I was skeptical of the IMDB’s claim that the plot was based partly on Jane Eyre, but after Katy summarized the novel for me I can totally see it. Weird. It’s a Val Lewton super-production, with director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People), editor Mark Robson (The Seventh Victim), and writer Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man, Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother per Shadowplay).
Frances Dee (Little Women, Of Human Bondage) is Betsy, who travels to the exotic west indies to work as private nurse for an extremely dysfunctional household. The man of the castle is Paul Holland (Tom Conway who I recognize from The Seventh Victim, also in Cat People and some MST3K flicks), a rich sugar plantation guy. His wife Jessica has been in a sleepy trance ever since getting caught having an affair with Paul’s half brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison of a pile of 30’s westerns). And the boys’ mother (Edith Barrett of The Ghost Ship the same year) lives with them, dabbles in voodoo secretly on the side, may be responsible for Jessica’s zombie condition.
At first I thought hunky Rand would be the love interest, not the withdrawn husband full of dark secrets, but it’s the other way around – Rand is the wormy drunk little brother who eventually pays for his crimes, chased (slowly) by awesome lead zombie Carrefour into the ocean, holding recently-murdered Jessica in his arms. We know Betsy will be okay since she is narrating the movie from The Future. Lovely little bit when she first arrives, hears drums in the distance and one of the men says “the jungle drums… mysterious… eerie,” then demystifies it, telling her it’s the work drum at the sugar mill. Purposely deflates the spooky foreign atmosphere the movie is trying to set up, reassuring her that it’s not as spooky and foreign as all that. And then of course it is.
More movie mythology: the workers at the mill and house servants are ex-slaves, who “for generations found life a burden. That’s why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial,” says Paul. Ritualistic and zombie-raising or not, it’s good to see black actors with speaking roles in a 40’s film – mainly head maid/nurse Alma (Theresa Harris, tiny parts in The Big Clock, Out of the Past and Angel Face) and plot-device troubadour Sir Lancelot.
Sir Lancelot with Betsy and Wesley: