Monday, August 29, 2011

Stark Fear (1961)

Directed by:
Ned Hockman

An early entry in the "I Married a Nutcase' psycho-drama genre, this low-budgeter was filmed independently in Oklahoma. Ellen Winslow (Beverly Garland) is saddled with a raving loony of a husband. For his birthday, she decides to pick up some sexy black lingerie, a cake and a gift, in hopes it will spice up a marriage that has been on the rocks in recent months. Gerald (Skip Homeier) is pissed off she's out working for a living and supporting them; accusing her of having an affair with her boss, Cliff Kane (Kenneth Tobey). He breaks a picture of her, demands she quit her job, calls her a cheap little tramp, informs her he wants a divorce and pours his drink over her head. Ellen kicks him, takes off and goes to stay with her reporter friend Ruth (Hannah Stone), a nosy but well-intentioned spinster. A day later, Ellen receives a call from Gerald's boss, who informs her that her husband hasn't been showing up for work and if he doesn't come in soon he's going to get fired. Ellen hits the town trying to find him, along the way discovering that she didn't even really know the guy and their whole marriage has been nothing but a lie.

From a female friend of Gerald's (whom she's never met before), Ellen learns that her husband is actually from a small backwoods town in Oklahoma (he had told her Pennsylvania) and learns the name of his supposed best friend, Harold Suggett, a man she's also never met or even heard mentioned. Ellen travels to the town and meets up with Harold; a drunken, slovenly womanizer whose wife is threatening to kill him if she catches him cheating on her again. Gerald eventually shows up, threatens Ellen ("Have you ever seen a woman with her nose cut off?") and drives off in her car. One thing leads to another and Ellen ends up getting dragged into a graveyard and is beaten and raped on top of Gerald's mothers grave (!) by Harold while her husband stands by his ma's tombstone, smokes a cigarette and watches. Understandably feeling a bit defeated by this point, Ellen returns to Oklahoma City, returns to her job working for Cliff and eventually finds herself being drawn to him. Unfortunately, with unresolved issues from her past, she feels unable to move forward into this potentially healthy relationship.

Often listed on the horrorographies of stars Garland and Tobey, this just partially (and barely) qualifies as a genre film, but it's an interesting, somewhat edgy and sometimes surprisingly nasty little film dealing with such topics as sadomasochistic relationships, codependency, suburban violence, childhood trauma and various issues important to females during the time. Gerald's sadistic, perverse behavior is predictably traced back to having a mentally ill mother (whose name also happens to be Ellen Winslow), but the film is most fascinating when dealing with Garland's character as she evolves throughout the film.

Apparently once just your typical housewife, Ellen is driven into the workforce by her own husband's complacency. Once there, she finds herself being objectified both at her job (where she's the subject of gossip by co-workers and object of lust by her male superior) and at home (where she's dealing with her mentally unhinged, deceitful husband's attempts to guilt her back into subservience). On her quest to locate her husband, she has to endure - and eventually overcome - various hurdles set in her way by men; leering stares, not being taken seriously, getting jerked around by the arm, being passed around at a party (where she must resort to violence to protect herself) and eventually the ultimate dehumanization; being raped. Though she's able to ultimately prevail, Ellen is never painted as a faultless heroine or superwoman, either. The character has moments of self-doubt and internalized blame where she wonders what kind of a person (and wife) she has been or if she's done enough to help her obviously very sick husband. The film really stands as a testament to women just starting to break out of the June Cleaver mold of the 1950s and their struggles to gain back their independence, be able to stand on their own two feet and balance a hectic career life with a happy and healthy married / family life.

Garland had a long career in both film and on TV, and became fairly well-known in the 50s for playing tough, strong and resilient females in horror and sci-fi films (when few other actresses were doing so). Perhaps these characters weren't even always written that way, but Garland always played them that way and brought strength and passion to these roles, which is precisely why they're still remembered to this day. STARK FEAR may actually be one of the best and most fleshed-out characters she's ever played. It's certainly a good showcase for her dramatic talents, and thankfully she's in almost every scene. (Ironically, Garland said in several interviews that this was her least favorite of the films she has made! She also claimed the director stormed off the set and her co-star Homeier finished directing the film.)

Fellow sci-fi star Tobey unfortunately doesn't fair quite as well. His laid-back stoicism was fine for the heroic roles he played in the 50s, but he comes off as extremely one-note in this one. Hell, he barely even registers an emotion when Ellen suddenly slaps the shit out of him! Homeier is a bit stiff himself, but he's adequately loathsome, and Stone registers nicely as Garland's supportive, helpful and sometimes bluntly honest friend.
Production values are very shaky. The score is forgettable and the photography is ordinary. No one has bothered re-mastering it either (and I doubt that ever will happen since the movie was barely released), so there's lots of fuzz and grain in certain scenes. The film is also jumpy at times and is missing many (presumably damaged) frames.
The film was nearly impossible to find for years, but has been issued on DVD several times in recent years; from Hollywood's Best, Retroflix and others. Alpha double-billed it with W. Lee Wilder's FRIGHT (1956).


Greg said...

Nice job sizing up this wacko film.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Thanks Greg!

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