Saturday, October 17, 2020

Departmental Politics

Weird Woman (1944)

In 1943, Universal Pictures teamed up with the then-popular Inner Sanctum radio show to brand a series of modest low-budget thrillers. There were six of these films in all, all of them starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney was Universal's bell-cow horror star in the 1940s--or, at least, he's who Universal wanted to be their bell-cow star after showing Lugosi and Karloff the door. Chaney had made his horror debut in The Wolf Man in 1941, and in short order had played the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein and Dracula in Son of Dracula and Prince Kharis, the Mummy, in The Mummy's Tomb, in addition to his more lycanthropic duties in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, et al. Prior to his career in horror movies, he had been a bit player in Westerns, and had played perhaps the role of his career as Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Chaney was not a natural fit for horror movies, and after the horror boom had ebbed in the late 1940s, capped off by Abbott and Costello, Chaney went back to Westerns both on the big screen and the small. Even so, horror would follow him for the rest of his career. That's what comes of being the son of Lon Chaney.

The Inner Sanctum mysteries are clearly influenced by the Val Lewton films at RKO. Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie had been a gigantic hits on minuscule budgets, and Universal must have reasoned that they could do that, too. They were the home of horror movies, after all. It was their bread and butter. In Weird Woman (1944, directed by Reginald de Borg), the second of the Inner Sanctum mysteries and today's topic, even borrowed one of Lewton's stock player in Elizabeth Russell, who memorably played the woman who approached Irina in the cafe and asked "Moya sestra?" in Cat People. Weird Woman takes its source material from Fritz Leiber's novel, Conjure Wife, a story that is tailor made for the epistemological ambiguity and mounting terror in which Lewton and his directors specialized. Without Lewton's guiding hand, the results are less than satisfactory.

The story finds college professor Norman Reed married to a woman he met in the south seas islands. Paula Reed was raised among the natives there and has brought with her the superstitions of her upbringing. Norman will have none of that. This is the Twentieth Century, after all, and reason must hold sway. When he discovers that Paula has been practicing occultism as a means of boosting his career, he forces her to burn all of her charms and totems. Then things start to go wrong for him, many of them orchestrated by his departmental rival, Ilona. When he's accused of an improper relationship with a coed in his class, he finds himself in the cross-hairs of the girl's beau, who attempts to kill him. His colleague, Evelyn, accuses Norman of driving her husband to suicide. Norman starts to feel his grip on reality slipping until he discovers the architect of his misery. He forms a plan to turn fear and superstition against her...

Weird Woman isn't helped by its lead. Chaney plods through this. He never really seems panicked enough by what's going on around him to impart the film with any real suspense. He's upstaged by the supporting players. Evelyn Ankers, Chaney's Wolf Man co-star, is the villain of the piece here, and she is clearly enjoying herself even though she's probably miscast (I wish they'd traded her with Elizabeth Russell, who is all together more threatening in the third act than Ankers ever is). Anne Gwynn's Paula isn't nearly exotic enough and is enough like a juvenile character to make her relationship and marriage to Norman borderline creepy. But maybe that's just me.

Weird Woman (1944)

There are only two moments when the reality of the world is in question in Weird Woman. They come at the end: First when Ilona's face is superimposed on the voodoo doll that Paula has made of her, and then when the prophesy formulated to trap the film's murderer comes true exactly as predicted. In these moments--and in these moments only--does the film manage to send a tiny shiver up the spine, but it's a feeling so attenuated and so weak, that it almost doesn't register. This is a film that doesn't trust the fantastical elements of its source material. It plods through a world of reason when it should tear the curtain of reality back and let unreason hold sway. Part of this is how it deploys its resources. This is a film that completely misunderstands its role models. It has no poetry of darkness. It's entirely too well lit: It hasn't figured out the great gift of the noir style, which in addition to visual poetry also covers a lot of low budget shortcomings. In truth, it feels a bit like an early television production, which is understandable given that early tv and 40s low budget films shared a common pool of talent. This is especially true of the south seas island sequence which compares unfavorably to the evocation of the tropics in Lewton and Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie. The sequence here looks like a set. It never converts its set of reality into a cinematic otherwhere. Such a feat of cinematic legerdemain seems entirely beyond the abilities of the filmmakers. More: Chaney's flat voice-over narration, in which Norman rationalizes the world around him, is too on the nose. It leads the audience to the film's major points rather than letting them discover them on their own. It's a film that doesn't understand how to conceal things. Everything is right there in the foreground, and most of the film looks cheap even in prosaic settings. Because of this, there is no real mystery to be plumbed. There is no lingering shudder to follow the audience away from it. There is no poetry. It's a film that can't help but be forgotten. Its only real claim on cinematic posterity is that it's the first film version of Conjure Wife. The second version, Burn, Witch, Burn, is everything that Weird Woman is not.

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