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In 1965 Hammer Films was going strong. Their traditional line of Frankenstein and Dracula movies still showed life, and some of their best work was on the way, like Roy Ward Baker's Quatermass and the Pit, a return to science fiction filmmaking. They even hired Ray Harryhausen in an attempt to revive the dinosaurs vs. cavemen genre. Hammer's psychological horror line had begun years before, shortly after the great success of Psycho. The excellent Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear) was followed by several so-so shock pictures about scheming relatives or demented madmen.
Hammer also took notice of Robert Aldrich's gambit in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? of featuring aging movie stars in Grand Guignol roles. Bette Davis went to England to play The Nanny, and this 'modern Gothic' featured the once- notorious and outspoken actress Tallulah Bankhead. In contrast to Hammer's main line of Gothic horror, Die! Die! My Darling! (known everywhere but the U.S. as Fanatic) is crisply written and smartly directed. 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 she almost married before his unfortunate death. The domineering matriarch 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 with the object of "preparing 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 obey Mrs. Trefoile's cruel instructions 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 already eccentric household into a mad tailspin. It's as Gothic as a contemporary story can be. Mrs. Trefoile rules with the Bible and an unspoken threat held over Vaughan's caretaker and his wife, the maid and cook. This part of the story holds together only if 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 thirty or forty years in prison. Tallulah Bankhead has more than enough skill to make Mrs. Trefoile's escalating madness seem perfectly logical.
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 not 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, while and the sex-crazed Harry sees through her attempt to deceive him with romantic promises. Pat never searches the cluttered rooms she's locked in for possible weapons. For that matter, she makes few if any real defensive moves.
Modern audiences accustomed to seeing two-fisted heroines strut their super-woman stuff in action movies lose patience with the un-confrontational 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. We'd think that she might see this as an opportunity to 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 1960s, 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 way some prudes and ideologues 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. Matheson injects a little humor into the proceedings, but most of his story is straight-arrow sober.(spoiler)
The main conflict is really between liberated vs. puritanical attitudes toward sex. Mrs. Trefoile was once a "fallen woman of the stage" and now seeks to punish transgression wherever she detects it. Pat Carroll is openly unashamed of being unmarried and not a virgin, a nice bit of post- Doris Day attitude. Were this story made a few years later, it would be the height of irony 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 imprisonment.
Die! Die! My Darling! employs basic suspense mechanics that rely only a little bit on Pat Carroll's gullibility. Silvio Narizzano'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, remind us an awful lot of Alfred Hitchcock. Pat's trembling hand reaching out for help copies a moment in Psycho's shower scene. There's also a frightening encounter in a basement with a knife-wielding old lady and a swinging light fixture.
Of all the Baby Jane- inspired "hag horror" performances, Bankhead's might be the best. Once again the spectacle of seeing a vintage star making herself look and act hideously is a major draw. Bankhead stares, glowers, frowns, snarls and practically froths at the mouth, but she never loses control. Stephanie Powers looks very young. She handles both the comic eye-rolling ("What did I do?"), and the later emotional ordeal with ease. Peter Vaughan (Straw Dogs) is effective as a conniving lecher. Bruiser Yootha Joyce has the looks of a tougher Jessica Tandy and performs some painful-looking arm-locks on our heroine. But making a great first impression is Donald Sutherland as Joseph, 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.(big spoiler)
Silvio Narizzano is not a well-known name, but he's one of Hammer's best directors of the middle 1960s, and far more talented than the crop that would come later. This is a quality film of suspense and terror, all the way. Our only regret at the ending is that poor Anna, established as another victim of matriarchal tyranny, will most likely 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.
The Sony Pictures Choice Collection DVD-R of Die! Die! My Darling! has an edge over the 2003 Columbia Tristar disc, with less grain and slightly more vibrant colors. Beautifully shot by Arthur Ibbetson, the film has many atmospheric scenes. Mrs. Trefoile's house is indeed a creepy place, inside and out. The opening credits sequence is a stylized cat vs. mouse chase that helps set up the film's theme. A country village with a triangular green parkway is a familiar location from the MGM movie Village of the Damned; it's also seen during a truck journey in The Dirty Dozen.
The only reason a collector might prefer the older disc, is that it has English subtitles that this Made-On-Demand disc does not.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Die! Die! My Darling! rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.