Stars: Karen Black and Oliver Reed
They do, at least, wonder where the catch is, beyond the fact that they would have to keep up the place during their tenancy. Roz Allardyce and her brother Ben both seem a little strange, though that's hardly surprising given that they're played by Eileen Heckart, the drunk from The Bad Seed, and perennial pixie Burgess Meredith respectively. The Allardyces explain the catch, while explaining that it really isn't a catch, naturally. They just need to leave a tray of food out for their mother three times a day, because when they leave, they'll leave her behind. She won't be any trouble, they say. She's an 85 year old woman who could pass for 60. She never leaves the house or even her rooms. She sleeps all the time. They won't even notice she's there. And so they move in, with Aunt Elizabeth, who's played by the biggest star in the film, Bette Davis, though in a small supporting role just as in her next film, Return from Witch Mountain.
The escalation of suspense is the primary reason to watch this, but not far behind is the choice of actors which are something of a dream cast for this story. Karen Black is a fascinating character actor, well known for her many parts that straddle the normal and the outré, making her a perfect candidate for the part of Marian Rolf. She was also a hot property in 1976, a year after Nashville and a year before Capricorn One. Oliver Reed is just as perfect for her husband Ben, given that he spends half of the film utterly under control and the other half struggling against his demons. One of the most tormented and thus fascinating British actors, to say he was rather fond of the bottle is about the most outrageous understatement anyone could ever make. His unpredictability always brought a sense of danger to his appearances and it lends an edge to his screen work too because you never know what was acting and what wasn't.
Casting him as the screen nephew of Bette Davis was an inspired decision. 'Will you quit trying to undermine my parental authority, old lady,' Ben tells Aunt Elizabeth at one point when she has Davey show him how to work a pump, but it could as easily have been Ollie talking to Bette. You just know that they would either have despised each other enough to come to blows or become the best of friends while making this film. 'You smoke too much,' he tells her. 'I know,' she replies, 'and I drink too much and I'm a lecherous old lady and I'll never make 80.' Bette went on to make 81, perhaps just to spite the scriptwriters, and while she doesn't have the largest part in this film, it's an intriguing one. Not far off 70 at the time, she looks a decade younger when it begins but a decade older by the time her story arc comes to its conclusion. How much of that transition is make up work and how much her considerable talent, I really don't know, but it's effective regardless.
Shot almost entirely in Oakland, California at the Densmuir House and Gardens, this refuses to let us out of the house's grip for the duration, just as it refuses the Rolfs. The house was named after Alexander Dunsmuir, a Canadian coal magnate who built it in 1899 as a wedding gift for his wife. However it proved a source for early tragedy as he died on his honeymoon and his wife only two years later. Maybe they were the first victims of the house. Interestingly, it was also used as the mortuary in Phantasm, suggesting that Don Coscarelli paid a lot of attention to this film and hauled its very seventies style into the next generation. Another connection I couldn't help but make is to Stephen King, as this (or the source novel) must have been a notable influence on him, as there are many elements here that would make it into The Shining and Secret Window, Secret Garden. The former was published in 1977 and the latter in 1990.