Thursday, December 2, 2010

Saturday, May 23, 1970: The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

Synopsis: Jean Kingsley (Brenda Joyce) arrives in the small town of Domingo. She's been hired as a nurse / companion to a reclusive blind woman, Zenovia Dollard. Moments after the bus has dropped Jean off in town she bumps into Hal Wentley, an old school friend who has long carried a torch for her. Jean seems uncomfortable seeing him again, and Hal is disappointed that she isn't in town to visit him. But when the expected car from the Dollard mansion doesn't arrive to pick her up, Jean accepts a ride out to the place from Hal.

Dollard's place is far out of town, a creepy house complete with a creepy mute servant named Mario (Rondo Hatton). It seems Miss Dollard has trouble keeping assistants on staff, which might seem surprising given the light duties involved, but might not when you consider there's a freakish-looking manservant skulking around in the shadows. Miss Dollard is troubled to hear that Jean knows someone in town, and expresses the hope that Jean will stay for a long while. She certainly doesn't want Jean to run off and get married, as her last assistant did.

Meanwhile, the local farmers are upset at a wave of cattle deaths that have been occurring throughout the area, deaths that have been left the local soil expert (Milburn Stone) baffled; the cattle deaths indicate that poison plants are growing in the area, yet there are no such plants to be found anywhere. One by one, the farmers conclude that they must sell out before they're ruined.

Back at the mansion, Jean settles into her new duties, which prove to be less than taxing. But she is alarmed by the baleful stares and the unwelcome attention from the grotesque Mario, and puzzled that she sleeps so soundly during the night, almost as if she were drugged.

What she does not suspect is that she is being drugged, every night; what's more, the sinister Miss Dollard is draining her blood each night in order to feed a brood of carnivorous plants in the basement, and that she is using the plants to make a deadly poison....

Comments: Remember Gale Sondergaard? She played the conniving Irene Herrick in The Invisible Man's Revenge, which we saw on April 11. The Minnesota native must have made an impression at Universal when she appeared in a 1944 Sherlock Holmes movie called The Spider Woman. Because the studio decided to use the same character again in a different setting.

Not exactly the same character, mind you; instead of Adrea Spedding of London, Sondergaard was now playing the allegedly blind Zenovia Dollard of Domingo, a wealthy small-town recluse with evil on her mind.

She's trading in poisonous orchids rather than poisonous arachnids this time, but never mind -- Sondergaard was quite good at projecting an outwardly friendly demeanor while suggesting something sinister lurking just beneath the surface.

And she projects just the right sort of menace for this creepy little mystery story, which cleverly uses Jean's vulnerability to ratchet up the suspense. Both Miss Dollard and Mario are interested in Jean for different reasons, neither of which can be described as wholesome.

And the small town of Domingo is shown to add to Jean's sense of isolation and paranoia: when she wants to quietly mail a letter to her predecessor, who left a forwarding address in New York, she is thwarted by the nosy denizens of small-town America, ca. 1946. The Domingo postmaster is suspicious even of her request for an air-mail stamp ("Air mail? Goodness! What's your hurry, miss?").

If I have any complaint about the character of Dollard, it's that she's a little too evil. Don't get me wrong, I love evil women*, but she seems to be trying too hard. Zenovia, honey, isn't it evil enough to drug your hired help so that you can drain her blood in order to breed carnivorous plants so that you can poison the local cattle population? Must you pretend to be blind as well? That's just showing off, darling.

But she is by far the most interesting character in the movie, even more intriguing than Rondo Hatton's glowering Mario. We must fill in a lot of the blanks in Mario's background, and this ambiguity serves the plot well. The movie suggests that he had an overweening interest in some of Miss Dollard's past caretakers; but beyond that we have little to go on. Hatton's performance here is somewhat better than that in House of Horrors; he makes the most of a non-speaking part, conveying a wide range of emotion with some very subtle body language.

Brenda Joyce is best-known as the second actress to play Jane in the Tarzan movies. About her performance in The Spider Woman Strikes Back, I can only say that she is best-known as the second actress to play Jane in the Tarzan movies.

Interestingly, there were originally twelve speaking roles in Spider Woman Strikes Back; five of them were cut out prior to release, and the film was trimmed down to less than an hour. I can't say the brief running time hobbles the narrative. The movie moves along at a good clip, and none of the scenes appear to be superfluous.

The Spider Woman Strikes Back was never released on home video, but there are businesses that will burn DVDs for you from old 16mm prints. The quality isn't stellar, but most of these movies can be had if you are persistent and willing to pay.

The truth is, there is very little you can't find online. One thing I'll say about the internet -- for better or worse, it's good at bringing obsessive people together.


*I even married one! Ha ha! Thank you, folks, thank you, I'll be here all week.

(Actually, at the rate I'm going, I'll be here until the spring of 2020.)


kochillt said...

THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK is yet another title from the dying days of Universal horror, which aired an incredible 8 times on CHILLER THEATER. It took the studio more than two years to bring back Gale Sondergaard for a second stab at the character, and she's truly the whole show. An actor not comfortable with dialogue, Rondo Hatton was coming off HOUSE OF HORRORS (with only THE BRUTE MAN still ahead), now wisely mute again, for the last time. The brief running time drags terribly, as endless scenes of skulking around dark corridors quickly wears thin. Brenda Joyce is just as weak as she was in PILLOW OF DEATH.

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