Stark Fear (1962)

US / 84 minutes / bw / Burke–Hockman–Swain Dir: Ned Hockman Pr: Joe E. Burke, Ned Hockman, Dwight V. Swain Scr: Dwight V. Swain Cine: Robert Bethard Cast: Beverly Garland, Skip Homeier, Kenneth Tobey, Hannah Stone, George Clow, Paul Scovil, Edna Newman, John Arville, Cortez Ewing, Barbara Freeman, Darlene Dana Reno.

A grindhouse movie without enough of the grind. Ellen Winslow (Garland) has been married to husband Gerald “Gerry” (Homeier) for three years, during which time his earnings have plummeted while his verbal and sometimes physical abuse of her have intensified. To help them out of their financial hole she finds a job as secretary of developer Cliff Kane (Tobey); Gerry, rather than thanking her, abuses her yet once more and then walks out, accusing her of deliberately selling him out to her lover, Cliff . . . except that so far as Ellen’s concerned Cliff is just the guy who hired her. Later she’ll find—as we do through an opening monologue by Cliff’s business partner Joe Vincent (uncredited)—that long ago there was a business feud between Cliff and Gerry.

To her horror Ellen learns from Gerry’s employer Mr. Nedwin (uncredited) that Gerry has decided to take a month’s unpaid holiday: Nedwin gives her a deadline to find her husband. In a frank discussion with her social-worker pal Ruth Rogers (Stone) and afterward, Ellen finds Gerry has been widely two-timing her. Again through Ruth, Ellen finds Gerry’s old friend (or lover, it’s implied) Elizabeth “Liz” Orwell (uncredited), who drunkenly breaks it to her that Gerry has been lying about almost everything, including that he was born and brought up in Pennsylvania: in fact he’s from Quehada, Oklahoma.

Off Ellen goes to Quehada hoping to locate Gerry through his best friend Harvey Suggett (uncredited). She tracks down Harvey through the latter’s trigger-happy wife Zelda (uncredited). Harvey takes her to the town cemetery to show her the grave of Gerry’s mother, also called Ellen. She manages to fend off his eager hands, as she does a few hours later when night has fallen, only for Gerry to butt in, threatening her with lines like “You ever seen a woman with her nose cut off?” She runs from him into Quehada’s celebrated but at this time of night deserted Juke Museum, where she frightens him off by switching on all the devices at once.

Exiting from the Juke Museum, she’s apprehended by cop Tom, who surrenders her to the ever-drunker Harvey. The latter drags her to a Comanche Storm Dance (or the tourist equivalent), then chases her into the night to the graveyard and indeed the grave of Gerry’s mother, where he rapes her. What Ellen doesn’t know until much later is that Gerry is happily watching all this . . .

Stark Fear - Gerry hunts Ellen in the Juke Museum

Gerry (Skip Homeier) hunts Ellen (Beverly Garland) through the darkened Juke Museum.

There’s lots more, very little of it good. It proves that Gerry’s mother Ellen was an abusive termagant; little wonder that he’s been looking to marry another Ellen whom he can in turn abuse. Or something. As Ruth explains to Ellen in one of the movie’s many moments of cod psychoanalysis, Gerry hated his mother and “couldn’t face up to how he really felt, not even to himself. Likely hates all women—you especially.”

Stark Fear - Ruth tends Ellen after rape by Harvey

Ruth (Hannah Stone) tends Ellen (Beverly Garland) after the latter’s rape.

This is one of the movie’s better attempts to feign psychological depth. When Ellen gets home after the rape, Ruth tends her . . . and then. bogglingly, tells her not to be too hasty about dumping the ghastly Gerry: after all, who would want to end up a lonely spinster like Ruth? Her face radiant with the memory, she recalls her own folly in letting a man go: “He was wonderful . . . a reporter . . . the Daily Oklahoman . . . and then we had a fight. I don’t even know what it was about, now. Anyway, I was too proud to make the first move—like, ‘I’m sorry.’ First thing I knew he’d gone off to the El Paso Times.”

