WEIRD WOMAN (1944) Reviews and overview

   

‘Soft arms killing with a voodoo curse!’

Weird Woman is a 1944 mystery horror film about a sociology professor who marries a South Seas young woman who may have supernatural powers.

Directed by Reginald Le Borg (So Evil, My Sister; Diary of a Madman; Voodoo Island; The Mummy’s Ghost) from a screenplay written by Brenda Weisberg, loosely adapted from the pulp novella Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber – which originally appeared in the April 1943 issue of Unknown Worlds. Produced by Ben Pivar and Oliver Drake. The movie was part of the ‘Inner Sanctum’ series of six movies that were adapted from a popular radio show of the same name.

The movie stars Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Morgan, Elisabeth Risdon and Lois Collier.

Blu-ray release:

Eureka Entertainment released all six Inner Sanctum Mysteries on Blu-ray in the UK for the first time ever on January 18th 2021. Includes: Calling Dr Death (dir. Reginald Le Borg, 1943), Weird Woman (dir. Reginald Le Borg, 1944), Dead Man’s Eyes (dir. Reginald Le Borg, 1944), The Frozen Ghost (dir. Harold Young, 1945), Strange Confession (dir. John Hoffman, 1945) and Pillow of Death (dir. Wallace Fox, 1945).

2-Disc Blu-ray edition contains:

High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of all six films.
Uncompressed LPCM monaural audio tracks
Optional English SDH subtitles
Calling Dr Death: Audio commentary from screenwriter/film historian C. Courtney Joyner and Regina Le Borg (daughter of director Reginald Le Borg)
Weird Woman: Audio commentary from author Justin Humphreys (The Doctor Phibes Companion) and Del Howison (Dark Delicacies: Original Tales of Terror and the Macabre)
Strange Confession: Audio commentary from screenwriter Peter Atkins (Hellraiser II, III, and IV) and screenwriter/film historian C. Courtney Joyner
Kim Newman on The Inner Sanctum Mysteries New interview with film critic and fiction writer Kim Newman
This is the Inner Sanctum: Making a Universal Mystery Series [55 mins]
The Creaking Door: Entering The Inner Sanctum [15 mins] History of the Radio Series with author/radio historian Martin Grams Jr.
Mind Over Matter [20 mins] Archival interview with actor Martin Kosleck (The Frozen Ghost)
Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Radio Episodes A selection of episodes from the original radio series
Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the series by Craig Ian Mann

In the USA, Ushe Owned released the Inner Sanctum Mysteries on Blu-ray on November 17, 2020.

Plot:

Professor Norman Reed (Lon Chaney Jr.) falls in love with and marries a woman named Paula (Anne Gwynne) while on vacation in the South Seas. When they return to his hometown, she is greeted coolly by much of the community, especially Ilona (Evelyn Ankers), who felt that Reed was hers.

Strange things begin to happen, including the death of a colleague, which turns people against her even more, especially as she believes in voodoo and other supernatural phenomena. Reed must work hard to prove her innocence and find the real culprit behind the odd doings…

Reviews [click links to read more]:

“Happily, LeBorg’s direction is of the no-nonsense variety, the screenplay sticks to the basis premise and Virgil E. Miller’s camera keeps the story moving. In addition, there are good performances from the supporting cast — especially cult actress Elizabeth Russell, who for once is allowed the chew on the scenery a bit — and the result is actually one of Universal’s better Grade-B thrillers.” AllMovie

” …offers only the tamest of thrills or chills, though it is still quite atmospheric, spooky and suspenseful. And it stays amusing and good campy fun thanks to the weird script plus the entertaining turns from Chaney Jr, Gwynne and villainess Evelyn Ankers, as Prof Reed’s vengeful old flame.” Derek Winnert

” …manages to approach some of that Val Lewton ambiguity of I Walked with a Zombie. Unfortunately, it falls somewhat short of that movie, with a script that gets awfully silly at times, particularly during the native dance sequence that looks like it belongs in a nightclub […]. At least the story is fairly good this time…” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

“It strains credibility (to put it mildly) to imagine Chaney, Jr. as a man so brilliant and so appealing to women that elaborate plots of vengeance and backstabbing are concocted on his behalf — but once you accept this questionable bit of casting, it’s relatively easy to get caught up in this hour-long psychological horror flick, which features committed performances by both Ankers (deliciously vengeful) and Gwynne (perpetually fearful).” Film Fanatic

Chaney does a decent job, not great. He doesn’t have quite as dramatic a descent into madness as we see from the lead in Burn Witch Burn. Chaney is a great performer, especially when it comes to these type of films, but he’s a bit too laid back here. There is still a solid degree of suspense that builds as the film goes on.” Forgotten Films

“The islanders weren’t especially racist stereotypes any more than any others from this time period, but it was noteworthy that Norman married the only white girl in the village […] Like the other films in the series, it feels a lot like a soap opera. It’s very melodramatic and just a little over the top.” The Horror Guys

“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.” Krell Laboratories

“Handsomely mounted, this a faithful take, with a Scream Queen vibe. The Wolf Man‘s Evelyn Ankers and Cat People‘s Elisabeth Russell steal the show.” Kultguy’s Keep

