Back from the Dead, Charles Marquis Warren

Feminine Discontents in ‘Back from the Dead’ and ‘The Other One’

Catherine Turney, a top-drawer writer of classic films about strong women, adapts her supernatural novel The Other One for Back from the Dead.

Back from the Dead
Charles Marquis Warren
Kino Lorber
21 May 2024
The Other One
Catherine Turney
January 1953

“Before I knew about this house and what went on inside those dark walls, I refused to believe that such things existed, certainly not now in the 20th Century in America. But now I know they do exist and will always exist as long as there is evil in the world and those who prefer evil to good.”

So begins the opening narration of Charles Marquis Warren’s Back from the Dead (1957), now arriving as a Kino Lorber Blu-ray for the first time on home video and rescued from the clutches of unwatchable prints. Back from the dead, or at least from cinematic purgatory.

Warren was a writer and director who specialized in Westerns on big and small screens. For example, he was mainly responsible for establishing the style of Gunsmoke’s first season (1955-56). He’d left that series and formed his own company, Emirau Productions when he landed a contract for several films at 20th Century Fox. His first films under that contract were Back from the Dead and its co-feature, The Unknown Terror.

Fox seemingly wanted to cash in on a horror boom, while Warren had no affinity for the genre. He seems less the “auteur” behind Back from the Dead than does its writer, Catherine Turney, who was adapting her 1952 novel The Other One. As a longtime screenwriter, Turney specialized in strong female leads like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, and Joan Crawford. The Other One, later reissued as Possessed, is her only novel.

It so happens, Dear Reader, that my tireless dedication has led me to dig out my old, unread paperback copy of The Other One and race through it. Let’s examine the book first.

The Other One (1952) by Catherine Turney

Catherine Turney’s novel is a tale of ghostly possession owing a few tricks to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. I note three similarities. First, the opening lines of Turney’s novel are the narrator’s discussion of returning to the events in her dreams. Second, Turney’s evil influences are a dead first wife and an older woman who enables her with sapphic (and, in this case, incestuous) undertones. Finally, a revelation about how the wife died bears similarities to Rebecca’s death, and there’s even an issue involving pregnancy. It’s as though Turney is writing the supernatural variation that Du Maurier couldn’t.

Turney’s narrator is Kate Hazelton, a self-supporting fashion buyer in her early 30s. Her younger sister, Miranda, happily marries an advertising man named Dick, and they abruptly relocate from Los Angeles to his hometown of Carmel, California, where Miranda gets pregnant. One telling difference between the novel and the film is that the film pronounces the word “pregnancy”, while the book doesn’t use that word. However, the book does use the word “bitch”.

The visiting Kate discovers vague evil influences sapping the couple’s energy, and these strange lethargies and spiritual possessions reach a climax during Miranda’s epileptic attack and miscarriage. From that point, Miranda claims to be the dead Felicia, of whom she’s had no knowledge. That’s when Dick spills the beans that Felicia is his dead first wife, who drowned six years ago on the same date. By the way, she, too, had a miscarriage at five months. The Other One never develops these implications, but we may conclude that fear of pregnancy or inability to give birth successfully is at least a buried motive.

Dick never mentioned Felicia because he didn’t wish to, and now he admits he felt compelled beyond his will to return to Carmel and to play the damnable recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, which triggered Miranda’s breakdown. Surely, Turney mistakes this for the Piano Concerto No. 2, since it turns out that Felicia played piano and that hypnotic music makes more sense for this purpose.

Anyway, mysterious baleful influences render Dick a weak and ineffective player during 99 percent of the narrative. The strong, active Kate successfully Nancy-Drews everything, conducts interviews with all kinds of Carmel locals, and throws fear into the evil forces. To be sure, she’s also nearly derailed by attempts on her life and by strange depressive lethargies that incapacitate her, but she’s rescued from these by mystical reverberations from her sister’s spirit.

By contrast, the film version has one murder attempt and one brief paralysis, from which she’s rescued by a strong man putting his hands on her. One unsatisfactory result of the script’s telescoping of the same materials is that Kate is hardly our POV character anymore. She narrates the opening voice-over and is present for much of the action, but she’s also sidelined as some events are presented outside her knowledge. Back from the Dead makes her more of a bystander than the action hero she was in the novel.

The Carmel atmosphere is a strong element in The Other One, along with the gallery of supporting players. The events involve devil worship, a sex cult, and the threat of blood sacrifice under a goat’s watchful eye. The kitchen-sink notions of witchcraft and devil worship can’t help throwing in references to Haitian “devil dolls” and even Indian Buddhism since all mystic “superstitions” seem to be related. This mixing and matching is par for the genre.

We also get revelations of Felicia’s “unpleasant” “sensuality” even as a child. She arranges the loss of her virginity at age ten and claims rape, then gets expelled from boarding school as an “unhealthy influence” on another girl, and as a late teen, makes passes at her anguished daddy, who only resists by having a breakdown. These revelations are framed as the father’s “confession”.

The sexual elements feel like strong brandy for the early ’50s, though the prose is no more than serviceable if effective Had-I-But-Known-ing. One chapter includes a Byron quotation, as we’re given the intriguing information that Kate and Miranda’s mother used to read them Byron, which they didn’t understand. Turney wrote a play about Byron in the ’30s (Bitter Harvest) and would later write Byron’s Daughter: A Biography of Elizabeth Medora Leigh (1975).

