I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE

 


 

 

 

REVIEWS

(Below) Newspaper review, 1943.
Suspenseful Prod of Weird Thriller

"I Walked With A Zombie"
(RKO)

Producer Val Lewton
Director Jacques Tourneur
Photography J. Roy Hunt
Edited by Mark Robson

The players: James Ellison, Francis Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Christine Gordon, Teresa Harris, SIr Lancelot, Darby Jones, Jeni LeGon.

Having scored a smashing success at the box office with "Cat People," producer Val Lewton turns his attention to the ever-intriguing subject of Zombies for a second production in the chiller-diller cycle he has launched at RKO. As in the previous thriller, psychological overtones are simulated to give the proceedings an air of strange, yet not impossible doings, and again Lewton receives valued aid from the suspenseful direction by Jacques Tourneur. Their collaboration on "I Walked With a Zombie" stands an excellent chance of breaking the records that "Cat People" broke. In many respects it is a smoother entertainment.

The story is told in retrospect when a nurse recalls her experiences on the island of San Sebastian in the West Indies. She has been engaged to attend the wife of a sugar planter, a woman who has no will of her own, never speaks and has seemingly lost her mind after a fever from which she nearly died. The nurse quickly senses the animosity that exists between the husband and his younger half-brother, a chap addicted to the bottle, but not until she hears the song of a Calypso singer does she discover that the brothers have quarreled over the love of the afflicted woman.

Meanwhile, the nurse recognizes that she is falling in love with the husband. She promptly bends every effort to restore his wife to him. Medicine failing, she even resorts to voodoo as a last chance. But she is sent away from the weird native temple and learns from the boy's mother that her patient is a Zombie. She has walked with the living dead.

Frances Dee gives a charming performance as the nurse, and Tom Conway a strong portrayal of the husband. James Ellison is to be commended for what he does with the half-brother, a role that many would have over-played objectionably Edith Barrett is splendid as the mother, and Christine Gordon lends appeal to the afflicted wife. Teresa Harris pertly plays a native servant, and Sir Lancelot appears briefly as the Calypso singer.

Of high order in Lewton's production are the photography by J. Roy Hunt, the art direction by Albert S. D'Agostino and Walter E. Keller, the music by Roy Webb, and the editing by Mark Robson.

 

Gold in Them Chills
From Colliers Magazine, January 29, 1944.

by Barbara Berch

There's a new kind of horror picture nowadays-snappy little spook shows full of beautiful girls and sharp dialogue, good food and French lullabies. They hide under fireside-chat titles] like Cat People, I walked with a Zombie, Leopard Man, Seventh Victim, Ghost Ship, and Curse of the Cat People; they're emancipating the tired spook-show formula by chucking the monsters and going in for class; and while they cost a niggardly (for Hollywood) $80,000 to make they gross over a million a piece. We're packing the theaters to hair-raising capacity to see this new-type phenomenon that scares the living daylights out of us- quietly, gently, psychologically!

They show us pretty girls changing into man-killing cats, registered nurses who believe in zombies, and gorgeous lady executives joining screwball societies dedicated to satanic pursuits. At least we think they do - which is how these high-class horrors operate. They provide the overturned chair, the muffled footstep, the creaking door, the wild eye--then let our imaginations take over to do the real work.

The psychological terror boys sneer at test-tube bloodsuckers, scrambled innards and two-headed men. They use the Old theory of mind over matter, remember that an ounce of imagination is worth a ton of bleeding, biting and scratching. The psychological horror show comes to life to make the rest of the industry admit that maybe there is something to this business of being subtle, after all

The first of these brand-new scare pieces is about a beautiful lady dress designer who picks up a guy in the park, invites him to her apartment for tea, falls in love with him and marries him. Grisly? Not yet. It really gets grim on their wedding night when she tells hubby not to be mad if she doesn't let him kiss her. If he does, she's sure to turn into a cat and kill him.

Taking a Chance on Love

So he turns her over to a psychiatrist with an appreciative eye, who's willing to take a chance on being clawed to death, Comes the big love scene -- then a strange little tinkle of music on dark film, a few discords --the psychiatrist is lying on the floor, good and dad for his trouble, and the lady, who is now a cat, is making for the leopard cage at the zoo to commune with her relatives. Gay?

The latest, Curse of the Cat People, carries on where the starter in this collection of creeps left off and promises to become another family affair, in chapters, like the Hardy business.

Under any other kind of treatment, these scripts would only be funny. In their present form, however, they're actually masterpieces of suspense and horror, because we're only allowed to see half of what we think we're seeing.

Val Lewton is the man responsible -- for horror pictures with no horror to speak of. He's a nice fat fellow with kind eyes, a gentle voice and a profitable feeling that audiences in wartime are essentially dotty, anyway. He also says we all have war jitters, "but you come to my movies, have a fine time killing people for me, then go home, worn out, tired and relaxed."

It started in a small office at RKO last year when Charles Koerner, the boss, cast about for a hypo to liven up the studio's dying product. He remember a title he'd kicked around for years -- The Cat People -- and presented it by memo to Val Lewton, a new producer on the lot. "Naturally, I was appalled," Lewton admits.

