Synopsis: Lorna Webster (Nancy Kelly) is returning to her New England hometown of Eben Rock, Massachusetts after spending several years away. The bus she is riding on stops along the road to pick up an elderly woman (Elspeth Dudgeon) who has flagged the driver down. It is late at night and the driver is reluctant to take the woman on, and refuses outright to take the woman’s dog. The old woman agrees to leave the dog on the side of the road and boards the bus.
The woman sits by Lorna, and seems to know her by name. She says that Lorna is the descendent of Elijah Webster, a judge who 300 years ago sentenced a number of witches in the town to be burned at the stake. She tells Lorna that she herself is Jezebel Trister, a 300 year old witch who had been condemned by Judge Webster, which greatly startles and alarms Lorna. Almost immediately, the bus plunges off a steep embankment into a lake.
In the town, Lorna stumbles into the local tavern, and it’s clear that no one in the place had expected her to arrive, including her ex-fiancee, local doctor Matt Adams (John Loder). When Lorna tells of the bus accident, the authorities go out to the lake. They pull a number of bodies from the water; but Lorna is the only survivor. Moreover, none of the bodies matches the description of the old woman Lorna describes.
As the local physician, Matt nurses Lorna back to health. He is pleased to see her, even though she had stood him up at the altar years before. The other townspeople are not so forgiving, particularly Ruth Gibson (Ruth Ford). Ruth resents what she had done to Matt, and remembers that bad luck always seemed to follow Lorna, that everything she touched seemed cursed. The bus accident is only the latest proof of this: how is it possible that she walked away without a scratch, when everyone else was killed?
Matt gives Lorna a black shawl that she’d had with her after the accident. Lorna is alarmed — she knows it isn’t hers, but Jezebel Trister’s. Matt says that can’t be possible. Lorna, he says, must have imagined meeting Jezebel Trister, since no old woman was found among the bus accident casualties. Uncertain, Lorna tries on the shawl after Matt leaves, but when she looks in the mirror, she sees the face of Jezebel Trister appear over her own.
Lorna tries to resume a normal life, but she finds it difficult. She is staying at Ruth’s tavern, and Ruth reveals to her that she herself has been carrying a torch for Matt, and this seems to be fueling at least some of Ruth’s resentment. When Lorna feeds the fish belonging to Ruth’s daughter, the fish almost immediately die. She learns that she fed them rat poison by mistake. And she finds herself being followed by a sinister-looking dog, the same dog that had accompanied Jezebel Trister….
Comments: New England witches are a durable subject for horror films, as the recent thriller The Witch: A New-England Folktale certainly proves; but The Woman Who Came Back, in spite of a solid start, ultimately fails for no other reason than it loses its nerve.
The movie goes far out of its way to convince us that the old woman who boards the bus at the start of the film must be the ghost of Jezebel Trister. After all, how could it be a coincidence that the woman flagged down the bus late at night, found her way back through the darkened cabin to Lorna Webster’s seat, called her by name and identified herself as the witch condemned by Lorna’s ancestor 300 years earlier — and this during Lorna’s first trip to Eben Rock in many years? How could it be coincidence that the bus crash happens at the very next instant, that the old woman’s body is not found among those of the victims, or that her shawl was given to Lorna afterwards, or that the old woman’s dog is stalking her?
It’s too much for us to chalk up as coincidence. But at the very end, the movie declares nervously that it was all coincidence. It is so eager to reassure, to prove that Matt Adams, the sober advocate for 20th-century reason, is right, that it ironically tosses reason itself on the trash heap.
But let’s not beat up on this Val Lewtonish programmer too much, since it tries harder than many of its contemporaries. While never flashy, it’s solid right through to the end, and sports a pretty good cast.
Nancy Kelly is quite compelling as the troubled Lorna – not an easy task, given that our kindest interpretation of Lorna is that she’s an emotional train wreck. The stolid John Loder serves as her emotional counterweight, grounding her in the rational positivism of the 20th century and gainsaying the inevitable accusations of supernatural causes. Otto Kruger and Ruth Ford also stand out.
Synopsis: Driving her car too fast on a rain-slick road, ballet dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) careens down an embankment and is critically injured in the crash. The doctors treating her declare that she will likely not survive. Her only hope, they say, is brilliant surgeon Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). But Vollin, who has retired from practice in favor of medical research, refuses. Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), appeals to his pocketbook and then his humanity, to no avail. Only the news that Vollin’s rivals concede his superiority convinces him to perform the operation.
Weeks later, Jean has fully recovered. Though she is awed by Vollin’s talent, and grateful for her new lease on life, she is nonetheless uncomfortable with Vollin’s growing personal interest in her. Judge Thatcher notices the same thing, and warns Vollin to stay away from Jean.
Vollin, enraged that Thatcher would be so ungrateful as to stand in the way of what he desires, begins to plot his revenge, and before long he finds that an unexpected visitor has turned up at his door, one who will help move his plan forward.
The visitor is easily recognized by anyone who reads the newspapers — he is a fugitive named Bateman (Boris Karloff) and he has heard that the brilliant doctor can alter his appearance and allow him to avoid detection. Vollin changes the man’s appearance, all right — by severing a critical nerve, he causes one side of Bateman’s face to sag like that of a stroke victim. He then tells the fugitive that he will repair the nerve damage only if he assists him in meting out revenge against Jean, her fiancee and Judge Thatcher.
Vollin arranges for Jean’s family and friends to visit him over a long weekend. They do not suspect that Vollin is a man obsessed with death and torture — nor that he has a trick house with iron shutters that can trap its occupants inside — and downstairs, a collection of torture devices inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe…
Comments: We’ve been having so much fun picking apart poverty row cheapies and indie drive-in fodder and the Val Lewton knock-offs lately that it escaped my notice that the early Universal horror films have completely disappeared from the schedule.
The Raven used to turn up pretty regularly, but its last appearance on the show was over a year ago — on June 19, 1971. In fact, none of the films that anchor the vaunted Shock! package — Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, et al — have been seen on the show for at least that long.
I feel oddly grateful to see an old Universal Golden Age feature like this one turn up again. Thank you for coming back, The Raven! I promise to nicer to you from now on.
And we should be nice to The Raven, a movie that tries really hard to live up to its source material but which can’t quite do it. The poem The Raven isn’t long on plot, after all. You can’t really make a movie about a morose guy who obsesses over “lost Lenore” until a raven shows up and says one word over and over.
All the same, there seems to be a deliberate effort to make Poe’s work the center of this movie, rather than an afterthought — as it clearly was in The Black Cat. In that film, there was no trace of the classic Poe short story whatsoever, the titular cat only dragged into a couple of scenes to justify the use of the title. Here, Dr. Vollin is a Poe-obsessed nutcase who has not only built an entire functioning Poe-inspired torture chamber in his (surprisingly spacious) basement, but has also equipped the house with steel shutters that can trap occupants inside and even a room with walls that can close in and crush its unlucky inhabitants (this probably counts as another torture device, but certainly not a portable one). Vollin quotes from “The Raven” during his first scene in the movie; in another, ballet dancer Jean builds an entire performance around the poem, knowing it is Vollin’s favorite. Later in the film we get Vollin’s triumphant (though somewhat puzzling) shout, “Poe! You are avenged!”
This movie was a follow up to the highly successful Poe outing The Black Cat, and like that earlier film Karloff was better paid than Lugosi (in fact, he reportedly earned twice Lugosi’s salary). Both actors play opposite roles from the ones they did previously; Karloff is the essentially good but tormented man this time, while Lugosi is the cruel antagonist.