CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
Producer-director Walter Colmes wasn’t Val Lewton and Republic Pictures wasn’t R.K.O., but “The Woman Who Came Back” (1945) is still a good stab at duplicating the Lewton formula of atmosphere and mood over fake-fur and fangs. This tale of the young woman who her fellow townsfolk believe to be a witch also had some good things to say about the malign power of gossip, mass hysteria and mob-action.
Nancy Kelly played Lorna Webster, the last survivor of what was once Eben Rock’s gentry. As the film opens, she is returning home after having been away for a while. Months? Years? The script by Dennis J. Cooper never really spells that out. An encounter with a weird old woman who sits next to her on the bus, and the subsequent crash of the bus into a lake, resulting in the deaths of all on board except Lorna ignites in her mind the belief that the dead old woman may have possessed her, and sets the townsfolk to wondering why Lorna, the outsider, the stranger returned after sojourning in strange places, was the only one whose life was spared.
Kelly does a nice job of depicting Lorna’s growing unease, then hysteria, as things start falling into place. But do they really? Did those fresh-cut flowers really wither in her presence? Is that strange dog that follows her about really a familiar? Is she really Lorna or is she now Jezebel Trister–witch returned from beyond to seek vengeance on the town that condemned her 300 years before?
For a while it’s a question of belief. Do you believe that you can curse people and will them to sicken and die? Do you believe that a stray dog is really a supernatural entity? While the Lewton crew would have allowed it be played both ways, Colmes opts for a more rational explanation. That weird old lady? Not Jezebel Trister, just an escaped mental patient who once lived in Eben Rock and knew the Trister story. Was the real Jezebel Trister a witch? No. The town’s minister and resident antiquarian uncovers the journal kept by the judge who presided at the trials–an ancestor of Lorna’s no less–in which he all but admits that he forced a false confession out of the woman to give credence to his own beliefs in witchcraft. Oh and the dog–he belonged to the old woman and was trying to direct the townspeople to the spot where her drowned body lay unburied.
So what we have here is a happy/unhappy ending in which Lorna realizes that she isn’t possessed or going mad–but the hatred towards her expressed by fellow citizens? Well, that will linger we suspect, and the burnt Jezebel Trister’s curse may well have found its fulfillment in their actions.