From 1941 to 1952, Inner Sanctum was a popular mystery/horror anthology radio series. The program proved successful enough to spawn a series of six films produced by Universal and starring horror icon Lon Chaney Jr. Today we look at the second film in the series… “Weird Woman” from 1944.
Before the story starts, we get a strange little introduction from a creepy head in a crystal ball. The film concerns a college professor named Norman Reed (Chaney) who is becoming more and more concerned about his wife Paula (Anne Gwynne). We then flashback to when Norman met his bride on a south seas island where he was researching superstitions. Paula was raised by a voodoo priestess after the passing of her father, who had been an associate of Norman’s. The two quickly fall in love and Norman brings her back stateside. Now, not only is the professor enjoying his new marriage, but also the success of his new book on superstitions. But trouble soon starts to brew when a colleague, Ilona Carr (Evelyn Ankers), starts making advances. When Norman rejects her, Ilona starts plotting against him.
Ilona sends a young student, Margaret (Lois Collier), who is a bit infatuated with the professor, to start assisting him. She also tells the girl’s boyfriend, David (Phil Brown) that the professor has taken an interest in Margaret. Ilona also starts to spread rumors that Paula is witch who has cast spells resulting in the success of Norman’s book.
Turns out, there is some degree of truth to the rumors. One night, Norman follows Paula to a cemetery where he sees her performing a voodoo ceremony. Upon returning home, he insists that Paula destroy all her magical trinkets. Paula insists that what she is doing is merely for protection, as there are forces working against Norman. But still, the professor is having none of it.
But now, the trouble really starts. First, another professor, Millard Sawtelle (Ralph Morgan), commits suicide after Ilona learns that Sawtelle plagiarized the work of one of his deceased students. Ilona then tells Sawtelle’s wife Evelyn (Elizabeth Russell) that Norman planned to use that information against Millard, as the two were up for the same promotion. Evelyn now holds Norman responsible for Millard’s death. Then trouble comes when Norman refuses young Margaret’s advances. She then makes claims that the professor sexually assaulted her, and the jilted boyfriend David comes after Norman with a gun. The gun goes off in the struggle and David sits at death’s door. If he dies, Norman is sure to go up the river for murder. Plus, Paula is receiving phone calls with strange chanting coming from the other end. Soon, Norman discovers that Ilona is the one behind all this. He then hatches a plot to expose her deceptions with a story of Millard returning from the grave with a warning for his killer.
Does all this sound a little bit familiar? Probably about half way through “Weird Woman” it hit me! “Burn Witch Burn!” This is “Burn Witch Burn!” I quickly looked it up and sure enough, both films are based on a novel called Conjure Wife. I really enjoyed “Burn Witch Burn” when I watched if for my Halloween series last fall. I also enjoyed “Weird Woman,” but there’s no way for me not to compare it to the other film. The two films definitely have a different approach.
Of course, one of the most noticeable differences is Lon Chaney’s approach to the lead role. Chaney does a decent job, not great. He doesn’t have quite as dramatic a descent into madness as we see from the lead in “Burn Witch Burn.” Chaney is a great performer, especially when it comes to these type of films, but he’s a bit too laid back here.
There is still a solid degree of suspense that builds as the film goes on. The ending is effective enough, but again, compared with the ending of “Burn Witch Burn” it’s a little bit of a letdown. The ending in that film is just crazy…with all sorts of strange supernatural things going on. “Weird Woman” has an ending that is actually a lot lower on the weird scale.
I feel like I’m not showing “Weird Woman” the love I should be. It really is a fun little thriller with solid performances. It’s just that it’s been done better.