“They say places you knew as a child always seem smaller than your memory of them. It's not true!” - Miriam
Again, I guess this is an unusual choice for Shocktober – but this film made a huge impression on me when I first saw it.
It was Christmas/New Year around the time I was ten or eleven. The film was shown on TV in a late night slot and for some reason, my horror movie hating parents allowed me to stay up to watch it, despite the TV announcer gravely warning that the film started with a very gristly scene. (I could only guess what the word “gristly” meant at that age – and my guess was soon proved right.
Overall the film has two scenes that terrified the hell out of me. I can still remember how frightened I was when I saw it, despite the fact that the film might well seem relatively tame by today’s standards. I remember clearly NOT wanting to see what happened when a decapitated head rolled down a spiral staircase, but I had to. I NEEDED to see what was happening, as much as I needed to know that “everything worked out all right at the end” for the sake of my own sanity and peace of mind. And for me to get to that point of mental tranquillity, I had to endure the horrors that would unfurl between the titles (after the gristly opening scene) and the credits. But man, this film played on my mind for months afterwards – literally months.
Eventually, within about eighteen months, I’d see all manner of freakish cinematic creations from the hallowed grounds of Universal Studios and the house of Hammer – but this psychological thriller on my first viewing back when I was a child, shook me more than anything else I had seen up to that point and beyond. I guess you never forget your first.
So, essentially what we have here is a good slice of American gothic. Set in a plantation house, filmed in atmospheric monochrome with a solid cast and Bette Davis’s character going steadily crazier at the top of the bill. Perfection.
The film starts off with a lengthy pre title sequence, starting in 1927, with a meeting between the plantation owner, Hollis played by Victor Buono and a nervous and twitchy young man , John (Bruce Dern).
John is having an affair with Hollis’s young daughter Charlotte and they plan to elope at a party to be held at the Hollis mansion the following day. An added problem in the scenario is that John is already married to a lady named Jewel, who has already been to see Hollis about the affair. Hollis demands that the elopement be called off. John reluctantly agrees and at the night of the party tells his young lover that he won’t be leaving with her. Angry, she says she could kill him.
Alone and despondent, he mulls until someone we can’t see approaches him. Obviously someone he recognises. He is butchered with a meat cleaver. His right hand and his head severed in the attack. In the next scene we see Charlotte walk into the crowded ballroom, her dress covered in blood.
We then move on to the (then) present day – 1964, where a much older Charlotte still occupies the mansion, alone but for her maid Velma (Agnes Moorhead) who’s as borderline batcrap crazy as Charlotte herself seems to be.
The locals all believe that Charlotte killed her lover that night, and her father had her sent to London for a while to avoid prosecution. The Highway Commission have tried repeatedly to evict Charlotte from the mansion, wanting to put a road right through the space it occupies, but she has so far ignored all their demands to quit the property. Now, as the bulldozers are ready to demolish the building, she calls for help from a poor cousin who spent her childhood there. This is Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) Charlotte’s only living relative, who immediately comes home to the plantation, reacquainting herself with the local doctor – an ex, who jilted Miriam after the murder.
The tension and the horror mount as Charlotte descends deeper and deeper into madness, convinced she hears a harpsichord at night playing the song John had written for her. She also encounters his severed hand and in one scene that played over and over in my head as a child, John’s severed head rolling down the spiral staircase, coming to rest at Charlotte’s feet while she virtually screams the house down. (Really – what the hell were my parents thinking?) There’s one point where Charlotte actually sees the beheaded corpse stumbling toward her, reaching out with its bloody stump.
As the film continues, we learn, surprisingly that the good doctor and the seemingly saintly Miriam aren’t all they seem to be. Miriam witnessed the betrayed Jewel murdering her husband with a cleaver all those years ago and has been blackmailing her ever since. Now, she’s plotting with the doctor to drive Charlotte insane to get their money on the family fortune. They’ve been using dummy props and drugs to push Charlotte further and further down a dark path, and the only person there to help was the seemingly hysterical and deranged Velma, whom Miriam murders.
Eventually, the confined Charlotte overhears them from her bedroom window and now knows what’s being planned and she realises that she’s been betrayed by those closest to her. As they look up and see her. They realise she knows everything now – just as she pushes a large ornamental stone urn of flowers over the balcony, killing them both.
The authorities show up the following morning, presumably to take Charlotte to an asylum, but she walks out of the house with pride and dignity in front of all the townspeople who’ve come to gawk. In the final scene, she’s handed a written confession from Jewel, confessing to John’s murder. She smiles.
It’s a powerful, affecting drama. Perfectly cast, perfectly played – but for some reason it tends to be overlooked. Seriously, what an introduction to horror I had.
You can click on this link to purchase the movie.
Copyright © 2010 - 2016 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.