The "glitter of putrescence" of the Caribbean colonial past is at once acknowledged, the Canadian nurseís (Frances Dee) visions of tropical enchantment are curtly dismissed by the death-scented plantation owner (Tom Conway), "quite the Byronic character." The gothic manor in Val Lewtonís West Indies transmutation of Jane Eyre is a military fort turned sugar mill, BrontŽís madwoman in the attic is a catatonic blonde beauty in flowing robes (Christine Gordon) stashed in a spiraling tower. The wife of Conwayís harrowed businessman and the mistress of his alcoholic half-brother (James Ellison), the "sleepwalker who can never be awakened" is the center of a buried family crisis, a stormy figure stilled by fever or perhaps by the matriarchís (Edith Barrett) prayers. Another form of painful past infuses the island at large, where memories of slavery take the shape of a wooden figurehead studded with arrows and the Calypso refrains of a local balladeer (Sir Lancelot) waver from ironic commentary to confrontational protest. "Ah woe, ah me! Shame and sorrow for the family." Between Halperinís White Zombie and Mizoguchiís Ugetsu lies Jacques Tourneurís masterpiece, a single scream amid whispers and chants and foliage rustled in the wind. The zombie here is not a ghoul but the mysterious zone between spiritual states, the lost somnambulist who does not bleed when pierced by the voodoo priestís saber, the towering guardian (Darby Jones) staring with blank eyes over a maze of sugarcane crops. Guilt and superstition, the penitence of sinners and the murmurs of gods, a wealth of tenebrous material woven most gracefully by Tourneur, who contemplates the native congregations with respectfully fascinated tracking shots and achieves a devastating effect with a cut from a pin pushed into a voodoo doll to an act of lethal sacrifice. The walking dead of Romero and Fulci, sure, but also the specters of Marguerite Durasí India Song and the lithographic prints of Belkis Ayůn, they're all already in these inescapable, unknowable shadows. Cinematography by J. Roy Hunt. With James Bell, Theresa Harris, Jeni Le Gon, and Jieno Moxzer. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce