I Walked With a Zombie (1943)/
The Body Snatcher (1945)

1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital Monaural
Warner Home Video, $19.95

After a financially disastrous period that encompassed the releases of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, RKO Radio Pictures hired fresh production heads in an effort to stem the studio’s losses. Several changes were made at the legendary studio, and those in charge hatched a plan to inexpensively emulate the lucrative horror franchises that had been spawned at Universal. For more than a decade, Universal had enjoyed repeat box-office bonanzas by unleashing Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Werewolf of London and their many celluloid offspring, tapping into the public’s seemingly endless hunger for Gothic escapism.

Frustrated after spending eight years as producer David O. Selznick’s story editor, Val Lewton jumped at the chance to head RKO’s new horror unit — anything to get away from making what Lewton called “ponderous trash.” Armed with miniscule budgets, lurid titles, and a studio mandate to keep each movie to 75 minutes or less, Lewton set out to make his mark. Unlike the horror offerings from Universal, Lewton’s films were visually sophisticated and operated primarily on the power of suggestion and vivid atmospheres. His first effort, Cat People (1942), was a phenomenal success, paving the way for eight more movies that remain classics of the genre.

Warner Home Video recently released all of RKO’s Lewton-produced thrillers on DVD. Sold as individual titles, double features, and as a boxed set, these stellar thrillers are likely to garner a whole new generation of fans. Two of the most successful and influential are I Walked With a Zombie and The Body Snatcher, which make an excellent double-feature DVD for seasoned fans and newcomers.

Loosely based on Jane Eyre, I Walked With a Zombie delivers young Canadian nurse Betsy (Frances Dee) to the island of St. Sebastian, where she is to care for the mysteriously lethargic wife of a sugar-refinery operator, Paul (Tom Conway). Betsy vows to help cure the patient’s strange illness, and this requires her to suspend her disbelief and wander into the native voodoo cult that seems to permeate the island. In one of cinema’s most memorable suspense sequences, Betsy escorts her patient on a midnight walk, following the voodoo drums to the root of the black magic that haunts her.

To ensure a dense, threatening atmosphere, Lewton brought Jacques Tourneur onboard as director and hired RKO veteran J. Roy Hunt, ASC (Flying Down to Rio, Mighty Joe Young) to photograph the picture. As a result, I Walked With a Zombie is blessed with one of the most distinctive looks in the genre. Hunt made expert use of shadows and shafts of light to obscure and highlight key objects. His vivid work has been transferred in a sharp, fine presentation, although there seem to be minor instances of dirt and blemishes on the source material. The audio offers a clear monaural track, with heavy bass accentuating the eerie voodoo drums that pervade the soundscape.

Based on a ghoulish short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Body Snatcher tells of Dr. McFarlane (Henry Daniell) and his association with a peculiar “cabbie,” John Gray (Boris Karloff). It appears as though the corpses Gray supplies for the doctor’s research are fresh from the grave, and some seem to have been supplied just for the order! When McFarlane tries to shake the ghoulish Gray, he gets much more than he bargained for.

Lewton and director Robert Wise brought in RKO veteran cinematographer Robert De Grasse, ASC (Stage Door, Alice Adams), who had previously shot The Leopard Man for Lewton. De Grasse photographed the mysterious world of murder and grave robbing with an elaborate grayscale, crisp blacks and murky shadows, and the Gothic visual texture is generally well represented on this DVD. As with Zombie, there are minor occurrences of blemishes on the source material. The monaural audio track has been well reproduced.

The entertaining supplements that accompany this double-feature DVD include the original theatrical trailers for both pictures and three separate audio commentaries. Zombie’s buoyant chat track features British film historians Kim Newman and Steve Jones, who offer interesting facts and insights. Body Snatcher features a commentary track by Wise that previously appeared on a 1995 laserdisc release; this paints a detailed portrait of Lewton and his work at RKO. Rounding out the track is historian Steve Haberman, who talks about the film’s position in Lewton’s oeuvre.

This well-produced and affordable DVD makes an excellent addition to any collection. Lewton’s timeless efforts continue to offer some of the cinema’s most sinister imagery.

— Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2006 American Cinematographer.