After the opening credits (check out the one that says “Any similarity to any persons, living, dead, OR POSSESSED, is entirely coincidental”), we’re in snowy Canada. Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) takes a job in the West Indies as a nurse to Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), who is comatose after a fever. Betsy soon falls in love with Jessica’s husband Paul (Tom Conway). Thinking that that is what Paul wants, Betsy sets about trying to cure Jessica, even if it means resorting to a voodoo ceremony…
As is often noted, I Walked With a Zombie lifts the plot of Jane Eyre, with Jessica as Rochester/Paul’s mad first wife. (There’s a further link in that the mad wife – whose story was memorably told by Jean Rhys in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, itself none-too-successfully filmed by John Duigan in 1993 – herself originated as a Creole, or white Caribbean.) Such allusions enrich the film if you pick them up, and are a mark of the literariness of Val Lewton’s approach. The script is credited to Curt Siodmak (whose background was with Universal’s horror films, most notably The Wolf Man, and was a SF novelist of some note) and regular Lewton cohort Ardel Wray (who went on to write The Leopard Man and Isle of the Dead for the producer, as well as contribute to the script of Youth Runs Wild). But it’s well known that Lewton wrote the final versions of each of his films’ scripts and his fingerprints are all over this one. It’s this film in particular which gained Lewton his reputation for respectful depictions of non-white characters. And in Frances Dee’s Betsy, he has another of his resourceful heroines who attracted the attention of feminist critics.
I Walked With a Zombie was Jacques Tourneur’s second collaboration with Lewton, and he has to take a lot of credit for the film’s effectiveness. The key sequence is one of his trademark “walks”. As Betsy accompanies Jessica through the plantation, branches sway, and the moon casts an intricate network of shadows across the path, while in the distance we hear the sounds of native drums. It’s a lengthy sequence in a film which is under 70 minutes long, but you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. This is a film of few jump-out-of-seat moments, but as a work of sustained atmosphere it has few equals. The shots of Darby Jones’s Carrefour, with eyes glowing from the shadows, are seriously creepy if you have half an imagination. Once again it shows how effective black and white is in creating a sense of the unearthly, even if monochrome was an economic necessity for these films. The DP is J. Roy Hunt, who has never been a name to conjure with like Nicholas Musuraca’s. He had a lengthy career, beginning in silent days with the now-lost 1916 film Daughter of the Gods (then notorious for introducing female nudity to American cinema) and ending in 1953, but mostly comprising obscure B movies. (Outside Zombie, his best-known credit is 1949’s Mighty Joe Young.) But his work is first-rate here: like many people, working for Lewton made him rise to the occasion. That’s also the case with Frances Dee, who had a long and steady career but seldom had a role as good as this.
Watching a film like this nowadays – and that goes for the other Lewton horrors as well – needs some adjustment. Black and white has fallen into disuse for films like this, which is some loss. Although the film is very economical (check that running time) it’s slower-paced than we would expect today, when relying on the half-seen and your imagination seems to have been displaced by loud blasts of music and explicit gore. It’s a film that demands immersion in its atmosphere and visual poetry, but make that effort and certain scenes and imagery will stay with you for weeks. (Incidentally, it was remade in 2001 as Ritual, but as I haven’t seen that film I won’t comment further.)
With The Body Snatcher, made two years later, Lewton (who took a script credit this time, under his Carlos Keith pseudonym, jointly with Philip MacDonald) does credit his literary source, namely the story by Robert Louis Stevenson. In this, Lewton’s films, which had contemporary settings up to now, travels back in time and across the Atlantic to 1831 Edinburgh, for a tale of the conflict between a Dr MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) who needs cadavers for his medical students and the “body snatcher” John Gray (Boris Karloff) who is willing to provide them for him.
