Actor Darren McGavin, best known for his portrayal of Detective Carl Kolchak on the genre TV movies THE NIGHT STALKER (1971) and THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1972) and the subsequent series Kolchack: The Night Stalker, made his feature directorial debut with this very interesting horror-mystery dealing with small town family secrets and serial murder. With little money in his pocket, teenage orphan Johnny (Ron Howard) hitches a ride to a small New England finishing village searching for his missing parents. He immediately goes to visit his birth mother, Ronda (Cloris Leachman), at her cafe. Though the two pretty much immediately know who the other is, neither is willing to immediately acknowledge it. Johnny leaves and takes a stroll through the neighborhood to check out some of his other relatives. His widowed Aunt Cara (Patricia Neal), who lives nearby, turns out to be a pretty nasty piece of work. She's loud, obnoxious and, while she has no problem berating her fisherman son (Royce D. Applegate) and his sleazy wife (Gale Garnett), she prefers to coddle and smother her daughter Celia (Tessa Dahl). Celia, though in her late teenage years, is extremely awkward and immature for her age from having been watched over like a hawk for years. Johnny chooses to initially observe all of these people from afar before identifying himself.
Returning to the cafe, Johnny is immediately picked up by local sheriff Roy (Simon Oakland, who played McGavin's Night Stalker partner) for questioning. When Roy discovers who the mysterious teenager really is, he attempts to purchase him a bus ticket out of town. Seems there are some deep wounds some people in town don't want reopened. Having nothing to lose, Johnny - who grew up being raised by a restrictive and physically abusive traveling preacher father - refuses to go until he gets the answers he came there for. While all of this is going on, a serial killer is going after men in the area. Four have already turned up missing (most of the bodies are buried on the beach) and there'll be many more where that came from before this film is over. As Johnny investigates his past, he uncovers many skeletons in the family closet. Why does Ronda refuse to tell him who his real father is? Why has Ronda busted her ass for years and years to pay someone else to raise her only child? Why haven't Ronda and Cara spoken to each other in many years? And how does Johnny's family tie into the string of seemingly senseless murders?
Scripted by Robert Clouse (who'd go on to direct the 1982 killer rat movie DEADLY EYES), the story will seem somewhat familiar to fans of mysteries and thrillers but the film itself offers up many rewards. That is, if you're a patient viewer who doesn't mind something leisurely-paced with emphasis on character for a good hour before breaking out the more horror-oriented stuff. This works especially well as an acting showcase for its very talented cast of character actors. Neal has perhaps the showiest role here, which one might liken to a later-day Bette Davis performance as a repressed, bitter, somewhat funny old crone who can barely hide her contempt for the past or her own life. Howard (in between his stints on the TV shows The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, and way before becoming one of Hollywood's top directors) does fine as the aimless young man in search of his identity and Leachman does her usual solid job inhabiting the role of a conflicted woman who must chose between admitting her past mistakes or having a relationship with her son.
The real cast revelation here, however, is Tessa Dahl as the desperately lonely Celia. Dahl - the real-life daughter of Neal and writer Raold Dahl - gets the film's most intriguing character and gives a very bright and promising performance here. Unfortunately, hardly anyone saw this film when it was released and Dahl's acting career went nowhere afterward. Though she's been emotionally stunted by her mother, the childish-acting Celia is still an adult with adult needs and can't hide her interest in sex, even if it means embarrassing her mother by penning love letters to half the men in town. Celia not only regularly spies on her randy gigolo neighbor (Joseph Mascolo) getting it on with his married mistress (Kathie Brown, McGavin's real-life wife), but she doesn't have a problem offering herself to any takers. And that includes Johnny, who probably doesn't need to add "estranged relative trying to seduce me" to his list of confusions. Either way, judging by this film alone, Dahl should have been offered more roles. Instead she settled into a career as a writer and mother. One of her daughters - Sophie Dahl - is a model.
Singer Bobby Darin (in his final film role) plays Leachman's hot-temepered cook boyfriend, who gets violent when Johnny's presence threatens his relationship, and Thayer David also has a small role. The country theme song is "A Man Can Be a Very Lonely Thing." Little has been written about this forgotten film over the years and not much is known about its production history or how it came to be (and since the director and many of the leads are no longer with us, its likely we might never learn much about it). Neal - who passed away in 2010 - briefly mentioned the film in her autobiography and talked about going to Nova Scotia to film it, doing publicity for it in America and how the film quickly disappeared after mixed reviews, a re-titling and an unsuccessful theatrical run. It was however a continual source of amusement between mother and daughter because the completely inexperienced Dahl received better notices than her Oscar-winning mother!
It was made (in conjuction with Swiss backers) by Taurean Films, McGavin's short-lived production company, which also made B MUST DIE (1975), a political thriller starring McGavin himself, with Neal in a smaller role and a largely-Spanish-speaking supporting cast. The film was never released in America and remains mostly unseen here, though it was nominated for several prestigious Spanish awards. RCA issued this on VHS in the 80s in a box that would hardly get the attention of genre fans. There's no DVD.