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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 actress Tallulah 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 crisply written and handsomely produced. It offers taut suspense and even some gory thrills, courtesy of a fairly credible script by ace writer Richard Matheson.
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 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 years in prison.
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 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 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 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. Matheson injects a little humor into the proceedings, but most of his story is straight-arrow serious.(spoiler)
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 imprisonment.
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 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, 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.(minor spoiler)
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. Bruiser Yootha Joyce has the looks of a tougher Jessica Tandy and performs some painful-looking armlocks 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)
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: