From the Vaults: 'The Woman Who Came Back' (1945)
What an odd yet pleasing little film is “The Woman Who Came Back.” A New England woman returns to her hometown and, after a near-death incident, becomes afraid that she’s under the spell of a famous local witch. It’s like a cross between “Carnival of Souls” and “The House of the Seven Gables.” And atmospherically, it’s got everything: a thunderstorm, a creepy old house, a frightened child, an eerie family crypt, suspicious locals and a band of kids all done up in vintage Halloween costumes. This is a perfect Halloween movie.
Nancy Kelly (who would go on to play Patty McCormack’s mom in “The Bad Seed”) stars as Lorna Webster, who’s heading home after some time away under unspecified circumstances. Almost immediately, strange things start to happen. Her bus crashes, killing everyone else on board. When she recovers, a strange dog starts following her around. She accidentally poisons some goldfish. The townsfolk all look askance at her -– all, that is, but her adoring ex-fiance, Matt (John Loder). Lorna’s soon convinced that there’s something wrong with her.
One of Lorna's ancestors, it turns out, was a notorious New England judge who once convicted a number of local witches and sentenced them to burn at the stake. This, of course, never happened in the United States –- all our witches were hanged, thank you (except for that poor man who was pressed to death) -– but never mind. It’s only a movie! The judge's most famous victim was a woman named Jezebel Traister, who left a statement threatening revenge from beyond the grave, and hinting that she might return by possessing a young maiden. Could this be happening to Lorna?
While Lorna comes undone, the townspeople get to work being Suspicious Locals. My heaven, remind me to stay the heck away from small towns in New England. Shirley Jackson was right -- they do not seem to like anyone who's different! Here their ringleader is Matt's sister Ruth (Ruth Ford), who's clearly just jealous of her brother's girlfriend, but who soon has the whole town muttering about witchcraft. Kindly Rev. Jim Stevens (Otto Kruger) tries to reason with everyone, but to little avail.
And that's pretty much all there is to the film, story-wise. It clocks in at a remarkably concise 68 minutes. But the spooky atmosphere and the slow build of tension make it just a little gem. You're kept guessing until the very end about Lorna -- you know it's not all in her mind, so could there really be supernatural forces at work? Hm!
The very best scene involves a nighttime visit to Lorna's from one of Ruth's young children, a girl named Peggy (Jeanne Gail). Walking home alone after dark from a friend's (ah, such innocent times), Peggy gets caught in a downpour and takes refuge at Lorna's big old house. Lorna, concerned, goes to call Peggy's mom, leaving the shivering girl alone in the shadowy hall -- and you just watch Peggy's face as it silently dawns on her that she's alone in a big scary house with a lady she's heard some pretty scary things about. The moment perfectly encapsulates the mood of the film: In a place so soaked in gossip and sinister local history, even the most happenstance encounter carries the potential for suspicion and fear. When Lorna comes back saying "The phones aren't working. You'll have to spend the night," you almost share poor Peggy's terror.
Nancy Kelly does a fab job of keeping Lorna sympathetic -- she never becomes hysterical, and you always believe her, even when Matt is patting her arm in a paternal fashion and saying things like, "We'll not speak of these things anymore." This is a fab modern witch tale, if 1945 is modern. Which I guess it is, here in "Daily Mirror" land.
Many thanks to the lovely Obscure Hollow blog for making me aware of this film. And happy Halloween to all you lovely readers! With scary-movie season at an end, I will not know what to do with myself next week. Any requests? I'm thinking 1960ish -- I feel I've neglected that decade lately.
-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon
Above: Nancy Kelly's Lorna wonders if that's the face of evil in her mirror. The brilliant moment that follows anticipates my favorite scare from Amenabar's "The Others." Eek!