Saturday, October 14, 2017

Much like the question on whether or not Irena was an actual panther when intimate or jealous in Cat People (1942), voodoo on the Caribbean Island of Saint Sebastian is could or could not be responsible for the cataleptic, mindless condition of a sugar plantation owner’s wife in I Walked with a Zombie (1943) as the descendents of African slaves brought to the island practice it in a particular location called “homefort”. A nurse arrives from Canada, finding herself in the middle of a half-sibling unrest, stemming from the behavior of the patient under her care, prior to the tropical fever that resulted in the “zombie state”. That whole story of the woman who pit brothers against each other and the mother doctor supposedly overcome by a voodoo god that possessed her, conjuring the fever that would strike and “kill” the mischievous wife could just be an influence by those on the island who practice this religion…or it could be perhaps real. Tom Conway was the psychiatrist in Cat People and is the sugar plantation owner in I Walked with a Zombie, plagued with unhappiness for the past treatment of the black people on his island, what the statue of Saint Sebastian with the arrow impaling his chest represents of the island’s history, the current state of his wife, hostile relations with his half-brother, and sudden developing love for the nurse, played by Frances Dee with great empathy and affection for all the people on the island. Christine Gordon’s haunting beauty and blank, emotionless face, guided by whoever holds her arm, walking about in a wind-captured gown unaware of anything that happens, is quite unforgettable. The fields that lead to the homefort and Darby Jones’ Carrfour serving as a type of guardian and tool of the voodoo are equally as compelling and memorable. The dialogue is rich in detail and mature, thought-provoking when looking at the state of affairs on the island, approaching the voodoo with far more respect that what normally is conveyed on film during that era in Hollywood. The calypso song itself, sung to Dee by a local filling in the gaps of Holland history involving the family’s love triangle is also a brilliant use of exposition. Once again, Tourneur and Lewton illustrate with their B&W artistry, opening up the island as this gloomy backdrop that is nonetheless ethereal, a place of lush appeal tainted by slavery and an unkind history to its inhabitants. So as Conway warns Dee of the death and decay that surrounds them, masquerading as idyllic and serene, there’s truth to what he says…but with humane Dee bringing to the island pleasantness, gentleness, and temperance, there’s potential in subverting a lot of the bleak trappings that currently inhabit the island still. That aura of lingering disapproval and generational angst presents itself as Dee tries to navigate through it all. And in the end, as Wesley (James Ellison) pulls the arrow from Saint Sebastian and pierces the woman he loved, taking her into the waves together as the voodoo ceremony continues offers us that answer, much like Irena’s being the panther, the voodoo ultimately rids the island of the taint that continued to reside.






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