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Nancy Kelly

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.

Jezebel TristerAs 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.

cinematography

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.

hallucinationsWe 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.

IMDb Link

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12 Comments

  1. Mark: Your review on this film is intriguing. I have found the witch hunts of New England, as well as 14th through 18th century Europe, to be extremely interesting. First hand accounts of the trials and executions are far more bone chilling than most movies can portray. Some of my favorite films deal with the subject of witches. “Horror Hotel,” “Burn Witch Burn,” and “Black Sunday” quickly come to mind.

    It’s not unusual for film makers to lead the viewer to believe that supernatural forces are responsible for certain occurrences and then “cop out” at the end to reveal a rational explanation. My all-time favorite haunted house movie, “House on Haunted Hill” staring Vincent Price, resorts to confessing that flesh and blood persons, rather than real specters, created all the strange happenings. Although Elisha Cook Jr. does leave that one bit of doubt as he breaks the “fourth wall” and speaks directly to the audience.

    “The Woman Who Came Back” sounds like an interesting film and is one video I hope to add to my own library very soon.

  2. Paul: Some great points, as usual.

    This movie, by the way, is certainly not on the same caliber as the three you mention in your opening paragraph. I would like to get your take on it, though, so let me know when you add it to your library.

    What’s most frustrating about “The Woman Who Came Back” is that it starts off with such “integrity.” When the film falls flat at its conclusion, I felt like I had been taken in by a con artist. They literally try to explain it all away in the last few minutes of the movie, but their explanations only leave a lot more questions. I don’t get the sense this was done intentionally. That is, I don’t think ambiguity was what they were looking for, and the finale comes off as rather awkward and abrupt.

    The difference between this movie and “House on Haunted Hill” (also a favorite of mine) is that with a William Castle production we expect a healthy dose of schlock. It doesn’t really get in the way of enjoying the film. When “The Woman Who Came Back” begins, we don’t get that sense of schlocky entertainment. We feel we are being served something with substance. So when we get the “happily ever after” ending, we feel cheated. Or at least I do.

    Still, the movie has enough merit that I wouldn’t discourage anyone from watching it. I think, with a little tweaking, it could have been a minor classic, if there is such a thing.

  3. Great pick! Nancy Kelly was one of a kind and although she’s sort of over the top I think she’s a blast to watch in anything.

  4. Lancifer: Nancy Kelly is a blast to watch. She’s not as “over the top” in this film as “The Bad Seed,” but there is certainly some over the topping going on!

  5. Mark: One of my wife’s favorite suspense films is “The Bad Seed.” When I told her about this film and mentioned that it starred Nancy Kelly, my wife was as anxious to see it as I was. As luck would have it, I had received a gift card for an online store on Valentine’s Day and was able to order “The Woman Who Came Back.” The DVD arrived in the mail today and, at my wife’s request, we watched it right away.

    As you point out, Nancy Kelly isn’t as over the top in this movie as in The Bad Seed,” but still pushes the line. In her defense, she was a stage actress and probably tended to overact a bit more than someone who only performed on the “silver screen.” From what I understand, stage actors were trained to exaggerate their motions and voices, so that the people in the back rows can see and hear their performance on the stage. While this isn’t necessary in a motion picture, it is probably a hard habit to break. This type of acting is more noticeable in the films of the early 30s, where most actors were trained for the stage.

    Over all, we found “The Woman Who Came Back” to be an interesting film. There were a few moments where it brought out an unintended chuckle or two, but the story kept our interest. Although there seem to be several coincidences, (i.e. the bus accident occurs at the exact site of the witch’s burning and the date just happens to be the 300th anniversary of the burning) they aren’t beyond believability. The mystery of how the book got in the fireplace was probably the act of the old woman’s dog, since the little girl’s doll, which was mauled by the dog, was found the same room. The dog was also suspect of the mutilation of the bus driver’s throat, making it a hazard to the community. However the old woman recognizing Lorna on the bus and her possesion of a colonal English pound remains a mystery. Also, I found it odd that Matt didn’t act surprised when Lorna opened the flower box only to find the flowers black and withered. (If that had happened to me, I would have been on the phone to the florist in a second.) The story is an interesting study of life in a small town, where rumors run rampant, especially with a community that has a history engulfed with superstition. It appeared to be a story as much about the powers of superstition as the powers of the supernatural and, as it turned out, superstition proved to be the winner in the end.

