic of the horror genre is surely nothing to do with setting, style or subject matter, but the effect the film has on the viewer, and the success of I Walked with a Zombie comes not from its characterisation or plotting, but the disquieting atmosphere the film generates and sustains. This probably counts as a very atypical zombie film by any modern standard, but it is still an impressive movie.

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