Cast & Crew
Betsy Connell, a Canadian nurse, recounts the curious circumstances under which she "walked with a zombie": Hired to care for Jessica Holland, the wife of Paul Holland, the owner of a sugar plantation in the Caribbean, Betsy sails from Canada to Antigua, where she is met by Paul and escorted to the island of St. Sebastian. As they sail to their destination, Betsy's dreams of island beauty are shattered by Paul, who cautions her that the beauty surrounding them masks death and decay. At the St. Sebastian dock, Betsy is met by a carriage from Fort Holland, whose driver tells her the story of how the Hollands brought the slaves to the island and explains that the statue of "T-Misery" in the Hollands' courtyard comes from the masthead of a slaveship. At dinner that night, Betsy is joined by Wesley Rand, Paul's half-brother, who informs her that their mother, Mrs. Rand, runs the village dispensary. While getting ready for bed, Betsy hears a woman's sobs coming from across the courtyard and goes to investigate. Following the sobs to a tower stairwell, Betsy begins to ascend the stairs when she is cornered by the cataliptic figure of Jessica Holland. After Betsy screams for help, Paul comes to the tower and puts Jessica to bed. The next morning, Paul upbraids Betsy for her childish behavior and warns her not to heed the island superstitions. Betsy then meets Jessica's physician, Dr. Maxwell, who explains that his patient's zombie-like condition is caused by an incurable tropical fever. On Betsy's day off, Wesley accompanies her to the village, and while he drinks himself into a stupor, a calypso singer performs a song about Paul and Wesley's rivalry for Jessica's love. After Wesley passes out, Mrs. Rand comes to the table and arranges to have him taken back to Fort Holland. That night, the distant drums of a voodoo ritual underscore the harsh words exchanged by Paul and Wesley over dinner. Later, Betsy is drawn to the sound of Paul playing the piano. When he sees her approach, Paul apologizes for bringing her to the island and admits to driving his wife mad. After their discussion, Betsy realizes that she has fallen in love with Paul and determines to make him happy by curing Jessica. Betsy administers insulin shock to Jessica, and when the treatment fails, Paul comforts her, prompting Wesley to accuse him of falling in love with his wife's nurse. When Alma, Jessica's maid, suggests that the voodoo priest might be able to cure Jessica, Betsy questions Mrs. Rand about the power of voodoo, but the older woman advises her against it. Ignoring Mrs. Rand, Betsy decides to take her patient to the voodoo priest, and Alma draws her a map to the "Home Fort." That night, Betsy leads Jessica through billowing fields of cane, past animal sacrifices and to the crossroads guarded by the towering zombie-like figure of Carre Four, the voodoo god. Finally reaching the village, Betsy enters a shack to consult with the voodoo priest. Inside, she is astounded to discover that the priest is none other than Mrs. Rand. After explaining that she uses voodoo to convince the natives to accept standard medical practices, Mrs. Rand tells Betsy that Jessica can never be cured, and Betsy takes her charge back to the house. The natives, inflamed by the presence of Jessica, intensify their rituals, intent upon drawing her back to the Home Fort. As the native drums pound, Paul admits that he is fearful of demeaning and abusing Betsy as he did Jessica, and asks her to return to Canada. That night, Betsy is awakened by the looming shadow of Carre Four and she runs to Paul's room for help. Mrs. Rand then appears and orders Carre Four to leave the Holland complex. The next day, Maxwell comes with the bad news that the native unrest has sparked an inquest into Jessica's illness. Mrs. Rand responds that Jessica is not sick but a zombie, a member of the living dead. Mrs. Rand explains that when she discovered that Jessica was planning to run away with Wesley, she put a curse on her, turning her into a zombie. Maxwell refuses to accept her explanation, however, and insists that Jessica is a victim of tropical fever. That night, the drums beat ominously as Jessica shuffles from the house to the front gates. Wesley, obsessed with freeing Jessica from her zombie-like state, opens the gates, pulls an arrow from the statue of T-Misery and follows her. Compelled to mimic the hand of a voodoo worshipper stabbing a doll with a pin, Wesley thrusts the arrow into Jessica and carries her into the sea as Carre Four follows, staring blindly into the night. Later, the natives discover the bodies of Jessica and Wesley floating in the surf and carry them back to Fort Holland, where Paul comforts Betsy.
