Sunday, July 28, 2013

Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973)

College student Peggy (Sian Barbara Allen), owner of a chipper personality and a low-level nosiness the film seems to find endearing but that worked like chalk on a blackboard on me, finds the ideal student job: taking care of housekeeping in the out of town mansion of sculptor Jeffrey Elliot (Ted Bessell) and his alcoholic - and seemingly first name-less - mother (Bette Davis giving exactly the performance you'd expect from her in this kind of role, with some moments that suggest more emotional depth to her character than typical). Despite Mrs. Elliott's curious reluctance towards having her help, Peggy's happy as a clam with her new job, for she has certain hopes of becoming a sculptor too, and she clearly fancies Jeff for some inexplicable reason. Jeff is rather more friendly to Peggy than you'd expect, too, so maybe her interest might even be reciprocated. When Mother breaks her leg, Peggy decides the family could really use a live-in help for a while, so she moves in.

Apart from Peggy's rather creepy behaviour - that I don't think is supposed to be creepy - there is something curious (or even, as the audience knows from the pre-credit sequence in which Peggy's predecessor is stabbed by a shadowy blonde woman, something dangerous) going on around the house. Jeff is quite adamant nobody is allowed to enter the rooms above the mansion's huge garage. When Peggy sees the same woman who we know killed her predecessor in front of the garage one night, Jeff explains to her the woman is his sister Jennifer (Christiane Schmidtmer). Jennifer is hidden away there because she's "incurably insane", whatever that means, and Jeff just can't bring himself to let her suffer through the psychiatric system of 1973.

Which is all well and good, but - something Jeff kind of forgets to mention - Jennifer has the unfortunate habit to kill people who annoy her, or get too close to her brother, like a certain student house keeper.

Scream, Pretty Peggy is a neat little movie from the height of US TV movie making. It is co-written by Hammer mainstay Jimmy Sangster, and directed by former AIP director Gordon Hessler, so the whole affair is in hands experienced in making the best out of low or low-ish budgets and working on a tight schedule. Apart from Gothic horror, Sangster did write quite a few, often very fine, post-Psycho thrillers for Hammer, so he's experienced in the genre he's working in here, too.

For Scream, Sangster mines this thriller vein again, if in minor form with a less complicated plot and minus some depth. As a matter of fact, Sangster plays off of (some people would say rips off) a certain rather well-known genre movie, adding a handful of elements of gothic romance to it, and going for an overall mood of California gothic. While the film's main twist is quite obvious early on (at least if you're somewhat used to the conventions of its genre, and not named Peggy), but thankfully this is one of the cases where a film is still worth watching even if you know where it is going, mainly because the Scream's suspense building and mood are still doing what they're supposed to do.

Hessler's direction, while as simple as usual in this sort of production, still manages to create the Californian version of the gothic quite well by making judicious use of stormy weather, dark nights and a mansion that has the same effect as an old dark house despite - or perhaps because - being new and bright and shiny in a way I read as very specifically Californian. I'm a bit disappointed that there's no scene of Peggy wearing a nightgown and carrying a torch running away from the house, but then Peggy isn't really the nightgown and torch type.

All in all, Scream, Pretty Peggy is another fine example of 70s US TV filmmaking that is exactly as ambitious as it can afford to be and never less than entertaining.

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