The Body Snatcher has an unusual structure in that we are introduced to the protagonists via a secondary character, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) who becomes an assistant to MacFarlane. It’s a while – in what is still a short film, even if it is amongst Lewton’s longest – before we meet John Gray, but Karloff’s commanding performance soon takes hold of the film. Karloff wasn’t on contract to RKO – Lewton paid extra for him, and used him in three films. However, Karloff was by then becoming tired of the scripts he was being given at Universal, but the quality of the script, and the congenial atmosphere at Lewton’s horror unit, brought out the best in him. This film is also the last time that Karloff appeared alongside another horror icon, Bela Lugosi. Lugosi – a more limited actor than Karloff – had had far worse luck in his choice of projects since he had played Dracula thirty years before. He had further to fall in the next decade, of course. Here his part is small but has a memorable finale. There’s solid support from British character actor Daniell, who is the real second lead, demoted to third billing due to the head-office-driven marquee value of the Karloff-Lugosi partnership.
Robert Wise had been an editor who had worked for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Lewton had promoted him into the director’s chair when he took over The Curse of the Cat People from Gunther von Fritsch. He had made the non-horror Guy de Maupassant adaptation Mademoiselle Fifi for Lewton, but The Body Snatcher is his best work for the producer. Once again, the atmosphere of old Edinburgh is richly evoked, thanks to the production design by Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller (though making use of some existing sets, notably the streets from The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Robert De Grasse’s camerawork, which tends towards the darker end of the greyscale.
The Body Snatcher was one of Lewton’s films that suffered particularly badly at the hands of the British censor. The real-life bodysnatching activities of Burke and Hare were a taboo subject for the BBFC at the time, and all references in the film to them had to be removed. They also cut shots of Karloff from the film’s climax – one of the great shocks of 40s horror – which must have made it incomprehensible. Sadly this cut version was the only one available in the UK – even for television showings by the BBC – for over fifty years. It was only until the budget video label 4Front released the film as one of six Lewton horrors in 1998 that The Body Snatcher was available in the UK in its complete form, which – naturally – is the version included on this disc.
I Walked With a Zombie and The Body Snatcher are released on a single dual-layered disc as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection box set. It is also available separately, but I suspect most people buying this will be paying the extra for the box set, which is what the affiliate link in this review refers to. The disc is encoded for Regions 1 and 4 only.
Both films are in their original 4:3 ratio and hence not anamorphically enhanced. I suspect that I Walk With a Zombie has its original materials in a slightly worse state than some of its boxmates. It’s entirely acceptable, just not perfect – be prepared for some scratches, spots and splices. The contrast of the blacks, whites and greys seems fine. The Body Snatcher is in a much better state, though not short of minor damage, and as good as you have any right to expect for films over sixty years old.
The soundtrack is the original mono, over a single channel. (The extras are 2.0 mono.) No problems at all here: the sound is clear, with dialogue, effects and music all well balanced and sound fine.
The main extras on both films are commentaries. On Zombie we have British critics Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, while on The Body Snatcher it’s director Robert Wise and US historian Steve Haberman. The Jones/Newman track is notable for being the only one of the double-headed commentaries that isn’t two individual speakers edited together. The two men are watching the film together and interacting, and it makes for an engaging listen – these two have clearly seen more 40s B movies than I have. They clearly know their subject inside out, and there’s plenty to impart to us. The commentary on The Body Snatcher features Wise solo for 48 minutes, with Haberman taking over for the rest of the film. Wise gives a general talk on his career and work with Lewton, talking as much about Curse of the Cat People as he does about Body Snatcher, beginning with his work for Welles and ending with his later film made in the Lewton spirit, The Haunting. Haberman, possibly slightly constrained by having only a half hour to himself, talks more about the historical background to Stevenson’s story, before discussing the film. He discusses the rewrites to MacDonald’s original screenplay due to concerns about gruesomeness from Joseph Breen at the Hays Office. (The Legion of Decency gave the film a B rating, “objectionable in part”.) The additional extras are the trailers for both films, Zombie running 1:03, and The Body Snatcher 1:39. Both are in a noticeably worse state than the features, especially the latter.
If you had to buy just one Lewton disc, I’d be hard-pressed to choose between this one and the one containing the two Cat People films. (I’d recommend both of them over the Isle of the Dead/Bedlam disc.) But anyone who is interested in these films should be buying the whole box set, containing a documentary and three films not available separately.