Jeni Le Gon
Albert S. D'agostino
John C. Grubb
J. Roy Hunt
Walter E. Keller
I Walked With a Zombie
Visually elegant, I Walked With a Zombie (1943) is a very loose adaptation of Jane Eyre, transposed to a Caribbean setting. Ardel Wray, one of the screenwriters, recalls the preparation for I Walked With a Zombie in Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror by Joel E. Siegel: "We were all plunged into research on Haitian voodoo, every book on the subject Val could find. He was an addictive researcher, drawing out of it the overall feel, mood, and quality he wanted, as well as details for actual production. He got hold of a real calypso singer, Sir Lancelot he was called....He, in turn, found some genuine voodoo musicians. I remember they had a 'papa drum' and a 'mama drum,' that the crew on the set were fascinated by them, and by one particular scene in which a doll 'walks' in a voodoo ritual...I particularly remember that doll because Val sent me out to find and buy one 'cheap.' Everything had to be cheap because we really were on a shoestring. That was another thing about Val - a low budget was a challenge to him, a spur to inventiveness, and everyone around him caught the fever. Anyway, I got a rather bland-faced doll at a department store, cheap, and by the time she had been dressed in a soft gray robe, and her hair had been combed out to the appropriate 'lost girl' look, she too, was somehow transformed."
I Walked With a Zombie was said to be Val Lewton's personal favorite among his films, even though he despised the title. It was forced on him by RKO studio executive Charles Koerner who liked exploitive titles for purely commercial reasons. Nevertheless, the end result was anything but lurid and remains one of the most poetic films in the horror genre.
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Producer: Val Lewton
Screenplay: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray (based on an original story by Inez Wallace)
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Editor: Mark Robson
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Music: Roy Webb, C. Bakaleinikoff
Cast: James Ellison (Wesley Rand), Frances Dee (Betsy), Tom Conway (Paul Holland), Edith Barrett (Mrs. Rand), James Bell (Dr. Maxwell), Christine Gordon (Jessica Holland).
BW-69m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Jeff Stafford
I Walked With a Zombie
The Val Lewton Collection on DVD
It's hardly a perfect collection, especially with all the audio commentaries by film historians who wallow in minutia that gets very tiring very quickly. But these facts are clear: (1) Lewton produced some of the best B-movies ever turned out on low budgets and quickie schedules for a Hollywood studio; and, (2) Some of the set's most noteworthy content is on the two discs available only within the five-disc boxed set.
First, some background. Struggling RKO hired Russian immigrant Lewton, then a story editor at David O. Selznick's studio, to head up a unit that would make low-budget horror movies and challenge Universal's dominance in that genre. RKO would have been happy to release monster movies like Universal's, and the studio imposed monstrous-sounding titles on Lewton's movies before scripts were ever penned. But the resultant stories were much more ambitious than that. Instead of using monsters, Lewton's subtle use of the power of suggestion left much of the terror to the viewer's imagination. By withholding shots of the source of terror in favor of foreboding shadows and sounds, and offering stories that usually took place in a contemporary, realistic setting, Lewton forged a distinctive mix in his RKO chillers. (Though he rarely took a writing credit, and never under his own name, Lewton wrote the final screenplay drafts for his RKO movies.)
Lewton's 1942-46 RKO chillers fall into three groups: the first trio of movies (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man), all directed by Jacques Tourneur; after RKO split up Lewton and Tourneur to spread their talents wider, a mid-section of Lewton movies that often stuck to the style of the Tourneur pictures (The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People); and, after the so-so financial performance of the straight dramas Mademoiselle Fifi and Youth Runs Wild, the three Lewton productions starring Boris Karloff (Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam).
Because the DVDs include two movies (each averages about only 72 minutes in length), the set often mixes titles from these periods on them:
Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People: Cat People, released in late 1942, is undoubtedly the most important Lewton movie, and this disc is the best place for the uninitiated to start. It set the tone for the rest of his RKO movies and, very importantly, was a big hit. Though the producer was forever stuck with imposed titles and tight budgets, its success gave Lewton a measure of creative control over his stories.
In its tale of the ill-fated marriage between a Serbian immigrant (Simone Simon) and a boat designer (Kent Smith), Cat People blends naturalistic staging and supernatural story as Lewton so often would. Irena, Simon's title character, believes she's descended from a line of women who turn into vengeful felines when sexually or emotionally aroused, so she won't consummate the marriage, which cranks up the sexual tension to levels unheard of in 1940s Hollywood movies, especially when Smith's character turns to the chummy co-worker who loves him (Jane Randolph) for advice. The movie's archetypal moments come when Irena stalks her rival through Central Park, and the extended silence becomes broken by a braking bus that lunges into the picture (a trademark Lewton device he'd often repeat) and when the still-stalked rival gets spooked by shadows and noises as she swims alone in a pool. Paul Schrader remade Cat People in 1982, but the original is the better version.
