Starring: Frances Dee, James Ellison, Tom Conway
Director: Jacques Tourneur
When a Canadian nurse is sent to the Carribean to work for a wealthy plantation owner, she finds that she is tasked with caring for the man’s beautiful wife, who exists in a creepy, sleepwalking state. As she slowly falls for her employer, his brother drinks himself into oblivion and threatens to reveal the dark family secret that’s keeping the beautiful mystery alive…
Producer Val Lewton had a great talent for creating fear from mood and psychological fears, creating a form of horror film that’s chilling in a more subtle way than straight out horror films. Though there is a zombie in this film, and his other films contained witches and shapeshifters, the focus in on people, relationships and tragedy. He was teamed up with director Jacques Tourneur several times, and the two work well together to create a horror film that’s more gothic romance than slasher flick.
The zombies in this film are interesting too. They arise from voodoo and rather than being flesh or brain eating, traits that they would acquire later on in stories, here they are like the stories from the Carribean where the concept originated. The terror lies not just in their potential for cold blooded violence, but in their blank inhumanity and undead state. For this reason, this film is a classic amongst some zombie aficionados.
Though Frances Dee as Betsy, the nurse, is a sympathetic and very likable character, the stand out performer for me was the man who plays Carrefour, Darby Jones. Appearing in many films from the 30’s to the late 50’s, in this film, it’s not just his height and large staring eyes, but something incredibly eerie about his presence that’s put to such good effect here. He plays a mysterious character, a Haitian who wants to stop the evil by laying the beautiful undead wife to rest.
Generally, in this film, the white characters seem more hysterical and emotional or just in the dark, while the Haitian’s know what’s going on and have more of an idea what to do about it. The way that Betsy behaves towards them and the more sympathetic approach of the film as a whole towards the black characters is a little unexpected in a film of this era.
See It If: Any film that teams up Val Lewton with Jacques Tourneur is worth a look, I think, and this one delivers chills with neat twists and a bit of romance too, without descending into the cheesiness of some other horrors.S