Was someone trying to drive her . . . insane?
US / 71 minutes / color / Aaron Spelling, ABC Dir: John Llewellyn Moxey Pr: Aaron Spelling Scr: Jimmy Sangster Cine: Arch Dalzell Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barbara Parkins, Roddy McDowall, William Windom, Arthur O’Connell, Bing Russell, Dawn Frame.
“Once upon a time there was a family who lived in a big house all by itself in the middle of great big woods. There was Mommy. She was very beautiful. Everyone loved her—especially Uncle Harold. He wasn’t my real uncle—just make-believe. Mommy made people laugh, because she was so happy herself. Then there was Daddy. He was very handsome and very kind. Everybody was mad about him. And last of all, because she was the youngest, there was Susan. She had no brothers or sisters, so she was on her own a lot. But she didn’t mind it, because she had her own special house in the woods that her daddy had built for her when she was a very little girl . . .”
The voice sounds like that of an eight- or nine-year-old, but supposedly Susan Wilcox (Frame) is 13 when one day, as she sits in that special playhouse painting portraits of her stuffed toys, someone comes across her there and savagely rapes her.
Seven years later, having spent the intervening time being slowly nursed back to sanity in a chichi Swiss psychiatric institute, Susan (Parkins) returns to the family home. By now her father has died and her mother, Miriam (Stanwyck), has married “Uncle Harold”—Harold Jennings (Windom). The marriage appears to be on the rocks, as is most of what Harold constantly drinks. The first night she’s home, Susan hears her mother and stepfather quarreling, and the next morning Miriam tells her that Harold has abruptly gone on a business trip for a few days.
Susan (Barbara Parkins) sleeps peacefully . . . for now.
Susan goes down to the playhouse, and is creeped out by mysterious rustlings in the shrubbery—is someone stalking her? But there’s worse to follow. Next night, roused by a banging downstairs shutter, she returns to her bedroom to find Harold apparently drowned in the bath—the first of several times she’ll see apparitions of the dead Harold. Shades of Les DIABOLIQUES (1954).
Susan (Barbara Parkins) hears a rustling in the bushes — “Who’s there?”
Fleeing, she knocks herself out cold on the bathroom door, and family doctor Michael Lomas (McDowall) is called in. At first she refuses to tell him what she saw, but, when later she sees a seemingly murdered Harold in his car, she goes to the doctor and makes a clean breast of things.
Susan finds Harold (William Windom) dead in the car.
What can be going on? Is her supposed cure in Switzerland wearing off, so that she’s seeing these nightmarish hallucinations? Or is someone trying to drive her insane, for some unknown agenda of their own?
This is a Jimmy Sangster-scripted movie, so we can be pretty certain of the answer. In fact, it’s essentially an unacknowledged remake of Sangster’s own earlier TASTE OF FEAR (1961), with the location changed from the French Riviera to the environs of San Francisco.
The only person who seems sympathetic, aside from Lomas, is the general factotum John (O’Connell), who’s been with the family for years. But he’s so slow-witted that Susan can’t really hope to rely on him in times of crisis. To whom can she turn . . .?
Simpleminded John (Arthur O’Connell) shows concern for Susan (Barbara Parkins).
By about fifty minutes in, it’s as if the tale has been told, the details of and motives behind the modern conspiracy explained and Susan’s earlier rapist revealed, but that’s just stage-setting for the arrival of the real kicker, heralded by a phonecall Miriam receives, a phonecall from the supposedly dead Harold . . . The finale is played out, as all the best finales are played out, against the backdrop of a thunderstorm.
Even though it’s his day off — gasp! — Dr. Lomas (Roddy McDowall) has a consultation with Susan.
Although she did a reasonable amount of work in TV series during the 1980s, this was Stanwyck’s penultimate movie; her final one, likewise a TV movie, came a couple of years later: The Letters (1973 TVM).
Miriam (Barbara Stanwyck) drops the mask.
Parkins’s rather affectless delivery can become a tad wearing after a while, but full credit to the actress for so convincingly rendering a role a full decade younger than she in fact was; it’s a trick even the very best actors often fail to pull off. Talking of ages, it’s rather hard to believe the young Susan can be as old as 13; perhaps, after those scenes had been shot, the age was changed in the screenplay because of obvious sensibilities? Otherwise, though, this is a more or less impeccable psychological thriller, with some of the camerawork being surprisingly sensitive for a TV movie. A genuine white-knuckle humdinger.