Monday 30 January 2012

Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974)

Director: Laurence Harvey
Stars: Laurence Harvey, Joanna Pettet, Stuart Whitman, John Ireland and Meg Foster

Laurence Harvey is an important name in British film, even though he was born in Lithuania and made his way to the UK via South Africa. With 1959's Room at the Top, he helped introduce the kitchen sink drama era of British social cinema and while he headed off to Hollywood rather than help consolidate that, he made a variety of pictures there that kept his name on people's lips. In the films I've seen him in he was never the sole focus, either playing the second fiddle or sharing the spotlight, but the films were important ones, from BUtterfield 8 to The Manchurian Candidate via The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. This was his last film, both as an actor and as a budding director, as he died in 1973 of stomach cancer, having just turned 45. The suggestion is that, having directed The Ceremony in 1963 and finished off Anthony Mann's A Dandy in Aspic in 1968 after Mann's death, Harvey was looking to direct more, but this is as far as he got.

It opens with hippie chick Meg Foster hitching a ride with the wrong guy, albeit in a very cool car. Given that she'd hitched a ride with Bruce Dern two years earlier in Thumb Tripping, you'd think she'd have learned her lesson, but apparently not. She has no destination in mind. 'I'm just sort of going,' she tells the young idiot who picks her up. She ends up in Arrow Beach though, as you might expect from the title, after he speeds away from the cops and ends up upside down ready for a ride of his own to the hospital. She's Robbin Stanley, a wild free spirit with a vitality to her that's pleasant to see. She gets a special credit after the rest of the cast, presumably not just to reflect the importance of her role but that she was a rising star at the time. We also get to see more of her than I've certainly seen before, given that she strips off to go skinny dipping in the sea as soon as Lou Rawls finishes singing the truly cheesy theme song.

It's after she crashes out on the beach that Harvey arrives to begin the story proper. He's Jason Henry and he lives in the house above her with his sister Grace, who is very nervous indeed to see Robbin invited in for dinner. In fact both Jason and Grace are notably tense, so much so that this hippie chick must be really far out there, man, to not notice the nervous energy that so pervades their house. I realise that this is a horror movie, as made abundantly obvious by the quote about cannibalism that opens the picture and the imagery that follows, so it's subject to horror movie logic, but I'm amazed that Robbin Stanley doesn't realise it too. Both Harvey and Joanna Pettet, who plays Grace, veer wildly between calmly welcoming and freakishly panicky. It wouldn't take a psychologist to notice. I'll grant that the freakiness doesn't unfold in the usual way but it's still obviously freakishness. Any hitchhiker worth their salt would have left.
But of course, this is a horror movie, so Robbin Stanley doesn't leave. Instead she wanders down to the basement on her first night there to investigate the weird noises that resonate through the house. That's where she finds that Jason Henry isn't just freaky, he's completely batshit insane. We're just over halfway through the picture and it explodes into possibility. Unfortunately it also painfully fails to follow up on that possibility. At least thus far it's been focused, but now we have a host of new characters to deal with, with very little to set them up or follow through with. Now there are dynamics all over the place with no way for the film to devote appropriate time to any of them. Are we supposed to watch Sheriff Bingham's battle for reelection, Deputy Lippencourt's problems with women, Jason and Grace's strange relationship, Robbin on her way out of town or Alex Heath, the lazy nursing assistant who has the hots for her? Suddenly we have no idea.

We do know that we're not going to be spending too much time with Ginger, even though she turns out to be perhaps the most interesting character in the story. She's a model turned aging hooker played by Gloria LeRoy who gets raped and robbed on the beach only to then become a substitute for Robbin under Henry's hatchet. She gets a memorable and very bloody death scene but in the end that's all she's there for and that's a real shame. She was certainly my discovery here, regardless of the size or importance of her part. In fact the women dominate here, as Meg Foster and Joanna Pettet are the other standouts. With the story never quite figuring out what it wants to focus on, Foster slips in as the main character with most depth and never really lets go of our attention even when her part loses momentum. Pettet, who had risen quickly in films like Casino Royale, dominates her screen brother not just as a character but as a performance.

And yet Laurence Harvey was the lead actor, producer and director. I wonder why he felt drawn to this picture and to star in it, knowing what his part would be. Other than that one scene with Ginger, it's a wasted performance. He builds the character well, with his freaky sunglasses and his Vincent Price voice, but as soon as he gets his first real shock moment it's all over and we really don't care any more. The film simply doesn't know what it wants to be. It's a horror movie that forgets it's a horror movie. I haven't seen a picture change its way as much as this without Ray Dennis Steckler's name on the credits. The cannibal angle is ignored. The psychology sitting behind it is ignored. The cops are ignored. Everything is ignored until the finale which is a futile attempt to bring all those admirable plot strands back together. It fails dismally and massively. The first half had possibility, but the second half wastes everything that it could have been.

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