    Even with the storybook ending, my wife and I both agreed that this was a very entertaining 68 minutes.

  6. Paul:

    That is so cool! I’m glad that I was able to review a movie that actually interested someone enough to go out and buy it. And that your wife liked it too is just icing on the cake!

    You are exactly right about stage actors having a hard time adjusting their actions so they translate well onto film. When I describe a film as “stagy,” that’s exactly what I’m referring to.

    As for your other observations: I, too, considered the dog as a possibility when the book ended up in the fireplace. But then I thought, that’s a pretty odd thing for a dog to do, especially without singeing its face. I also thought it preposterous that a dog would swim underwater, find its way into a submerged bus, tear out the bus driver’s throat, and then drag the old woman to shore. But I suppose it could be considered a possibility.

    Speaking of the dog, one thing that struck me as funny was that it kept showing up in Lorna’s house! I know it’s hard to keep insects out, and even rodents sometimes, but you would think it would be fairly easy to keep a full grown dog from entering your house whenever it wanted.

    But the important thing is that you and your wife got a full 68 minutes of entertainment from a film you may have otherwise passed up. That alone makes my work on this page worthwhile.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Paul:

    That is so cool! I’m glad that I was able to review a movie that actually interested someone enough to go out and buy it. And that your wife liked it too is just icing on the cake!

    You are exactly right about stage actors having a hard time adjusting their actions so they translate well onto film. When I describe a film as “stagy,” that’s exactly what I’m referring to.

    As for your other observations: I, too, considered the dog as a possibility when the book ended up in the fireplace. But then I thought, that’s a pretty odd thing for a dog to do, especially without singeing its face. I also thought it preposterous that a dog would swim underwater, find its way into a submerged bus, tear out the bus driver’s throat, and then drag the old woman to shore. But I suppose it could be considered a possibility.

    Speaking of the dog, one thing that struck me as funny was that it kept showing up in Lorna’s house! I know it’s hard to keep insects out, and even rodents sometimes, but you would think it would be fairly easy to keep a full grown dog from entering your house whenever it wanted.

    But the important thing is that you and your wife got a full 68 minutes of entertainment from a film you may have otherwise passed up. That alone makes my work on this page worthwhile.

    Thanks for sharing!

  8. Okay, Mark, you caught me. I must admit the dog theory was a bit far fetched. On the other hand Rev. Stevens seemed overly anxious to find anything, no matter how small, that would prove Lorna was not a witch. He obviously over looked many strange and unexplained occurrences. Maybe the old woman was the reincarnation of the witch and the dog was her “familiar.” The dog seemed oddly attached to Lorna, but had never actually come in contact with her before the accident. (My wife was rather upset when the woman willingly abandoned the dog at the roadside, after the driver told her no dogs were allowed on the bus.) Also, the dog seemed to know what it was doing all through the movie. (It also looked a lot like Rin Tin Tin, and every “baby boomer” knows how smart he was.) Maybe Jezebel Trister had really been a witch and the curse really existed. Maybe it only ended when the document was discovered that proved she had not actually confessed to being a witch. Maybe there was more to John H. Kafka’s story than Dennis Cooper and Lee Willis wanted to reveal in their screenplay. Okay, I’ll admit there are a lot of “maybes” here, but it’s fun to speculate. I must keep telling myself, “It’s only a movie.”

    Thanks again, Mark, for bringing this film to our attention

  9. woa, this is really cool. I gotta check this film out.

  10. Paul: I constantly have to rein myself in when I’m reviewing these films. B pictures, by definition, were never meant to be works of art. Still, they are fun to pick apart logically and I find great enjoyment in it (as I know you do, too).

    Sir Jorge: Ah, another horror film reviewer! I’ll add you to my blogroll pronto. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. If this film had been made just five or so years later, I thought when I recently watched it, it would have been seen as a commentary on the McCarthy witch hunts, which were then just getting started. As it is, the film almost comes off like a vague predictor of America’s future. BTW, I also couldn’t help recalling that old “Twilight Zone” ep, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” while watching this one. Most excellent call, Mark!


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