Friday, October 19, 2012

Mad Room, The (1969)

Directed by:
Bernard Girard

Falling somewhat in the then-popular Grand Dame Guignol mold spearheaded by the classic WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), this long-forgotten Columbia Pictures release has not been well-serviced on home video. For some strange reason, there was no official VHS or DVD release until 2010... and not for lack of star power either. This one boasts not one, not two, but three actresses of some distinction; all of whom were very well-known when this was released. Stella Stevens is the star, multiple Oscar-winner Shelley Winters has a nice-sized supporting role and 50s horror / sci-fi queen Beverly Garland puts in a small but highly memorable guest appearance. Each of these ladies has a fan following, which makes the film's unavailability throughout the years more than just a little bit perplexing. Is it because it's terrible? A misfire? Not exactly. It's really not too bad, but I can't sit here and say it's anything special either. It's not. And it's certainly not as solid or as enjoyable as some of the films it may share company with. However, the film still has its merits; great moments are littered throughout, and most of them belong to the three aforementioned actresses.

As a teenager, Ellen Hardy walked in on her two younger siblings, 6-year-old George and 4-year-old Mandy, hunkered over the slashed bodies of their abusive parents. Ellen was sent to live in a provincial orphanage, while George and Mandy were both locked away in a mental hospital. Over the years, neither of the accused children has revealed who exactly was responsible for the butcher knife slayings or finger-painting daisies all over the walls in their blood. Both accuse each other of the crime. Some believe it was both. A now-grown Ellen (Stevens) has not spoken about this to anyone and moved on with her life. She's engaged to the successful Sam (Skip Ward) and is living with her wealthy, future-stepmother-in-law Gladys (Winters) in the family's sprawling country estate until the two are married. Ellen's new life is interrupted when she receives a letter asking her to return to Ontario to see her siblings. George (Michael Burns), now 18, and Mandy (Barbara Sammeth), now 16, are finally ready to be released back into the real world... and guess who gets awarded custody?

Ellen pleads with her siblings not to reveal their pasts to anyone, concocts a fake story about their uncle dying and brings them back to her mother-in-laws to stay. Both children confide to Ellen that they're in dire need of a "Mad Room;" a secret place where they can think and vent. Ellen allows them to use the attic (which Gladys has deemed off limits). Since no one seems to be able to keep their story straight, Gladys starts to grow suspicious and decides to investigate matters. This leads to someone going off the deep end, a murder, a cover-up of the crime and a pesky dog who keeps hiding a severed hand all over the estate just to annoy the guilty party. Some of the subplots (including one of George finding himself drawn to the maid and vice versa) serve no purpose whatsoever, there's a predictable resolution of the mystery and the conclusion is unfortunately rushed and weak.

Much of the entertainment value here is watching actors talented enough to elevate mediocre material. Stevens does a fine job in the lead and gets some good moments (especially toward the end), but the two scene-stealers here are veteran actresses Winters and Garland. Winters' character, basically an unsympathetic, self-important, passive-aggresive bitch, is nothing really new to her, but she does such a fantastic job making you thoroughly detest her character she's a real joy to watch. She rudely barks orders at her staff, has no qualms sleeping with a married man, treats her meek, sweet maid (Carol Cole) little better than a slave and keeps a bunch of dogs chained up at the edge of her property and barely feeds them just to ensure they're adequately vicious.

Garland has just two scenes as a drunk but she milks these for everything they're worth. Her Mrs. Racine is the spurned wife of a gigolo / masseur who's been sleeping with seemingly every disatisfied housewife or widow in the area (including Winters' character). During the film's very best scene, a wasted Garland crashes an uppity fundraising party full of rich bitches, offering up her husband's services ("Don't raise your hand, just raise your legs!") and screams "I know I'm married to a male whore!" before running into the bathroom and slitting her wrists with a broken bottle!

Five writers are listed. It's loosely based on Reginald Denham and Edward Percy's stage play "Ladies in Retirement," which receives a nod in the opening credits, along with Garrett Fort and Denham for their screenplay for the 1941 film version of Ladies, as well as the director and A.Z. Martin for THIS film's screenplay. Girard also made A NAME FOR EVIL (1970) and THE MIND SNATCHERS (1972). Severn Darden (SATURDAY THE 14TH) as a construction boss, Jennifer Bishop (IMPULSE) as a fundraiser chairwoman and Lloyd Haynes as a doctor also have small roles.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

No, I haven't abandoned this place.

I got swamped. Good time for it actually as I burnt myself out watching / reviewing so many movies over the summer and was in need of a little break, anyway. Aside from my regular job, I've been busy prepping a film project, working on a (non-horror) documentary, researching essays for two different books and now trying to find time to complete the October Horror Movie Challenge. Watching movies is one thing. Watching, reviewing and screen capping is another. Just passing along a little note that I'll be back once things start settling down. Might be sooner than later. :)

~ Justin
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