Writer: John Farris
Stars: Agnes Moorehead, Will Geer, Michael Ansara, Dennis Patrick and Patricia Carmichael
This review is part of the Agnes Moorehead Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
It wasn’t quite her final appearance, as she would give voice to the Goose in Charlotte’s Web a year later and appear in a bunch of TV movies: Rolling Man and Night of Terror in 1972, Frankenstein: The True Story in 1973 and, finally, the ridiculously titled proposed pilot, Rex Harrison Presents Stories of Love in 1974, the year she died. However, Delilah was her last on screen feature film performance and she had a blast with it, which would be hardly surprising to anyone who’s followed her career. Delilah, you see, is an old, dotty and irascible matriarch in a wheelchair and a pearl necklace, who likes brandy, talking to her dead father and belittling her relatives. It doesn’t hurt that those relatives, old and dotty themselves, are played by other capable character actors like Michael Ansara, Anne Meacham and Dennis Patrick. Each did their time on soap operas, in Days of Our Lives, Another World and Dallas respectively, which is appropriate background for a Southern gothic like this. Patrick was the most qualified, because of a long run on Dark Shadows.
In the form of Patricia Carmichael, doubling her credits after playing a teenage girl in a single episode of Petticoat Junction in 1964, this clueless character is clearly set up to be our insane killer. That’s aided by a bizarre accident in which she gets knocked silly by American football players whom she’s attempting to sketch; well meaning bystanders can’t take her home because she has none, so two of them drive this grinning lunatic to Aunt Delilah’s mansion instead. The crazy driver is Richard and Delilah’s niece, Ellen, is his girlfriend, while the mansion is South Hall Plantation. How better to stir up an inward looking family than to introduce some crazy murderer into the mix? We’ve seen that movie before many times and can surely write the rest of the script ourselves. Well, not quite, because writer/director John Farris, even though he only had $200,000 to play with, sets a notably mad tone, starting as he introduces his cast of characters; not one of them has a full complement of marbles, whether they think they do or not.
However, Delilah has more with which to stir them up; she’s found ‘Papa’s horse money’. Family legend suggests that, during the Depression, he burned his stable for the insurance money, but took care to swap out the valuable thoroughbreds beforehand for run of the mill horses. While worthless animals died, he sold the valuable ones south of the border and hid the proceeds, so there should be $600,000 in cash somewhere on the property. And so off they all wander to figure out where it might be. Had this film not begun in true slasher style, we might read this as an Agatha Christie sort of murder mystery, but the blood and the wildly off kilter tone of the entire picture suggest different. That approach screams slasher flick and we eagerly anticipate each succeeding death scene, while mildly attempting to figure out who’s behind it all. The suspect list includes everyone in the cast, including the black manservant, Marshall, for no better reason than he doesn’t seem crazy but must be for continuing to work at South Hall.
It’s quickly obvious that none of these characters either likes or trusts anyone else, all the way to Richard and Ellen, who have the best reason to, given that they’re an item. It’s also quickly obvious that such a lack of trust is well and truly deserved. Dr. Alonzo’s addiction is presumably what leads him to constantly fluster about as if he’s about to transform into a werewolf, but I did wonder for a while if that was really going to happen. By comparison, Grace is an ice queen who looks daggers at everyone and receives them right back. Morgan dominates his wife, who is honestly called Buffy, but she steals most of his scenes because Ruth Baker is more than willing to overact with abandon. I don’t remember her from her previous film, Marat/Sade, but it was set in an asylum, so her casting is perhaps typecasting. Even Robert Gentry, playing Richard, often reminds of the conniving Christopher Reeve in Deathtrap. Not one of them is likeable but that just means we’re happy to see them gradually and bloodily decreased in number.
Beyond that, the two main reasons to watch this feature today are Agnes Moorehead and John Farris. The latter is a well known author today and wasn’t unknown even in 1972. He already had fifteen novels to his name, the first published only a year after he graduated from high school in 1955. Four years later, he had a million seller, Harrison High, which he continued in no less than five sequels. However, he’s known best today as a horror writer, not only for his best-selling 1976 novel, The Fury, which he adapted to film two years later for Brian De Palma, and its own three sequels, but for a whole string of further unrelated books dating from the eighties onward. This feels like an early hint at where he wanted to go with his career, in choice of material at least, if not as a medium of choice. Before this, only When Michael Calls really plays with horror but nowhere near as overtly as Dear Dead Delilah; it was coincidentally filmed in 1972, but Farris wasn’t involved with that one.