Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Four

I Walked With A Zombie - part two

Betsy’s first glimpse of her patient, Mrs Holland, the wife of Paul, comes when she sees her drifting through the night garden, white gown wafting behind her in the breeze in a spectral fashion. The tower to which she glides is a classic gothic folly, which looks like it has been uprooted from the gardens of some early 19th century aristocrat’s house. It’s another artefact of the Old World which serves to root this home in an ineradicable past. As Betsy returns to her bed, there is a punctuating shot of the Ti Misery/Saint Sebastian statue. As with the drums, this will serve as a constant reminder of the realities which underpin the romance which is overwritten on the Holland home. They are the foundations which will give the form of tragedy to any attempt at creating something new.

In the first of the film’s atmospheric night walks, in which people move in a balletic way as if blown on otherwordly nocturnal breezes, Betsy follows the sound of sobbing into the dark tower. Here she comes face to face with the ghostly figure of Mrs Holland, who follows her up into the inky blackness of the stairwell. Again, the classic gothic elements are incongruously superimposed on the tropical setting, creating an effective counterpoint of cultural backdrops; Haunted ruins of ancient stone and the drums of voodoo ritual. In this environment, in which both have collided, they each inform each other. The ghost of the tower is a product of voodoo and voodoo itself is a reconfiguration of African beliefs with Catholic elements. The film itself is a stew of differing generic ingredients too, of course. The sense of an inverted world is underlined by Betsy’s discovery of the source of the sobbing. It is the maid Alma, who is crying for the birth of her sister’s child. She makes it plain what the statue of Saint Sebastian means for her and the island’s inhabitants: ‘our people came from the misery and pain of slavery. For generations they found life a burden. That’s why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial.’

Betsy is awoken by Alma the following morning, and the following exchange shows the film at its most Rebecca-like. Alma brings breakfast just as she used to for Jessica (Mrs Holland) and her tone suggests that a closeness existed between the two. Alma is no Mrs Danvers, though, and is a friendly and warm presence. Her cheerful reference to Mrs Holland as ‘a great big doll’ shows an acceptance of tragedy as an everyday reality, to be accommodated into the daily routine.

Betsy meets Paul in her nurses uniform and stands up to him as expresses his doubts in a dismissive manner. She points out to him that if she were the terrified creature he is implying she is, she wouldn’t have gone alone into the dark tower. He warns her against the contagion of superstition, adding that ‘some people might let it get the better of them – I don’t think you will’. Clearly he has been won over.

We are introduced to Dr Maxwell, a genial and self-effacing character, who was a friend of Jessica’s. It is he who first utters the ‘z’ word, when he says ‘she makes a beautiful zombie’. His explanation gives us the rational diagnosis of her condition, a physician’s perspective which prefers to locate physical causes rather than metaphysical ailments. As Irena pointed out in Cat People, doctors don’t know how to treat illnesses of the soul. So Jessica has succumbed to a fever which burned out parts of her spinal cord. Our first glimpse into Jessica’s room also gives us a hint as to her personality. A rather opulent bed and neat dressing table, along with a harp. This latter could be merely ornamental or indicative of a thwarted artistic temperament. It is a traditionally female instrument synonymous with airy romanticism and music summoning up dreamily bucolic worlds of afternoon sun or moonlit waters. On the wall is a copy of Arnold Boecklin’s Isle of the Dead, perhaps indicating the morbid flipside of the Romantic personality, the preoccupation with mortality. It is another indication of the influence of the visual arts on Lewton’s imagination (we have already seen a Goya picture on Irena’s wall in Cat People) and will indeed lend its title and suggest the set design for his later film ‘Isle of the Dead’.

Having met her patient, Betsy has another encounter with Paul, who will evasively admit of his wife that ‘many people found her beautiful’. He asks Betsy whether she considers herself charming, and when she modestly replies that ‘I’ve never given it much thought’, he replies ‘don’t’ with cynical curtness. This is his elliptical way of suggesting that he feels his wife was full of narcissistic self-regard. But as ever in this repressed, claustrophobic family environment, nothing is ever directly stated.