He called in DeWitt Bodeen, a writer, and Jacques Tourneur, a director, and the three of them worked out the story of Irina Barovna, descended from the Mamelukes of Egypt, which, they chuckled, would mean cat blood in her veins. They cast Simone Simon as Irina, peopled the rest of the film with good-looking Americans who spoke snappy language, and found a hollow-cheeked sylph named Elizabeth Russell to be Simone's sister cat.

Provoking the Imagination

They continued by throwing in the three fundamental fears: darkness, sudden sound and wild animals. They pampered a tame leopard they'd hired from the Los Angeles zoo by spilling perfume on his raw meat to provoke growling at the proper time .

Stage 8 was the noisiest set on the log, but ten weeks later Mr. Koerner had his Cat People, Mr. Lewton had a sizable hike in pay, and the RKO investors were running their fingers through the cash and murmuring "Gold!"

The second brain-gnashing resulted in I walked with a Zombie, and another gold rush to the box office -- not only in theaters specializing in "triple Horror Show Tonight" but in neighborhood houses where the whole family gathers. So the Lewton unit has been booming since the, turning out more like it.

Lewton, himself, was born in Russia lived there the first seven years of his life, then changed his address to West 10th Street, New York City. At seventeen he was writing poetry. at eighteen he sold his first short story, at 22 he was writing four novels a year and came out with a book on Russian Cossacks.

Then David Selznick, fingering Gogol's Taras Bulba with an eye to its filmability, sent out a call for writer's who knew Russia. Up came Lewton, the least expensive pf the two or three writers heard from, and forthwith drew a free ticket to Hollywood, with a one-day stopover in Chicago to see the World's Fair.

Selznnick never made Taras Bulba, but Lewton stayed on in his keep for nine years -- until RKO beckoned with a producer's berth.

Lewton lives in a house at the beach with a wife, two children, two donkeys, a dozen chickens, five dogs, eight or nine rabbits, a slew of canaries and other miscellaneous livestock. Recently the neighbors gave Lewton twenty -four hours to dispose of his animal kingdom.

"But I'll have to kill the chickens," he wept. "I can't do it, I can't do it!"

"I'll wring their ugly little necks myself," volunteered the lady who lived next door. And as she readied herself to invade the barnyard, she stood on tiptoe, pulled bogeyman Lewton's ear down to her size and came through with a bloodcurdling, "Boo!"

 

Lewton is B-Film Virtuoso
From Life Magazine, 1945.

Val Lewton, producer of Bedlam, is recognized today as Hollywood's top producer of B movies. He has made his reputation with a series of low-cost thrillers (The Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Isle of the Dead) which were well received by movie critics and, more important, made money. Hollywood generally tries to make its A pictures (films budgeted at more than $800,000) pleasing to the more discriminating critics and moviegoers. But Bs (budgeted under $500,000) exist solely for revenue purposes and any artistic merit they may have comes under the heading of a pleasant surprise. Being both profitable and meritorious, Lewton's are ideal B films.

Producer Lewton's stock in trade is the low-cost thriller and the best new twist he has developed is the ability to impart terror to an audience by means of suggestion. He usually has people murdered off-stage so each spectator is free to conjure up as much physical suffering as he can stand. In addition, Lewton is fond of teasing the audience by imperiling his heroine and then rescuing her some outside intervention, such as the arrival of a streetcar. he will break the mood of a tense scene with false alarms, such as having a horse whinny at murderous moment in a gloomy barn, thus giving the audience a chance to laugh nervously at itself. lewton scorns such patently horrifying characters as werewolves and monsters. He believes the fans get a bigger scare out of satisfactorily vicious human beings.

Lewton's first name is a contraction of Vladimir, which he was christened when born in yalta in 1904. At the age of 7 he moved from Russia to port Chaster, N.Y., ultimately entered Columbia University and then drifted into newspaper writing. In 1934 Producer David Selznick hired him to write a movie about Russia because he asked less salary than any other available writer who knew anything about the U.S.S.R. The picture never came off but Lewton worked for Selznick nine years until RKO hired him as a producer in 1942.

At present, Lewton's weekly income is a modest $700, on which he supports a wife, two children, two Buicks, a dog, some chickens and such minor pleasures as woodworking and book buying. Lewton is a great reader and his house is filled with books. he can get through an average novel in 45 minutes and lifts many ideas from old plots, which he likes better than new ones. He assists in the writing of all his productions and will sum up the latest epic by saying, "It's Jane Eyre in a tropical setting." Lewton's bosses like his work. They are planning to give him, as soon as possible, an A picture, high-priced stars, brand-new sets and as much as a million dollars to play around with.

 

 

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"I Walked With A Zombie does for horror films what Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country does for the Western, and the Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen Singin' in the Rain for the musical. Tourneur prefers it above all the films he has made, and Ruth Lewton [Val Lewton's wife] considers it her favorite among her husband's productions."

From Joel Siegel's Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror, The Cinema One Series, The Viking Press, 1973.

 

"It is perhaps characteristic of Lewton's career that this film, one of the rare pieces of pure visual poetry ever to come out of Hollywood, was seen by hardly anybody but the bloodthirsty chiller fans who frequented theatres like the Rialto in New York."

From Joel Siegel's Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror, The Cinema One Series, The Viking Press, 1973.

 

 

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