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The Reeler Blog

I Walked with Val Lewton

By Miriam Bale

In 1942, RKO gave producer Val Lewton a $250-per-week salary to make horror movies for under $150,000 each. The studio would provide the titles (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Curse of the Cat People), but the content and tone was completely shaped by Lewton's own taste. As a "mild bibliophile" who "specialized in gentle, scholarly, well-wrought productions" (as critic Manny Farber characterized him in The Nation in 1951) he used those titles to create evocative mood pieces often based on novels or history, with terrors that were more psychological than supernatural.

(L-R) Frances Dee and Christine Gordon in I Walked With a Zombie, screening Thursday at Lincoln Center with the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows

I Walked with a Zombie, one of the films Lewton made in collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur (and screening Thursday at the Walter Reade Theater) is an inversion of some of the themes of Jane Eyre. In the film, a nurse comes to the West Indian island of St. Sebastian to look after the mad wife of a sugar plantation owner. Unlike the novel, however, the frightening, dark unknown implicated by the voodoo of the islands is not a force locked away in a tower. Instead it seeps into every character in the film, coloring a mood of disconnection and melancholy throughout. This mysterious energy is also partially explained with a historical foundation: "That's where our people come from," says the rich, white husband. "From the misery and pain of slavery."

The zombie of the title is the madwoman wife, played by Christine Gordon as if she were a fashion model, with a runway slouch and a consistent blank stare into the middle distance. She embodies the horror of disengagement. But the other zombie invoked in the title, left masterfully yet almost imperceptivity vague, is the island's namesake St. Sebastian. He's the figurehead who gates the garden where the story is set and was once the head of the slave ship that "brought the long-ago fathers and long-ago mothers of us all, chained to the bottom of the boat."

In a recent interview Farber said, "I wish to God I could write the Val Lewton article again so I can write about I Walked with a Zombie." Critic and filmmaker Kent Jones, who selected the film to play in a double bill with his new documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, called Zombie Lewton's masterpiece. Why? "Well, have you seen it?" he asked me in an interview this week. "It goes deepest.” He noted the strange, poetic pull that the film has over viewers, adding, "Following the narrative is difficult because it’s so bewitching."

As a visiting character describes the main setting of Zombie -- "It seemed strangely dreamlike. The garden seemed to have a life of its own." -- she could also be describing the hypnotic flow of the film itself. Tourneur and Lewton achieve this in part with the carefully layered soundtrack; in one scene, at least four types of wind sounds compete for aural dominance, all familiar and eerie, showing what’s seen on the screen and everything that’s just outside of its edges. Jones told me the extensive sound work in Lewton’s films inspired him while building the soundtrack for his own film, one element at a time. Another inspiration for Jones's own film, he said, was the way Lewton’s films move as if directed by their own internal rhythm, never stopping too long to explain.

Seduced and Abandoned is a regular feature about repertory cinema highlights in New York. Miriam Bale programs the monthly series The Movie Night Disco at Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene.

Posted at December 12, 2007 2:54 PM

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