Few directors straddled such extremes of art and commerce as Curtis Harrington, who died this past May at the age of 80. He made early avant-garde shorts in the 1940s that were admired by Fritz Lang, James Whale, and Henri Langlois, but also directed episodes of such trashy primetime TV shows as Charlie's Angels and Dynasty. He collaborated with Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren but also made Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (actually, a better-than-it-ought-to-be TV movie). He wrote a book on director Josef von Sternberg way back in 1948, when he was just 22, and cobbled together the campy Queen of Blood at 40. His first feature, Night Tide (1961) played the bottom of an AIP double-bill but also enjoyed an art house-type run in New York that was praised by Time magazine. The Killing Kind, a psychological portrait of a serial killer, his relationship with his mother and a few others, may be his best film. Undoubtedly sold as a Psycho-type thriller, it's actually more of a missing link between Michael Powell's psychologically probing Peeping Tom (1960) and the deeply disturbing, clinical take of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). Though produced on a low budget (just under $200,000 according to Harrington) it's extremely well-acted and handled by all with subtlety and intelligence.
Terry Lambert (John Savage) is released from prison after serving time for his reluctant participation in a gang rape, though Terry himself was impotent during the violent act. He returns home to Thelma (Ann Sothern), his former-dancer mother who now runs a cavernous, Hollywood boarding house, mostly for old ladies. (Harrington says in the accompanying interview that the house used in the film was in the Larchmont area.) Theirs is a strange, oedipal relationship: she treating him alternately like a child one minute, doting on him with chocolate milk and motherly affection, unwholesomely semi-flirting with him the next.
Other characters are introduced. Lori (Cindy Williams) is a wide-eyed girl from Tulsa with typically naïve and unrealistic ambitions of breaking into the modeling business by lounging around Lambert's pool, waiting to be discovered. Terry takes to watching her undress through her apartment window and later, claiming to be repairing her broken shower, explores her room when she's not there. A mousy, alcoholic librarian, Louise (Luana Anders), lives next door; bitter about having to care for her wheelchair-bound father (Peter Brocco), she fantasizes about setting fire to the library and, in an interesting twist, voyeuristically watches Terry watching Lori. (The characters of Louise and her father would turn up again in 1980's The Attic, also written by Tony Crechales and George Edwards.)
It's soon apparent that Terry is not a reformed man, and in fact more screwed up than ever. While watching Lori he ends up strangling one of Thelma's many cats, and later sadistically taunts one of Thelma's tenants (Marjorie Eaton) by ghoulishly demonstrating a mousetrap on a huge rat.
It's obvious watching the film that, in addition to Crechales and Edwards, Harrington and his actors carefully considered every scene, and that the director did a lot of research probing the psyche and motivations of serials killers. Except for a self-consciously arty surreal nightmare sequence (Terry dreams he's in a crib under the pier where the rape occurred, taunted by adults hovering over him), the subtle tension and sudden bursts of violence play very real and authentic. One of Terry's murders and its long aftermath (the corpse is ignominiously disposed of at a local dump) is realistic and disturbing. This sequence in particular reminded me of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and its devastating final image, of a body dumped on the shoulder of a freeway, perhaps never to be discovered for what it is. In both cases the images aren't particularly graphic; their power is the monstrous disrespect of a body full of life a short time before, now taken out and cavalierly dumped like so much trash. (Incidentally, the actress in The Killing Kind's scenes, whom I won't name here, does a remarkable job playing the corpse.)
The film isn't particularly graphic; there's very little blood and much of the violence occurs off-screen, but Terry's predilection toward humiliating and murdering women, in essence venting his rage against Thelma by murdering surrogates, is unnerving. He's both casual and unpredictable in his violence, and the film explores in a very intelligent, adult manner his sexual hang-ups. (In what surely would have been controversial had the film been more widely seen, Terry appears more traumatized by the gang-rape than its victim, who doesn't flinch when he begins stalking her again.)
Savage is excellent, but top-billed Sothern is a real surprise. The unusual beauty of '30s and '40s B-films and '50s television had ballooned to near-Divine (of the John Waters movies) proportions by the early-1970s, and she gamely goes along with a script that acknowledges her substantial weight gain. Made in the wake of myriad films starring former '30s/'40s stars playing monstrous hag-murderers, Sothern's character and her performance is much subtler, tragic, and by the end almost endearing. The rest of the cast give similarly complex performances, particularly Anders' bookish, sexually frustrated, socially inept alcoholic. Her scenes with Savage are excellent.
Video & Audio
The Killing Kind's prints were processed by Movielab, and presumably the film was held in storage there until the company went out of business. I suspect the film's original negative is missing, like a lot of old Movielab obscurities (including many later, lesser AIP titles) and that Dark Sky was forced to source an inter-negative given that the image is simultaneously soft and grainy, and not helped by the harsh cinematographic style common to early-'70s films. It's an acceptable image overall, though with better source materials it would should look much better than it is. The 1.78:1 picture is 16:9 enhanced, an approximation of its original 1.85:1 release. The Dolby 2.0 mono audio (with optional English subtitles) is somewhat better.
The single extra is a good 22-minute, 4:3 Interview with Curtis Harrington, surely one of the last he ever gave. He touches on his entire career and key films, and the long, sad story of The Killing Kind, and how the picture was barely released on account of a neophyte distributor who managed only a few play dates on a states-rights basis.
The Killing Kind is an almost unique thriller; except for Peeping Tom and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer there's nothing quite like it - except other Curtis Harrington movies. With a cast and crew working well beyond commercial genre demands, it's a small masterpiece and comes Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.