Her facial bruises fading, Ellen is re-employed by Cliff and, it’s soon evident, becomes not just his secretary but his right-hand woman. And they fall in love. But then her world starts falling apart: Ruth tells her, “Cliff hired you just to get back at Gerry,” to which Ellen responds, “Cliff and Gerry—my boss and my husband. They hate each other, but nobody sees me. Because a man has a right to his privacy, now you wholly believe that, don’t you?” It’s a view that Joe Vincent seems to confirm when he tells her, “Man’s always bigger game than a job for a woman.” Eventually, despite the idyllic weekend they’ve spent in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a weeping Ellen says to Cliff: “What kind of scum is it hires a woman just to make her husband look cheap?”

Gerry lures Ellen to El Nora Motel, where he and Harvey are staying; Gerry also calls Harvey’s wife Zelda and Cliff, hoping for a murderous final showdown. Ellen arrives to find Harvey drunker than ever: “There ain’t no such thing as rape—ask any cop,” he explains as he limply tries to do whatever it is that no cop believes in. Zelda arrives; Harvey flees only to be run over by a truck; Gerry arrives . . . and from here it’s easy enough to work out the rest of the plot. “Don’t I look enough like your mother?” says Ellen at a crucial point.

It’s difficult to know quite what to make of this movie. There’s nothing wrong with Garland or various other cast members as actors, yet most of their supporting cast seem of less than amateur-dramatic-society standard. The screenplay is often very good, in its doggedly grindhouse fashion, yet every now and then lapses into hilarity, as when Ruth’s trying to get the truth out of Ellen as to what happened in Quehada: “Do you remember this bra?” she says, holding aloft the suspicious garment. That’s actually a crucial moment in the movie—it dawns on Ellen that Gerry was watching as she was raped—but the point tends to be lost amid giggling.

The character of Ruth is interesting: despite the fact that her wig makes this perfectly competent actress look, alas, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in drag, Ruth can be regarded as the two devils on Ellen’s two shoulders, sometimes advising her benevolently, sometimes trying to make her do self-destructive things in order that Ruth may hide from herself that she’s wasted her own life. It’s during a drunken evening with Ruth that Ellen really lets it all hang out about her feelings for Gerry; but then Ruth is only too ready to tell her why Cliff is likewise a shitty deal. Gerry is fond of telling Ellen that she’s a “no good tramp”; could that be what Cliff thinks likewise?

I’ve been unable to identify many of the cast (IMDB/TCM/others have the same difficulty); if you can help out on this, please do so in the comments!

 

On Amazon.com: Grindhouse Double Shock Show (Fright / Stark Fear)

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8 thoughts on “Stark Fear (1962)

  1. “I’ve been unable to identify many of the cast (IMDB/TCM/others have the same difficulty); if you can help out on this, please do so in the comments!”

    haha John, that statement speaks volumes. Not that your general dismissal didn’t cancel any plans on might have had to watch this at the expense of all else. This is the absolute first time I have heard of this particular film, but I know there are a number of clunkers even in this generally reliable genre. Despite the disdain you have again managed a riveting read!

    • Ha! To be honest, though, Sam, my feelings about the movie aren’t nearly as negative as you might think. As I say, although it has lots and lots wrong with it, it also has a few strengths. Okay, not very many of them. Even so, while I doubt it’s a movie I’ll ever stir myself to watch again, I don’t feel that I wasted my time in watching it this time around (I realized while doing so that I’d seen it before, way back when in the distant past . . .)

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  4. Hannah Stone, born Mildred, was a cousin. She turns in a fairly good performance, given the material, and the unfortunate hairstyle you noted. I’m told she did several tv western shows, in this era, but those credits have yet to be added to IMDB.

    • Gosh, Cath, how great to learn of your family connection to this movie! Your cousin put in a very creditable, nuanced performance here. I’m surprised she didn’t have more of a screen career, even taking into account those TV shows.

      Many thanks for dropping by!

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