Friday, 23 January 2015

WEIRD WOMAN












d. Reginald Le Borg (1944)

Inner Sanctum was a long running radio show of the 1940s that trawled through the vibrant pulp paperback market of the time for macabre stories to frighten its listeners with. Incredibly successful, the show spawned a series of spin offs including books, a TV show and several films. Weird Woman is one of them.  

Based on a book by Fritz Leiber called Conjure Wife, the story takes place in a University where the usual snobbery, social climbing and back stabbing of the academic world is being supplemented by witchcraft, some white, some black, but mostly fake and malign in nature. 

At the centre of the story is the implacable Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney is a brilliant academic and professional skeptic who has just returned from a trip to the South Seas with a pretty young wife, a woman who was raised by a primitive tribe governed by superstition and natural magic. In marrying her he has disappointed a number of smitten women, especially chief librarian Hilary Brooke, who determines to have her revenge on him and his new love, no matter how many suicides, murder attempts and rape accusations it leads to. 

Economic in everything but imagination, Weird Woman is a superb hubbub of activity, packing a huge amount into its short running time. Favourite scenes include a tribal ritual with a great exotica soundtrack; several sequences in which disembodied heads and other superimpositions spin wildly around the screen and, more generally, the slightly silly notion that lumpy old Lon might be cat nip to the ladies. 

One woman who is not giddied by Chaney’s charm and moustache is Elizabeth Russell, who plays the crazily ambitious wife of one of his academic rivals. A regular in Val Lewton films, Russell has the most extraordinary physiognomy, like a skull covered in a thin layer of wax. Her expressions are amazingly fluid, as if her skin is so thin that every electrical impulse from her brain ripples across her face. I’m not sure how she’d manage in a romantic comedy, but in horror she is unforgettable. 

After Weird Woman, Lieber’s story was subsequently remade twice: in 1961 as the rather good Night of the Eagle starring the superb Peter Wyngarde, and once in the eighties with Richard Benjamin, a production which I have no interest in whatsoever but mention for the sake of accuracy.

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