Reginald Le Borg, 1944
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Evelyn Ankers, Anne Gwynne, Elizabeth Russell
The second Inner Sanctum mystery after Calling Dr. Death, Weird Woman is a vast improvement over the last film and actually includes some horror elements, though over all it is still a mystery full of twists and red herrings. Anthropology Professor Norman Reed meets and falls in love with a local woman while he is vacationing in the South Seas and studying their tribal habits, namely their religious rituals. He marries Paula, a white woman adopted and raised by a priestess, and writes a book about the beliefs of her tribe. When they return to his home in the U.S., the other women are jealous of Paula, particularly Illona, who believed Norman was going to marry her. Odd things begin to occur around town and Paula thinks her charms and rituals are the only thing keeping Norman safe. He burns all of her talismans and dolls in an attempt to convince her her beliefs are wrong. Soon after, one of his colleagues is murdered. Is Paula responsible?
Lon Chaney, Jr. again stars and is again the dead weight in this film. The only weird thing about the women in this movie (aside from the fact that one of them is a jealous maniac) is that they are all obsessively in love with Chaney, including a young school girl. This is both laughable and incredibly implausible, but all of the Inner Sanctum films have that feeling of absurdity that will either make viewers hate or enjoy the series. The film is carried by the three main female characters, who put in surprisingly good performances here. The beautiful Evelyn Ankers (The Wolf Man), a Universal regular, has nearly enough presence to carry this film on her own. Anne Gwynne is fittingly daft as Paula, though it is a little frustrating that all the men in town are as obsessed with her as their wives are obsessed with Chaney. One of my favorite, though lesser known actresses from the period, Val Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell (The Cat People, Curse of the Cat People) is given a more robust part here as another professor’s ambitious wife. She feeds into the town’s hysteria for awhile, but has a rare (in the Inner Sanctum universe) reversal and a nice moment of character growth.
Based on Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, the first half of the film boasts some supernatural elements, though they are a mixed bag. The island scenes where Paula and the village women perform some kind of pagan ritual is absolutely ridiculous and looks like they are at a luau designed for white tourists. On the other hand, the scene where Paula flees in the night to perform a ritual at the local cemetery is atmospheric and delightfully noirish.
It’s a shame her husband burns all her ritual supplies, including a talisman necklace she has worn since childhood. And that’s one of the real problems with this film: everyone is a complete asshole. Chaney’s character is unlikable and often treats the women around him very poorly. The female characters are either equally awful, hysterical, or outright stupid. The level of hysteria actually adds to the creepiness of the proceedings and I’m grateful that the script was not in a hurry to explain away the supernatural undertones. Though this does happen eventually, it is in a patient, mostly intelligent manner. (Someone is manipulating Paula and the rest of the town by playing to her superstitious beliefs and nearly driving her insane.)
While I can’t recommend this to everyone, it is a nice little murder mystery that borrows from Val Lewton’s far superior, moody, and subtle horror films from the period. It is certainly the best example of the Inner Sanctum films and you can find it on the two-disc Inner Sanctum collection. It can’t compete with Universal’s classic horror films, but it is a pleasant, fun way to pass an hour. Coincidentally, the poster is far sexier and more scandalous than the film itself.