Leading lady Wanda Hendrix, a contract player in the ‘40s and ‘50s with Warner Bros. and Paramount, is best known to film historians for her marriage to WWII war hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy. The storybook marriage—on which the ‘50s gossip sheets thrived—was over in seven months; the controversy surrounding the marriage—Audie’s wartime PDST issues caused outbreaks of marital violence—instigated irreparable harm to Hendrix’s career from which she never recovered.
As did ‘40s starlet Veronica Lake, Hendrix made guest appearance on television series during the ‘60s, and then moved into horror films. While Lake made her final bow with Flesh Feast (1970) and Joan Crawford appeared in Trog (1970), Hendrix closed out her career at the age of 44 with this Gothic, Civil War tale originally released as The Oval Portrait.
Based on the Edgar Allen Poe short-story, this minor “old dark house” flick concerns a woman, Lisa Buckingham (Hendrix), who attends the reading of a will at her uncle’s home. She soon becomes “possessed” by the soul her cousin Rebecca, depicted—and trapped—inside an oil portrait.
While this meanders with a slowly unfolding plot awash in muddy cinematography (Are the prints bad or was the director attempting to achieve an “atmosphere”?), this Mexican shot and directed tale by Rogelio A. Gonzàlez has a José Mojica Marins-influence crossed with Mario Bava-styled horrors (Bava’s Lisa and the Devil comes to mind with its aristocrats dealing with the supernatural and necrophilia) as Lisa’s newfound behaviors—such as finding and wearing Rebecca’s old clothes—cause her cousin, Rebecca’s widow, Joseph, to go off the deep end and dig up Rebecca’s crumbly corpse for a little ballroom dance n’ romance.
Is Rebecca back from the dead for revenge? Is Lisa caught in a Let’s Scare Jessica to Death-inspired drive-her-crazy-for-the-money plot? Is the creepy, Paul Naschy-esque red-herring housekeeper giving Joseph the ol’ Henry James screw turn?
Released in the wake George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead—when horror was “hot” again—Wanda Hendrix was hoping for a big horror hit to revitalize her career. It wasn’t meant to be: three times divorced and childless, she died of double pneumonia at the age of 52 in 1981.
The film’s beautiful score is by Les Baxter, who also scored Cry of the Banshee, Frogs, and the Quentin Tarantino favorite, Switchblade Sisters.
For other A-List actors from the ’40s and ’50s “going horror,” check out Fritz Weaver in The Demon Seed, Edith Atwater in Die Sister, Die, Rock Hudson in Embryo, Mickey Rooney in The Manipulator, and Jeanne Craine in The Night God Screamed.
About the Author: You can read the music and film criticisms of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his rock ‘n’ roll biographies, along with horror and sci-fi novellas, on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.