Saturday, October 22, 2011

In short: She Waits (1972)

Warning: semi-twist spoiling follows.

When freshly married Laura Wilson (Patty Duke) accompanies her husband Mark (David McCallum) to finally meet his mother Sarah (Dorothy McGuire), things turn out rather more problematic than in your typical meet the parents situation. Mother, you see, has been on the edge of a breakdown ever since Mark's first wife Elaine died. She is convinced that Elaine's ghost is haunting the family villa, and that the coming of Laura will lead to terrible consequences if the couple should stay in the family mansion. Obviously, there's a terrible secret surrounding Elaine's death that, like all horrible secrets, must have repercussions sometime.

Mrs Wilson is absolutely right, too, for soon Laura begins to hear Elaine's favourite melody and even the dead woman's voice. It seems as if Elaine not just wants to tell her successor something, but as if she's trying to possess her. Or maybe the family doctor (Lew Ayres), that jerk, is right, and it's all a case of easily impressed wimmin being easily impressed. Be that as it may, the truth about Elaine's death will come out in the end.

Delbert Mann's She Waits is one of those pleasant early 70s US TV movies that take a classic horror movie/thriller set-up with underlying anxieties that are as applicable to the 1970s as they were to the 1940s, and makes a very serviceable, at times even pretty creepy, little movie out of them.

Mann (who should know his stuff, having once won an Oscar) turns out to be excellent at building up the a slightly gothically inclined - even though the film takes place in the 70s -  mood at the beginning of the film, and seems at his best in those scenes and moments where no dialogue is spoken, even though Morton Stevens's overtly melodramatic music does its best to sabotage his efforts.

Mann's greater success in the movie's more silent minutes may have something to do with the fact that Patty Duke is somewhat overtaxed with her role. She's all well and good as long as she's just Laura, but her Laura possessed by Elaine (or thinking to be possessed by Elaine) is not very convincing at all; one imagines there must be a reason why as many of those scenes as possible seem to be filmed with Duke's back to the camera.

The script has its moments whenever it is playing with its characters psychological troubles - Laura's insecurity about Mark's past, Mark's unwillingness to confront said past leading to shutting himself off emotionally - coming in contact with what might be supernatural agency, but falls down flat in some other aspects. The film's big secret is quite obvious from the start, and I can't say I found the slight twist surrounding it all that exciting: so David McCallum didn't kill his first wife, but a character only introduced right at the end is responsible? Whoa.

Then there's the problem with the film's attempts at keeping the supernatural agency ambiguous without being all that good at that whole ambiguity thing, leaving us with either a heroine who is so suggestible it's difficult to imagine how she can resist believing in every advert she sees, or a ghost who is so dumb she doesn't even know who killed her. Both versions are not exactly satisfying to me.

But here I go again talking about an early 70s TV movie as if it were not at all worth watching, even though it is. The problem, which certainly has reasons connected with the way TV movies were produced, is that everything that's good about She Waits is a product of solid, professional craftsmanship, and there's not much that can be said about solid and professional craftsmanship, besides it being solid and professional.


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