Tag Archives: Curtis Harrington

Ruby (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: A haunted drive-in.

In 1935, Ruby (Piper Laurie) goes out on a date with her mobster boyfriend Nicky (Sal Vecchio). While they take a walk around a swamp they are ambushed by other mobsters who shoot Rocky dead. 16 years later Ruby is living with her mute daughter Leslie (Janit Baldwin),who was born on the night of the shooting, as well as her lover Vince (Stuart Whitman) and a blind, wheelchair bound ex-mobster Jake (Fred Kohler Jr.). She makes money running a local drive-in theater where strange deaths begin to occur convincing her that Nicky’s spirit has come back from the dead and is now out to destroy her.

The film, which was directed by Curtis Harrington, starts out rocky. The period atmosphere doesn’t seem completely authentic and the editing is choppy. I also didn’t like that everything takes place at night. I wanted more of a visual layout of the drive-in, maybe even a bird’s-eye view and some idea of the town that they lived in, which you never see. The scenes of the swamp don’t look genuine either and like it was all done on an inside soundstage.

Initially I found the ghost effects to be cheesy especially when the projectionist (Eddy Donno) starts seeing things moving around on their own, which came off as too tacky. The film would’ve been better had it not giving it all away right up front that there was a ghostly presence and it instead made it more like a mystery. However, once it started to catch its stride, which happens around the second act, it gets better. I felt the atmosphere was creepy and I enjoyed the spooky visions that Ruby sees of Nicky. Some of the possession scenes that occurs with her daughter Leslie, which comes off like an The Exorcist rip-off, but I’m not going to quibble, are cool too.

The best moment though is when one of the victims, played by Jack Perkins, gets impaled by a metal pole and then hung from the pole onto the outdoor movie screen. It’s cool too the way the camera captures his dead hanging body close-up and then far away where he looks like nothing more than a small fly on a white board. However, with that said there should’ve been some scene showing how they removed the body from the screen as the movie makes it seem like they just left it there, which wouldn’t have gone over well for the paying patrons to have to gaze at a dead body while their movie is playing.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending has a bit of a controversial history. Originally director Harrington wanted to have Ruby and Nicky go off to the swamp hand-in-hand like they had rekindled their romance, but writer/producer Steve Krantz wanted a darker twist, so he hired Stephanie Rothman to film an extended sequence where Ruby gets attacked by Nicky underwater. None of the actors were supportive of this new scene being added on, so they refused to come back for a reshoot forcing the production crew to use a stand-in to replace Piper and a skeleton in the place of Nicky. The scene is short enough that it works and personally I liked that it got added in as ending it on a romantic note seemed too hooky especially for a horror movie.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 23, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 25 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Curtis Harrington

Studio: Dimension Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

The Killing Kind (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Always a good boy.

Terry (John Savage) is an angry man suffering from the inner torment of being sent to prison for a gang rape he was forced to participate in. Once he gets out he moves back in with his oppressive mother (Ann Sothern) who dotes over him and ignores all the troubling signs that he clearly displays. Instead of getting a job he spends his time exacting revenge on those who wronged him and then sets his sights on an attractive young lady (Cindy Williams) who has rented a room in his mother’s house. When Terry ends up murdering her his mother decides to help him cover it up because in her mind he will always be a ‘good boy’ no matter what he does.

The film is cheaply made with faded color, grainy film stock and an annoying humming sound that is apparent throughout, but Curtis Harrington’s direction gives it life and keeps you intrigued with its offbeat approach. It reminded me a lot of Paul Bartel’s Private Parts particularly with its emphasis on voyeurism especially how Terry secretly watches their tenant while the neighbor lady (Luana Anders) does the same to Terry.

Unfortunately there’s not enough of a payoff. The action is spotty and the gore is kept at a minimum. It starts right away with the gang rape, but then steps back with the shocks and pretty much implies all the other dark aspects of the story without showing it. The characters are molded into caricatures and more subtlety could’ve been used as to their intentions particularly the repressed neighbor lady blurting out her inner desires and thoughts to Terry without ever having spoken to him before.

Sothern is impressive especially since she was from Hollywood’s Golden Age and spent years working with sanitized scripts, so seeing her jump into such tawdry material with seemingly no hesitation is interesting. Savage’s performance I found to be frustrating as he seems to play the role like someone we should sympathize with, which is hard to do when he kills so many people.

Williams is the standout. Her murder scene is memorable as she struggles quite a bit and then forced to stay still in stagnant water with the same facial expression for several minutes. Later she’s shown lying in a junkyard as rats crawl over her, which proves she’s a dedicated to her craft to allow herself to go through that.

The ending fizzles and seems almost like a cop-out while not taking enough advantage of the other offbeat scenarios that it introduces. Had I directed it I would’ve done it differently. In my version the nosy neighbor lady, would threaten to go to the police about the crime, which she sees, but says she won’t if Terry, who had rejected her advances earlier, agrees to have sex with her. She then forces both his mother and her wheelchair bound elderly father (Peter Brocco) to watch, which would’ve given this potential cult classic the extra oomph to the dark side that it needed instead of coming tantalizingly close, but never truly delivering.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: June 23, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 34 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Curtis Harrington

Studio: Media Cinema Group

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

whats-the-matter-1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Religious lady goes crazy.

Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) and Helen (Shelley Winters) are two mothers whose sons commit a gruesome murder. Once the two men are convicted the women decide to move across the country, change their names and open up a dance studio. Adelle meets a handsome bachelor (Dennis Weaver) who is full of money, but Helen’s fortunes don’t improve. Instead she wallows in depression while receiving threatening phone calls, which gets her paranoid that someone is out to get them. She tries to seek solace through her religion, but eventually the stress becomes too much and her psychic begins to crack.

The screenplay was written by Henry Farrell famous for penning the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which later became a big screen success. Unlike that one this was written directly for the screen and misses the textured richness of a backstory specifically how the two women first met or how their friendship blossomed.

On the visual level it starts out well and I enjoyed the use of old news reel footage to help introduce the story, but after that it goes into a lull with long, talky takes that fail to generate much excitement. The recreation of the 1930’s setting looks cheap and stagy and the film lacks a cinematic flair to help compliment it’s campy storyline. Originally director Curtis Harrington had implemented visual effects to be used in the transitions between the scenes, which would’ve helped immensely, but the producer hated them and forced them to be taken out.

On the acting end I felt Reynolds was rather boring and stuck playing a character that isn’t very interesting, which made me surprised that she put up $800,000 of her own money just to get it produced. The showy role is clearly Helen’s and Winters plays the part quite well and becomes the film’s main attraction. Usually she would take-on flamboyant-type characters, but this one required her to be more subdued and repressed and she is able to do it magnificently, which only proves what a gifted and versatile performer she was.

There are a few edgy but brief bits including the shot of a dead body that has been run over by a farm plow, which has some pretty good bloody effects. However, the shot showing a close-up of the women’s body who was the victim of the two sons isn’t effective because it supposedly gets posted in a newspaper as a lead in to the article about the crime, but no mainstream publication either then or now would print such a gruesome picture of a victim.

There were also several provocative scenes that got excised in an effort to the attain the GP rating, which included a shot of Winters kissing Reynolds on the lips as well as a murder scene that was originally intended to be much more drawn out than what it ends up being. The film’s final shot though is still well done and probably the only thing that makes sitting through this worth it.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 30, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 41Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Curtis Harrington

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD