I Walked with a Zombie was the second film Val Lewton produced once given complete control of RKO’s horror unit, and it was released only a year after Cat People, his most famed horror film. Given this, one might expect a retread, but I Walked with a Zombie is certainly not the film anyone then or now would be expecting. A tension seethes in the air and grasps all, but the film doesn’t demand in the way a work like Cat People is so tersely constructed to fight for our attention. Absent are the soul-deep colors of Cat People which lighted up the screen with black energy. And in place of the rampant diluted German Expressionism of American horror throughout the ’30s and ’40s, all caught up in harsh and angular nightmares, we have something that more closely approximates a hazy dream, a curious cross between an English period drama and a work of French impressionism that centers mournful, elegiac long takes and has room enough for lost secrets deviously begging to get out . It is, above all, wholly distant from anything resembling horror logic, and it is all the more fascinating for it.
First, a note: If not for plot synopses, I might write twice as many film reviews. A synopsis is that desperate time when I have to actually remember (!) what I just saw in narrative terms and commit violence upon my mental understanding of visual storytelling by reducing it to words on paper (well, internet paper) about the “plot” of a film. I have to pretend as though a paragraph explanation of the “event” of a film is an accurate description of what can make a film good or bad. It is no secret that I am a firm believer that just about any plot description can amount to a terrible film as much as a great one, and that it is the storytelling and not the “plot” that a story makes. So this causes me great dysfunction.
With that out of the way, a follow-up review!
Note: this review is something of a repurposed college-age article, so be kind to the writing…
Edited May 2015
Armed with a 114,000 dollar budget, a few low-quality cameras, a non-professional cast, and its hopes and dreams (not to mention its fair share of nightmares), George A. Romero’s 1968 game-changer Night of the Living Dead wouldn’t seem an “ambitious” project on the surface. Or even one destined for competence. And that’s exactly why it’s so thrillingly disconcerting. It has, and needs, only one ambition: to scare. It eschews any hope of middlebrow competence. And due to its lean, mean, guerrilla filmmaking and single-minded obsessiveness, it doesn’t just scare – it instills a creeping, gnawing fear and doesn’t let up. Night of the Living Dead is, famously, about as economical as a film can be, with no shots wasted and nothing left up to chance – it’s a study in efficiency, but it’s more than that. It’s a study in terror.
Both the initial reason why Spike Lee is a household name and one of the most controversial films of all time, Do the Right Thing is a masterwork of undying tension and resistance, and one of the greatest films of the past 30 years about the very feeling abyss of inner city life. It’s a truly startling and affecting portrait of the simmering everyday hell of lives not lived, an apocalypse that just happens to resemble a Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York during the late 1980s and early 1990s. And more than anything, it’s a film which genuinely reveals and honestly understands the state of race relations in the United States at its time like no other. Like most great films, Do the Right Thing exists in shades of grey, in the blind spots, and it pries them right open until we’re suffocated by them. It isn’t preachy, and it doesn’t give any answers, nor does it act like it could if it wanted to. It simply sets you down in the trenches of this neighborhood and lets the characters interact with each other, telling a story brutally honest and completely free of melodrama or manipulation, all the while being clinically aware of its own distance from the subject matter it wished to depict. Watching Do the Right Thing is frustrating and aggravating, a breathless gasp of an experience that really causes one to sit back, as much a plaintive sigh as a shriek into the blistering day. It understands a certain world, our world, and it makes that world something to “feel”. The day depicted in the film isn’t one that the residents of this neighborhood will ever forget, and Lee, with his biting insight and seemingly preternatural understanding of the formal mechanics of film, makes sure we won’t either. Continue reading
As a history major in college, I’ve taken numerous classes specializing on slavery in the US. I thought I could understand something of the history, the pain, the suffering, the anguish. I thought, to whatever extent it was possible for a white kid in the early 21st century to know, I knew. I was wrong. Sitting in the theater watching 12 Years a Slave, I felt the inescapable grasp of history around my neck, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Never before have I felt so clearly and achingly the tragedies upon which America is built. I felt helpless. My reaction was visceral; I gritted my teeth, I began to shake uncontrollably, all the more so when I realized how, even with 12 Years a Slave, I still couldn’t “know” fully. 12 Years a Slave is the best “Oscar” film in the better part of a decade. But it isn’t just a great film, it’s a necessary one, and it is all the more so because it is painfully aware of what it leaves out of the story and what we may never know. As a story, it plays out in insinuating gazes and implicating glances, all fissures into history that demand that we confront the film not as an objective portal into the past but as a subjective interpretation of it. Continue reading