Third Time is Definitely NOT the Charm
I suspect we’re all at least somewhat familiar with the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. The Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, these are all iconic figures in the history of our favorite genre. In two separate cycles, from 1931 to 1936, and then from 1939 to 1948, the Universal gang were the first more or less unified cinematic universe, fighting each other as well as villagers carrying torches and pitchforks, monster hunters with stakes and silver bullets and tana leaves, and the occasional sane scientist going up against the mad ones.
Universal also produced a few lesser series, unconnected to the primary bunch of horror films, including the Creeper films of Rondo Hatton, the Captive Wild Woman trilogy, and the six little pictures that are the focus of our attention today. One of them, anyhow.
Since all popular culture in America is in one way or another connected, we have to go back, back, back into the dark and abyss of time that was 1930. Major publishing house Simon & Schuster began issuing mystery novels in that year under the imprint of Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Eleven years later, radio impresario Himan Brown initiated a program under that title that began on January 7, 1941, complete with a creaking door and a sardonic host, the first of his kind, named Raymond Edward Johnson.
In 1944, Universal decided to get in on the fun by casting their new big horror star, Lon Chaney, Jr., in a series of low-budget films under the Inner Sanctum banner. These were distinct tales with no connection to each other, nor to the larger continuity of the Universal Cinematic Universe. The second film, Weird Woman, was the only one with a truly supernatural theme, and the first film adaptation of Fritz Leiber, Jr.’s 1943 novel, Conjure Wife.
Conjure Wife first appeared in the pulp magazine, Unknown Worlds, in the April 1943 issue, and in expanded form has been reprinted many times by numerous publishers. It’s the tale of Norman Saylor, a sociology professor at a small American university. Being a rational man, he objects when he discovers that his wife, Tansy, has been helping his career by the ritual application of magical spells and talismans. He forces her to dispense with all her occult gear and practices, not realizing that the wives of the other faculty members are performing the same services on behalf of their own spouses. Things start to go terribly wrong for Norman’s career until he is forced to admit
Weird Woman downplays some of the supernatural elements in the story but is still quite outré. Frequent Chaney co-star Evelyn Ankers (The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula) appears as one of those arrayed against our hero in a rare villainous performance. Anne Gwynn, who a year later would appear with Chaney in House of Frankenstein, played Norman’s wife, renamed Paula.
The film moves along pretty briskly for its sixty-three-minute length, although like all the Inner Sanctum pictures it slows a bit whenever Chaney indulges in the whispered internal monologue voiceovers that were a feature of the radio program. Those were effective and useful in a purely auditory medium but unnecessary on film. Alas, Chaney insisted on them, and being the BMOL (Big Man on Lot), he got his way.
I’ve not been able to track down the first television adaptation of the novel, a thirty-minute version for the second episode of a minor series called Moment of Fear (aired July 8, 1960). The best adaptation is by far the 1962 British film, Night of the Eagle. Also known as Burn, Witch, Burn, it stars Peter Wyngarde, who initially passed on the role but spotted a flash car he fancied. He reconsidered, asking the exact cost of the vehicle as his fee.
The film itself is quite beautifully mounted, and the script by Twilight Zone collaborator Charles Beaumont doesn’t shy away from the supernatural elements inherent in the story. Night of the Eagle is one of the best English horror movies of the early 1960s.
Alas, nothing as complimentary can be said of the most recent version, a made-for-TV movie from 1980 called Witches’ Brew. Frankly, its cheese factor tends towards the Limburger end of the stinky scale. I recommend sticking with the book itself, and the first two extant adaptations, because the third is not, as the title of this essay indicates, very good.
Oh well. Until next time, then…
Be afraid. Be very afraid.