Saturday, February 4, 2012

In short: Back From The Dead (1957)

Kate Hazelton (Marsha Hunt), her brother-in-law Dick (Arthur Franz) and Kate's pregnant sister Mandy (Peggie Castle) have come to a small coastal town where Dick once lived for a nice, relaxing holiday. Alas, doom hangs over the holiday. Mandy has been hearing voices where there should be none to hear, and soon enough not only loses her child thanks to that particular state of mind, but also loses her identity. Very suddenly, Mandy takes on the personality of Dick's first wife Felicia. Suddenly, she doesn't recognize Kate anymore, violently dislikes the family dog, acts like an unpleasantly manipulative monster and - most horrible of all - calls her husband by the nickname of "Dicken". Clearly, it's a mental problem caused by the shock of losing the baby, the local doctor diagnoses! Yet how come Mandy even knows about Felicia, whom Dick (for semi-understandable reasons, we'll later on learn) never mentioned to her at all?

Things become even stranger once Mandy/Felicia has gotten it into her head to visit Felicia's parents. There, she not only convinces her mother of her identity as Felicia, but Kate and Dick, too, for she knows things about Felicia Mandy has no way of knowing.

Dick is convinced that the whole possession problem is the fault of Felicia's mother for the whole family has been dabbling in the occult, and we all know how these people get when their loved ones die.

Kate and Dick decide they're going to do everything in their powers to get Mandy back, which in practice means they (mostly Kate) are going to do a bit of investigating and will be threatened by supernaturally induced pains, Felicia's unnecessarily murderous nature and a cult leader with a French name and a German accent (Otto Reichow).

Stories about dead women possessing the bodies of their former husbands' new wives aren't exactly typical of US horror movies from the 50s (though not completely unheard of), so Charles Marquis Warren's Back from the Dead already has something going for it with its basic plot. Adding some occultism and quite a few hints at nasty psychological complexity is an even better idea, so I think reading scriptwriter Catherine Turney's novel "The Other One" this is based on lies in my near future, seeing how cheap used paperback copies of the book are. The whole set-up reminds me of something Val Lewton's RKO unit could have done during the 40s.

Unfortunately, the Lewton comparison ends there, because Back from the Dead's execution is by far not as successful and interesting as its script - or at least its script's basic ideas - may promise. Director Charles Marquis Warren isn't doing a horrible job, but he doesn't really seem to know how to produce the creepy mood his material calls for, nor does he do anything to emphasize the psychological (and other) ambiguities the script hints at (the sister rivalry, the sexual tensions, questions of identity etc., etc.). Warren is doing a straight point and shoot job, which is no job at all when it comes to psychologically oriented horror.

And it's not as if the script were perfect. Despite all its innate interest, there are some curious problems and omissions. To just take the obvious example, the film spends next to no time with Mandy as Mandy, making her change into Felicia seem premature and not as dramatic as the film pretends it is, sabotaging any possibility for Peggie Castle to play the two women using one body differently from each other, which would surely have packed more of an emotional punch for the audience.

Nonetheless, if you are able to adjust your expectations accordingly, Back from the Dead is a decent little film that may not fulfil what a promises, but at least tries something without failing completely.


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