I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE/THE BODY SNATCHER
Review by Ed Nguyen
Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Bela Lugosi, Frances Dee, James Ellison, Russell
Directors: Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Commentary tracks, trailers
Length: 146 minutes
Release Date: October 4, 2005
no beauty here, only death and decay."
film connoisseurs know the name Val Lewton well. He is, in fact, revered as one of Hollywood's finest horror
film producers. Despite the fact
that Lewton's studio-era horror films were low-budget assignments, most
transcended their limitations, offering superior stories wrought with the kind
of craftsmanship and attention to details that is sadly lacking in the genre
Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie,
The Leopard Man - these are but a few
of the fine classics created by Lewton and his stable of extremely talented protégés,
most notably Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise.
a Russian émigré, was the nephew of Alla Nazimova, one of stage's most
distinguished actresses of the early twentieth century.
Through her influence, the young Val Lewton was able to acquire a decent
education in the United States and to develop his distinctive gift for writing.
Lewton's talents were soon recognized by none other than Hollywood's
producer extraordinaire, David Selznick, for whom Lewton would serve as story
editor for eight years. Lewton was
instrumental in persuading Selznick to bring Ingrid Bergman to Hollywood, and he
also scripted several scenes for Gone with
the Wind, including the unforgettable Atlanta depot sequence involving
hundreds of injured soldiers.
1942, Lewton was presented with a golden opportunity from RKO studios.
At the time, RKO, having suffered so ignominiously through the troubled
productions and commercial failures of Orson Welles' Citizen
Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons,
had recently jettisoned its boy genius and was in search of a producer to head a
new horror unit. Being in
financially dire straits, RKO simply wanted cheaply-made films that would bring
in a sizable return. The studio
offered Lewton carte blanche to make
any horror film he wished, so long as each film was budgeted under $150,000 and
had a running length of no longer than 75 minutes (to facilitate
double-billing). Lewton accepted
the challenge, despite the restrictions, and over the next six years would
produce eleven films for RKO, nine of them horror films which have come to be
regarded as minor classics.
wanted to stress the sensationalist aspects of its horror films and thus
burdened Lewton with some remarkably unwieldy titles for his films - I
Walked with a Zombie, Curse of the Cat
People, and Isle of the Dead, to
name but a few. A lesser producer
might have churned out an instantly forgettable B film, whereas Lewton always
strived to maintain his artistic integrity.
He penned or co-wrote many of his scripts, and he used RKO's cumbersome
titles only as launching points from which to create truly remarkable films,
some of the finest examples of 40's horror.
His first RKO film, Cat People,
was an instant classic whose success was attributable more to its successful
blend of suggestion, psychological thrills and atmospheric photography than to
anything conjured up by the special effects department.
In fact, Lewton's films never featured anything resembling an on-screen
"monster." The horror was
instead suggested by inspired direction, evocative lighting, and sound cues,
often allowing the imagination of audiences to supply the remainder of the
Lewton classics, I Walked with a Zombie
and The Body Snatcher, are included on
this disc. Read on below for a few
words about these vintage films from Hollywood's horror producer extraordinaire!
Walked with a Zombie (1943)
woman was a wicked woman, and she was dead in her own life."
was Val Lewton's second film for RKO, released after the success of Cat
People. I Walked with a Zombie
was directed by Jacques Tourneur, son of the great silent filmmaker Maurice
Tourneur. From his father, Jacques
Tourneur learned a great deal about expressionism, with its superb usage of
light and dark, shadows and silhouettes. Those
lessons can be readily seen in many of his best films, including Out
of the Past and I Walked with a Zombie (although Tourneur was personally most proud
of The Leopard Man).
