From the DVD case: Ever since the bus accident, nothing has been the same for Lorna Webster. She returns to the New England hometown where her family has lived for centuries. But no happy reunion awaits. She is convinced that she has become a witch, the target of a 300-year-old curse, and strange happenings soon persuade the townsfolk that she’s right. As desperately as she tries, she cannot shake the evil that seems to follow her everywhere. Caught up in a wave of hysteria, the entire town is driven to extremes. (1945, b&w)
Mark says: Any serious horror fan would be hard-pressed not to compare The Woman Who Came Back to the Val Lewton productions that were popular at the time. (See my review of Cat People for a quick background in Lewtonian plot/film devices.) Though The Woman Who Came Back follows the Lewtonian model closely, it demonstrates how delicate the scales of psychological terror and supernatural horror can be. If the scales are tipped too much on either side, the film can disintegrate before your eyes. Unfortunately, this is the problem which plagues the film at hand.
Nancy Kelly (The Bad Seed) plays Lorna Webster, a woman who left the New England town of Eben Rock under suspicious circumstances (apparently leaving her fiancé standing at the alter). The story begins a few years later and Lorna is returning to Eben Rock via bus trip. In a brief narrative we are told that one of Lorna’s ancestors, Elijah Webster, was a judge who 300 years earlier burned innocent women at the stake for witchcraft. One such woman was Jezebel Trister. Jezebel was burned with her “familiar,” a dog, and pledged to return one day to avenge her death.
As Lorna’s bus approaches Eben Rock, it picks up a strange traveler and her dog. The woman is suspiciously witch-like in appearance and seems to know all about Lorna and her family history. When the woman introduces herself as Jezebel Trister and raises her veil, Lorna screams and the bus plunges off a bridge right into Shadow Lake. Lorna is the only survivor and no trace of the mysterious woman is found, except for a black veil which is returned to Lorna as her own.
The townsfolk are immediately suspicious of Lorna’s sudden return, especially in conjunction with the bus accident. We are given hints that Lorna has always been regarded as peculiar, a woman who keeps to herself, and that perhaps other accidents in the past have been attributed to her. The only people who seem genuinely glad to see Lorna again are her fiancé, Dr. Matt Adams (John Loder, The Mysterious Doctor) and Rev. Jim Stevens (Otto Kruger, Dracula’s Daughter). Lorna and Matt immediately resume their relationship, but Lorna has suspicions that the alleged witch, Jezebel Trister, has somehow possessed her. The townsfolk are only too eager to believe the same.
At this point we are completely drawn into the story. We have an enigmatic lead character, an ancient family curse, a mysterious bus wreck, a missing old hag, a long lost lover, suspicious townsfolk, a sympathetic minister, and more than a hint of the supernatural thrown into the mix. There’s also the old woman’s dog which seems to be strangely drawn to Lorna. The pace is quick and the entire story unfolds in approximately 68 minutes.
The cinematography is interesting enough to get its own paragraph. I’m especially fond of the shot of children dancing in Halloween costumes from behind the fireplace. The scenes filmed in the church basement are also wonderfully atmospheric. Look for the fade ins and fade outs, too; they are quite telling. For example, the camera pans the sky after Lorna’s rescue and it is all sunshine and brightness. However, the sky quickly turns dark and the clouds roll in. While the clouds are coming in the scene fades to Lorna sitting in her bed, her own thoughts clouded with doubt.
Where the film goes awry is in its overemphasis on the supernatural and then its attempt to pass it off as a psychological phenomenon. What Val Lewton was able to achieve with films such as Cat People, was a well-balanced ambiguity. Even by the film’s end we were not sure if Simone Simon’s character was really a Cat Person or if she suffered a type of mental malady. The evidence is inconclusive, and though I personally believe it leans just a bit to the supernatural side, that may say more about me than the film.
The Woman Who Came Back makes the mistake of overselling the supernatural aspect of the story and then tries to pull a gypsy switch at the end and convince us it was all hysteria. If Lorna was suffering from hysteria it was of the most serious kind. After all, she didn’t just have doubts, but suffered full-blown hallucinations. At first, she only sees the witch’s face in the mirror, but by the film’s conclusion she is not only seeing things that are not there, but hearing accusing voices as well. This is certainly not a condition that would be cured by a simple document proving that Jezebel Trister was forced to sign a confession against her will.
We are lead to believe that everything is completely squared away by the movie’s end. Matt and Lorna are to live happily ever after, the little girl recovers, and the suspicions of the townsfolk are quieted. Even the appearance of “Jezebel Trister” is explained away in a nice, neat package. This happy ending is far too convenient (and sudden), and a lot of things are left unanswered. For instance, when watching the movie, ask yourself these questions: How did “Jezebel Trister” know to stop that particular bus, and how was she able to identify Lorna Webster so readily? Also, where did she get the ancient money she paid the bus driver with? Why was the bus driver’s throat “torn to shreds?” Why did the flowers Matt gave to Lorna wither so suddenly? How did Lorna’s book get into the fire?
The Woman Who Came Back is sometimes praised for its commentary on hysteria. It supposedly demonstrates how God-fearing people, with only circumstantial evidence, are turned into literal witch-hunters. However, I am unimpressed with this aspect of the film. This movie is so steeped in the supernatural that it really can’t be taken seriously as a commentary on hysteria. If you want to watch a good piece on the topic, watch the Twilight Zone episode entitled, The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.
Though its finale is disappointing, The Woman Who Came Back is, for the most part, well-crafted. Look for Almira Sessions (Willard (1971), The Boston Strangler) as Bessie, the gossipy maid, Harry Tyler (Them!) as Noah, and J. Farrell MacDonald (The Living Ghost, The Ape Man) as the Sheriff. Elspeth Dudgeon (who was the Gypsy’s mother in Bride of Frankenstein) is delightfully witchy as the Old Woman on the Bus.
Directed by Walter Colmes.
Scene to watch for: Is that the world’s worst bus driver or what?
Line to listen for: “I ain’t saying I believe in these things, but people are beginning to talk.”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! out of 5.