Film Score: Roy Webb Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Starring: Frances Dee, Tom Conway and James Ellison
Val Lewton films of the mid 1940s for RKO garnered much critical praise in the latter part of the century in comparison with Universal’s more overt monster movies, time has brought them back to a more realistic appraisal: workmanlike B-picture psychological thrillers with a lot of style. But horror films to rival Universal? Certainly not. As producer of the entire series, Lewton himself was initially responsible for most of the early spin by denigrating the Universal series every chance he could get. But it was mostly sour grapes, as he watched the monster rallies deliver millions at the box office while RKO denied him the opportunity to work on more high-quality pictures that he felt befitted his talent.
I Walked With a Zombie is no exception. Curt Siodmak’s screenplay is half Jane Eyre and half White Zombie, as Frances Dee comes to the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian to take care of Tom Conway’s catatonic wife and falls in love with him in the bargain. Siodmak’s time at Universal shows in an early sequence as Dee is traveling to the island with Conway. She thinks to herself that the island is beautiful and Conway interrupts her thoughts to tell her everything she sees about her is really death, a similar conversation to the one in Universal’s Dracula’s Daughter from 1936. Then there is the figurehead from the ship with the arrow in his chest, reminiscent of the door knocker from Most Dangerous Game, and Conway’s wife walking around in the dark like one of Dracula’s wives, all of which makes for a curious mélange.
In the end, however, it’s a disappointing mixture. While Roy Webb's score for the film is excellent, the calypso singer who conveys the family’s tragedy in song borders on the comic, a device used with similar dissonance in the film Brute Force a few years later. More gothic suspense than horror, the only truly frightening scene in the film is when Dee is taking Conway’s wife to see the voodoo doctor, who simply turns out to be Conway’s mother. Any hint of the supernatural is thus dispelled and, along with it, the audience’s enthusiasm. The revelation of the family secret is predictable, and the final resolution melodramatic.
One of the best lines from Carrie Rickey’s review of the film in The B List, is when she calls I Walked With A Zombie “a sixty-nine-minute tone poem scored to the rhythms of calypso and Chopin.” What that visual poetry is attempting to evoke, however, is open for interpretation. For one thing, there is a lot of talking in comparison with the few scenes at the voodoo camp. Also the lack of real fear by Dee and Conway tends to attenuate the suspense. This, I think, is my interpretation of her comment, that the film itself is something of a trance-like experience. Interesting, but not one in the Lewton cannon that merits a repeat viewing.