Weird Woman (1944) **˝
After getting off to an extremely shaky start with Calling Dr. Death, Universal’s “Inner Sanctum” series hit a much firmer stride with the second entry, Weird Woman. A large part of the difference can probably be explained by the fact that, while its predecessor had been written from the ground up out of half-baked ideas slapped hastily together by Edward Dein, Weird Woman was adapted from Conjure Wife, an early novel by acclaimed fantasist Fritz Leiber. It’s still nowhere near as good a movie as it could have been, but it is nevertheless a serviceable B-thriller that retains enough of the original story to borrow some of its power— even if it turns that power to a very different use.
Some years ago, Monroe College sociology professor Dr. Norman Reed (Lon Chaney Jr.) went on an expedition to one of the more backward of the Hawaiian Islands to carry on research for a book on the conflict between reason and superstition as a force shaping human societies. He had been hoping to link up with an old teacher of his— one Professor Clayton— but the old man turned out to have been dead for more than a decade. However, while he was observing a native ritual dedicated to the god Kahuna‘ana‘ana, Reed unexpectedly encountered Clayton’s daughter, Paula (Anne Gwynne, from Black Friday and The Strange Case of Dr. Rx), who had been but a child when he last saw the late professor. It simply was not Reed’s day, though. Being both very excited to see the Clayton girl again and totally heedless and disrespectful of the islanders’ customs, Norman blundered into the consecrated circle surrounding the altar to Kahuna‘ana‘ana, in effect volunteering himself as a sacrifice to the god. The villagers were more than happy to take him up on the offer, and Reed would surely have died right then and there (which would have served him fucking well right, if you ask me) were it not for the bond between Paula and the high priestess Laraua, who raised her after her father’s death. Paula persuaded Laraua to rescue Norman from his own stupidity, and use her “magic” to heal the professor’s injuries. The girl’s intervention must have impressed Reed, too, for he brought Paula back home with him to the mainland and married her as soon as he could make the arrangements. That last development did not sit well with Ilona Carr (Evelyn Ankers, of Captive Wild Woman and The Mad Ghoul), the sister of Reed’s colleague, Septimus Carr (Harry Hayden, from The Mad Doctor and The Lady and the Monster). Ilona had dated Norman before his departure for the islands, and she evidently thought there was a lot more between them than Reed did. She may claim that there’s no reason why the two of them cannot now be friends, but it’s pretty obvious that friendship, to her, is little more than a blind from which she can take potshots at Paula and try to win Norman away from her.
Reed’s career takes a major upturn now that he’s back at Monroe College. His book sells briskly and earns high praise from every important sociologist who reads it. The college deans begin making noises about appointing him to the recently vacated chairmanship of the sociology department, even though Professor Millard Sawtelle (Ralph Morgan, from The Creeper and The Monster Maker) is first in line for the post in terms of seniority. (That, incidentally, would suit the weak-willed and unambitious Sawtelle just fine.) And of course, his marriage is a source of tremendous happiness for him, even if it offends his hyper-rationalist sensibilities whenever he observes evidence that Paula still clings to at least some of the pagan beliefs instilled in her by her foster mother.
Norman’s good fortune is precariously poised, however, although he himself is completely oblivious to that fact. One of his students, Margaret Mercer (Lois Collier, from Cobra Woman and Jungle Woman), is infatuated with him, and takes it as indicative of reciprocation when Reed takes her on as an intern. Margaret, meanwhile, has a boyfriend named David Jenkins (Phil Brown, of Jungle Captive and Maneaters Are Loose!), who, despite being something of a dim bulb, is at least sufficiently perceptive to recognize the threat that Margaret’s crush on the professor poses to their relationship. Sawtelle may have no desire to be anybody’s rival, but his avaricious, social-climbing wife, Evelyn (Elizabeth Russell, from The Corpse Vanishes and The Curse of the Cat People), means to push him to the top of the department whether he likes it or not— and because she has already pushed him into plagiarizing an unpublished thesis by a brilliant grad student who for some reason left the school without finishing his degree, his candidacy for the department chair is even more vulnerable than it looks. And of the greatest importance, there’s Ilona in the background, stewing over losing her boyfriend to that cheap little South Seas hussy. Ilona, as both the school librarian and the sister of one of the deans, is well placed to stoke a lot of insecurities and facilitate a lot of grudges, and that grudge of her own gives her plenty of reason to do so. None of her machinations seem to be accomplishing much at first, but then Norman catches Paula invoking on his behalf the protection of Kahuna‘ana‘ana, and gets way the hell up on his high horse with her. He confiscates and burns all of Paula’s magical paraphernalia, and the very moment he does it, Ilona’s whispering campaign starts to bear fruit. Is it just a coincidence? Or has Reed managed to screw himself over but good?
The biggest improvement that Weird Woman makes over Calling Dr. Death is simply that it generally makes sense. Most of its characters have plausible— if not necessarily good— reasons for behaving the way they do, and they remain essentially true to those motivations throughout the film. Even Norman Reed, whose actions are governed mainly by his being kind of a dick, is at least a believable dick (although neither screenwriter Brenda Weisberg nor director Reginald Le Borg seems to have recognized his dickishness, or understood that Leiber had originally written the character that way for a reason). And while it backs away from the frank supernaturalism of Conjure Wife in a somewhat annoying manner, that backpedaling, again, has a definite narrative logic; it’s approximately the same thing we’ve seen done just a tad more effectively in the final act of Black Mamba. Finally, although this is a small thing, Weird Woman benefits from finding an unusual setting for its primitive paganism. Although the Kahuna‘ana‘ana cult bears no meaningful resemblance to any religion I’ve ever heard of being practiced in the Hawaiian Islands, it was a refreshing change of pace to see a 1940’s horror flick in which the bullshit pagan faith didn’t come from Egypt, India, Sub-Saharan Africa, or the Caribbean.
What keeps Weird Woman from shining the way it should mostly comes down to Lon Chaney Jr. Once again, we’re supposed to accept the big lug as an accomplished, charismatic intellectual, and once again, to call that a tall order would be putting it kindly. Heaven alone knows how this guy could have ended up with three different women swooning over him— you can’t even chalk it up to Paula’s magic, because she, Ilona, and Margaret all fell for him long before any spells were cast by anybody. The funniest scene, in this respect, is the one in which Margaret tries to explain to David Jennings why she finds Professor Reed so compelling. When she calls him not merely “brilliant,” but “dynamic” as well, you really have to ask whether she’s talking about the same Norman Reed as the rest of us. I suppose we can take some comfort from the fact that Chaney spends considerably less of the movie whispering in voiceover this time around, or from the somewhat less risible content of his overdubbed whisperings. On the balance, though, Chaney’s performance is not only a detriment to Weird Woman, but an ill omen for the remaining four “Inner Sanctum” films. From what I’ve read, Chaney plays some kind of hypothetically debonair egghead in every single one of them.