I Walked with a Zombie ★★★★½

Along with Sam Wood's version of Our Town, possibly the most bizarre, soulfully pained mainstream picture of the studio era I have seen. This Val Lewton-RKO horror has a rather vague spirital-sensual plotline that never states itself explicitly, and never presents anything conventional or particulalry melodramatic in its characterizations. It follows a nurse from Canada who is sent to look after a plantation owner's debilitated wife in the West Indies, on an island shadowed by the slavery and violence in its recent past; the two worlds collide in dreamlike, unsettling ways without ever clearly relying on any supernatural happenstance. Instead the film -- beautifully directed, treating horror concepts as dreadful reality in the same way as the team's Cat People -- is sophisticated, mysterious, probing, sumptuous and insatiably erotic... all while thoroughly subsuming itself to an atmosphere of indescribable fear. And it's so quick, resisting any impulse to linger, that you almost don't have a chance to realize you've just seen a story that dared to hide its real, troubling romance behind a deceptively straightforward (but equally disturbing) one. A march to the sea becomes the mirror of Mrs. Danvers burning with her lover's memory in Rebecca; there's so much to explore here, and the film gives you so little time to consider it, so that you're highly unlikely to shed the experience anytime soon.

Pretty startling that this predates one of my all-time favorite films, Black Narcissus, given how much they share, and how similarly subtle they are, in their thematic approach to religion, medicine and colonialism.