Guest Star

Campus Conjuring

This week Guest Star Kate Laity writes about Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (1943) and two lesser known adaptations.

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I’m currently writing about Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife and the 1962 film based on it, Night of the Eagle, AKA, Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962). It’s a pity there are no special edition releases of academic publications, where you can show all the glories that were sacrificed for the word count, or have behind-the-scenes featurettes of the cool research that didn’t make it into the final publication, or the hilarious flubs where you mistakenly connected things that had no earthly reason to be connected except in your brain (which has a soup of undigested galaxy-pinging resonances that you will not be able to explain for a couple more years [maybe] but you know are on the right track). Alas, I suspect the idea of director’s cut academic essays will not be likely to catch on. The Cultural Gutter, however, gave me an excuse to look at two other, less-celebrated films also based on Conjure Wife. If you’re not familiar with the book, run out and buy it. It’s so much fun. The short version: college professor discovers his success may be due to his wife’s witchcraft, learned from a New Orleans houngan (in the ’62 film it’s a Jamaican obeah), then discovers she’s not the only witch on their quiet little campus and—well, shenanigans ensue.

1980’s Witches’ Brew seems to want to be a horror comedy: IMDB lists it as one, despite all evidence to the contrary. It stars Richard Benjamin and a criminally underused Terri Garr. If you have the transplendent Garr in a film and don’t give her a single opportunity to be funny, there ought to be a trial in The Hague or at least Burbank. To be fair, no one gets a laugh in this so-called comedy. While I prefer Benjamin behind the camera, he can be funny though this 80s fad of trying to turn him into a leading man is just one of the many mysteries of that era. This was Lana Turner’s last film, alas. She plays the witch mentor to a trio of harpies who are all so busy attacking each other they barely notice the men on whose behalf they’re supposedly working. The film is a manifestation of male rage at Second Wave feminism: all women are witches who would kill one another because they’re all in competition for a man. Can I say something positive? There is a kind of cool ‘witch egg’ that’s narratively pointless. The body-swapping motif, managed so adroitly in the novel, is clunky and of course, it’s the man who saves the day instead of the witch and the scholar using their strengths together.

1944’s Weird Woman is far more enjoyable. I’m not a huge fan of Lon Chaney, Jr. but he does have a sort of magnetic, bearish single-mindedness that ends up being interesting sometimes. The film is part of the Inner Sanctum series, as Joe Dante over at Trailers from Hell explains, each shot in less than two weeks on a miniscule budget. In addition to Chaney, there’s the wide-eyed Anne Gwynne as his South Seas bride. In Brenda Weisberg’s script Paula is the daughter of an anthropologist with whom Chaney’s Norman Reed studied as a grad student. After her father’s death she’s raised by the local high priestess in the island ways. In the first flashback, Norman has returned to the island to check out those Polynesian ritual dances, which according to Heather Greene in Lights, Camera, Witches (new expanded edition forthcoming in October) circumvented the Production Code Administration rules about scanty clothing and seductive dancing because they showed ‘native life’: this ‘othering’ of both magic and wild women became a sub-genre itself (a topic for another time).

Norman takes the grown-up wild girl back to New England as his wife. The film opens with a Lewton-esque sequence of the skittish Paula hastening down darkened streets trying not to be seen. Once home she sneaks up the stairs past her professor husband who’s busy at work in his study in a silk robe and pyjamas. You can tell it’s a small college town because everybody has the same silhouette art and floral wallpaper in their houses. I want to imagine a silhouette salesman hitting town and leaving with a big bundle of bills he’s counts while muttering ‘suckers’ over his shoulder. It’s probably due to Universal’s tiny budget for the series, requiring much repurposing of space. Is there only one set, hastily redressed for each scene?”

That is, except for Norman’s study which is full of Indigenous art, almost as if they were trophies to show how his rational, scholarly work has triumphed over the ‘superstition’ of the past. While Paula adds some goofer dust and shells to her bedside altar, Norman scribbles down his thoughts on the latest research. This requires a whispered voiceover from Chaney. Why is he whispering inside his own head? Is he afraid of his thoughts? Or is he afraid the collection of indigenous art that surrounds him might overhear?

His den is strikingly unlike the rest of the house (and all the other houses) and his office in the Administration Building on campus (what?) where he’s got more innocuously ‘academic’ looking accouterments—and randomly, a copy of Alexander Naysmith’s portrait of the Scots poet Robert Burns because…? Who knows. Maybe the fierce masks and spears are a psychological tool to fortify himself against the humungous wide shoulders of the women or their giant sparkly brooches. One of those brooches might go off at any time. Bauble explosions are the worst–glitter everywhere.

