Friday, January 28, 2011

WEIRD WOMAN (1944)

Monroe College sociology professor Norman Reed (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is jinxed. A "mental giant" and a rising star, Reed has just returned from a jaunt somewhere in the tropical isles of the South Seas; he has brought back with him new research for a groundbreaking study on religion called Superstition vs. Science and Fact and a new wife, a lovely woman-child native priestess named Paula (Anne Gwynne). He seemed to be on the fast-track to becoming department chair, but that's when things spiraled out of control: his colleague Professor Millard Sawtelle (Ralph Morgan) shot himself to avoid a possible plagiarism scandal; Sawtelle's Lady Macbethian wife Evelyn (Elizabeth Russell) accuses Reed and his "witch" of engineering the scandal; and nasty rumors that Reed "has taken advantage of" his pretty undergraduate research assistant (Lois Collier, who may have been recognized by some SHOCK! viewers for her recurring appearances between 1951 and 1953 on Ziv's "Boston Blackie" TV show) dog him all over campus-- in fact, Reed is said to have beaten up his assistant's boyfriend when the latter tried to defend her honor. Then, while Paula continues to be the target of terrorizing harassment by Reed's bitter ex-lover Ilona (Evelyn Ankers), there is shooting on campus and the blame falls on Reed.


Ad for KUTV-Channel 2's "Shock Theater" with horror-host Roderick in Salt Lake [UT] Tribune, February 27, 1960. COUNTER-ESPIONAGE (1942) was one of the "Lone Wolf" mystery-thrillers

As I've said previously when I've written about the Inner Sanctum series in the SHOCK! collection, these were popular with audiences when they were first released and when theatrically re-released (WEIRD WOMAN made the rounds again starting in 1952). I've also seen a few of them turn up as special midnight spook shows, so Screen Gems' inclusion of these titles in SHOCK! was probably viewed as a selling point for the package.

San Antonio [TX] Light, June 6, 1957. What a Universal horror drive-in line-up! WEIRD WOMAN (the typo that pluralizes the title is actually more accurate considering what happens in the movie) is shown here on Monday night with NIGHT MONSTER.


The Daily Republic, Mitchell, SD, February 24, 1961

Many fans seem to like WEIRD WOMAN best; I prefer it because there is at least a not-easily-explained-away supernatural thread that runs through this picture that you don't find in the other five films of the series. But I also like it because of the almost campy level of neurotic hysteria that energizes everything here, particularly Paula, Ilona, and Evelyn (when all is said and done, who is the titular weird woman, anyway?).

Ordinarily, watching WEIRD WOMAN elicits a few harsh hoots of derisive laughter from me, but I made a very conscientious effort to watch it in good faith this time for the SHOCK! Viewing Project. Lon Chaney, Jr. still seems miscast as the brilliant and desirable intellectual, and his acting cannot keep up with the work done here by Gwynne, Ankers, and Russell, but I wanted to avoid thinking about that and just try to focus on the persistence of supernatural elements in an effort to recreate the horror-movie-on-TV experience as best as I could. And I feel that I largely succeeded-- I think that I could see WEIRD WOMAN's horror movie appeal for the first time.


A big stumbling block for me, though, was the handling of the dance and prayer ceremony on Paula's island. In Drums o' Terror: Voodoo in the Cinema (1998), Bryan Senn describes this more as "a genteel luau" than a "frenzied rite": "Though Paula ominously labels it the 'Dance of Death,' sarong-wearing native girls pathetically stomp their feet and clap and wave their hands in an innocuously choreographed motion, making this weird pagan ritual look like low-rent nightclub filler." I have to wonder if the ceremony could have had a more disturbing edge in the hands of a director other than Reginald LeBorg (John Fulton's shooting star that crosses the sky at the climax of the Dance of Death looked good, though).



The Dunkirk Evening Observer, Dunkirk-Fredonia, NY, January 14, 1958

I enjoy seeing some of the names that television stations used for their late-night movies-on-TV showcases. "Operation: Swing Shift" on WGR-Channel 2 in Buffalo, NY is one of the most unusual names. "Operation: Swing Shift" featured a variety of film genres in their offerings and very few of them seemed to have been horror films.




NEXT: "A young doctor-- a beautiful nurse-- and murder! For spine-chilling entertainment, set your dial to this channel and see MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM starring Bruce Cabot. It's an absorbing feature film, another premiere telecast on Shock. Don't miss MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM."

4 comments:

Max the drunken severed head said...

I liked WEIRD WOMAN, though it's very weak tea compared to BURN WITCH BURN, based on the same book.

But any film with Elizabeth Russell can't be all bad!

The Creeping Bride said...

I have been so inexplicably obsessed with THE CORPSE VANISHES for so long that I have to love Liz... she's great fun to watch in WEIRD WOMAN.

In a perfect world, Joan Allen would have starred in an Elizabeth Russell bio-pic ten years ago.

Max the drunken severed head said...

I share your obsession--the film is one of my fave Lugosi 'B's.

I like your version of a perfect world!

kochillt said...

I would rank WEIRD WOMAN second in the 6 Inner Sanctum titles. Although Evelyn Ankers didn't enjoy her change of pace role, especially having to be mean to her best friend Anne Gwynne, it's still an impressive example of her range as an actress. Before the year was over, both actresses had departed Universal, fading into obscurity, but they were among the studio's most popular wartime beauties. Speaking of beauty, the unexpected presence of Elizabeth Russell, a regular at RKO and Monogram, is an added bonus. Even the 1961 British remake BURN, WITCH, BURN was dominated by its female cast, and is superior to its 1944 predecessor. Chaney can't appear as anything other than silly portraying a "mental giant," but he tries hard, so I give him a pass on this one (worse was to come with petulant whiners in DEAD MAN'S EYES and THE FROZEN GHOST). The climax is a real hoot, which none of the rest of the series ever topped (a touch of the supernatural, lightly referenced in the last, PILLOW OF DEATH). WEIRD WOMAN aired only once (Dec 22 1973, followed by THE NEW INVISIBLE MAN, a title that leaves me baffled) on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER (by contrast, THE FROZEN GHOST was shown 8 times, CALLING DR. DEATH 4 times, DEAD MAN'S EYES 3 times, and PILLOW OF DEATH twice).