#29 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
It’s hard to talk about this movie without completely spoiling its twist because all of its faults center around that twist. It’s not the twist itself that is the problem, it’s that in order for the dramatic impact of the twist to be felt it can’t be a twist. It also doesn’t help that it’s really predictable. That drains the film of any tension (combined with the fact that the director, Jean Yarbrough, didn’t seem particularly adept at it), and you end up with a plodding, hour-long film of little interest.
In Victorian (or Edwardian, it’s hard to tell) London, a household of four women are preparing for one of them to marry. Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is the last in the line of the Allenby family, orphaned and living with a woman who had loved her father, married another man, and then become the Allenby housekeeper, Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden), as well as her daughter Carol (Jan Wiley). It’s not really clear what Martha became after the death of Phyllis’ father, but she functions like she’s the head of the house. They also have a maid, Hannah (Eily Malyon), an older woman who sympathizes with both young women in the house.
Phyllis is engaged to marry the up and coming barrister Barry (Don Porter) while Carol has fallen in love with a penniless chemist Dwight (Martin Kosleck), a situation that Martha detests. She describes the family history to Carol (it’s an exposition dump that involves several people we never see) and how she fears that if Phyllis were to marry Barry it would mean the end of her position in the house, or something. It’s unclear. She does make it clear that she doesn’t want Phyllis to marry Barry or for Carol to marry Dwight. Well, I wonder what she wants to actually happen to help secure her position. Could it be getting Carol to marry the up and coming barrister? The only way to do that would be to get Phyllis out of the way.
And then the murders start happening.
Okay, they actually start beforehand, before the movie even begins, but it’s obvious what’s going on. Martha is behind the murders, and she’s setting Phyllis up psychologically to take the fall, planting evidence after she drugs her every night and taking out her vicious dogs to the park that aligns their property to murder people, including children. There are tales of a woman doing the killing, and we see the gliding view of a woman through the trees as we witness the events outside of the house through the eyes of a handful of police officers, notably Detective Latham (Lloyd Corrigan).
The film plods along as Phyllis grows increasingly convinced that she’s turning into a wolf every night, Barry tries to see her to be rebuffed by her through Martha, and the police get more enthusiastic looking through the park at night. There are some nice shots of the park drenched in fog through this, at least, even if there isn’t an ounce of tension anywhere to be found. The finale comes, and it’s a showdown between Marth and Phyllis. If screenwriter George Bricker and Jean Yarbrough weren’t inspired by Alfred Hitchcock‘s Suspicion, I’ll eat my hat. It’s the obvious form of Hitchcock’s tale, but there’s even a shot of Martha coming up the stairs with a glass of milk on a platter, just like Cary Grant.
Anyway, this movie fails because the mystery is obvious and there’s no real tension. At only an hour in length, there’s no real time to get any kind of character depth, and this kind of psychological thriller really needs that character depth. The biggest problem is that Martha’s motives are (badly) hidden, preventing her from feeling fleshed out. She seems like she’s supposed to be a Mrs. Danvers type character from Rebecca, but she doesn’t have any kind of depth. It’s all because for the twist to work, the filmmakers have to hide a whole lot about her from the audience. It doesn’t work because it’s too obvious, but the effort is there and Martha suffers. Imagine an alternate version of this movie where it becomes a battle of wits between the increasingly weak Phyllis and the increasingly bold and deranged Martha, complete with wolf killings. That could have worked.
This doesn’t though. The veil around Martha robs the story of the real drama. Yarbrough can’t build tension to save his life here. Performances largely don’t matter, though they are capable. It’s just that there’s nothing to really grasp onto. I can see why horror aficionados would be disappointed, but I don’t mind where the film goes. I just mind how it gets there.