[Maybe this is why academics should whisper things inside their own heads…]

Evelyn Ankers’ Ilona Carr has the biggest shoulders and the gaudiest brooches. In another flashback, she’s knocked flat by the sudden reappearance of her assumed-to-be beau Norman with a wife. What a timid feral thing that spouse is, unlike sophisticated witty Ilona, who just about bulldozes over Paula, but it has no effect on clueless Norman. ‘We had fun, didn’t we?’ he tells her, but she’s a sworn enemy now. The woman scorned works to turn everyone against poor little Paula and Norman, too.

She’s helped by the ambitions of Val Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell as Evelyn Sawtelle, who chivvies along her underperforming husband, Millard (Ralph Morgan). As Norman’s newfound fame and publishing success threaten to eclipse her mediocre scholar, she makes trouble for the interloper in their midst. Alerted to Paula’s midnight sojourns, Norman follows her to the cemetery in scene that admirably reproduces Lewton’s most noir sequences. Discovering her secret ritual space, he destroys it and demands she leave the ‘Dark Ages’ and not be ‘enslaved by superstition’; he makes her choose between his solid, rational masculinity and the nurturing mystery of her nurse/high priestess. He smashes even her own protective medallion that had adorned the cover of his boffo book. Far from home, Paula chooses to believe he will protect her.

Of course everything that can go wrong immediately begins to do so. Cue more whispered conferences between Chaney and his doubts. Margaret, the student worker whose ‘romantic twaddle’ he spurns, cries to her jealous boyfriend David, both spurred on by Ilona’s Iago-esque snark. Jealous Ilona tells Evelyn and her husband that Norman is about to reveal Millard’s history of plagiarism so he decides to take his own life (though no one asks whether it might have been Evelyn who actually pulled the trigger). The boyfriend confronts the whispering scholar in the gymnasium as he tries to pummel away his self-doubt. Thanks to Chaney’s deft wrestling moves, the boy accidentally shoots himself.

Golden boy Norman quickly becomes double homicide suspect. Evelyn confronts Paula who’s also menaced by the ‘death chant’ that keeps coming through the phone line. Faced with the furious Norman, holding the delicate flower Paula in his arms after she faints from the death chant, Evelyn admits that Ilona is behind the whisper campaign turning everyone against him. She even had an LP made of the death chant (did she fly out to the islands or steal one of Norman’s recordings? Uncertain.)

They decide to give her a taste of her own medicine by turning to magic, of course. Well, ‘pretend’ magic, that is. Norman, convinced by his own wavering about rationality (‘two steps up and one back—or is it one step up and two back?’), decides to use ‘voodoo’ (sigh) to winkle a confession out of Ilona. With Evelyn’s help, they spring a poppet full of nails on her which will force ‘the woman who lied’ to perish in 13 days ‘one minute after midnight’ when she will be strangled by her own perfidiousness.

The sequence following this setting of the magical ‘hook’ is both comic and unnerving. Throughout the film there’s some clever use of overlaid images—mostly muttering faces on top of Indigenous masks—but it works particularly well here, as does the coincidental (or is it?!) reinforcement of the ticking clock via radio announcers on her enormous white Bakelite radio, handbills on walls, and even—gasp!—skeins of yarn.

Is it magic or her guilty conscious that leads to her dramatic eleventh-hour confession? Sure, there was psychological manipulation, but at precisely a minute after midnight on the fateful day, death strikes again. The conspirators shift uneasily and avoid one another’s glances. In the denouement Norman tells his wife, ‘It’s a bright new day, Paula. We’ll forget all our fears and start fresh.’ The only magic needed is a ‘generous heart and a steady mind’ Norman assures her, but as they lean in for the kiss, they both knock wood on the tree behind them. So much for the supposed triumph of reason.

The film pushes a PCA-approved message of rationality and reason but manages to destablise that message, too. It’s not as polished and atmospheric as a Val Lewton production, but it’s a satisfying story with a lot of fun. There are many enjoyable bits, like a world-weary but slightly cheeky Elisabeth Risdon as Dean of Women, Grace Gunnison. In both films, the women square off with each other over the cauldron. In Witches’ Brew they carry the disdain of the filmmakers, but in Weird Woman we’re allowed to delight in women who want to be bad and to believe that magic might just be an inescapable part of life.

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K. A. Laity is an award-winning author, scholar, critic, editor, and arcane artist. Her books include Chastity FlameLush SituationLove is a GriftSatan’s SororityHow to Be Dull, White RabbitDream Book, A Cut-Throat BusinessOwl Stretching, and Pelzmantel.She has edited My Wandering UterusRespectable HorrorWeird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. Laity serves as History Witch for Witches & Pagans. Her work has been translated into Italian, Polish, Slovene, German and Portuguese.

She writes crime as Graham Wynd and historical fiction as Kit Marlowe.For her music & performance visit Higora and Victoria Squid

Follow her on TwitterInstagram or Facebook. Her podcast Is It Funny? can be found here.

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