Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Walking After Midnight

I was home for Halloween this year, the first time in many years that I've been at home for the holiday. I live in small town America where Americana still holds sway, so I expected and got a steady stream of children and parents to my doorstep, holding out bags for trick or treating. I don't have children, myself, and this panoply of adorable tots in various costumes made me ache to have my own, so I could pass on a love of Halloween to them. I'm generally happy to be child-free, but Halloween is one night when that decision weighs on me. In any event, I got a side-eye from many of the parents, given that I was dressed up as Morticia Addams, if Morticia Addams had had a thing for black PVC. That, too, is part of the fun.

Halloween is a night when I want to see classic horror films, so I queued up a trio of favorites. I started the first of them just as the sun was setting.

Once upon a time, I might have named I Walked With a Zombie (1943, directed by Jacques Tourneur) as my favorite of the Val Lewton horror films. In this, as in many things, I am at odds with my younger self. It's difficult for me to look at I Walked With a Zombie anymore without having my view of it jaundiced by the fact that, in its barest essence, it's a fundamentally racist narrative. It's a film where the problems of white people play out against a background of the colonialized. It's more honest about the nature of its power relationships than many classic films--prominent among its props is a figurehead from a slave ship in which a black man is feathered with arrows--but its narrative tension between faith in voodoo and faith in reason is framed in a vaguely paternalistic way. It's a troublesome movie.

The story in I Walked With a Zombie is a famously perverse reworking of Jane Eyre, transported to a sugar plantation in the West Indies. Nurse Betsy Connell accepts a position tending to the catatonic wife of plantation owner Paul Holland, falls for the woman's husband, and is enmeshed in the internecine sibling rivalry between Holland and his half-brother, Wesley Rand. No treatments seem to work on Mrs. Holland, but the islanders offer a darker explanation for her condition than the brain fever to which the island's white doctor subscribes: She has become a zombie, the living dead. Eventually, Betsy starts to believe this too, and late one night takes Mrs. Holland by the hand and walks with her through the cane fields to the Homefort, a place of voodoo ritual, to see if she might be cured. In doing so, she uncovers dark family secrets. She can't disentangle herself, either, because she's fallen for Paul Holland.

The Lewton unit was a big believer in set pieces. Sometimes, the films were generous--Cat People has several memorable set-piece suspense sequences. Sometimes, they held them in reserve for effect (perhaps under the sway of Poe's insistence on final effect). I Walked With a Zombie's big fright sequence is the titular walk through the cane field by moonlight, and it's a doozie: no incidental music, the only sounds on the soundtrack the natural sounds of the tall grasses swaying in the wind. It's profoundly creepy and I can only imagine what it must have been like for the audience of the day, weaned on the sturm and drang of the Universal horrors. This is a sequence designed to elicit a mood and to wind the audience up for the payoff. The Lewton unit was among the first to employ the so-called "jump scare," and the end of the walk through the cane field has one at the end. But typical of the Lewton films, this makes something of it as the film progresses. It's easy to focus on this sequence as the film's high point, which it surely is, but the film is subtle in its other effects and they deserve some scrutiny.

Most accounts of the movie tend to focus on its place in Lewton's canon--it certainly falls within Lewton's preference for literary horror movies, after all. What is perhaps less obvious is its place within Jacques Tourneur's canon. This film expands on the theme of reason versus superstition that was a minor thread in Cat People. This theme would find its fullest flowering in Night of the Demon fifteen years later, but this film has the same dialectic. Is Jessica Hammond the victim of a brain fever or is she a zombie? Does voodoo hold sway in the world or is it just superstition. The film is cagey about this, which is typical of Tourneur. Tourneur is perhaps acutely self-aware of the fact that his own worldview--he was on occasion an overtly Christian filmmaker--is another kind of supernatural world, and because of this, he doesn't always or even often side with reason. In the scenes late in the film when the voodoo priest attempts to draw Jessica back to the homefort, it seems plainly obvious that the supernatural is real. This is perhaps the film's most effective insinuation of the horrors lurking behind the mundane.

You also see in this film the genesis of the basic triangle of characters Tourneur would re-use under much different cover in Out of the Past, with Holland and Rand sundered because of a woman. For what it's worth, this film "corrects" one of Cat People's more glaring mistakes, in so far as it sides with Tom Conway as the leading man rather than Kent Smith (or in this film, James Ellison). Lewton hews to the Universal horror films in one respect in so far as his leading men were often wet noodles. Conway, a villain in Cat People, is urbane and fascinating in this movie. I mean, if you can't get George Sanders, you might as well get his brother. He gets the girl in this film, which is right and proper.

One of the things that stood out to me on rewatching the film is how Lewton and Tourneur elide information. A great deal of this film's exposition is related through the song that Betsy and Rand overhear at the cafe, which provides a shorthand map of how the relations in the Holland/Rand family play out in the movie's end game. This scene is delightfully uncomfortable in and of itself, but its function as exposition is efficient. Efficiency is the watchword for all of the Lewton films, and even with my qualms with the politics involved, I admire the hell out if its formal qualities. It's a gem of a film.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 31

First Time Viewings: 23

Note: Only two more posts after this one, and then I get to call it a season.

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