Sunday, August 22, 2021

Weekend of Fear (1966)

Directed by:
Joe Danford

Here's another of those super low low low budget independent films shot in California that seemed to have vanished off the face of the Earth after its initial theatrical bookings. As far as I know, this was m.i.a. throughout the entire video era, was thought lost for decades and only resurfaced again just a few years ago. Strangely, the print that turned up on Youtube is VHS-sourced and opens with an FBI Warning screen, which indicates this was at one point a legitimate video release, or at least was planned as such by some company out there. I'm not sure where this mysterious copy came from exactly but I can find no evidence of a legitimate release anywhere. I even browsed through the Sinister Cinema and Something Weird websites looking for this thing, and nada. There are no VHS or DVD boxes to be found and all that exists publicity-wise is a cheap-looking black-and-white flier announcing its world premiere, which occurred in February of 1966 in Los Angeles at The Vagabond Theatre (since re-named The Hayworth Theatre and still in operation). Copyright in the credits in 1965 and it's just 65 minutes long.

I think the reason most people would want to seek this out nowadays is to get another look at Jill Banner. At just 17-years-old, the pretty and talented Banner made an extremely memorable debut as the demented daughter Virginia in Jack Hill's Spider Baby. Unfortunately, that very bizarre and ahead-of-its-time horror comedy wasn't appreciated at all in its day and was held back for release a number of years after completion (it was shot in 1964 and didn't hit theaters until the tail end of 1967). Even then, it generated very little interest and did absolutely nothing to help Banner's fledgling career. It wouldn't be until the 1990s that the film was rediscovered, found an audience and earned critical respectability. Sadly, by that point, Banner had already passed away in a car accident in 1982 and was never able to see the film, nor the performance she gave in it, receive its long-overdue acclaim. Weekend of Fear appears to be Banner's second film appearance, though it's actually a vehicle for another budding young actress / singer.

Judy (Micki Malone) is having a difficult time balancing her singing career and her love life. Because she's often at rehearsal and preparing for a nightclub opening, her annoyingly co-dependent fiancé Tom Swanson (Tory Alburn) starts feeling left out. "You don't have time for me anymore! I wonder if you still love me as much as you love your career!?," he whines. Judy and Tom's latest bicker-fest, of which there have apparently been many, ends with Tom storming out the door. So I need to stop right here and point out this argument, shot at a far distance and through a window, is one of the few instances of actual character dialogue in the film and has clearly been dubbed in later. Like a lot of other very low budget films from this time (most especially sexploitation films), this doesn't appear to have been shot with sound. Instead, the leading lady has to narrate most of the entire rest of the movie. We also get to hear the "thoughts" of at least two other characters whenever it's convenient.

Pouting on the couch ("Tom was right. I have been awfully irritable!"), Judy decides to call him and patch things up. After all, they're set to be married in a month. When he doesn't answer, she flashes back to better days when she was being all Suzy Homemaker in her sailor dress and cute little pineapple oven mitts making him a home-cooked meal instead of betraying her gender attempting to have a career. She then flashes back to another time she had the audacity to put on a new rock-n-roll record and "... things just got out of hand" when she, Tom and their friends Connie (Dianne Danford) and Jack (James Vaneck) started vigorously fruging on the patio during a cookout, causing them to burn their hot dogs. That naughty little minx!

The next day, Tom still isn't answering his phone. That's when Judy notices a strange man lurking around outside of her apartment. The copy/pasted plot outline used on most websites refers to this stalker as "a handicapped imbecile," but he's merely deaf-mute and the actor playing him (Kenneth Washman) is a handsome guy not the drooling ugly moron one may expect from the description. On her way to boyfriend's apartment, Judy realizes the man is trailing her ("Am I imagining it, or is that car following me?") but she manages to lose him at a red light. Tom's not home but she receives a telegram later informing her that his father had a heart attack and he had to leave town. Judy immediately packs a bag, calls a cab, goes to the bus stop and then hops a Greyhound.

Upon arriving in her fiancé's tiny hometown, Judy soon realizes that all of the townsfolk are gone: They've chartered a bus and went to San Diego for the weekend-long "Western Days Festival." No one's at Tom's parents place either. Assuming they're all at the hospital, she finds a key, lets herself in and waits for them to arrive. That's when the man who was stalking her in the city shows up... and he's brought along a switchblade! A switchblade that he never even uses! Judy hides behind the couch as the man enters the home, looks around and then rips out the phone. Though he occasionally pops in and out, he mostly sits outside in his car waiting for her to show up. Judy stays hidden until the following morning and then plots her escape.

I would say this is very student film-esque due to the amateurism, except that student films usually are far more adventurous, experimental and showoff-y with the camerawork and editing than this one, which is filled with tons of long, static, unbroken shots of the characters doing the most humdrum things imaginable. (Scene: Judy picks up telegram. Voice-over: "A telegram!") This does try to generate some honest-to-goodness suspense in a few scenes, and does an OK job with a couple of bits, but that's not nearly enough to sustain an entire feature. And don't even get me started on all the plot holes and loose ends that never get resolved. This also has a laughably preposterous finale, which finds Judy randomly going to the home of Marie Harris (Ruth Trent); Tom's older, widowed lady friend whom she'd met only once before, instead of the police and just happening to overhear her discussing a murder-for-hire plot with Tom's ex-girlfriend, Carol. Carol is Jill Banner's role and she doesn't appear in the film until the last few minutes and is thoroughly wasted here, though she does manage to out-act the entire rest of the cast during her one brief close-up shot. The final "shock" at the end is a clear rip of Psycho.

While the leading lady does have a soothing husky voice which is kinda nice to listen to (she also contributed a song called "The Night Will Never Come Again" to the film), that doesn't save most of the narration from being hilariously mundane. During the boring scenes she's hiding out in the home, she ponders obvious things, like where her fiancé is and whether or not he's hired this guy to kill her due to their argument, but then obsesses over dumb shit like whether or not she can have a cigarette without being detected and if she should grab some grub from the kitchen: "This might be a long wait. Maybe I should look for something to eat. Food is the furthest thing from my mind but if I get hungry later on I won't be able to turn on any lights and I can't go groping around in the dark!" Or, ya know, seeing how someone's right outside waiting to kill you, you could just lay low for a few hours instead. So what does this chick end up doing? She actually risks her life for a single fuckin' slice of plain white bread!

It's very easy to see why this bland, extremely tame, padded and utterly forgettable film disappeared for as long as it did... the opening credits and dance sequence are clearly the best parts! Not surprisingly, most of the people who worked on this didn't move on to any other film projects in Hollywood. Dianne Danford was apparently a Playboy Playmate of the Month for November 1961, but is given no dialogue here and is only seen briefly; conservatively-dressed even. Seeing how she shares a last name with the writer / director / producer / editor, I assume the two were either related or married. Dianne also received an "assistant to the producer" credit.

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