‘I was very fond of Miss Susan.’
‘Fond enough to assault her when she was thirteen?’
‘You said you’d not bring that up.’
Produced by Aaron Spelling, directed by John Llewellyn Moxey and scripted by Jimmy Sangster, this TV Movie of the Week is directly in the line of descent from those Clouzot-cum-Hitchcock scripts Sangster turned out for Hammer in the 1960s. A body which comes and goes from the bathtub evokes Les Diaboliques and the title harks back to Taste of Fear. In interviews, Sangster misremembered this gig as a crafty rewrite of Seth Holt’s Taste of Fear, but it’s actually based on Freddie Francis’s Nightmare. It’s in colour, has muted mod costumes, a familiarly overwrought score by Robert Drasin and is surprisingly nasty (if inexplicit) in a subplot about child-rape.
‘Fragile’ Susan Wilcox (Barbara Parkins) comes out of a Swiss sanitarium, where she has been since a childhood incident when, during a swanky party (with gypsy music) at her family estate, she was raped in her playhouse by a man whose identity she has blanked out. Miriam Jennings (Barbara Stanwyck), her mother, is solicitous but not at all sympathetic when she starts ‘imagining’ prowlers coming after her around the house, seeing her stepfather Harold (William Windom) dead and wet in various places and generally acting like a neurotic – usually a sign that someone is trying to drive the heroine nuts for their own evil purposes, especially when the victim is in one of those movie families which has obvious but unexplained wealth that one or more characters want to get more of. Dr Lomas (Roddy McDowall), a semi-hip type, acts as Susan’s confidante, but blabs to Mom, ignoring patient confidentiality, while slow-witted handyman John (Arthur O’Connell) loiters like a devoted red herring only to turn out to be more culpable. Left alone on the estate for contrived reasons, the heroine hears a voice cooing ‘Sooo-san’ from the woods and finds another wet corpse, which stirs to life and pursues her. She retreats to the old playhouse where her dolls are still strewn all over the floor, picks up John’s handily-abandoned shotgun and kills poor old Harold when he inexplicably barges in.
The penny drops – Mrs Jennings is an icy bitch who wants shot (literally) of Harold and has been conniving with the dimwit John to set up the accident, using a William Windom dummy to fool her. In a bit of clumsy plotting, Mrs J explains to her own confederate what they’ve just done and illustrative flashbacks fill in the few blanks – she’s always hated her own daughter, because her late husband left all the money to her. By the 1970s, the cliché polarity had been reversed and the servants almost never did it – but here it turns out that John is not only an accomplice in the murder scheme but was the initial rapist; at Hammer, a handsome studly type (David Knight in Nightmare, Ronald Lewis in Taste of Fear) would have taken the role – but casting doddery, lovable character actor O’Connell makes the revelation of his guilt more surprising. The way a slightly retarded character is depicted as a child-rapist and the minion of a calculating villain is queasily transgressive, with Mrs Jennings exploiting her knowledge of his crime to keep him in line – it’s also unusual that the paedophile is (or thinks he is) genuinely fond of his victim, even if he goes along with a scheme to further torment her.
As in Nightmare, the second half of the plot has the villains becoming the victims – Miriam gets phone calls purporting to be from Harold and Stanwyck gets to go into full-on mad melodrama mode, accusing John of betraying her (‘I told you to chop up that dummy!’) and being terrorised in the empty house during a convenient soundtrack thunderstorm. She runs about madly, shouting ‘who’s there?’ and pulling out telephone cords, then rushes out into the rain in a scarlet dressing gown toting that shotgun – which inevitably leads to her gunning down John (in quite a gruesome moment, the blood-spattered O’Donnell isn’t quite dead) before running into Harold (‘No you’re dead, Susan killed you, I made Susan kill you!’). In a change from Nightmare, where the victim was a mad wife, Harold isn’t actually dead and has seen through the scheme (in collaboration with Susan and Dr Lomas) but played along (the gun was loaded with blanks) in order to get the goods on his wife. Stanwyck calms down enough to snarl out a great exit line (‘why didn’t you die?’) at Windom and flashing her Double Indemnity steel before being led away from the house. A pan to the quiet Susan at the window hints that all this might have driven the heroine properly mad again, an aptly downbeat end to a thoroughly nasty little EC Comics tale of relentless, almost purposeless cruelty. It’s not as good a movie as Nightmare, but it is a crueler one.