Sweet jesus do I hate fullscreen DVD releases of widescreen movies I've been waiting years and years to see! Shout! Factory, under their Roger Corman's Cult Classics banner, has released Sweet Kill the 1970...or 1971...or 1972...or 1973 psychological slasher flick that was re-released as A Kiss From Eddie...and The Arousers. Directed by future big-time Oscar winner Curtis Hanson and starring past-time Hollywood matinee heartthrob Tab Hunter, Sweet Kill is probably better remembered today for its troubled post-production and off-beat casting than for any inherent originality...but within the context of cheap exploitation numbers, it's a cut-above the usual New World Pictures product from the early 70s. Too bad this bonus-less transfer is so hateful.
Too bad Mommy couldn't keep her gorgeous, stacked body clothed, so little peeper Eddie Collins wouldn't get that sick feeling in his tummy every time he watched her from the closet. Now that Eddie (Tab Hunter) is a grown man, his encounters with women aren't as, um...uplifting as they should be for any red-blooded, blonde-haired Californian-American Adonis who seems to have women falling all over themselves to sleep with him. He likes to enter women's apartments and sniff their undies, but that's no good if it's laundry day, so he tries and tries to date to, um...no completion. Hanging out at the Venice beach right outside his spooky old brick apartment building, Eddie helps Lauren (Cherie Latimer) and Sherry (Kate McKeown) push their stuck VW Bug out of the sand, before Sherry invites herself up to Eddie's apartment. Initiating sex, Sherry can't figure out why handsome dude Eddie is such a dud; after all, she knows she's hot. When gentle compassion doesn't raise the Titanic, she decides to become aggressive and rip off Eddie's jeans...which results in Eddie violently kicking her off him and Sherry taking a header on the coffee table. Lights out for Sherry. Dumping her body down the apartment's rooftop air shaft, Eddie goes about his life as if nothing happened. As a high school gym teacher, he has time to offer dating advice to student Danny (Josh Green); as a bad neighbor, he has time to turn down sex for the umpteenth time from too-understanding Barbara (Nadyne Turney) upstairs; and as a bad (and completely clueless) trick, he has time to ask sensational-looking hooker Roberta Collins to dress up like dear old Mom so he can promptly undress her and then cry. Of course, all this psychosis and sexual maladaption can only lead to one thing:
As I wrote with the equally disappointing Shout! release of Naked Angles, I'm not going to spend as much time on Sweet Kill as I'd like to (yeah, right), mainly because as a fullscreen release...who cares? It's too late in the DVD game to release a fullscreen version of a widescreen movie. And I don't care if that's all that's available from the original elements: no one's stopping you from releasing it, but I'm not going to recommend it, no matter how much I like the movie. And believe me, I wanted to recommend Sweet Kill. Granted, it's not like the time I suffered a massive breakdown and had to be locked in my office for two days when Universal released Charley Varrick and Colossus: The Forbin Project in fullscreen transfers. But after suffering through a terrible VHS viewing of Sweet Kill years and years ago, I've been waiting to see it in its original aspect ratio for decades, man, and instead I get this? From Shout!, no less?
Certainly most of the allure that Sweet Kill now carries comes from outside the movie proper: its connection to icon Roger Corman, to big-deal Curtis Hanson, and to counter-cast Tab Hunter, as well as its troubled post-production. I'm sure there are Sweet Kill experts out there who know the real details, but looking up its backstory on the web, various versions conflict. According to everyone, Sweet Kill was made in 1970 or 1971, whereupon it was released to bad b.o....or put on a shelf for a year or two. At some point, Corman decided the film needed more sex and nudity, so he had Hanson shoot two (or more) scenes to liven up the movie, with Corman re-releasing it as either/both A Kiss From Eddie and/or The Arousers, in 1973...to equally unremarkable box office. Obviously, something didn't click between the movie and viewers no matter how much they tinkered with it (don't you dare blame the marketing; I'm the proud owner of a delicious original The Arousers one-sheet)―a sign that either something was wrong with the pic in the first place, or that the audience got something it didn't expect. Or want.
You can see both sides of that argument in Sweet Kill. The movie's biggest drawback is that writer/director Curtis Hanson (The Silent Partner, L.A. Confidential) never actually identifies specifically what's wrong with Eddie. In Hitchcock's Psycho, which Sweet Kill obviously apes, we know exactly what twisted Norman Bates' mind. In Sweet Kill, though, we have to guess. Was his mother a hooker? Did Eddie watch her undress just once, or many times? Was she aware he was there in the closet, and did he know she knew he was there? What actually happens when he kills the girls? Hanson doesn't show, let alone even allude to, Hunter experiencing an erection or some kind of orgasmic satisfaction when he kills, so how do we know he's getting off, as quite a few reviewers of the movie just assume?
As for the appearance of Hunter here, it's mild jolt at first to see the matinee idol in this kind of sleazy exploitation fare...but that wears off quickly when we realize how irrelevant he had been for years prior to Sweet Kill. Once the novelty of his small-scale iconography wears off, it's his performance that counts, and frankly it's lacking―just like all his other performances. Reviewers of Sweet Kill give him too much credit for creating a creepy performance; anytime his gym teacher killer is genuinely disquieting, it's when Hanson has him staring silently off into space. With the right lighting and five minutes of coaching, anybody can be creepy in a movie like Sweet Kill. But when it comes time to actually act, when Hunter has to deliver the goods in creating some kind of subtext for his character, it becomes clear he hasn't learned a thing in the fifteen years or so since Battle Cry.
On the plus side for Sweet Kill, though, is Hanson's ability to create a consistently claustrophobic, unsettling environment...and maybe the undemanding audience for Sweet Kill didn't cotton to that exceedingly somber tone. Sure, Corman had some extra nudity included (you can tell those sequences, because the linkage doesn't show Hunter's face), but the other sex scenes aren't filmed for titillation's sake at all―they're genuinely dark and forbidding and grungy, and not something a rowdy drive-in audience is going to hoot over. Maybe the intended audience just wanted breasts and stabbings, and not Hanson's uncomfortable visual schematic of isolation and insanity, with the dark, oppressive hallways and apartments of Hunter's spooky apartment building contrasted nicely against the sunny beaches outside. It's always hard to say why a movie didn't connect with audiences, but with Sweet Kill, it seems pretty clear that a fuzzy screenplay, a critical mis-cast, and an unexpectedly (and perhaps unwanted) sophisticated mise-en-scene kept Sweet Kill or A Kiss From Eddie or The Arousers necessarily obscure.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.