Image by prettysleepy1 from Pixabay
Image by prettysleepy1 from Pixabay

When Golden Age TV Films Screamed About Gender Roles

In these three restored Gothic films from Kino Lorber, gender roles and their social undertones feed into the template of paranoid thrillers.

The Victim
Herschel Daugherty
Kino Lorber
5 October 2021
Scream, Pretty Peggy
Gordon Hessler
Kino Lorber
5 October 2021
The Screaming Woman
Jack Smight
Kino Lorber
5 October 2021

By no coincidence, Kino Lorber eases toward Halloween with three, count them, three thrilling specimens from the golden era of TV films, when a barrage of them got cranked out like a breakneck B-movie factory. Universal produced all three examples in the efficient, 74-minute, get-in/get-out style that marked 90-minute timeslots with such titles as ABC Movie of the Week and ABC Suspense Movie. We’ll try to be equally lean in our discussion, for these trim stories couldn’t handle being dragged out further.

The Victim (1972)
Director: Herschel Daugherty

The Victim covers several hours in the lives of two rich sisters, both left alone while their husbands are away on business. The women are essentially housewives on a rarefied level, so their houses are important. As designed by Michael Bumstead and shot by Michael Joyce, the settings look fabulous in this HD remastering, probably better than the image has ever looked.

Kate Wainwright (Elizabeth Montgomery) lives in a glorious pad in San Francisco, where we find her standing on her house’s roof during a ravishing pan shot over the bay. Her opening line: “This is ridiculous!” Younger sis Susan Chappel (Jess Walton) lives in a cozy Carmel house in the middle of the woods. As they talk on the phone about Susan’s decision to get a divorce, it’s clear from subjective camera gestures that someone is in the house apart from the dog, the cat, and the mynah bird.

The rest of the film finds a worried Kate driving down to Susan’s house in a storm that causes mudslides, falling trees, and power outages. She doesn’t know what the sinuous camera tells us: Susan’s body’s in a basket in the basement. What we don’t know is which of the two obvious suspects is guilty. Is it Susan’s husband (George Maharis), who doesn’t show up on the screen until the last reel, or the cantankerous, possessive, partly-deaf housekeeper (Eileen Heckart)?

You probably won’t guess wrong, but guessing isn’t really the point. The story’s structure is all tease swirling around Kate, the classic “heroine in the house alone”. On-point commentary by TV film historian Amanda Reyes, who literally wrote the book on the question Are You in the House Alone? (Headpress, 2017), discusses the gendered nature of telefilms in general and genre films in particular, as these films explore the faultlines along women’s social roles amid the development of Second Wave Feminism.

Reyes says, “What was merely a marketing ploy to gain female viewers ended up generating a flurry of really great female-led telefilms that gave actresses like Liz Montgomery a real place to show off their diverse acting abilities.” She places The Victim within Montgomery’s important output while discussing the careers of Heckart and third-billed Sue Ane Langdon, who plays another friend on the phone, for this film offers four diverse women.

Notably, telephones are as crucial as non-starting cars to ’70s suspense films: the instruments’ iconic bakelite look and heft, their quirks, their powerful promise, and woeful shortcomings as facilitators of communication. Cell phones make life easier and suspense harder. But we digress.

Reyes also traces the “legs” of this source material, a 1944 Good Housekeeping story of a notably different plot called “The Storm” by a woman named McKnight Malmar. This tale’s multiple adaptations include a 1962 episode of Thriller produced by Melvin Frye and directed by Herschel Daugherty. Frye and Daugherty perform the same services on this remake scripted by Merwin Gerard, who created the excellent supernatural anthology One Step Beyond (1959-61).

Among the three television films revived on these Kino Lorber Blu-rays, The Victim probably has the lowest reputation, largely because the mystery is obvious as the film plumps for atmosphere, suspense, false hopes, and manipulations. That’s where a high-caliber print, as opposed to the eyesores visible on Youtube, is crucial to appreciate the craftsmanship. From literally the opening second, scored with an avant-garde flourish by Gil Melle as the camera pans across evocative isolated houses and a grim-looking Heckart on her porch, we’re in the hands of pros who knew what to do without leaning too hard or outstaying their welcome.