The Curse of the Cat People, out in 1944, is indicative of how Lewton subverted his RKO bosses' orders. Told to make a Cat People sequel, Curse is instead a very involving, very sensitive portrait of a lonely child. With the Smith and Randolph characters now married, following the death of Irena in the first film, their biggest worry is their daydreaming young daughter Amy (Ann Carter), who sees a picture of Irena and conjures up her image as an imaginary friend. Though lacking the visual lyricism of its predecessor, it's one of Lewton's best. Robert Wise co-directed with Gunther V. Fritsch, the first taking over for the second, who RKO fired for finishing only half the movie during the allotted schedule.
I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher: Another great double feature. The first, made just after Cat People, is more evidence of Tourneur's talent as a visual storyteller. A variation on Jane Eyre transposed to the West Indies, it finds a Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) arriving to her new post in the Caribbean, only to discover her new patient is a catatonic woman once caught in a love triangle between her husband (Tom Conway) and his half-brother (James Ellison), and that the island's native culture is steeped in voodoo. Like Cat People, an eerie chiller that travels far beyond the shocks we associate with horror. Meanwhile, The Body Snatcher is the best of Lewton's three pictures with Karloff (it was the second). Inspired by the Burke-Hare grave-robbing scandal, it's set in 1831 Edinburgh, with its main conflict pitting two former cadaver-stealing allies: a cabman (Karloff) who still digs up graves and a doctor (Henry Daniell) who's graduated to respectability and now only hires people to rob graves. The Body Snatcher, directed by Wise, is a fine example of how Lewton's movies not only avoided monsters, they also avoided outright villains and skillfully mined the moral grey zone.
Isle of the Dead and Bedlam: The first and third Lewton-Karloff collaborations, both also period pieces, are indicative of how Lewton's later RKO movies could be well-crafted, yet not as interesting as intended. The first, about a group of people quarantined on a Greek island during a plague scare, and the second, centered on London's notorious insane asylum of the 18th century, used period paintings and drawing as visual inspiration, so maybe it's not surprising they feel static. They're not bad and they give Karloff roles superior to his usual characters, but they feel flat compared to Lewton's more evocative work.
The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship: the first of the two discs available only within the set offers two fine movies. The first is Tourneur's rendering of Cornell Woolrich's novel, Black Alibi, about what happens when a deadly black leopard gets loose in a New Mexico town. It's surely more uneven than Tourneur's two previous Lewton movies, yet it has great set pieces, especially when the cat stalks a teen who's been sent to the store by her mother. The Ghost Ship has been one of the most elusive Lewton movies, as it was pulled from release by RKO after a writer filed a plagiarism lawsuit, claiming the movie took elements from a script he had submitted to Lewton's office. Although Lewton never saw that script, RKO lost the case and pulled the movie. As with Curse of the Cat People, made just after it, Ghost Ship comes up with something much better than the mere horror film RKO wanted. Its conflict between the idealistic new third officer (Russell Wade) and the power-mad captain (Richard Dix) on a freighter doesn't just recall The Caine Mutiny, which Herman Wouk hadn't written yet, it also turns into an exploration of authority run amok, an anti-Fascist parable for its wartime audience.
The Seventh Victimand Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy: the second of the boxed-set-only discs contains two essentials. The Seventh Victim,, the first non-Tourneur Lewton movie, directed by Mark Robson in keeping with Tourneur's style, may be the eeriest of the producer's movies. Kim Hunter makes her film debut as a teen who travels to New York City to look for her missing older sister (Jean Brooks), and discovers that her sister became involved with a devil-worshipping cult that now wants her dead. If Lewton's movies stew in the juices of death, grief and loneliness, The Seventh Victim may be his grimmest. It's also his most noir movie, with all of its dangers stemming from human loneliness. A beautiful piece of melancholy.
Running a little under an hour, Shadows in the Dark is literally littered with interview subjects. Do we really need five film historians, four writers and seven directors praising Lewton? An indication of how cluttered it is comes when George A. Romero who, like Lewton, knows a thing or two about movie zombies, is never heard offering his take on Lewton's kind of voodoo-based zombie, much different from Romero's Pittsburgh zombies. Still, this is a good overview of the producer's life and work, and it's hard to argue with any of the praise heaped upon Lewton's movies. They deserve it. Full of family snapshots and home movie footage, as well as the comments of Lewton's son, Val E. Lewton, Shadows of the Dark offers a strong sense of how Lewton's RKO movies reflected his personality: dark, literate, competent.
