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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Back From the Dead (1957)

My notes on Back From the Dead (1957)

One of the dwindling number of pre-1980 mainstream English-language horror films I’d somehow never seen.  Most references to it I’d come across are dismissive and the only print I could find (online, of course) makes a hash of its former Regalscope widescreen dimensions (some confrontation scenes are fixed on the empty space between characters who’ve been cropped from the frame).  Director Charles Marquis Warren mostly made Westerns (Arrowhead, Tension at Table Rock), but this was one of a double-bill (with The Unknown Terror) of horror items he made in 1957.  Screenwriter Catherine Turney has a bit of a melodrama track record (Cry Wolf, One More Tomorrow, A Stolen Life) and adapted her own novel (The Other One) here.  She later did a couple of One Step Beyond shows, so she might have had an interest in the paranormal – this is an entry in the possessed-by-an-evil-person cycle (Supernatural, The Phantom Speaks, The Possession of Joel Delaney) which also has some Rebecca frills.

Kate Hazelton (Marsha Hunt) narrates – her sister Mandy (Peggie Castle) is married to slightly brooding Dick Anthony (Arthur Franz) and they move into a clifftop home in an exclusive community where the pregnant woman falls under the influence of Dick’s dead first wife Felicia.  In a conceptually shocking scene, Dick is compelled to play Felicia’s favourite record – an eerie/jazzy theremin dirge some critics hate but I think is terrific (Raul Kraushaar) – and dozing Mandy has an epileptic fit that brings on a miscarriage.  When she wakes up, she’s Felicia and doesn’t even try to hide it – a refreshing angle is that everyone goes by the evidence and accepts the situation, while the business of Felicia showing how rotten she is is complicated by a ton of backstory/mystery involving hulking architect neighbour John Mitchell (Don Haggerty), formerly-wealthy neighbour widow Nancy Cordell (Marianne Stewart), Felicia’s parents (good Dad James Bell, evil Mom Helen Wallace) and a cult guru called Maitre Renault (Otto Reichow), who offers to help Kate with an exorcism but is actually scheming to get Mandy/Felicia back in his cult of hooded robe-wearing chanters.

Castle, pert and blonde in most of her roles (cf: The Beginning of the End), gets to play wicked woman impressively, sometimes with lighting effects changing her look, and Felicia is an interesting villainess, a Rebecca who is actually around to keep doing the damage to her husband after she’s gone (her mother fills the Mrs Danvers role).  Making the sister the viewpoint character is a very women’s gothic novel trope, and Hunt – in sharp suits and tailored dresses – is a tougher presence than Franz’s muscle shirted milksop of a husband (it’s not quite clear whether he’s excited to have his sexy/horrible first wife back) and handles most of the heroic action in tandem with Mitchell, who was slightly culpable in Felicia going over the cliff in the first place (he rebuffed her) but also stands around in such a way as to take the edge off Kate’s perhaps busybodying in her sister’s marriage (a nice, creepy moment has Felicia impersonate Mandy to dupe Kate into bludgeoning range).

Reichow’s curiously-accented cult leader and Stewart’s cast-off sucker/victim/slave are good too, suggesting a bigger story (or material from the novel) beyond the main menage – though a token character (Evelyn Scott) is roped in to be threatened with sacrifice in the ritual finale well after it’s too late to make us care about anyone outside the core group.  It slightly fits into the Bridey Murphy-inspired past regression cycle of the 1950s, and it’s unusual as a horror film explicitly pitched to female audiences.  Turney’s A Stolen Life, about good and bad twins played by Bette Davis, also has thematic ties to this lower-end studio picture.  A few elements – the loss of the baby, the murder of Mandy’s loved dog (who, of course, hates Felicia) – are strong stuff for 1957, though rather tactfully presented.

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