Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Shortly after Psycho began earning astronomical profits, England's Hammer films started their
own line of contemporary horror films. The excellent Taste of Fear (aka Scream of
Fear) was followed by several so-so shock pictures about scheming relatives or demented madmen.
Then Hammer reacted to Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?'s gambit of featuring
aging movie stars in Grand Guignol roles. Bette Davis went
to England to play The Nanny, and this 'modern Gothic' featured the notorious and outspoken
Bankhead. In contrast to Hammer's faltering main line of Gothic horror, Die! Die!
My Darling! (known everywhere but the U.S. as Fanatic) is tautly written and handsomely
produced. It offers taut suspense and even some gory thrills, courtesy of a fairly credible
script by ace writer Richard Matheson.
Pat Carroll (Stefanie Powers) makes a courtesy call on Mrs. Trefoile (Tallulah
Bankhead), whose son Pat almost married before his unfortunate death. The domineering matriarch
immediately criticizes Pat's every gesture and article of clothing and holds interminable Bible
readings. Pat is slow to appreciate the problem - Mrs. Trefoile is insane, and when she finds
out that her 'almost daughter-in-law'
intends to marry television producer Alan Glentower (Maurice Kaufmann), she imprisons
the young woman and prepares to redeem her soul for an afterlife reunion with her beloved son. Pat's
escape efforts go for naught. Besides Mrs. Trefoile's menacing gun, there is
the sex-minded caretaker Harry
(Peter Vaughan), his strong wife Anna (Yootha Joyce), and the childlike Joseph (Donald Sutherland).
All follow Mrs. Trefoile's cruel orders without question.
Die! Die! My Darling! was originally noted mostly for its camp value, with gnarly, acid-tongued
Tallulah Bankhead earning her salary by out-doing Bette Davis' insane harpy act. Angry, abusive
females are at the core of Richard Matheson's story, in which religious mania sends an
household into a mad tailspin. It's as Gothic as a contemporary story can be; Mrs. Trefoile rules
with fear and the Bible, and an unspoken threat held over Vaughan's caretaker and his
wife, the maid and cook. This part of the story barely holds together unless one accepts Trefoile's
retainers as being almost as nutty as she is - Harry and Anna have nothing to gain from
imprisoning Pat Carroll, which could easily bring both of them 30 or 40 year prison terms.
Able actress Stephanie Powers does well with a role that predates feminist
assertiveness. Motivated at first by courtesy, she defers to Trefoile's ideological tyranny
without realizing the depth of the woman's menace. One of Trefoile's
first remarks is that Pat shouldn't be going around the country unescorted, which in this case is
good advice. Pat is open-minded and fair, but she isn't up to the task of defending herself, escaping,
or winning the help of the Trefoile servants. The strong-willed Anna has no trouble subduing her,
and the sex-crazed Harry sees through her attempt to deceive him. Pat never searches the cluttered
rooms she's locked in for possible weapons. For that matter, she makes no real defensive moves at all.
Modern audiences, used to seeing two-fisted heroines strut their super-woman stuff in action movies,
won't have much patience with the unconfrontational Pat, who continues to plead verbally when the
nature of her foe is clear, and hasn't the brains to feign cooperation while formulating a good
escape plan. At one point she's forced to write a note to her boyfriend, which gives her the
send him any number of hints - spelling his name wrong, using a wrong handwriting style, anything.
Writer Matheson made Pat Carroll a woman of the 60s, not one of today's equal-opportunity killers.
Her responses are reasonable and measured; it's just that she can't comprehend the depth of
a fanatic like Mrs. Trefoile. Matheson gets in some good digs against religious intolerance and
the priggish way some prudes and conservatives see the need to impose their values on
others. And his device of having Mrs. Trefoile worship her son's portrait while preparing a
bride for him in the afterlife, has a Gothic clarity that works well up until the final theatrics.
injects a little humor into the proceedings, but most of his story is straight-arrow serious.
The main conflict is really female sex. Trefoile was once a fallen woman of the stage, and now
seeks to punish transgression wherever she detects it; Pat Carroll openly admits to being unmarried
and not a virgin, and not ashamed of it. It's a nice bit of post- Doris Day attitude. If this story
were made a few years later, it would be ironic when Pat leaps back into her boyfriend's protective
arms at the conclusion. The experience hasn't
given her any ideas that marriage to Alan might be a kinder version of Mrs. Trefoile's
Die! Die! My Darling! has the kind of basic suspense mechanics that don't work well the
second time through. Pat tries another feeble escape, and we're given basic tension gags - will the
villains see her through the window? - that even in 1965 were rather predictable. Silvio Narrizzano's
direction is very good for character. The violence is also convincing, especially Pat and Anna's
struggle over a pair of scissors that results in a graphically traumatic wound. A couple of setups,
though, seem to be plagiarized from Hitchcock - Pat's trembling hand reaching out for help copies a
moment in Psycho's shower scene, and there's also a frightening encounter in a basement with a
knife-wielding old lady, and a swinging light fixture.
Once again, the spectacle of seeing a vintage star make herself look and act hideously is the
major draw. Bankhead stares, glowers, frowns, snarls, and practically froths at the mouth, but
she doesn't lose control once. Stephanie Powers looks very young and handles with ease both the comic
eyerolling ("What did I do?"), and the later emotional ordeal. Peter Vaughan
(Straw Dogs) is effective as a conniving
lecher. Yootha Joyce, who has the looks of a tougher Jessica Tandy, has a commanding physical
presence and performs some painful-looking armlocks on our heroine. But making a great first
Donald Sutherland as Joseph, as a mentally-impaired groundskeeper who answers Pat's pleas with laughter
and uncontrolled drooling. That Joseph does not come to the rescue in the end, like Boo Radley in
To Kill a Mockingbird, is to the screenplay's credit.
The only regret for the ending is that poor Anna, established as another victim of matriarchal tyranny,
is obviously going to take the rap for all the goings-on at Trefoile manor, even the murder of her
employer. Anna is a villain, but not a voluntary one, and I doubt that Pat's testimony is going to
portray her as anything but a monster.
Columbia Tristar's DVD of Die! Die! My Darling! looks and sounds fine. There is some white
speckling here and there, but the color is very good; the overall production values on this show
are far superior to Hammer's constricted period Gothics made at the same time. The cat-and-mouse
opening credits properly prepare us for a tense ride.
There are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Die! Die! My Darling! rates:
Video: Excellent -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 15, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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