Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Premiered on ABC on October 21, 1971
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barbara Parkins, Roddy McDowall, William Windom, Arthur O’Connell, Bing Russell, Dawn Frame
Film fans will remember actress Barbara Stanwyck from such classics as The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number, while casual viewers may know her only from her television work on The Big Valley and The Thorn Birds. When Crystal over at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood invited me to join her Remembering Barbara Stanwyck blogathon, I thought I’d look towards the later stages of Barbara’s filmography and try to find something that myself and maybe a few others had yet to see, or had even heard about.
I soon stumbled upon two entries that fit the bill, and after watching five minutes of each, I decided on A Taste of Evil, a made-for-television horror thriller from the early 1970s, and Stanwyck’s penultimate movie role. Helmed by prolific television director John Llewellyn Moxey, the film starred Stanwyck as Miriam Jennings, a woman married to an alcoholic second husband, whose daughter Susan returns home after a stay of several years at a psychiatric hospital, where she was recovering from a childhood sexual assault. The attacker was never caught, and now it looks as if the culprit is back to harass a now-grown Susan once again.
Or, perhaps not. It seems Susan (played by a post-Valley of the Dolls Barbara Parkins) might still be suffering some traumatic scars, triggered by her return home and the sight of the dilapidated playhouse where the attack took place; are the strange sounds and visions of her attacker just hallucinations, or is there something more reality-based at play here? If someone is terrorizing her, the short cast list narrows the options down a bit: could it be the boozy stepfather, the family doctor, or my personal dark-horse choice, the simple-minded handyman? Or is it Barbara herself who’s serving up the ‘7-course meal in terror’ to her long-suffering offspring?
I won’t give too much away, but I will say that many times I was reminded of Gaslight, the 1944 crime mystery starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, and then later I read where veteran Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, when writing A Taste of Evil, borrowed heavily from his screenplay—and his title—for the 1961 British thriller Taste of Fear. Normally I like Sangster’s work, but here I thought it was a bit routine, which I guess is to be expected for a prime time movie-of-the-week. But then, a surprise revelation at its three-quarter point gave the film the shot of adrenaline it needed, and from there it was a chaotic, entertaining ride the rest of the way.
Though the direction of Moxey and the acting of everyone involved was commendable, I’d have to give my highest marks to Stanwyck, who to me was the true focal point of the film, and really the only reason to tune in. I’ve only seen a dozen of her hundred-plus acting credits, but I liked her in every one of them, and I felt the same about her work here: skilled, professional, and something to be appreciated (especially when she suddenly transformed from loving mother to silver-haired harpy, proving to all that she could do psychotic angry as well as anyone). I’d like to think her performance here helped pave the way for her Emmy win for The Thorn Birds twelve years later, but who knows.
And my final verdict? As far as psychological TV chillers go, I’d say this one was merely so-so, hampered by a seen-it-before script and the limitations of network television, but bolstered by the presence of Barbara, the film’s constant sense of foreboding, and its twisty finale, which offered a few surprises that I doubt anyone will figure out beforehand. As for you Stanwyck fans, it’s definitely worth a look, if only to see a shrill Missy flip her lid—twice!—at poor Arthur O’Connell during the stormy conclusion. And finally, a note to parents: if you’re going to build your young daughter an outdoor playhouse, don’t put it in the middle of the freaking woods! (6/10)