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Betsy, a nurse from Canada, travels to an island in the West Indies to take care of Jessica Holland, a woman who appears to be the victim of some unexplained mental paralysis. In the course of her stay, Betsy's attempts to cure Jessica prove futile and she considers a more extreme approach - a visit to the local voodoo priestess. In a climatic scene, Betsy discovers the cause of Jessica's death-in-life state and some disturbing secrets about the Holland family.
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