Betty is new to San Sebastian. She's just taken a job as live-in nurse at the Holland family plantation. The plantation owner, Paul Holland, has a sick wife who needs looking after, and Betty receives a bit of a shock upon her arrival. "I didn't know this was a mental case," she gasps.
Jessica is catatonic, but not quite bed-ridden. She has a penchant for sleepwalking. Maybe this wouldn't seem like such a big deal if this weren't Haiti, home of voodoo. And Betty soon discovers the Holland family has its fair share of secrets.
One evening, while in town, Betty (Frances Dee) hears a folk song being sung by a street musician. In fact, the singer damn near assaults her with it, in just one of many truly creepy scenes in the film. As the lyrics reveal, Jessica was preparing to flee the island with her lover, her own brother-in-law Wesley, when she was suddenly struck ill.
She never recovered from her fever. None of the Hollands really did. Paul is burdened with the guilt of having driven his wife into another man's arms. Wesley (James Ellison) has become an alcoholic, having had the woman he loves ripped from his arms in the cruelest way imaginable. And their mother, Mrs. Rand, all she wants is to keep the family from falling apart further.
But Betty, she's fallen for Paul, knowing full well he'd never be unfaithful to his wife. Not now. How could he? So Betty vows to cure Jessica. By doing so, maybe she can make Paul (Tom Conway) happy again.
When an experimental treatment fails, Betty comes up with another plan. She takes Jessica to the local houngan. If modern medicine can't cure her, maybe the island magic will. Things don't go so well there either. Not only does she remain uncured, the houngan is convinced Jessica is a zombie. It's a notion that doesn't sit well with the locals.
As Paul noted at the beginning of the film "There's no beauty only decay, everything dies here even the stars." The final outcome can only be tragedy, voodoo or no.
This film is amazing. The writing is sharp, intelligent. Every scene is beautifully filmed, stark shadows and all. And most importantly, it manages to be pretty damn frightening too. The scene of Betty and Jessica pushing through the sugar cane on the way to the houngan is just plain chilling. It's a far more effective movie than most anything you'll see today.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur • Unrated • 1943 • 69 minutes