Saturday, March 20, 2010

Die! Die! My Darling!

(UK, 1965, 97 minutes)

Starring Tallulah Bankhead, Stefanie Powers, Peter Vaughan, Donald Sutherland, Yootha Joyce, Maurice Kaufmann.

Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on the novel ‘Nightmare’ by Anne Blaisdell.

Directed by Silvio Narizzano.

During the latter portion of my senior year in prep school, I began to hang out regularly with one of the coolest punk rock chicks I have ever known, a true force of nature with a name to match. She had actually graduated the year before, but both of her parents worked at the school and their house was just over a wooded hill past the football field. Taking advantage of my senior-privileged freedom in the post-dinner hours when everyone else was required to be studying, I’d mosey on over to her place and we’d watch movies, listen to music, have a little beer or grass, and even fool around a bit. (Incidentally, I have no idea where her parents, including her football coach father, were during all of this, because I could have been in several different kinds of hurt if I’d been caught.)

Sometimes we’d wander towards town and on several occasions, one in particular that I recall taking place as we hung out on the loading dock of the local post office, we talked about an idea she had for a movie to be called Alice and Basil. It was to be a horror flick in which we would play the titular couple, a vampire queen and her Renfield-like assistant hiding in the modern world of punk rock. Two of my favorite aspects were a minor plot point involving Basil’s ability to remove his own hand, thereby escaping from police cuffs whenever necessary, and a scene in which I would get up on stage and sing a tribute to her in the form of the Misfits song ‘Die! Die! My Darling!’

Now that it’s become apparent why I padded the review with that story, I have to admit that it has nothing to do with the film at hand; neither, beyond the title, does the Misfits song. In fact, Die! Die! isn’t even a horror movie so much as Hammer Studios’ entry in the mini-genre begun by Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in which older actresses get their psycho on. The grande dame in this case is the notorious Tallulah Bankhead, and she’s the main reason why this is worth a look.

Stefanie Powers, probably most famous for the jetset detective series Hart to Hart with Robert Wagner, plays Patricia Carroll, an American who has just arrived in England with her new fiancé, Allan (Kaufmann). Against his wishes, she has agreed to pay a visit to the mother of her previous, now dead fiancé Stephen. Mrs. Trefoile (Bankhead) lives on a large isolated estate in a small town. She disapproves of just about everyone in that town right down to the minister, and so her only companions are her staff, Harry the groundskeeper (Vaughan) who was related somehow to the late Mr. Trefoile, Harry’s wife Anna (Joyce) who keeps the house, and assistant groundskeeper Joseph (Sutherland, who doesn’t have much to do but manages to portray his developmentally disabled character in a fairly compassionate fashion).

Patricia has agreed to meet Mrs. Trefoile out of a sense of decorum (and to gain a personal feeling of what is all-too lazily referred to as closure these days), but it becomes immediately apparent that Mrs. Trefoile is a full-blown religious fanatic (Fanatic was the film’s original British title), who has only called the young woman to her abode in order to make sure that her son was “pure” when he died and that his former betrothed both is so and intends to remain so for when she meets up with her “husband” in heaven. When Patricia decides she is only willing to play along up to a certain point, Mrs. Trefoile has Anna lock her in an upstairs room and proceeds to starve and terrorize her into submission/repentance.

This is pretty tame for a “private prison” movie (I’m not sure who originated that term, but I first came across it at Rob Firsching’s now seemingly defunct Amazing World of Cult Movies site): no chambers of medieval horror, no excruciating sexual sadism. True, the lecherous Harry does try to take advantage at one point and those with a low tolerance for scripture might disagree about the torture thing, but this is less about voyeuristic thrills than it is about a wall of repression that begins to disintegrate when the real world comes knocking one day. Mrs. Trefoile is a former performer who was “saved” from a life of “decadence” by her late husband who then died as soon as their son was born, leaving her with a fucked up sense of propriety and the poor boy with a mother who instantly transferred her dependence on her husband to him. And it turns out most of the house is infected: Harry doesn’t hesitate to cater to Mrs. Trefoile even as he secretly dreams of murdering her; Anna covets Patricia’s finery but takes special pleasure in destroying it at Mrs. Trefoile’s command. Comparatively, Joseph is doing well; he may have trouble telling which end of a book is up, but he’s a hell of a lot happier than anyone else in the accursed place.

So, those looking for something more along the lines of The Sinful Dwarf or Nightmare Circus are going to be disappointed, and others may find it a bit frustrating as well, not because it isn’t any good – at the very least it qualifies as an acceptable timewaster – but because of the film’s own crisis of identity. There’s a halting element of camp that appears and disappears as jarringly as the harpsichord that sometimes blares on the soundtrack, characteristic of the way that the film just never quite hits its mark…with one considerable exception. An exception named Tallulah.

Bankhead was as famous for her antics in life as she was for her acting. Sexual dalliances, hard partying and a general take-no-shit attitude won her both friends and enemies, and while her salad days were long behind her when she made this, her final film appearance in a career spent primarily on the stage, you can still see the dynamo at work. The irony of Mrs. Trefoile’s dead certainty is the uncertainty that lurks beneath it, and Bankhead lets the audience glimpse that private side, but she skillfully prevents it from ever overshadowing the monstrosity. With her famed rasp and clipped, regal movements (even the way she takes off her glasses is menacing), one wonders how Patricia could have thought for a moment that the woman wasn’t a danger to her or even more how it could have taken Harry so long to conclude that she was, indeed, quite “barmy.” Bankhead proved with this role that she was still an actress to be reckoned with, and it is to my chagrin that I will never have to chance to get her together with that wonderful punk rock chick of my younger years, kindred forces of nature, and sing ‘Die! Die! My Darling’ to the both of them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

11:39 PM  

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