This is a one-off credit for novelist John Farris, who dipped his toe in the pool well before Stephen King or Clive Barker thought it might be fun to direct a movie. It’s at once an entry in the grande dame horror cycle kicked off by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and an enjoyably loopy body count effort in which an extended family in an old dark house are axed to death by culprits who are seeking out a hidden stash of money concealed long ago by a patriarch.Like several other films in the Baby Jane cycle (Strait-Jacket, Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte) it opens in period (the 1940s) with an axe murder, as Young Luddy (Ann Gibbs) comes to her senses after a fugue and finds she has chopped her overbearing mother to pieces. Then, in the present day, Luddy (Patricia Carmichael) – a hefty, surprisingly cheerful middle-aged naif – is released from the asylum and falls in with young folks who take her to the Charles Estate and get her a position as housekeeper, though even slower audiences might suspect her real job is to play patsy for the string of killings. The wheelchairbound Delilah (Agnes Moorehead) announces she’s not leaving her relatives any money, but that she has discovered the hiding place of a cash cache secreted by her father in the 1930s after he sold his fabulous stableload of horses and that whoever else finds it can keep it. Everyone prowls around, digs holes and follows clues, but the contestants are literally whittled down. The dysfunctional crowd includes middle-aged swinger Morgan (Michael Ansara) and his good-time girlfriend Buffy (Ruth Baker), who bicker about whether martinis really need olives even while digging up graves; courtly Southern doctor Alonzo (Dennis Patrick), who becomes Luddy’s strange love interest despite his heroin habit; brittle young middle-aged drunk Grace (Anne Meachum); fussy old uncle type Roy (Will Geer), who leers suspiciously; and studly poser Richard (Robert Gentry), who’s knocking about with Delilah’s nurse (Elizabeth Eis).
Farris writes broad roles, and his good if mostly unfamiliar cast enjoy the hell out of all the back-biting bitchery before they get the chop – everyone around, except the lumpen but open Luddy, is seedy, cracked, desperate and pathetically would-be hip (middle-aged spread in paisley shirts was a feature of many 1970s horrors). Grace gets the best death: while she’s fooling around in Delilah’s motorised wheelchair, a silver-masked apparition charges up on a polo pony and whips her head off by swinging the axe like a mallet, whereupon we get a good shot of the headless corpse juddering and spouting as the chair moves back and forth. Moorehead (who was in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but became a star in the 1960s through Bewitched) isn’t quite an equivalent to the living wrecks Davis and Crawford played in horror films; even as a young woman, she tended to be cast as hags, but here she is presented as fairly glamorous (despite the wheelchair) and her matriarch is cynically sensible rather than a raving maniac (she’s especially good telling roguish gambling addict Morgan he’s her favourite but is still on his own). For 1972, it’s extremely gory. It’s not as subtle as Farris’s best novels, but it’s better than, say, Maximum Overdrive.