“Yes, it’s a B-movie of course but it’s tightly scripted, has lashings of spooky atmosphere and a nice final twist. The proceedings aren’t particularly credible and the notion that a Professor’s treatise on science vs. superstition could become a best seller is really stretching it… But the supporting cast do their level best to sell the material; from the sharp-faced Elisabeth Russell as a nagging wife to Ankers in fine form as a complete bitch.” Mark David Welsh

“You get the feeling that with Weird Woman Universal were aiming to copy the Val Lewton films […] The unfortunate downside of this is that in the hands in the Reginald LeBorg, a journeyman director at best, the film is mostly a nondescript mundane drama that takes place in the hardly exciting world of academia.” Moria

“In the novel, all of the witch-women opposing the professor-hero are middle-aged women, and only his witch-wife is a young woman. Here, with one exception all of the women involved in Norman Reed’s life are on the young side, not to mention being about ten years younger than Lon Chaney Jr.” Naturalistic! Uncanny! Marvelous!

“This is a good watch despite the fact that Lon best acting is when he is violent, rather than thoughtful or intellectual. The film never drags, and Ankers‘ acting is excellent at the climax.” Plan 9 Crunch

“It features a nice, tight script, great performances by the entire cast, and a surprise ending that at the same time manages to reinforce and cast doubt on the film’s central premise–that the “powers of the supernatural” are nothing but superstition and fear causing believers to act in ways that create self-fulling prophecies.” Shades of Gray

Ankers manifestly relishes the chance to play the bitchy, manipulative Ilona, and she is the best thing in the picture […] The rational angle, which Norman so heavily conforms to, takes a beating until Ilona’s comeuppance, but they can’t resist an “Ah! Maybe there was something to it after all!” ending. One of the better Inner Sanctums, it’s hokey but amusing.” The Spinning Image

“Despite what may be seen as a fault, and it is, the film never fails to entertain the viewer as Chaney and company really give it their all. Chaney is a little laid back at times, but he plays the aging professor that all the girls love quite well, though out of everyone, it is Ankers who steals the show.” The Telltale Mind

“Leiber’s tale is a satire of academia—a dog-eat-dog universe where tenure is valued over everything—even your soul […] Ankers is the main attraction of this quasi-spook fest—the voguish actress, usually cool as a cucumber, gives one of the more amusing camp performances of the 40’s—her every expression comes with its own cymbal crash.” Trailers from Hell

“For those willing to place the critical faculties in reserve and approach the movie with their tongues firmly planted in the cheeks, Weird Woman is an absolute joy, outclassing the other films in the tepid series for its sheer audaciousness alone. Brenda Weisberg’s mildly hysterical screenplay has all the sobriety of a Hollywood lampoon and is almost as funny. Once again, Lon Chaney, Jr., is laughably miscast as a brooding intellectual.” Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946

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Choice dialogue:

Grace Gunnison: “Ilona, there’s something about your smile right now that makes me think of Jack the Ripper.”

Ilona Carr: “Why David, didn’t you know that night is the special domain of great minds? History is made at night they say. Poetry is born at night.”

Norman Reed: “Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward, one step back.”

Cast and characters:

Lon Chaney Jr. … Norman Reed (as Lon Chaney)
Anne Gwynne … Paula Reed
Evelyn Ankers … Ilona Carr
Ralph Morgan … Professor Millard Sawtelle
Elisabeth Risdon … Grace Gunnison
Lois Collier … Margaret
Harry Hayden … Professor Septimus Carr
Elizabeth Russell … Evelyn Sawtelle
Phil Brown … David Jennings
Kay Harding … Student (as Jackie Lou Harding)
Gertrude Astor … Party Guest (uncredited)
Chuck Hamilton … The Carpenter (uncredited)
David Hoffman … The Spirit of the Inner Sanctum (uncredited)
William Hudson … Second Gossiping Male Student (uncredited)
Hanna Kaapa … Laraua, the High Priestess (uncredited)
Edmund Mortimer … Party Guest (uncredited)
Larry Steers … Party Guest (uncredited)

Filming locations:

Universal Studios – 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, California

Technical details:

63 minutes
Black and white
Aspect ratio: 1.37: 1
Audio: Mono (Western Electric Recording)

Release:

March 1st 1944

Fun facts:

Director Reginald Le Borg recalled being given the script on a Friday and being told to begin shooting a week from Monday; the cast was filled out shortly before filming. This rushed production schedule was the norm at Universal. ‘Inner Sanctum’ films cost approximately $150,000 to produce, and shooting schedules were routinely twelve days.

Actress Evelyn Ankers would later say that she found playing a villainess rather difficult. When director LeBorg said “action” and Evelyn Ankers would try to exact a menacing look, she and co-star Anne Gwynne would almost inevitably start laughing. Universal never hired her to play a villain again.

Fritz Leiber’s novella Conjure Wife was also adapted on film as Night of the Eagle (1962) and Witch’s Brew (1980).

Trailer:

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