Betsy takes time off in the town square, where she meets Wes. It becomes evident from his consumption of rum, which she is able to measure with her nurse’s eye for dosages, that he has a drink problem. Another unspoken family issue which she immediately addresses. It is here that we first hear of the tale behind the bitter sibling rivalry of the Holland brothers, as conveyed through the calypso sung by Sir Lancelot, an actor who will also appear in The Ghost Ship and The Curse of the Cat People (Lewton had something of a repertory company). His beautiful lilting and light-toned voice tells the story of Wes, Paul and Jessica. When he is informed that one of the subjects of his song is present, he stops and is terribly apologetic, but as Wes slumps into an alcoholic stupour and the evening shadows draw in, he resumes the tail in a faintly aggressive manner, apparently for Betsy’s benefit. The way it is evidently told by the islanders (through Alma?) Wes was seduced by Jessica ‘from up in her tower’, they wanted to leave the island together but Paul prevented them, and then the fever came which ‘burned her mind’. The last verses bring the story up to date with Betsy’s arrival; thus she is drawn into the story, and into the world of island gossip. The insistence of the calypso singer on finishing his song also indicates once more the way in which stories and histories, personal and collective, cannot be suppressed or erased from memory. It is also another subjective point of view. Our perspective on Jessica is warped by the fact that she is now absent from her own narrative. As with Welles’ Citizen Kane, we can only see her through other’s eyes, and the views we get are infused with the complex (multiplex?) cross-currents of personal and historical experience.

It is at this point that Mrs Rand, Paul and Wes’s mother, intervenes and saves Betsy from this song attack. She is an immediately sympathetic character, but we are beginning to sense that this is a world in which appearances and alliances are carefully cultivated. She asks Betsy to ‘use her influence’ over Paul to get the whisky decanter removed from the table, which suggests both that she has been keeping a close if remote eye on developments at the Fort, and that she can see beyond her elder son’s surface cynicism.

Paul’s immediate reaction to this request is to reply that ‘it’s always stood there’, a reflexive response which once more reveals the dead weight of tradition which hangs heavily over the house. Betsy once more refuses to acquiesce with the family in maintaining a stoic silence about any problems and directly addresses Wesley’s incipient alcoholism. Paul refuses to move the decanter, but nonetheless, come the next mealtime it is not there. Again, actions have to be taken by indirect routes in an a surreptitious fashion.

At the evening meal for which the whisky has been removed, tensions threaten to erupt. This emotionally charged scene is underpinned by the sound of the drums. These act once more as the underlying ground of reality which threatens to break through the effortfully maintained surface of repression and wilful blindness. The hot dry wind also acts as an externalised metaphor for the passions which Betsy’s presence is catalysing into action in the two brothers. As Sir Lancelot’s calypso suggested, the story which they had previously played out is a recurrent one, like a cyclical myth, and she is now enmeshed in it. The subject of voodoo is brought up for the first time here. Again, it is demystified and portrayed as a part of everyday life, as functional and almost banal. Betsy observes that ‘I thought voodoo was something everyone was frightened of’, to which Paul dismissively (and regretfully?) replies ‘I’m afraid it’s not very frightening’; Fear arising from cultural ignorance as much as from superstition.

Later that evening, Betsy watches Paul playing piano through the slats of the door. There seems to be little real privacy here, perhaps another reason behind the guarded nature of all the exchanges in the house. As Betsy enters the room, the piano music gains strings and becomes lushly romantic. Again, Betsy’s perspective seems to affect the atmosphere of the scene, and infuse it with her own fantasies. This time, Paul begins to comply, however. He reveals some of his inner torment, his fears that he drove his wife mad with his efforts to control her. In reply to Betsy’s attempts to comfort him, he darkly hints at his wife’s nature (or his perception of it) by saying ‘you never knew Jessica as she was’. The mood of intimacy is broken by the re-introduction of the drums, which occlude the romantic strings. The reality of the island replaces the hazy romanticism of Betsy’s projected fantasy, and Paul immediately snaps back into his former icy mode.

Betsy’s voiceover returns as she stands dramatically silhouetted on a wild shore at night. The hazy view of the rocks and sea, is seen as if through a romantic mist. It is distorted view through a fogged lens, and her determination to restore Jessica to Paul is based on the misconception which arises from this tendency to give romance priority over reality. This cure is first attempted scientifically, with Dr Maxwell’s kill or cure insulin shock treatment (it does neither) before Betsy hears from Alma of the doctors, or houngan, at the Houmfort, which is the voodoo central which is the island analogue of Fort Holland. Betsy’s ease as she joins with the islanders in admiring Alma’s sister’s baby is in contrast with the aloofness of the Holland brothers from all local life. Alma’s evident affection for Jessica displayed earlier indicates that she too may have stepped beyond the confines of the Holland compound and taken an interest in the lives of those amongst whom she lived. This failure to observe the required aristocratic hauteur may have been another element which added to the perception of her as being wild and uncontrolled.