Scream Pretty Peggy (1973)
Director: Gordon Hessler

Like many aging female stars from Hollywood’s studio era, Bette Davis embraced television for the chance to play a variety of roles in people’s living rooms. Some projects were unapologetically pulpy trash like Scream Pretty Peggy, whose plot is a mish-mash of the era’s Gothic paperbacks and a number of more famous films it would be a disservice to mention. Few viewers will be bowled over with surprise by the final creepy reveals unless they’ve never seen a thriller before, but we’re not about spoilers here.

Since Scream Pretty Peggy (onscreen credits have no comma, unlike the packaging) is scripted by veteran thrill-meister Jimmy Sangster in collaboration with Arthur Hoffe, you might assume Davis’ role here harks to her chilling portrayal in The Nanny (Seth Holt, 1965), also by Sangster, and indeed many connections can be made to other Sangster projects. The commentary by actor and writer Troy Howarth and producer and cinematographer Nathaniel Thompson does a thorough job of tracing that out.

To me, however, this film is strangely reminiscent of one of Davis’ most celebrated films, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950). That’s because our little college-student heroine, the titular Peggy (Sian Barbara Allen), is from the beginning a headstrong, flattering, passive-aggressive, Eve-like inveigler into the household.

She’s a budding art student who seizes a chance to bulldoze her way into the lair of noted sculptor Jeffrey Elliott (Ted Bessell), to the not well-concealed alarm of his mom, Mrs. Elliott (Davis), noted tippler and gorgon. Far from the demure heroine of more typical gothics, all mousy and apologetic for taking up space, our Pegster is a pushy, almost creepy idolizer of the rather doughy Jeffrey. She seems determined from Day One to move in, not just do part-time chores. This interesting choice makes her less sympathetic and more formidable.

Actually, it makes Scream Pretty Peggy more fun. We see how strong Peggy is, and we see how wrong-headed she can be in her Nancy Drew-ing about the madwoman locked in the garage apartment, the one we’ve witnessed stabbing Peggy’s predecessor (Tovah Feldshuh) in the atmospheric opening scene. The scenes between two strong women, Peggy and Mrs. Elliott, are the film’s most enjoyable, while that third strong woman is the wild card.

As the commentary states, the increased resolution of this HD transfer might amplify how director Gordon Hessler, a veteran of the British horror scene, cheats on certain plot devices, specifically the use of doubles. All that goes with the territory, however, and arguably makes the final product more interesting. Nobody claims this story as a masterpiece, only that it gets the job done.

HD is also the best way to see those extraordinary sculptures created for the film, from the bright red monstrosities to the more subtle ones in every possible medium. This Elliott cat is clearly a genius after all. HD is also the best way to see the classic California-Gothic Noah Dietrich estate, which plays the old dark house to great effect. Really, who wouldn’t want to inveigle their way into a job there under the sniping of a soused matron? Besides, when Davis does the sniping, you’re in a position of grace, and don’t you forget it.

The Screaming Woman (1972)
Director: Jack Smight

Hands down the best of the three films revived here, The Screaming Woman shows a glittering pedigree from every angle. As on The Victim, the producer is William Frye, and the script by Merwin Gerard. This time, the original story is by Ray Bradbury and the director is Jack Smight, who helmed the Bradbury anthology film The Illustrated Man (1969).

This time, the classic actress showing her viability is Olivia de Havilland, costumed by Edith Head as the exquisitely lavender-dressed matron, Laura Winant. Mrs. Winant is one of those reliable tropes: the person fresh from the loony bin – or if you prefer, booby hatch – after a nervous breakdown.

She’s fine now, just needs a little peace and quiet. This means, of course, that everyone in the story is predisposed to dismiss her when she hears a woman calling for help from under a mound of earth on her estate.

