Tuesday 6 December 2016

Dear Dead Delilah (1972)

Director: John Farris
Writer: John Farris
Stars: Agnes Moorehead, Will Geer, Michael Ansara, Dennis Patrick and Patricia Carmichael
It’s well known that Agnes Moorehead preferred to be recognised and remembered for roles other than Endora in Bewitched, a role she took reluctantly, expecting that the show would end after one season. Outside of primetime TV, film fans tend to associate her with the Mercury Players of Orson Welles, for good reason. They met on radio, where she was a notably versatile actress, and they were two founding members of the Mercury Theatre on the Air. After their infamous 1938 interpretation of The War of the Worlds, she and her colleagues moved into film, with a string of movies that still resonate today. Is there really a better place to start a film career than Citizen Kane? She followed it up with The Magnificent Ambersons, which earned her the first of four Oscar nominations, three of them in the forties. Unfortunately, she was so great a character actor that it took her until the other end of her career to be given a top-billed part, that of the title character, Delilah Charles, in Dear Dead Delilah, released in 1972.

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.
If you think that something like Dark Shadows, with all its vampires and werewolves, would be too outrageous for a movie starring Agnes Moorehead and Grandpa Walton himself, Will Geer, you’d be mistaken. In fact, it starts bloody and only gets bloodier on out, though this proto-slasher is set firmly in a Southern gothic framework rather than the soon to be traditional cabin in the woods. It can’t lay claim to inventing anything, as Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood predates it by a full year, but it was certainly ahead of its time; the opening scenes remind very much of Halloween, itself massively influential on the slasher genre but which wouldn’t be filmed for another six years. Those scenes are our prologue, in which a pregnant young lady talks to her dead and partially dismembered mother in her bloodspattered white dress, then, many years later, is released from Tennessee’s Correctional Rehabilitation Center for Women. She’s Luddy Dublin and she’s reminiscent of nobody less than Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Fester.

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.
Delilah is merely the most prominent. Richard describes her as ‘wasting away at the top of her voice’, which is a great description for someone with a fantastic line in bitter dialogue. However, while she’s the character most easily defined as nuts, given that she likes chatting with her father, who’s been dead for twenty years and remains only in the form of an oil painting, she’s also clearly the sharpest. Even though the plantation has dwindled in size over the years, from 5,000 acres down to a mere 24, the building is still worth a million bucks (even in 1972 money) and the trust is worth even more, so she brings the family together to announce both her imminent death (‘I have Papa’s word on it that I’ll soon be joining him’) and her new will, which leaves them only $5,000 each. The plantation itself will go to the state, along with a suitable sum to maintain it. This announcement, needless to say, is not well received by the family, and we can’t help but think their outraged reaction was most of Delilah’s point.

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.
Luddy Dublin is the obvious candidate but she’s too obvious to take entirely seriously. Once in the house, she’s hired on by Ellen to be Delilah’s new maid and companion, even though she’s just owned up to murdering her mother and spending most of her life in an asylum. That should tell you plenty about Ellen’s mindset, but I’ll add her response for context: ‘Most of the people who lived in this house,’ she says, ‘either went to jail or to deserved to go.’ In addition to Ellen, the family is comprised of Delilah’s two brothers and one sister, with their lawyer cousin Ray Jurroe inexplicably representing all the above. There’s Dr. Alonzo Charles, who isn’t allowed to practice medicine any more, presumably because he’s a drug addict. There’s Grace Charles, who’s a horse-riding lush; what else she likes to ride I’ll let you discover. And there’s Morgan, an inconsequential opportunist with a wife he calls ‘baby duck’; her dresses epitomise everything that was wrong with the seventies. I’m cringing once more just remembering them.

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.
With the growing death count probably the best reason to watch this film, I won’t talk about the how and why, beyond suggesting that many people of my generation may find a surprising amount of satisfaction in seeing Grandpa Walton stumble out of Delilah’s stable to die, his severed right hand held in his left. It may not be a vision any of us expected to see and this may be the only place to see it (while he was more versatile than many might think, I believe this was his sole horror movie), but that merely adds spice to the vision. The effects are cheap but relatively effective, given that the budget was minuscule, and they’re of the sort that stick in people’s minds. Those who saw this at a young age on television as part of an Avco/Embassy package of Spanish horror movies (this was the only English language inclusion) have probably forgotten the picture and its title, but may get flashes of some of the death scenes every now and again and wish they could remember where they came from.

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.
According to a fansite, Furies and Fiends, maintained by John David Scoleri and David J. Schow, Farris also spoke to the lack of real budget. ‘The actors mostly worked for nothing,’ he said, ‘including Moorehead, who would have destroyed me if she’d wanted to but instead was extremely supportive and helpful.’ Given how bitter and blistering she made Delilah, it’s easy to see her doing that but the worst anyone seems to have said about her was Bewitched co-star Dick Sargent calling her a ‘tough old bird’. What’s more, it wasn’t public knowledge at the time but she was already terminally ill with cancer, quite possibly from shooting The Conqueror just downwind from a nuclear test zone in Utah, and she probably thanked Farris for puting her in a wheelchair for most of the movie. He remembered that, ‘She gave me everything she had, and a short course in what film acting is all about.’ Going back through her career, she seemed to do that with every film. This is far from her best picture but she did stellar work within it nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

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