May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
August 4, 2009
“How do you ever expect to get to heaven, with one foot in the voodoo houmfort and the other in the church?”
“You never talked about voodoo before, Mrs Rand.”
“It’s just part of everyday life here.”
“You don’t believe in it?”
“A missionary’s widow? It isn’t very likely, is it?”
If Cat People affects us so potently because of our compassion for its central character, this follow-up from Tourneur and Lewton achieves its greatest effect by maintaining a chilly, chilling distance. Again, a young woman (possibly in peril) is at the centre of the story, but we view her with an odd detachment: she seems a sweet enough girl, but perhaps her immediate attraction to the cold, even cruel Paul Holland distances us from her from the outset – her psychology grows increasingly complex as the story progresses, and it’s not easy to hope (or imagine) that everything will work out for these two.
The concentrated pathos of the earlier film is replaced by something altogether eerier and more disquieting, though once again there’s a pervasive sense of melancholy, even despair. Somehow, events on this Caribean island seem fated, orchestrated: the naïve Canadian nurse is walking into the middle of something her good old northern common sense hasn’t prepared her for. We learn early in the story that the narrative ground we walk on is soaked in blood and human misery: the plantation was built and farmed by slaves, the figurehead of the slave ship (which the servants call “T Misery”) has been built into a fountain in the centre of the courtyard, and everything on the island seems fated to end in the sadness that flow from that tragic history.
Before producer Val Lewton was handed the keys to the shop and a (very small) wad of cash to make some little movies of his own (and big money for the studio), he worked on the much-bigger-budget classic Rebecca, which is somewhat derivative of Jane Eyre where he served as story editor. The premise of both stories is evident enough here. A Caribbean plantation owner hires a young nurse to care for his wife, who is kept in an isolated tower room. Though she is awake, and can walk around, she is sedate, completely unresponsive: the locals call her as a zombie, one of the living dead. As in those other two stories, a terrible mystery draws us forward through the story: how did such terrible things come to pass? What – and who – could have caused such misery? And, because this is a Lewton-Tourneur picture, answers will be elusive, and there will be a strong suggestion that they’ll be spiritual.
If you’re hoping for a horror movie, Zombie will disappoint: even seemingly climactic scenes mystify rather than thrill, paying off only in mood and a slow accumulation of character detail. In fact, by the final third of the film even the the basic narrative seem to dissipate. This is a strange aspect of the film: on careful viewing, it becomes evident that every necessary piece of the rather complex story is provided, yet even once we’ve pieced it all together, it remains an oddly dislocated, disorienting narrative.
This is due in part to the elision of story elements you’d expect in most films. Their absence means we have no more awareness of the progression of events than the film’s characters – at times, even less. Forced to fill in narrative gaps by intuition, we assemble scraps of dialogue and details of behaviour into our best guess about what’s going on. It’s a narrative strategy that forces us to “lean in” to the story, heightening our attention and tuning us to nuance, atmosphere, suggestion. However much we succeed in piecing together on repeat viewings, we’re left with unsettling questions, unsure we’ll ever have the full story. Kind of like life.
At one point, a scene involving significant plot developments (which appears in the original screenplay but was either not shot or deleted in the editing room) takes place indoors. We don’t witness the scene directly: we’re outside with the nurse and a servant woman, minding a stubborn horse, getting only glimpses of the men inside, hearing nothing of their dialogue. From this point on the telling of the story becomes more and more odd, the narrative threads increasingly disconnected – just as the story grows more and more inescapably supernatural. Most screenplays zero in on a central line of action in their third act: I Walked With A Zombie seems to do exactly the opposite. If Cat People suggested Robert Bresson in the use of sound and the understatement of its performances, this film not only carries forward those techniques but adopts similarly elliptical story-telling style – and in so doing, evokes a similar sense not only of mystery, but of Mystery. (Of course, Bresson’s distinctive “transcendental” style didn’t emerge until The Diary of a Country Priest, still seven years in the future: you don’t suppose Robert watched a lot of RKO horror flicks, do you?)
The film has been widely celebrated for it’s use of light and shadow: blinds, screens, gauzy curtains, leaves and even a prominently placed harp which appears to have no other function in the film but its visual interest (and a perfectly placed contribution to the soundtrack, tagging the end of an establishing shot that watches the shadows its strings cast on a sheer curtain blowing in the night breeze) give a remarkable sense of depth and texture to Tourneur’s meticulously framed black and white images.
But the film’s most striking image is the bust of San Sebastian. The servant who brings Betsy Connell to the plantation underscores its identification with those who have suffered on the island, calling it by name (“T Misery”) and speaking of the sculpture as if it were human;
“A man, Miss. An old man who lives in the garden at Fort Holland, with arrows stuck in him and a sorrowful weeping look on his black face.”