Having gained Mrs Rand’s equivocal blessing (Betsy states that ‘I’m not easily frightened’ to which she replies ‘that may be the pity of it’) the film embarks on its central night walk scene. The night walk is an important feature of all Lewton’s horror films. They are as much sustained exercises in creating an atmosphere of the uncanny as of inspiring terror. Betsy leaves Fort Holland with Jessica, evading the attentions of the brothers, who are occupied in their own characteristic ways (Paul working busily at his table, Wes lounging and smoking). They meet Alma, who draws them a map in sugar which she spills onto the earth, a neat reminder of the economic staple which underpins all of their destinies and upon which their fates are drawn. She issues them with the voodoo patches which will act as their badges of entry and enable them to pass Maitre Carrefour, the guardian of the crossroads. These tokens look very flimsy things to pin your fate on. The trip to the hounfort is really the central scene of the film.

The otherwordly feel which Lewton and Tourneur conjure is created from a mixture of elements. There are a number of ominous tokenistic objects which they pass, which could be signposts or gateways; an animal skull on a stick, a hanging dog, a human skull surrounded by a circle of stones. The roads they travel are avenues cut through swaying walls of sugar cane. Their journey is accompanied by an eerie soundscape; the wind through the cane, the sound of a conch shell being blown, and a hanging ocarina acting as a stringless version of a wind harp (a music made by no human agency). The ominous and yet strangely beautiful atmosphere is intensified by the fact that Betsy unwittingly loses her voodoo patch on a protruding piece of cane.

When they come across Carrefour, we first see only his feet in the beam of Betsy’s torchlight. This is an old horror film staple, the use of a limited field of vision or partially glimpsed form (often a hand rather than feet) to create a sense of dread over what may be about to be revealed. And as the light plays upwards, we see that Carrefour is big, a statuesque giant, standing as still as a statue at his guard position. He is catatonic, unseeing. Indeed, his demeanour, despite his size, is far from frightening. It is calm, pacific, completely vacant. Betsy passes unmolested with Jessica, despite her loss of her token. And then, Carrefour becomes animated. But he turns and takes another path, as if called on for some other duty.

At the Hounfort, Betsy looks on fascinated at the rituals being enacted, the invocations of Papa Legba and the sword dancing. As the drums kick in and things really liven up, Jessica looks into the distance with her dreamily catatonic stare, a still counterpoint to the animation of the scene unfolding around her. Betsy takes her turn to consult the houngun through the hole in the wall of the central hut, which is located in the middle of a painted web; another symbol of entrapment which parallels the everpresent shadowed bars of Fort Holland. She is dragged inside and discovers that Mrs Rand is playing the role of the houngun. An essentially humane person, she has realised the uses to which religion and superstition can be put. She can dispense good medical advice under the guise of holy pronouncements. As she says, ‘it seemed so simple to let the gods speak to them’. Admitting the need for moral relativism as well as religious ecumenicalism in a complex and varied world, she concludes that ‘there’s no easy way to do good’. This is a pragmatic and yet not a dismissive view of religion, or of the people who follow its creeds. It sees it as a way of embodying knowledge in a mythos which imbues it with greater meaning and coherence; Giving objective and empirically tested knowledge form and context within the story of the world.

Jessica’s state, her non-participation in the spirit of the moment, causes a reaction amongst the voodoo celebrants outside. The voodoo priest sticks his sword in her arm and she doesn’t bleed, thus seemingly giving physical creedence to her zombie state. Lewton always blends the objective and rational world with the supernatural, giving hints that the latter is an actuality, not an illusion or imaginative projection. We have already seen in Cat People that Irena’s problems are not merely psychological; she really does turn into a leopard. Here, we seem to be presented with the incontrovertible truth that Jessica is a zombie.


Unknown said...

I love your coverage of these films.
I'm trying to find a source for the Papa Legba song- any idea where it came from?

Jez Winship said...

No, I'm not sure about that, I'm afraid. Maybe you could look into Maya Deren's Voodoo research. She produced a book, Divine Horsemen:The Living Gods of Haiti, with a documentary of the same name released posthumously, and there was an LP of her recordings released on Elektra as Voices of Haiti. All of this some time after Lewton's film was made, of course.