The Other One works as a swift, pulpy melodrama about conflicts between powerful women, most of whom are attracted to some guy or other who never seems important. Certainly, Dick comes across as no prize, and he’s even less so in Back from the Dead. More than anything, the cliff-laden and fogbound scenario of The Other One feels driven by sexual undertows that threaten to pull their characters beneath the rocky waters of identity.

Back from the Dead (1957)

In adapting her novel, Turney is obliged to telescope the action from a few weeks to a few days while dropping almost all the icky sexual stuff. The first quality is probably good for the telling; the second, not so much. After the opening narration quoted above, repeated more or less directly from the novel, Kate’s voice-over continues as it probably shouldn’t:

“No matter what race or creed, we believe in God. We pray to Him to help us in time of need. They must worship in their secret places and make their ghastly sacrifices under cover of night. The sea is far below. The rocks are sharp. No trace will ever be found. But I knew nothing about all that when I first arrived. I was planning to have a happy relaxed vacation in this beautiful spot with two people very close to me, my brother-in-law and my sister Mandy.” Mandy may be short for Miranda, but nobody in the movie ever says Miranda, and nobody in the book says Mandy.

After the camera shows us the house where evil things happen, we go inside for a glimpse of a young woman on an Expressionistic altar about to be sacrificed by a robed man with a scimitar. She’s not naked, of course, though a corresponding scene in the novel has nudity. Or rather, the trailer shows us this part (available on YouTube, not on the disc), which has been cut from the final edit. What Back from the Dead shows is the scimitar, then the victim’s blanket-wrapped body tossed over a cliff. All this makes no particular sense and seems designed only to give us a more shocking thrill than we’ll find in the rest of the proceedings.

I’ve mentioned that Kate (Marsha Hunt) is more neutralized in the screen version, although she’s in most scenes. Peggie Castle plays Mandy/Felicia with a scowl that is either imperious or petulant. Arthur Franz’s Dick is a non-entity and a more annoying peremptory figure than in the novel. Also not much help is Kate’s putative love interest, the gruff John Mitchell (Don Haggerty), though he serves a plot purpose.

Not making much impact is Molly Prentiss (Evelyn Scott), a confused friend of Mandy’s whose role is much reduced. In The Other One, she brings a beagle named Copper into the story. In Back from the Dead, Copper is a sheepdog who does little but get sacrificed offscreen. The film’s Mrs. Corodell (Marianne Stewart) conveniently combines two characters of the novel, one a cultist and one an alcoholic gossip.

The most unsatisfactory transition applies to Felicia’s parents in The Other One, the powerful mastermind Mrs. Bradley (Helen Wallace) and her weakling husband (James Bell). Back from the Dead reduces them both severely, and the means by which they’re written out of the script can only be called vague and confusing.Finally, there’s cult guru Maitre Renault (Otto Reichow), who was called Father Reynaud in The Other One. His appetites and the jealousies they spark are another cause of the goings-on.

What Back from the Dead lacks in narrative conviction is partly made up in widescreen black-and-white photography by the legendary Ernest Haller (Oscar winner for Gone with the Wind and nominee on several others); fabulous Laguna Beach locations that make us wish the budget had sprung for color; spiffy Midcentury Modern designs by art director James W. Sullivan and set decorator G.W. Berntsen; and the nervous-breakdown score by Raoul Kraushaar, which drops Rachmaninoff in favor of what sounds like a theremin. The implication is that avant-garde music opens the door to ghostly possession and satanic follies.

The widescreen HD mastering on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray means Back from the Dead may look better now than when it played in theatres. The disc comes with two commentary tracks. The one by historians Tom Weaver, Gary D. Rhodes, and Larry Blamire observe echoes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (which came out the following year) and Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944), a ghost story that also opens with ocean shots. Weaver also finds inspiration in The Search for Bridey Murphy (1956), directed by Noel Langley from Morey Bernstein’s bestseller.

The commentary by historians David Del Valle and Dana M. Reemes focus on the novel and reverberations with other possession and reincarnation movies, such as Victor Halperin’s Supernatural (1933), Paul Wendkos’ The Mephisto Waltz (1971), Waris Hussein’s The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972) and J. Lee Thompson’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975).

Kudos to Kim Newman’s review, which not only picks up the Rebecca nods but points out that Turney’s script for Curtis Bernhardt’s A Stolen Life (1946), in which Bette Davis plays a bad twin who takes over her good twin’s life, foreshadows the Good Wife/Bad Wife shenanigans of Back from the Dead. I wish I’d thought of it, but I didn’t have to.

Back from the Dead, which gets its job done in under 80 minutes, reminds me of two films I like better: Will Jason’s The Soul of a Monster (1944) starring Rose Hobart, and Val Lewton and Mark Robson’s chilling The Seventh Victim (1943) starring Kim Hunter and Jean Brooks. If you only watch one sister-lost-to-Satanism story, let it be Lewton’s near-masterpiece. On the other hand, why not collect them all?

I recommend reading The Other One if you’re interested in Back from the Dead. The comparison is instructive. Also relevant to Turney’s work are two episodes she wrote for the anthology One Step Beyond (1959-61) about ingenues who don’t understand their supernatural powers. “Dead Ringer” is a “dead sister” story. “The Burning Girl” is about pyrokinesis as linked to burgeoning sexuality. Someone needs to write more about Turney’s exploration of feminine discontents.

RATING 5 / 10