Walked with a Zombie
is a loose adaptation of Jane Eyre as
transplanted into the mystical world of Haitian voodoo in the West Indies. The film might reasonably be considered a drama, but at its
core it describes an allegorical struggle between powers of reason and rationale
versus powers of the unknown, represented by the occult, the arcane, or the
mystical. These themes ultimately
provide I Walked with a Zombie with
its "horror" element.
main heroine is Betsy Connell, a young nurse who accepts a post in the West
Indies to care for the invalid wife of a plantation owner.
The owner is one Paul Holland, a wealthy if conflicted man whose wife
Jessica is a somnambulist. She dwells in an empty limbo of life, her existence one of
vacant stares and meandering, mindless walks at night. Jessica is the "zombie" of the film's title, an
animate object yet one not truly alive. Also
lingering about the plantation is Paul's brother Wesley, a jealous and bitter
man taken to drink over an unspoken past between Paul, Jessica, and himself.
Betsy slowly begins to unravel the complex interrelationships between her
employee Paul and his family, she also begins to develop feelings for the
plantation owner. Paul is a lonely
man, married yet essentially spouseless, surrounded by family yet more isolated
than ever before. Betsy's own
feelings for Paul alternate between growing affections and sincere sympathy.
She is even willing to risk her own life (to cure Jessica Holland and to
bring her back from her lifeless state), if only that would earn her Paul's
gratitude or love in return.
I Walked with a Zombie is a tragic
romance. There is even a wandering
minstrel in the film, the calypso singer Sir Lancelot, whose songs highlight key
elements in the ongoing drama; Sir Lancelot's role might be likened to that of a
Greek chorus in a tragedy.
West Indies setting provides the "horrors" in the film.
The teakwood figurehead of Saint Sebastian watches over the plantation
lands of Fort Holland, but elsewhere, the tall and emaciated zombie-like guard
Carre-Four controls passage through the island.
Among nocturnal shadows, strange silhouettes move, and from afar, echoing
incantations and eerie drum beats linger in the dark of night.
Somewhere on the island, deep within the fields, there is a Houmfort
where rites of black magic are still practiced. Here, the god of Christianity must yield to Shango, the
voodoo god who holds sway over the lives of the Haitians. I Walked with a Zombie
must then be construed as a parable depicting the clash between Christianity and
paganism, reason and supernatural, with the film's tragic conclusion attesting
to triumph of "pagan" beliefs beyond the safe haven of Christianity in
Body Snatcher (1945)
know you kill people to sell bodies!"
making a horror film, what better actor to cast than Boris Karloff?
Despite the success of the Lewton films, RKO was somewhat wary of the
producer's repeated attempts to circumvent the potentially gory qualities of his
films' titles by offering them as thinly-disguised dramas.
With Karloff, RKO hoped to inspire Lewton into creating more conventional
horror films replete with the prerequisite ghouls and creepy things going bump
in the night.
was Karloff's first film with Lewton. The
film was loosely based on a Robert Louis Stevenson tale, itself derived from the
real-life crimes of the West Port murderers of 1827-28, William Burke and
William Hare. The
Body Snatcher was one of Lewton's final horror films, a period suspense set
in Edinburgh circa 1831 about the illegal procurement of bodies for medical
film's namesake is John Gray (Boris Karloff), a shady Edinburgh coachman who
complements his otherwise lowly income through grave-digging...or worse.
Gray services Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), a learned and highly
skilled physician nevertheless in severe want of better bedside manners.
For all his expertise, MacFarlane's coldness and arrogance ultimately
prove to be his undoing.
the senior physician's sang froid is
Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), a promising young doctor-in-training under the
mentorship of Dr. MacFarlane. Fettes
may not be as knowledgeable as MacFarlane, but patients respond more positively
to his warmth and kindliness. Medicine
then is equal parts "art" and equal parts the accumulation of
knowledge, and for those who can master both aspects of the practice, the
possibility of a patient's recovery, both physically and mentally, is much
improved. Fettes' fatal flaw,
however, is his unavailing ability to speak up or to protest enough against what
he truly knows is wrong. And so,
MacFarlane's irremediable sins go unchecked, indeed abetted, by the reluctant
when Dr. MacFarlane's manservant, Joseph (Bela Lugosi), uncovers the sinister
truth behind how the supply of fresh, dead bodies is regularly replenished for
MacFarlane's anatomy lessons do the wheels of change begin to spin.
