*. This is a title that gets a lot of love from film aficionados because it’s one of the Val Lewton’s RKO horror features and is directed by the very capable Jacques Tourneur. But aside from that . . .
*. Lewton and Tourneur do their part. The idea was to do a sort of proto-mash-up of Jane Eyre with zombies. Which is an interesting idea (and well ahead of its time). And Tourneur comes through with some nice suspense sequences and atmosphere.
*. But there are fundamental problems, several of which you’ll notice right away in the opening credits.
*. In the first place, despite this being a short film (only 69 minutes), it’s rather sloppy. As the opening credits run we see a shot of Betsy (Frances Dee) and the zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones) walking along the beach. But as Kim Newman notes on the DVD commentary, this scene “has no place in the narrative at all.” We never get back to it and it remains difficult to place.
*. The credits are also a bit misleading when it comes to the screenplay being based on a story. In fact it was loosely inspired by a magazine article on zombies that Lewton then gave to the screenwriters, who he instructed to make a script using Jane Eyre as the narrative backbone.
*. A final noteworthy credit is the warning that “The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living, dead, or possessed, is purely coincidental.” Groan.
*. I wish it was a bit longer. Not that it isn’t well paced, but on a first viewing the kinky family dynamics weren’t entirely clear to me. Also there were gaps, like the aforementioned walking-on-the-beach intro that is never explained, or when a big deal is made of Betsy losing the patch of cloth that’s to protect her and then nothing comes of it. Was the cloth important or not?
*. The result feels more like a curiosity than a great movie.
*. Take the role of women. It’s often remarked that the blacks on the island are fairly portrayed, and not just presented as racial stereotypes. But what is more surprising to me is how it is the women in the movie who are all the dynamic characters. Betsy is the main character (the Jane Eyre figure) and we’re never sure how much she’s scheming her way into Paul’s bed. Mrs. Rand is a voodoo priestess who seems to have been behind Jessica’s transformation. The maid Alma is another figure who makes things happen, introducing Betsy to the world of voodoo. And finally Jessica is a force from beyond the grave, still managing to control the lives of those around her even in a catatonic state.
*. Who do we think the hero of this film is? Do we trust Betsy? I’m not sure I do. Paul is a bit of a wimp. Mrs. Rand is a killer. Wes is a cad for screwing around with his brother’s wife and then looking to talk Betsy into doing away with her (“You could do it. You’re a nurse. You have the drugs.”) And Jessica is a “wicked woman,” leading Wes to his destruction.
*. Jane Eyre was also the inspiration for Rebecca, which is actually a source I see more of here. The plot is archetypal Brontë material (the young woman supplanting the somehow incompatible first wife), but the extras are all out of Du Maurier.You can even hear that film in Betsy’s arrival at Fort Holland (“from the gate it seemed slightly dreamlike”) and Paul’s surprised declaration to her (“You think I loved Jessica and wanted her back?”). These are almost quotations. And in her washed-out somnolence, Christine Gordon’s Jessica is more a portrait of a lady than a figure of flesh and blood.
*. Frances Dee is interesting to look at. She has a pointed chin that makes her face look a bit triangular full-on, and like a crescent moon in profile. When you marry that oddness to a rigid, professional demeanour you don’t quite trust her. Is she an honest caregiver, or is she cunningly hunting down Paul? Reader, she marries him.
*. The photography is in love with shadows. Not in the noir (or Warner Bros.) style of blocks of expressive darkness that reveal and conceal, but as artful patterns. The most frequent pattern is that made by the slatted doors and blinds, which cast horizontal bars everywhere. But there are also intricate patterns of foliage and other devices. It’s a world where, in David Thomson’s words, “every frond and finger throws a shadow.”
*. So, no it’s not a great movie. It’s usually classified as a horror film but I think only because it has “zombie” in the title (and Lewton hated that title). It’s not scary or particularly suspenseful. And while the Caribbean Gothic angle is a good one, it isn’t developed enough to be compelling. In other words, it looks like what it is: a B-movie tossed off quickly and cheaply by a talented director without a lot of help. It’s definitely worth seeing, but I rate it a big step down from Cat People, not to mention a false start for the forging of a zombie mythology.