Sometimes the booby-hatched hero whom nobody believes is a man, such as the passenger in the classic Twilight Zone episode who sees a gremlin on the airplane wing. A writer named Cornell Woolrich specialized in stories where rugged he-men found themselves looking guilty as hell in unbelievable situations. Some critics have speculated that his sexuality fostered this brand of paranoia.

In general, however, thriller writers seem to get more mileage when the disbelieved protagonist is a woman or a child. In fact, Bradbury’s story is told from a little girl’s point of view. There have been approximately a million examples of this “crazy woman is telling the truth and nobody believes her” tale, because women viewers have no trouble identifying with being patronized or treated like children. Gender roles thus feed into the template of paranoid thrillers with social undertones.

Mrs. Winant’s class also factors heavily into this re-imagined version. She’s a hoity-toity legend for protecting her property from the hoi polloi of real estate developers. So she’s thought both stuck-up and bonkers. Every encounter with her grasping and frustrated family, her well-meaning but disbelieving male professional friends, the male law enforcement officials, and her mystified neighbors underlines her isolation as a privileged woman whom nobody will take seriously.

In his commentary, genre historian Gary Gerani points out the crucial choice made by the filmmakers in showing us closeups of the buried woman. A kind of pipe lets her breathe and casts a slit of sun across her grotesque half-covered face.

So we know from the outset that Mrs. Winant speaks the truth, and we’re not among those who are skeptical of her tale. We identify, with mounting sadistic frustration, as everyone turns aside either in sympathy or perverse pleasure at her suffering. As masochists, we viewers also take perverse pleasure in being put through the story’s wringer.

The heart of the tale is Mrs. Winant’s encounter with a neighbor, Carl Nesbitt (Ed Nelson). The film cross-cuts between their stories until they meet. This sequence is diabolical in its manipulation and crossed purposes. These two privileged knowers of the truth realize what they’re up against, and the film proceeds from there to its nerve-wracking denouement.

I imagine persnickety or unsympathetic viewers finding fault with this or that element in The Victim or Scream Pretty Peggy, both of which are straightforward Gothic suspensers that leverage various social resonances. I believe The Screaming Woman holds up as a nightmarish vision of society because Mrs. Winant feels driven from the safety and security of her house to seek succor among the hostile and uncomprehending citizenry.

Many layers come together in a clockwork machine whose purpose is to turn the screws on the viewer’s comfort. The title expresses these layers, for the screaming woman is both the woman buried underground and Mrs. Winant, who does plenty of screaming. For the duration of the opening credits, our star staggers screaming across vast picturesque expanses of her property in a kind of real-estate porn that emphasizes her privilege, just as the houses in the other films emphasize their characters’ status.

So there are two screamers,  and they’re paralleled as troublesome women who must be gotten out of the way. One is buried literally, one metaphorically but just as effectively under her prestige and position. Both women never stop calling for help, and nobody is prepared to listen, not even the mechanisms of law and medicine. The metaphor is powerful, and the story works. It works most satisfyingly in the symbolic and literal moment when the women join hands.

In a significant tangent, the marriage between Mrs. Winant’s son (Charles Knox Robinson) and daughter-in-law (Laraine Stephens) parallels the toxic marriage of the Nesbitts, and we see parallels in other marriages on the street. The more we study this tightly packed film, the richer it seems.

Also in the cast are Joseph Cotten, Walter Pidgeon, Alexandra Hay, Lonny Chapman, and Charles Drake (a victim in Scream Pretty Peggy). Gerani discusses Bradbury’s story and its versions. He also states that, due to a musicians’ strike in late 1971, John Williams’ score is mostly lifted from old music for Frye’s Thriller series.

Once again, the HD mastering is lovely, no comparison with the eye- and earsores circulating in the public domain and on a certain Tube. Now we see disturbing details like the buried woman’s face, or the blood on the wine glass that ends up on Nelson’s face like a grotesque dab of lipstick. Fans of classic TV films will want to see all three of the new Blu-rays, but if you only have the time or inclination to watch one of them, you won’t regret The Screaming Woman.

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