Treat yourself… to THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK

Now that it’s officially Fall, the Halloween Countdown can begin in earnest.  Mind you, we weirdos begin our Halloween Countdown beginning on October 32nd but we keep that clock watching to ourselves lest the rest of the world start piling sticks at our feet.  ‘Round about this leafy time o’ year, I’m often asked by folks who don’t subsist on a steady diet of fright films what spooky thing they should watch for All Hallows.  I’ll get the jump on them this year and suggest something most of you probably haven’t seen, in hopes that you might give the John Carpenter classic a rest this year and try something more obscure.

After walking away from an automobile accident of which she is the only survivor, a young woman begins experiencing forebodings of doom and frightening visitations by a pale-faced figure in black, which cause her to wonder if she is still part of the world of the living or slipping inexorably into the realm of the dead.

I know what you’re thinking and no, actually, it isn’t Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)… but rather an eerie Poverty Row cheapie made half a generation earlier by Republic Studios.  Directed with imagination and wit by Walter Colmes (a Massachusetts native), THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK (1945) stars Nancy Kelly (THE BAD SEED) as Lorna Webster, whom we see for the first time as she returns to her infamous Massachusetts hometown of Eben Rock,  scene of “the branding of innocent people as witches, with the penalty death by burning at the stake.”  A direct descendant of a 17th Century magistrate responsible for “sending eighteen women to their fiery deaths,” Lorna fled her birthplace when burbling hostility from the townsfolk prompted her to call off her wedding.  Coming home by bus, Lorna shares her seat with a last minute passenger, a black-veiled old woman who claims to be Jezebel Trister… Judge Elijah Webster’s most famous victim.  When the bus veers suddenly off the rural route and plunges headlong into the “beautiful and treacherous” Shadow Lake, Lorna walks away unscathed; the rest of the passengers perish … and the body of the old woman is nowhere to be found.

I’m a former New England swamp Yankee and amateur historian of the Salem hysteria so I’m a sucker for tales of superstition and dread along the Atlantic coastline (even when they fudge the facts – no witches were burned in the colonies).  Its crisp autumnal tone and preponderance of shadows makes THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK perfect pre-Halloween fare for those who enjoy old school haunting (not so much the arterial spray and abdominal contents variety of spookshow but creaking door, scratching tree branches, hissing cat, things that go bump in the night variety).  Although his resume is small and he never again attempted another horror film, Walter Colmes demonstrates an enthusiasm for the material here that eschews blind adherence to time-honored genre standards, placing THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK shy of the brilliance of what Val Lewton was producing over at RKO but more sensitive and evocative than the typical monster rallies being churned out at Universal.  Colmes and cinematographer Henry Sharp (DR. CYCLOPS, MINISTRY OF FEAR) kit out their frame with a latticework of imposing colonial bric-a-brac – a procelain figure depicting a woman imprisoned in the stocks, a weather vane carved in the shape of a broom-straddling witch and a carnival dart game whose targets bear the likeness of prominent members of the community – images suggesting a community compulsively duplicating and repurposing the forms and shadows that ignited the fears of their founding fathers.  Eben Rock is a town unable to rest comfortably on its own foundations (the Webster family tree hangs heavy with the very sort of scoundrels who found nations), making THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK less a tale of the supernatural than of “the narrow bigotry of those settlers who brought to the New World the dark traditions they tried to escape in the Old” – and how superstition drives the sensitive and marginal away from reason and true faith.

Although most of Colmes’ setpieces take place indoors (particularly within the hearth-warmed Pilgrim’s Tavern, Eben Rock’s social hub), he employs frequent cutaways to nature – treetops buffeted by the wind, the progress of dark clouds behind the spire of the town church – and bridges his tense, short scenes with angles of water or flames (media used for the dispatch of witches) that root his story in a natural world beyond the B-movie backlot.  THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK is well-served by a cast of second-string actors: Nancy Kelly is a compelling and complicated adult protagonist, while John Loder (THE BRIGHTON STRANGLER) and Otto Kruger (in a role that compares favorably with his turn as the skeptical psychiatrist hero of DRACULA’S DAUGHTER) shine as Lorna’s former paramour and the pastor who would have married them.  Presented in contrast to Kruger’s ideal union of the fellowship of logic and faith is Ruth Ford (goddaughter of Orson Welles), playing Loder’s sister, a fearful single mother (the film’s only identifiable married couple are victims of the crash) who conceals a roiling resentment behind a mask of Christian acceptance.  An uncredited Elspeth Dudgeon (billed as “John Dudgeon” when she played THE OLD DARK HOUSE‘s Roderick Femm) makes the most of her brief turn as the harridan who may or may not be the vengeful Elizabeth Trister… but who is pretty damn scary either way.  Screenplay credit goes to Dennis J. Cooper (WHEN STRANGERS MARRY) and Lee Willis, with Austrian exile/novelist/columnist John (Hans) Kafka cited as author of an original story suggested by future Oscar-winner Philip Yordan.  Yordan’s long resume also includes a writing credit on Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), which mined similar themes in a western setting.