Most of those film historians in the documentary handle audio commentaries on the set's movies, though there's no commentary for The Ghost Ship, which seemingly has the most interesting "back story." The most worthwhile commentary is definitely the late Robert Wise's, on
Wise's first-hand anecdotes are much more interesting than the historians' micro-observations and rabid research, which is often along the lines of "This scene was filmed on October 13, but this insert within it was filmed on November 4." Sorry, stuff like that is just not that interesting. The historians are all well-prepared and speak well, but when I cautiously popped in director William Friedkin's commentary for The Leopard Man—cautiously because Friedkin's The Narrow Margin commentary had some dubious observations — it was really refreshing to hear him say, "Frankly, the movie speaks for itself" in the first minute. Greg Mank's commentaries on Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People also include snippets of his phone interview with the late Simone Simon. For some reason, though, these snippets are often semi-arbitrarily dropped in with no set-up and, like most of the historians commenting, Mank doesn't even open by telling us his qualifications to do a commentary for a Val Lewton movie. When that happens, I just want to ask, "Dude, where's your credibility?"
For more information about The Val Lewton Horror Collection, visit Warner Video. To order The Val Lewton Collection, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman
The Val Lewton Collection on DVD
Frances Dee (1907-2004)
She was born Jane Dee, on November 26, 1907 in Los Angeles, California. She was the daughter of an Army officer who grew up in Chicago after her father was transferred there when she was still a toddler. After he was re-stationed to Los Angeles in the late '20s, Jane accompanied him back.
Although she didn't harbor any serious intentions of becoming a star, Dee, almost out of curiosity, found work in Hollywood as an extra. With bit parts in small features in the films Words and Music (1929), True to the Navy, and Monte Carlo (both 1930), it didn't take long for studio executives to take notice of the sleek, stylish brunette. They changed her first name to Francis, and gave her a prominent role opposite Maurice Chevalier in one of the first all-talking musicals, The Playboy of Paris (1930).
She proved she could handle drama in her next big hit, An American Tragedy (1931) as Sondra Finchley, the role played by Elizabeth Taylor in the George Stevens' remake A Place in the Sun (1951). She met her husband Joel McCrea while filming The Silver Cord (1933), and after a romantic courtship, were married that same year in Rye, New York. It was well-known within film industry circles that their 57-year marriage (ending in 1990 when McCrea passed away) was one of the most successful among Hollywood stars.
From there, Dee played important leads in several fine motion pictures thoughout the decade: Little Women (1933), starring Katharine Hepburn; Blood Money (also 1933), where she was cast thrillingly against type as a sex-hungry socialite whose taste for masochistic boyfriends leads to harrowing results; Of Human Bondage (1934), in which she played Leslie Howard's devoted girlfriend; The Gay Deception (1935), a charming romantic comedy co-starring Frances Lederer; Wells Fargo (1937) a broad sweeping Western where she again teamed up with her husband McCrea; and the classic period epic If I Were King (1938) making a marvelous match for Ronald Colman.
Dee's film career slowed considerably in the '40s, as she honorably spent more time raising her family. Still, she was featured in two fine films: the profound, moving anti-Nazi drama So Ends Our Night (1941) with Fredric March; and Val Lewton's terrific cult hit I Walked with a Zombie (1943), portraying the inquisitive nurse trying to unravel the mystery of voodoo occurrences on a West Indian plantation. Dee officially retired after starring in the family film Gypsy Colt (1954) to commit herself full-time to her children and her husband.
For those so inclined, you might want to check out Complicated Women (2003), a tight documentary regarding the racy Pre-Code films that represented a realistic depiction of the Depression-era morality before the Hays code took over Hollywood in 1934. Frances Dee, although well in her nineties, offers some lucid insight into her performance in Blood Money, and clearly demonstrates an actor's process of thought and understanding in role development.
She is survived by three sons including the actor Jody McCrea, who found fame as "Bonehead" in the AIP Beach Party films of the '60s, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Frances Dee (1907-2004)
Actress Theresa Harris' first name is misspelled "Teresa" in the onscreen cast credits. The film opens with Betsy's voice over-narration "I walked with a zombie, it all began in such an ordinary way..." According to a October 21, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Anna Lee was initially slated to play "Betsy," but was forced to withdraw because of a previous commitment. Although RKO production records add Rita Christiani to the cast, her appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. A mid-November 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that the studio was forced to eliminate five days of location shooting because of proposed gas rationing. According to a February 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item, because of the success of Cat People, the Val Lewton production released just prior to this film, I Walked with a Zombie was to be rented not on a flat rate, which was the custom for low-budget "B" films, but on a percentage of the box office, as was the practice with higher-budgeted "A" films. I Walked With a Zombie served as the inspiration for the 2001 RKO production Ritual, directed by Avi Nesher and starring Jennifer Grey, Craig Sheffer, and Daniel Lapaine. This loose remake, which credits Wallace's story and the Siodmak-Wray screenplay, is also known as Tales From the Crypt Presents: Revelation.