Gray and Joseph face down in a deadly struggle, while Fettes finally
exhumes the inner courage to openly confront MacFarlane.
features what is most assuredly Boris Karloff's most outstanding on-screen
performance. The role of John Gray
allowed the capable actor to fully display his impressive stage thespian skills
which hitherto had been routinely obscured on-film by heavy monster makeup or
restrictive roles. The Body Snatcher would be the first of three Lewton films starring
the veteran actor Karloff, and it is probably the most effective one (the other
two are Isle of the Dead and Bedlam).
foil in The Body Snatcher, Henry
Daniell, was no second-rate actor, either.
In fact, he was one of the premier character actor villains of the day,
appearing as Baron de Varville in Greta Garbo's Camille, Lord Wolfingham in Errol Flynn's The Sea Hawke, and in several Sherlock Holmes thrillers, including The
Woman in Green as Professor Moriarty. Suffice
it to say that having such a capable adversary only inspired Karloff to greater
was directed by a young Robert Wise, a hold-over from the Orson Welles days at
RKO. In fact, Wise had performed
the infamous editing on the final scenes in Welles' The
Magnificent Ambersons and had taken over directorial duties on the wonderful
Curse of the Cat People, an amazing
treatise on child psychology (believe it or not).
The Body Snatcher was the first
film to be wholly directed by Robert Wise, and while he lacked Jacques
Tourneur's supremely visual style, Wise was certainly a capable director (as he
would demonstrate aptly throughout the remainder of his long directorial
should be noted that neither I Walked with
a Zombie nor The Body Snatcher
were typical horror films for the day. Neither
had bloodsucking undead creatures, shape-shifting monsters, or even special
effects of any note. By concealing
atmospheric dramas and suspenseful tales in the guise of the "horror"
film, Lewton was in fact creating a whole new sub-type to the genre - the
Lewton's films remain obscure to the general viewing public but are highly
treasured by classic horror film enthusiasts.
Hopefully, the new batch of Warner Brothers' Val Lewton DVDs, of which
this is but one in five, will introduce whole new generations of film fans to
the genius of Val Lewton!
films show excellent contrast levels in a solid, detailed transfers without
discernible black level breakups, important for films which are so dependent
upon dark or shadowy scenes. However,
the prints used to make this DVD have seen better days.
There are instances of emulsion damage, occasional frame jumps, and dust
specks everywhere. In short, the films look their age.
films sound old, too. There is soft
but regular hiss and crackling in the background.
The monaural sound will not tax any home audio system.
On the other hand, this background noise, while naturally unacceptable
for a newer film, does add a bit of character to the vintage horror stylizations
of the Lewton films.
are two commentaries. The first is
by Kim Newman and Steve Jones for I Walked
with a Zombie. The two film
historians provide fast-paced and virtually non-stop banter about the film.
Clearly, they are quite enthused, although they tend to take many
tangential leaps which sometimes abandon altogether any notion of analysis of
the film. The commentary is quite
interesting albeit consequently a little hard to follow at times.
commentary on The Body Snatcher is
provided separately by Robert Wise and Steve Habernian.
For his part, Wise almost ignores the film altogether, instead offering a
discussion of his early years working with Orson Welles and Val Lewton.
Wise describes his early responsibilities as editor and how from there he
developed into a director. Most of
his comments are quite interesting but center around Curse
of the Cat People, so much so that Wise's commentary probably belongs more
with that film than with The Body Snatcher.
Listeners may be interested to know that Wise also directed parts of
Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons!
Steve Habernian's comments do not appear until late in the film and focus
more upon The Body Snatcher.
vintage trailers are provided for both films.