Val Lewton

What’s on TCM: October 2011

This month’s schedule is one that I’m definitely a big fan of.  Being the big silent film fan that I am, obviously I am very excited for Buster Keaton being the star of the month!  Every Sunday night will be all Buster Keaton, all night long.  Not only that, since it’s October, it goes without saying that there will be plenty of classic horror movies to get you into the Halloween spirit. Monday nights are classic horror nights starting at 8:00 PM, with plenty more to come on October 29th , 30th, and 31st.  TCM will also be commemorating the 100th birthday of director Nicholas Ray by playing a night of his movies every Tuesday night this month.


I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

When Besty Connell (Frances Dee) agreed to take a nursing job in the Caribbean, little did she know she would soon find herself caring for the living dead.  When she finds out Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a sugar plantation owner in Saint Sebastian, needs a nurse for his wife Jessica, she is eager to trade Canada for the Caribbean and takes the job.  When she arrives, she lives on the plantation with Paul, his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), their mother Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), and Jessica.  During her first night at the plantation, Betsy hears some mysterious crying, and when she goes to investigate, she finds herself backed into a corner by a sleepwalking Jessica.  Not realizing who Jessica was, she screams and wakes up the whole house.  The next day, she talks to Jessica’s doctor who explains that Jessica suffered from a severe fever that caused permanent damage and there is no cure.

After spending some time in the Caribbean, Betsy begins to fall in love with Paul and becomes determined to get Jessica to walk again to make him happy.  After insulin shock treatments don’t work to bring Jessica back, Betsy decides to bring Jessica to see a local Voodoo priest.  When they arrive at the houmfort, Betsy is shocked to discover that the Voodoo priest is none other than Mrs. Rand!  Mrs. Rand (who is also a doctor) explains that she’s using Voodoo as a way to make typical medicine more accepted among the natives.  Meanwhile, the natives begin to suspect Jessica is a zombie.  After Betsy takes Jessica home again, the natives become quite insistent that Jessica be returned so they can determine whether or not she’s a zombie.  Tensions rise to the point that an official investigation into Jessica’s condition was started.  When Mrs. Rand finds out about this, she claims that Jessica really is a zombie after all.  She says that when she found out Jessica had fallen in love with Wesley and was planning to leave Paul, she put a curse on Jessica to turn her into a zombie.  Wesley suddenly becomes determined to get Jessica out of her perpetual zombie state any way he can.

What fascinates me about I Walked with a Zombie is that for a horror movie, there’s very little violence, blood, or even screaming involved.  The one really violent act takes place off-screen, you never actually see any blood, and there’s only one scream in the whole movie.  And even though it’s a movie about zombies, this zombie isn’t like anything you see in Night of the Living Dead.  But it still manages to be quite eerie.  Jacques Tourneur worked the scenery, cinematography, and the music for all their worth.  Even though I typically only watch this one around Halloween, I always kind of feel like I should be watching it in the summer because the atmosphere is created so well that I can almost feel the warm breeze when I watch it.  The character Carrefour also adds a lot of creepiness, especially when he shows up at the house to get Jessica.  I Walked with a Zombie truly is a testament to Val Lewton’s ability to turn out outstanding low-budget movies.  Nothing about this movie looks low-budget or like it was made in only a few weeks.  Overall, it’s a very solid horror film, very worthy of being a classic Halloween flick.  And best of all, it’s only 70 minutes long!  I always love a movie that manages to get so much wonderful stuff into such a short timeframe!  With such a short runtime, there’s no reason to not give it a chance.