Having said all these wonderful things, I don’t want to make the mistake of over-selling THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK.  It’s not a perfect movie and I would rate it as more of a worthwhile curio than a gem.  The ending feels particularly rushed and rationalized, as if the suits at Republic feared an the censors’ backlash against an explicitly supernatural explanation for the demons of Eben Rock.  But even with these misgivings, I recommend the film as a neat little New England horror story pitched for the season of All Hallows and an intriguing example of the then-rare “woman’s picture” style horror movie, in which a (invariably) young, independent-minded and thoroughly modern woman finds herself browbeaten by society and/or the unexplained into second guessing herself all the way back to the dark ages.

16 Responses Treat yourself… to THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK
Posted By Richard A. Ekstedt : September 24, 2010 7:56 am

Well made motion picture and an EXCELLENT DVD transfer. Worth adding to your collection!!

Posted By Richard A. Ekstedt : September 24, 2010 7:56 am

Well made motion picture and an EXCELLENT DVD transfer. Worth adding to your collection!!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 24, 2010 9:11 pm

This sounds wonderful and that first screen shot is a doozy. Halloween costumes were somehow so much better & creepier back then. Now all I see is little Harry Potters and superheroes wandering around my neighborhood.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 24, 2010 9:11 pm

This sounds wonderful and that first screen shot is a doozy. Halloween costumes were somehow so much better & creepier back then. Now all I see is little Harry Potters and superheroes wandering around my neighborhood.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : September 25, 2010 10:10 am

Halloween costumes were somehow so much better & creepier back then.

That’s because papier mache is the Devil’s medium!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : September 25, 2010 10:10 am

Halloween costumes were somehow so much better & creepier back then.

That’s because papier mache is the Devil’s medium!

Posted By Medusa : September 25, 2010 12:31 pm

Sounds like a wonderful role for the melodramatic but effective Nancy Kelly! I definitely need to seek this out!

Terrific post!

Posted By Medusa : September 25, 2010 12:31 pm

Sounds like a wonderful role for the melodramatic but effective Nancy Kelly! I definitely need to seek this out!

Terrific post!

Posted By Lydia Moore : September 25, 2010 4:48 pm

Thanks for sharing info about this film with us. I love to curl up on the couch with some popcorn and watch these little B&W treats.
Oh, and I agree with Kimberly about the old fashioned Halloween costumes. They were much more creative and scarier.

Posted By Lydia Moore : September 25, 2010 4:48 pm

Thanks for sharing info about this film with us. I love to curl up on the couch with some popcorn and watch these little B&W treats.
Oh, and I agree with Kimberly about the old fashioned Halloween costumes. They were much more creative and scarier.

Posted By Al Lowe : September 26, 2010 1:24 am

My favorite TV show when I was growing up was “Maverick,” which starred James Garner and Jack Kelly as brothers who were gamblers in the Old West.
Nancy in real life was Jack Kelly’s sister, older than him by six years. (Both of them have passed away but Jim Garner continues on, God bless him.)
She was briefly married to Edmond O’Brien in the early 1940s.

She was very pretty when she was a young woman and was the leading lady in some famous 20th Century Fox films, such as STANLEY AND LIVINGSTONE and JESSE JAMES.
She preferred the stage and played in “The Big Knife” and “The Bad Seed,” which she recreated on film.

Posted By Al Lowe : September 26, 2010 1:24 am

My favorite TV show when I was growing up was “Maverick,” which starred James Garner and Jack Kelly as brothers who were gamblers in the Old West.
Nancy in real life was Jack Kelly’s sister, older than him by six years. (Both of them have passed away but Jim Garner continues on, God bless him.)
She was briefly married to Edmond O’Brien in the early 1940s.

She was very pretty when she was a young woman and was the leading lady in some famous 20th Century Fox films, such as STANLEY AND LIVINGSTONE and JESSE JAMES.
She preferred the stage and played in “The Big Knife” and “The Bad Seed,” which she recreated on film.

Posted By bedfordfalls : September 30, 2010 2:25 am

Thank you. I saw The Woman Who Came Back years ago on a video and thought it was very well done. Nancy Kelly did a great job and was very attactive. It had good production values as Repubic could do often on a lower budget.

Posted By bedfordfalls : September 30, 2010 2:25 am

Thank you. I saw The Woman Who Came Back years ago on a video and thought it was very well done. Nancy Kelly did a great job and was very attactive. It had good production values as Repubic could do often on a lower budget.

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : September 30, 2010 4:22 pm

[...] as summer makes way for autumn I’ve been indulging in a bit of both. Much like my fellow Morlock, Richard Harland Smith, I eagerly await this time of year. It gives me an excuse to spend my free time focused on all [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : September 30, 2010 4:22 pm

[...] as summer makes way for autumn I’ve been indulging in a bit of both. Much like my fellow Morlock, Richard Harland Smith, I eagerly await this time of year. It gives me an excuse to spend my free time focused on all [...]

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