Saturday, January 29, 2011

Five From A Favorite - I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)


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As essential a horror film as there could ever be, I Walked with a Zombie is the finest achievement from both legendary producer Val Lewton - whose crop of creepy, atmospheric horror movies produced for RKO Pictures in the 40's have made him an unlikely but enduring icon of the genre - and the great maverick director Jacques Tourneur, whose multi-genre flexibility and impeccable sense of style left behind one of the most overlooked and important bodies of work to come out of the studio system.

Zombie is a rousing triumph in many ways, but perhaps what amazes me most about it is how the elusive nature of the story - which picks up after the most pivotal events have already occurred - is so perfectly mirrored by its pervading atmosphere of heavy gusts and gloomy dimness, remote drums and skies that crackle with that special electricity of a calm before the storm. Narrative and ambience coalesce in a rare way, both elements keeping the viewer at bay from the main event, providing not much more than whipping winds and wisps of suggestion while Tourneur's sublime shadow language and mastery of mood and detail fill in the blanks with pure, poetic dread.

2 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

I couldn't agree with you more Drew, and this is one of my all-time favorite films! Five classic caps here, and the immediate remembrance of this brooding and poetic film, that does rank in fact as Lewton's masterpiece (ahead of The Seventh Victim, The Body Snatcher, Cat People and an underrated Isle of the Dead) From the lyrical opening narration through some of horror cinema's most indellible and elegant images, through the unforgettable journey through the cane reeds (with whispers, wind and shadows playing a big role) through the profound and damning lyrics of Sir Lancelot in that Greek Chorus-styled Calypson song to the overseeing presence of the figure of St. sebastian, this is one of American cinema's most artistic successes. James Agee himself called Lewton the ultimate humanist.

I feel like watching it again Drew. But no doubt like you I've watched it an unGodly number of times!

Drew said...

I've definitely seen the film many times by this point, Sam, and I actually feel that the Lewton productions are some of the most re-watchable movies ever made, considering their richness and manageable running times. The truth is I love all of them to pieces, including the ones you cite - particularly The Seventh Victim, which was a prime influence on Rivette's Duelle, one of my very favorite movies of all time. And I agree Isle of the Dead is massively underrated, the feel of Scorsese's Shutter Island seems very much indebted to that one.

I'm glad you bring up the Sir Lancelot scene, it's such a creepy & striking moment, it sticks out to me every time I watch the movie. There's something so eerie about his character, the way he seems to be some kind of phantom or harbinger, standing on the outside looking in, that haunting song working not only as bare exposition but also some kind of otherworldly warning.

Thanks for the comment, Sam!