“No miss, he’s just the same as he was from the beginning, on the front side of an enormous boat. The enormous boat brought the long-ago fathers and the long-ago mothers of us all, chained to the bottom of the boat.”
“They brought you to a beautiful place, didn’t they?”
“If you say, Miss. If you say.”
Tourneur’s films are remarkable for their anti-racist sensibility: not only is this film grounded in a hatred of slavery, but its portrayal of the Caribbean people of colour and their religious practice is extraordinarily accurate and respectful, free of the racial stereotypes common to other films of the day. No wonder the film had such immense popularity with African-American audiences at the time.
Like the statue of King John in Cat People, there is something emblematic, almost sacramental, about this gruesomely beautiful sculpture to which we return so frequently, often at moments of greatest misery. Through most of the picture the camera shows us the carving at eye level in full or three-quarter profile, sustaining in the viewer’s mind the primary identification of this as the figurehead of a slaveship. But as the film reaches its ultimate climax, something quite remarkable happens to the way this image is presented to us, causing us to re-interpret its significance, drawing out a distinctly spiritual layer to the way we read it.
A character makes a choice to co-operate with what appear to be supernatural forces on the island, then turns to the image of Saint Sebastian that stands in the fountain at the centre of the plantation garden. For the first time the statue is touched: the character grasps one of the arrows imbedded in the figure’s chest and moves the arrow up and down to free it from the carving. We feel the violence of this tangibly, in our ribs: we’ve long been aware that this image has come to represent the general sufferings of the slaves and their children’s children, but suddenly we’re reminded that this carving is also the likeness of a specific saint and martyr, and we almost physically feel that his suffering is being enacted before us. Then the camera cuts to a full-on front perspective, viewed from below, and we see not only the image of a Christian martyr, but a striking evocation of Christ himself, whose suffering was echoed not only in the death of Sebastian and in the agonies of generations of slaves, but which is being carried forward in the film’s present action. Now we see not only the profile but the face of suffering, the willing victim’s eyes turned heavenward, the camera’s upward angle drawing our eyes to something like a circle of thorns which crowns this man of sorrow. In the darkness, the water that streams down the figure’s chest appears to be blood.
A further ritual death is carried out, a relentless collusion of supernatural forces and human decision that is in itself a judgment, a damnation, at the same time as it may be a rough kind of salvation – at any rate, it provides the release, the terrible catharsis, of authentic tragedy. Perhaps a curse is now broken. Or perhaps it has at last been fulfilled.
We are drawn into this story by a mystery, a dark and essential question: who is responsible for Jessica’s condition? What crime or sin or failing led to this unnatural state of things? A once-beautiful, once-beloved woman is trapped between life and death, her will – that singularly human, singularly divine faculty – extinguished? As an African-Caribbean voice intones a final, funereal prayer, a judgment is rendered – a particular selfishness is named, and deemed wicked, and we receive a final answer to the question.
Or do we? Have we traced the evil back to its source, and in knowing it and naming it, broken its power? Or have we merely uncovered one more face of evil, yet another outworking of a malady far more pervasive? Are its consequences at last put to rest with the ritual sacrifice that climaxes the film, or is something greater and more universal needed?
In the final analysis, in the final prayer, an “answer” is offered to the mystery at the centre of this mythic tale. And yet, it is nothing like the whole truth, nothing close to satisfying. We remain as unsure of precise cause and effect, unconvinced about such precise assignment of culpability and responsibility, just as we are unclear about so many other features of this dark dream. We are uncertain, even, which of the film’s characters is the zombie of its title. The one who strolled on a beach, or one who journeyed through a midnight cane field? Or some other character whose will was surrendered to forces darker and more powerful?
Someone chooses to play God and ultimately, with the best of intentions, sentences a woman to a living death – there is something of the Frankenstein myth being played out here. Another character, gripped by an irrational urge to lash out, lives in the grip of the shadows of his own nature, fearing what other beautiful things might be destroyed – Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, with all its thundering Pauline wretchedness, comes to mind. One brother is consumed by jealousy, another by bitterest resentment, and any number of Old Testament tragedies are invoked. Ancient sins carry forward from generation to generation, as a privileged few profit from the misery of the many – is it any wonder that a final judgment is wrought? Or that, when it comes, it counts for so little, changes almost nothing.
But perhaps what haunts us most won’t be the film’s themes, its psychological intricacies or theological mysteries, but its indelible closing images; Jessica at the gates, T Misery, a breathless jump cut from the voodoo priest to someone rising from the ground, Carrefour’s arms, the waves, then the disorienting cut to an extraordinary image of men in the water with torches. The voice-over, the procession, and an image of someone – finally – weeping. Pure cinema.
And to think – all the studio wanted was a monster movie.